From Covenant Renewal to Freedom Eve to Owlah (oh-law/burnt offering), Watchnight (New Year’s Eve) vigils and services have been a part of the Methodist traditions from the beginning. Watchnight services help us clear out the old year to make way for a new and better year, and give us an opportunity to reflect and reset our spirits. After the last few years we’ve had, we could all use a better year and a serious reset, amen?
That’s why we’ve chosen an Owlah for this year. The original Owlah Service was developed and celebrated in 1998 by an ecumenical faith team in Birchwood, Wisconsin, which included Leila M. Geist, a lay member of Birchwood UMC and a member of the Discipleship Ministries Vision 2000 Team, and was a “Service of Repentance & Forgiveness.”
In the Hebrew Bible, the owlah, or burnt offering, is an offering that “goes up” in smoke, totally burned and consumed, with nothing left over. In other words the entire offering is give up to God with nothing held back.
We all have things we need to unburden ourselves from – regrets, resentments, worries, fears, overindulgences, wrongs we’ve suffered, wrongs we’ve done to others. That would be true at the end of any year, not just the last few we’ve come through. But we all also have things in our heart for which we need to ask God’s intercession. Our deepest prayers will be offered up in the Owlah as well.
“All unspoken” confessions and prayers was included among the other prayers and confessions in the Owlah. May this service bring you closure for the year ending and hope for the year coming in.
CALL TO WORSHIP & OPENING PRAYER
Tonight we are keeping watch.
Tonight we say goodbye to the old year and look hopefully into the new year.
Though the darkness is deep, the Light of the World guides our way.
Even though we don’t really know what is to come, we know that God is with us.
Quietly, reverently, open your hearts to God.
Praise be to God, who was and is and is to be.
Lord of the Opening Way,
We bring to you this night our past, with all that has happened in our lives, our hopes and our dreams, our successes and our failures, our gains and our losses.
We bring to you our present, lives filled with exhaustion, wonder, fear, concern.
We come to you with hearts open to receive your word for us, for the future.
We want to be part of your new heaven and earth, to serve you by serving others.
Speak to us, heal us, teach us, lead us, for we ask these things in Jesus’ name.
Gracious God, as we turn to your Word for us, may the Spirit of God rest upon us. Help us to be steadfast in our hearing, in our speaking, in our believing, in our living, and in our loving.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 (NRSV) – For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain have the workers from their toil?
I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.
Revelation 21:1-6a (NRSV) – Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
The scriptures of God for the People of God.
Thanks be to God.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer.
Author and public theologian, John Pavlovitz wrote today, “Dear 2022, We’re tired. Be Kind. Sincerely, Humanity.” And we are tired, aren’t we? And frazzled and frustrated and fed up and fearful of what is yet to come?
It seems like the “seasons” have been all topsy-turvy for a long time now. Even Las Vegas bookies cringe at the idea of accurately forecasting the weather, The polar caps are melting at an alarming rate, the fires around Boulder, Colorado, have effectively changed “wildfire season” to simply wildfires year round, we’re seeing more and more extreme weather events … not just here in the US, but around the world.
Then there are the political campaigns … once again and several years ago, effectively moved from campaign season to on-going, never-ending political posturing and campaigning and finger-pointing until one wonders whether we’re electing folks to actually do something or we’re electing them to begin their next campaign.
The COVID global pandemic has had its own impact on many of our seasons. A new variant pops up before the last variant has been effectively dealt with, with just enough difference from its predecessor to keep even the world’s best scientists and doctors racing the clock, and keeping the rest of us on edge and unsure, and instead of a “season” of fighting a virus, we are now in on-going years of fighting viruses.
We’ve lost loved ones, jobs, entire careers, friends, and neighbors. All of us have had our faith challenged and far too many have lost or are losing their faith altogether.
It seems like we’re stuck in all the bad times … the time to die … at least spiritually, emotionally, the time to pluck up what is planted … to undo all the good that has ever been done because someone we see as lesser might have some of it, too
The time to kill … not just one another, although we seem to be doing more of that, but to kill dreams, to kill ideals, to kill rights and freedoms and liberty.
