Sunday, January 6, 2008


a homily delivered by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday January 5th, 2008

OPENING WORDS: A New Year's Prayer for 2008 by the Rev. Chuck Currie.

Loving Creator,

Long ago you brought life from cosmic chaos.

For over 4.5 billion years your creation has evolved.

Along the way humanity has stumbled as we have matured.

Yet you have never abandoned us.

A New Year has dawned.

Help us to make this the year we take our stewardship over creation seriously.

Guide us to protect your forests and oceans.

Give us the wisdom to look after all life (even the “creeping things”.)

Help us to recognize the interconnectedness we humans share with the oceans, the mountains, the forests, the deserts.

Help us to recognize the interconnectedness we humans share with other humans though we may worship differently.

Bestow on us the courage of the Prophets of old so that we may speak truth to power in your Holy name.

Another year, O God.

Another year to do justice.

Another year to love kindness.

Another year to walk humbly with you (Micah 6:8).

Praise be to God!



How many of you have ever had the pleasure of discovering a really great new restaurant? Not one of those fancy, formulaic, heavily-advertised chain restaurants coming soon to a mall parking lot near you. But a quiet little neighborhood place, with great food and friendly service -- maybe you're walking by one evening and poke your nose in just to see what it’s like, then you go back again and bring a friend, and the next thing you know, you’re one of the regulars. All the servers know you by name (and probably know what you’re going to order before you can even open your mouth); you’re friends with the chef, and you’re eating there maybe two or three times a month (or if you’re like me, two or three times a week).

The only problem is, if it’s REALLY a good restaurant, other people are going to find out about it too. Then the place gets reviewed, and the next thing you know it’s hard to get a table, and the service starts to seem a little sloppy and less personal, and the food’s not quite as good as you remember it...and, of course, the prices are higher too. So maybe you stop going quite as often as you used to, because it’s just not the same as it used to be, although it’s hard not to feel happy for the owners, since after all you are a regular and they are your friends and this is exactly what they were hoping for all along. Yet as nostalgic as we may feel for the good old days, I think it’s also important to remember that every new person who discovers “our” restaurant is just as thrilled about their discovery as we were the first time we sat down and opened up the menu. Because they don’t remember how it used to be; for them the excitement is in the here and now.

Attending a new church for the first time can sometimes feel a little like discovering a new restaurant. After all, both institutions are basically in the “hospitality industry;” we're both essentially in the business of making sure that people are nourished, either physically or spiritually, we try to feed them, body and soul. And as I look out over the Meetinghouse each week from way up here in this high pulpit, I certainly sense a lot of energy and excitement in the room...lots of expectation, but lots of change too. We have a new Minister, we have a new Administrator, we now have a new Director of Religious Education, and pretty soon we’re going to have to start looking for a new Music Director too...and, of course, come this spring I suspect there’ll be lots of new members as well.

And sure, the clocks still aren’t working, and we have a leak in the roof and the ceiling is falling in...but we’re repairing those things, and remodeling the kitchen, and the bathrooms, and getting everything spiffed up again. It really does feel like the start of a Whole New Era here at First Parish: one of many that this congregation has been through in its 333 year history. And it doesn’t really matter whether you are here today for the first time this Sunday, or your family has been attending this church for generations: you are all part of it. This is your time now (if you want it to be); so seize the day, savor the moment, and enjoy the thrill and the excitement of discovering something new, and making it your own.

The beginning of a new calendar year is a natural time to be thinking about fresh starts and new beginnings. But have you ever wondered who decided to begin the new year in January? It hasn’t always been that way; and if you’ve ever studied Latin (or one of the other Romance languages) you may even have noticed that September is supposed to be the seventh month, October and November eight and nine, which of course makes December month number ten. So why is January 1st suddently one-one-whatever, when a little simple arithmetic tells us that there are actually thirteen 28 day lunar months in a 365 day solar year, with a day left over for good measure?

Apparently back in the days when human beings were first learning how to tell time from the heavens, the New Year actually began in the spring, with the first new moon following the vernal equinox, when the days at last had become longer than the nights. It was important that early farmers learn how to keep track of the time so that they would know when to plant and harvest their crops; but apparently, once they got to ten they simply stopped counting for the winter, because it didn’t really matter any more; they simply hunkered down by the fire until the food was gone, and hoped that spring would arrive before then. The Romans inherited this calendar, but of course, being civilized, they made it year-round; and with the exception of two pretty significant tweaks by Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory the XIII, it is still pretty much the same calendar we use today.

But it was also the Romans who decided to move the start of the New Year to the middle of winter, and named the month for their two-faced God Janus, who looks both forward and backward. Because the start of a new year is not just about change and transition; it is as much about retrospection as it is anticipation, a taking stock of the past before moving forward into the future. I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying that hindsight is 20/20, but let me assure you as a historian that it is simply not true. We can second-guess our past just as easily as we can second-guess the future. The only REAL difference is that we can’t really DO anything about the past, because it’s over, it’s history. The future, however, is always open to endless possibility, and limited only by the limitations of our imaginations. A Fresh Start. A New Beginning. It’s a cliché because it’s true: today really is the first day of the rest of your life. And every tomorrow gives us yet another opportunity to give ourselves a second chance, or a third chance, or however many chances we need in order to get it right, to get it just the way we want it.

But just because we have another chance to make a fresh start doesn’t mean that we have to start from scratch. The beginning of a New Year, or a New Era, also offers us an opportunity to renew ourselves and reconnect to our heritage, to build upon the solid foundations of our past, and to draw inspiration and encouragement not only from our own experience, but from the example and the experiences of those who have gone before us. But before we can ever truly be free to stand on the shoulders of giants, we must also learn to let go of those regrets from our past that hold us back, and keep us from achieving the full potential we can imagine...for ourselves, for our community, and for the world.

[introduce Burning Ritual]