Rev. Danielle K Bartz September 11, 2022
2nd Corinthians 1:8-11 “First Day of School”
My Facebook feed has been filled with first day of school pictures posted by friends and family. Pictures of little ones starting preschool, all the way to one friend of mine who posted a picture of her first day of her doctorate (just to get in on the action), have made me smile. My favorites are those parents who share before and after pictures of the first day. In the morning, the kids are all smiles with their first day outfits looking sharp and their backpacks fresh. In the afternoon, their outfits are in shambles, backpacks askew, and eyes focused on only getting that after school snack. A friend of mine posted his son’s first day of 1st grade pictures, whose school uniform was neat and tidy in the morning, but he came home, inexplicably, with only one shoe.
The beginning of the school year is my favorite time of year. I have been out of school for 14 years, but I still am tempted to go out and buy fresh notebooks, planners, and pencils (which highlights my age, as kids now use mostly tablets and laptops). I love the freshness of the season, the high expectations, the establishment of routines, and a strong sense of commitment. It is a time of re-set after the casualness of summer and the chaos of the last couple of years.
There was a great series of interviews with students entering into their freshman year of high school recently. The majority of their middle school years were over-taken with pandemic disruptions and uncertainty. But this year, they were heading into a vital four years of their lives with high hopes and expectations. One young one person said she was worried about the workload and academic rigor, especially since learning online didn’t really challenge her. But she had made a plan with a good friend to hold each other accountable for getting the work done. Another said he was eager for a routine of getting up, leaving the house, and engaging the world. He was so excited he made a promise to himself that he would take full advantage of every opportunity his high school provided. And another interview was with someone who was determined to be the first in her extended family to graduate both high school and college. Her determination was palpable through her words, and I was so inspired by her that I can already tell that she is someone who is going to do extraordinary things. All of those interviews made one thing clear, the upheaval of the last two years wasn’t going to hold these young leaders back from living lives of service and excellence.
And this new season is not just for school kids. I have been reading articles about the changing corporate work environment, with organizations trying to find a balance between the flexibility of working from home and the value of face-to-face interactions. All of the articles recently have pointed out that September was going to be the reset. Summer would be summer, with its less rigorous routines, but once September rolled around, routines and commitments would be established in the work place.
Even in the church world, September marks the beginning of our ‘program’ year. Summer is quiet and casual, and a down-time in the church. But come September, programs begin, traditions start up, and plans for the busy season of the church are put in place.
Between schools, businesses, and churches – September seems to mark the start of something in nearly every aspect of life. So this is a great time of year to make commitments and set expectations. I think it is an even better time than January 1st, because that New Year is more about life-style choices and resolutions that tend to fade by February 1st. This is a time of year to set expectations about what we want to learn and how we will participate in those aspects of our lives that require intentionality. What will we focus on? How will we follow through? And what are our hopes for this season?
As I have been reflecting on all of this, I have found myself thinking it is time for Christians to reset as well – to be intentional about making commitments to who we are, what we want to learn, and how we are going to participate in this world relying on our faith in God and following the example of Christ. It is not news that the Christian church is in a time of transition. Worship attendance, which was once a social obligation, has become counter-cultural. Religious observance, which was once a matter of routine, has become an after-thought. Belief and hope in God is derided by far too many as fanciful or out of touch. And the mixing, or convoluting, of political ideology with ‘religious’ belief is rampant. This process was already in motion before 2020, but it has been accelerated in the last couple of years. So, I think it is time for a reset, for a reestablishment of expectations, commitments, and goals. Who are we as Christians, what do we need to learn, and how will we achieve our goals – those are the questions we need to be asking, and it feels like this is a great time to be asking them.
I got started thinking about this reset as I read the opening part of Paul’s letter that I read this morning. For the record, 2nd Corinthians is a weird letter. It is such an odd mix of praise and rebuke, the language and motivation of what is written seems to change from one sentence to another. This is likely because it is not actually one cohesive letter, but rather a bunch of letters parsed together and called 2nd Corinthians. But, if we can get beyond the oddness, we can see here an attempt by Paul to call the Corinthian church back from their in-fighting, and instead remember who they are and what they are called to do. Easier said than done during a time of uncertainty and persecution for these early Jesus followers. Which is perhaps why Paul starts out by saying that he is intimately aware of the hardships they are facing. He reminds them that he recently was in trouble – and, though the details have been lost to history, he was likely imprisoned and perhaps even sentenced to death. But, despite the trouble and fear of what would happen, he held on to his faith and belief that with God all things are possible. That the things that feel like death have no power to take away the life that God brings. “On God we have set our hope,” he says. So, whatever you are facing, he reminds those early believers, remember who you are and whose you are.
Paul’s words carry meaning for us today as well. The upheaval, the fear, the uncertainty, and, for some, the despair, that has affected our world and our churches is over-whelming. But, by placing our hope in God and in one another, by remembering that with God all things are possible and those things are achieved in community – then we can settle into this new season with high expectations and a focus on seeing those expectations through to reality. So, if most other aspects of this world see this time as the start of a new and focused season, as Christians we can too.
I encourage you to think about how you would respond in an interview much like those young people starting their freshman year of high school. What are you are determined to learn? How are you going to achieve your goals? What mark will you leave on the world? I encourage you to answer these questions as a Christian first, however you understand that identity. These are great questions to ask in all aspects of our lives, but for us here today, how do we answer them as people of faith? And then let’s hold one another accountable. Let’s check in with one another, encourage each other, and share in this time together. We cannot fix all that is wrong with the Christian church today, but we can move mountains in our corner of the world. As Paul said, we will hold each other in prayer and set our hope on God. Amen.
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – we know that when we place our hope in you, we do so sure of the promise that hope is not in vain. Your presence in our lives is assured and therefore our hope is real. For all of this we are grateful and with that gratitude we come before you now in prayer.
God, we ask that you help us find a freshness in this season, a time of high expectations, and eager with possibilities. Even if some things feel stale, help us to see them with the fresh eyes and open spirits we need to engage fully in our faith. And give us the courage to make our mark, to challenge out of date habits, and try something new. And when we fail, allow us to rest in you and your encouragement to try again.
Even with ideas and opportunities swirling in our heads, we also remember to pause to lift ourselves and others in prayer, knowing that you can provide a comfort that we simply cannot. Now in these moments of silence we turn over to you those prayers we are carrying within us…
Great and loving God, we thank you again for this extraordinary world and our ability to participate in it. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher and guide, who taught us to pray together by raising our voices…Our Father…