The time to break down … to systems and safety nets designed to support the least of us … the religious organizations we thought we knew … the democracy we’d taken for granted …
The time to weep … and we’ve all wept more than we’ve laughed, more than we’ve celebrated, more than we’ve felt joy … for far too long now …
The time to mourn … to grieve all we’ve lost or let slip way …
The time to throw away stones … to declare that even the good things we’ve built from them are no good or not good enough and rather than renovate, let’s just destroy the building material itself …
The time to not embrace … to avoid, to repel, to push away …
The time to lose … lose hope, lose faith, lose sight of a better future, lose our humanity
Andin all those times, we throw away what is good in favor of what is convenient, self-empowering, self-promoting, self-ish. We to tear down the protections and provisions and even the very Gospel of Christ to make God fit into the box we choose, to speak but don’t speak well through divisive, discordant, dishonest blaming and shaming and ranting and raving or don’t speak at all when we most need to speak out, we hate more often than we love, and we make war with one another far too often escalating to war between neighbors, communities, faith traditions, and, too often, nations.
We hear that passage from Ecclesiastes, and we wonder, “but what about the good times? Will we ever see the good times again? Have we once again entered a period where God is letting us sit and stew in our own mistakes?”
The lesson in the passage, though, isn’t that we’re here just to suffer the passing of seasons that are out of our control. The bad seasons are seasons of our own doing, seasons we very much could control through the simple act of following Christ, heeding what he taught us, and living fully into the transformational Way he gave us. The cause of the bad seasons are all the things from which we are called to repent, to turn around, to have a change of heart and, in so doing, become the kin-dom builders we are called to be, the peacemakers we are called to be, the earth-born images of God we were born to be.
Stephen Paul Kliewer, retired Presbyterian pastor and author of Dancing Faith wrote just today: “On this last day of the year, my mind is a bit frayed. There are loose threads everywhere and sometimes it feels as if, were I to pull one, everything would come unraveled.
One thread is “incarnation.” The idea that the Sacred would “slip into the vulnerability of skin” (a phrase he borrowed from Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber) blows my mind. But what is even more staggering is the idea that the incarnation did not end with the death and resurrection of Jesus. If we learn nothing else from the last intimate teachings Jesus offered to his disciples, it is this: That in the Spirit the incarnation continues, through the lives of the people who are awake to, and open to the working of the Spirit, advocate, comforter, guide.
Another thread is “word.” In Genesis we see the power of the word. God spoke, and chaos became order. Darkness became light. God spoke (or perhaps even sang), and as the divine music moved through the still air Beauty was born. Mountains, rivers, clouds, birds, the animals. Us. We were born.
When I weave incarnation and word together, what I end up with is prayer. Prayer is the spirit putting into words the unbearable longings of one’s heart. The dreams. The fears. The hopes. The joy. The anger. Everything.
And when we speak something happens. In the Spirit the words are more than words, but take on life. And, as God’s Word shaped, created, our cries of the heart, our “prayers,” should shape our lives.
And so this brings me to this moment when the fog lingers, this moment when one year fades away and another emerges, this moment when it seems like a good time as any to pray. So here is my New Year’s prayer:
This year may I be the incarnation. Through your Spirit, slip into the vulnerability of this flesh and make yourself real in me and through me.
Be in my mind. Help me to use it well that I might sort through all the input that comes my way. Help me to set aside my prejudices and my old patterns and perceptions. Help me to be critical and never settle for what is comfortable and convenient, but always seek what is true.
Be in my eyes. Help me to see things as they really are. Help me to see people as they really are. Help me see past the facades to what is real. Do not let me be seduced by the trappings of power and wealth. Do not let me be repelled by the detritus of poverty. Help me to see past physical beauty, or lack of beauty. Help me to see past color or creed and see only Sacred children, precious souls full of beauty and grace.
Be in my words that they might be words that build, create, soothe, heal.
Be in my hands, and my feet that I might do the works of love, that I might comfort those in pain, visit those who are lonely and afraid, listen to those who feel they have no voice, house the homeless, feed the hungry, fight for the oppressed and minimalized.
Be in my days that I might be a person who works to help anyone who is vulnerable.
O Sacred One, I am yours. This year may I be the incarnation, Through your Spirit, slip into the vulnerability of this flesh and make yourself real In me and through me, because I certainly cannot do this on my own.
