Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

As a pastor, you know it’s going to be a bad day, when your congregation votes to change your day off to Sunday.  When you preach the same sermon for the second week- and nobody notices. When at the wedding, you call the groom by the bride’s former boyfriend’s name.  When the church begins exploring the possibilities of a missionary trip for you- to Libya.

All pastors have their regrettable, embarrassing moments. When I was serving as the pastor in Marine on St. Croix, we traditionally ended the year with a 5:00 New Year’s Eve worship service. It was a great excuse for one of my favorite delights- fireworks.  When the service ended, the congregation would gather outside on the church lawn with the church bell ringing and watch fireworks being set off from an outdoor stage by our children’s choir director.  Our director had years of experience with fireworks, after all he lived in Wisconsin, and knew which fireworks were legal in Wisconsin and those that were illegal across the river in Minnesota- except for one year.  To everyone’s surprise and shock, he accidentally purchased aerial rockets.  The only problem being that we had 200 year-old oaks towering over our 150 year old wooden clapboard church.  Well, he started lighting the fireworks and there were rockets ricocheting off the trees and the church and the rushing underfoot of the parishioners.  I had 80-year women scurrying and reaching speeds they hadn’t seen in 50 years.  That would have been enough excitement, but then in a scene reminiscent of the Star Spangled Banner, the rockets’ red glare, began bursting in air and drifting down over the roof of the church.  It was an agonizing 10 minutes of explosions. I was relieved when I drove home that night and the smoke had cleared the air. The next morning, however, I heard from the Choir Director that he had a guilty conscious and called out the volunteer fire department.  They returned to the church and discovered a smoldering rocket on top of the roof.  Well, in a small town like Marine on St. Croix everybody knew about the incident even before I did, and when I showed up at a New Year’s Day party, I was asked by a woman with a distinctly English accent, “Reverend Haug, is it a sackable offense to burn down your own church?” Yes, all pastors have their regrettable, embarrassing moments.

New Years has always been a time for looking back to the past, including those regrettable, embarrassing moments,  and more importantly, forward to the possibilities of  coming year. For  as essayist Charles Lamb once wrote, “New Year’s Day is everyman’s birthday.” It’s day for life’s new beginnings- if we know how to use this gift of time well.

My friends, as we enter this New Year, it is my wish and my prayer that you may learn to use God’s gift of time wisely. In the traditional reading for New Year’s Eve, from thirteenth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ tells the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

The parable teaches us that all of us can have unproductive stretches in life, but that Jesus as the gardener has a plan for making life fruitful again.  “Let it alone, dig about it, and put on manure.” Jesus understands that a simple one-time, overnight fix, may not work in life. Instead, setting long-term goals and planning small steps, changing and improving day by day, may be a  more realistic path to success. And without a plan, your New Year’s dreams and hope may be as short lived as many of our New Year’s resolutions.  So let me offer you three thoughts for using your time wisely in this New Year: Forgive, forget and forge on.  These thoughts are coupled with the words of the gardener, “Let it alone, dig around it, and put on manure.”

If your past year has been filled with pain and sorrow, and whose hasn’t after a second year of Covid, you should not expect a bountiful harvest.  Let it alone.  Forgive yourself. Your energy has been spent; it was not available for bearing fruit.  But perhaps, your struggle was not from the powers around you.  It was not pandemic, the struggle of justice in the world nor even your closed workplace that caused your emptiness.  Your struggle may have been with a force within you. One of the greatest obstacles to the wise of use of time is the burden of sin and regret and the lack of forgiveness.

As a couple sat with the marriage counselor for their first session, the good doctor asked them to identify what seemed to be the root of their problems.  The wife responded, “It all started when we thought it would be cute to think up each other’s New Year’s resolutions.” That usually is the beginning of trouble.  You can not look at the changes needed of your children, your spouse or of a friend to make you happy.  You and I need to step back and examine the forces that have directed our own words and actions.  Yes, be realistic and focus on your owns words and actions.

God willing and lovingly forgives your past, but you need to recognize the power that certain habits and words, have on you.  You need to identify them and call them by name.  Pride, anger, desire, power, authority, hate, laziness.  Without a name, they cannot be forgiven, and they will continue to hold you and your time hostage.  My friends, God loves you and forgives you.  Take the first step, forgive yourself, and forgive others.

Second, when you tell yourself that you are going to use your time more wisely, and to reach your goal, you need to start digging in and mapping out the way it will work for you. This kind of committed planning requires energy and effort, which may be difficult to drum up as you’re trying to recover from the past year.  Tomorrow may not be the time to begin a clean slate.  Physically, emotionally and spiritually, you may not be ready.  Dig around in your life in little ways and wait. Try to make room in your life for more sleep, healthier living, drinking lots of water, walking in the fresh, brisk air or getting out for other exercise. Give time to spirituality and meditation. After a horrible year the timing may be better for these smaller lifestyle changes than making a full-blown New Year’s resolution.  But most importantly, time will allow you to forget past failures and losses, instead of dwelling on them.

One thing I have discovered, in my own years of loss- Things can be repaired, replaced and even upgraded, but you simply can never get over the death of a loved one.  You learn to live, step-by-step, and day by day, with a permanent gap in your emotional landscape.  It is a beautiful and fitting metaphor.  But a tree that has fallen in the storm continues to cast a shadow.  For the living to bear fruit, and to use time wisely again, you need to dig around for the water and sunshine to give their nourishment.  Some things you cannot forget and shouldn’t, but you can learn to remember more joyfully.

Finally, when you tell yourself that you are going to use your time more wisely, and to reach your goal, you may need to take on something new and forge ahead. The gardener suggests putting manure on the fig tree to make it fruitful.  I do not know what that “something new” is going to be your life, but time is God’s gift for this new beginning.

The following poem appeared years ago in the Hawkinsville Dispatch News:

Take time to work–it is the price of success.

Take time to think–it is the source of power

Take time to read–it is the fountain of wisdom

Take time to worship–it is the highway to reverence

Take time to be friendly–it is the road to happiness

Take time to laugh–it helps to lift life’s load

Take time for God’s Word–it brings Christ near and

It washes the dust of earth from your eyes.

Take time for God–it is life’s only truly lasting investment.

My friends, we all have our regrettable, embarrassing moments. And life does not change for the better with the flip of calendar page.  You need to take charge of the things you can, and then forge ahead. Develop a strategy and plan. And yes, through all of life’s changes, remember that our Lord promises to be with you with.  That is why he came to dwell with us.  We may not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.  He is our God Emmanuel who invites you to forgive lovingly, to forget graciously, and to forge ahead faithfully.  Let Jesus’ promise, his love and his forgiveness allow you to let go of your own regrettable, embarrassing moments and to embrace a fruitful life with him this New Year.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.