Thank you, Rev. Kliewer, for what I couldn’t find to say in my own words but felt with every fiber of my being. On this night of repentance … of turning around, changing direction … and confession … on this night of giving our deepest, most closely held prayer up to God … may we all heed your words.
Retired Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston wrote, “There are times in our lives when the reality around us feels so heavy we are not sure we have the strength to cope with it. There is a weight to life, a gravity of the mind and heart, pulling us down. We can become overloaded. We can feel change is becoming impossible. In times like these I pray an intervention of the Spirit, a lightness of the soul that no reality can overcome. The Spirit lifts the weight from us, taking on our burdens, showing us the hope we did not see, lifting us up to find our renewal in the open air of a cloudless sky. Turn toward faith and feel your feet begin to leave the ground you thought would never let you go.”
At a time when it is so easy to give up on God, so easy to dismiss our faith or to move our faith from God to either our own devices or to some person or party, it is then we need to hold most strongly to God, to Christ, and to the Spirit, and to trust that they will not let go of us, either. That we may be suffering struggles and challenges and trying times, but that the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new,” and we are a part of His plan for the new he is bringing to the world. We just need to hold strong to what God the Son taught us and remember that the Kingdom of God isn’t some far off eternal escape plan. Luke 17:20-21 – “Jesus says, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you””
Trust is hard, harder even than sincere repentance, sincere changing direction. Trust in something you can’t see and touch and who doesn’t always respond directly is quite possibly the hardest. But, at the end of this tumultuous year heading into the unknown of a new year that, so far, promises little difference, trust is critical.
Not trust in man, but trust in God, in Christ, in the Spirit.
It is with trust that we place our confessions, our prayers, our laments … on the fire this New Year’s Eve as the Owlah and our prayer that God finds their aroma pleasing.
Please pray with me the words Christ taught us …
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
Lord, may this fire be refining and may we renew our covenant with you through as we pray …
God, I am not my own self-made, self-reliant human being.
In truth, O God, I am Yours.
Make me into what You will.
Make me a neighbor with those whom You will.
Guide me on the easy path for You.
Guide me on the rocky road for You.
Whether I am to step up for You or step aside for You;
Whether I am to be lifted high for You or brought low for You;
Whether I become full or empty, with all things or with nothing;
I give all that I have and all that I am for You.
So be it.
And may I always remember that you, O God, and I belong to each other. Amen. (credit to Jeremy Smith, Hacking Christianity)
Lord, though we mostly fail to keep our covenants with you, you are ever faithful to keep your covenant with us. Thank you for your faithfulness and your forgiveness. Help us to face this new and unknown year with the confidence of knowing you remain faithful.
Francis of Assisi, the Doctor of the Church, said: “Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life; rather, look forward to them, with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in His arms.
Do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same understanding Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow, then and every day.
He will either shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.”
Friends, “do not fear” appears 365 times in the Bible, enough for us to be reminded every day that He will look after His children. So we look forward to this new day, new time, relieved of those worries we placed in the fire, ready to resume our walk as children of the Light, and remembering that “year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us (Hal Borland).”
Now hear this benediction by author Jeff Chu and accept it as my blessing for you in the new year:
“May you make room for both delight and disappointment, joy and sorrow, and through it all, may you feel the courage to name these things candidly and to navigate them wisely.
May you perceive the beauty around you and within you—in the dance of the sunshine on freshly fallen snow, in the growth of the buds that will soon enough pop up to remind us of the resilience of life, in the swirls and whirls of a flock of birds against a blue sky, in an unexpected burst of shared laughter, in the gift of an offered confidence, in the satisfying savor of a favorite meal, in the complexity of the body that receives that goodness but also honestly vexes you—and may all this stir in you not just gratitude but also wonder.
May you know deep and true rest: rest that enfolds you into its restorative gentleness, rest that fuels you for the road ahead, rest that sings to you a story of grace.
May you sense the possibility of hope.
May you be blindsided by blessing.
May you feel the strong and tender embrace of the God who made you, the God who gave his body and breath for you, and the God who accompanies you still.
May you be attentive to the love that is always with you and for you, recognizing its steady presence, receiving it with gladness, and lavishing it onto a world that so yearns for its justice and its balm.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Amen and happy New Year.
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