Saturday, December 31, 2016

“Keeping the Faith in the Face of Anxiety & Uncertainty”

            This Sunday (January 1st), we will gather for worship as we “ring out the old year and ring in the new year.”  It will truly be a day of new beginnings.  Of course, new beginnings inevitably entail change.  Change can be good or bad; expected or unexpected; minimal or hugely transformative; expected or unexpected.  Most of us will experience some changes as we move through the next year, 2017.

            For instance, in my family we anticipate my daughter graduating from college in 2017.  This will represent a major change for my daughter, as she moves from the life of a student to becoming a full adult—with all of the freedoms and privileges, as well as responsibilities, inherent in being an adult.  We are looking forward to this milestone in my daughter’s life.  Yet, at the same time, there is uncertainty and some anxiety associated with this change--even though it is a clear, positive change.

            Our society faces some major change, as well, as we move into the next year.  On January 20th, Donald Trump will be sworn in as our next President.  Although we do not know exactly what will happen to our country under the new Trump Administration, there clearly will be significant changes in the laws and policies of our government. 

            Just as with our country as a whole, so also my congregation, Christ United Methodist, is deeply divided over the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump.  On the one hand, a great many in my congregation strongly opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump and voted against him.  These Christians enter the new year with great fear for our country and in deep depression.  On the other hand, many others in my congregation supported Donald Trump for President and voted for him.  Even though their candidate won the election, I think that these Christians must be experiencing some level of uncertainty and anxiety, as well, even if it is more muted than their fellow Christians who opposed Trump.  Although we fully expect change from his Administration, Donald Trump has sent many mixed messages and made rapid, dramatic reversals on positions.  And, we just don’t know what the full ramifications of anticipated policy changes will be.  

            Within my congregation, there seems to be a heightened level of uncertainty and anxiety this year over previous years.  I sense that this same heightened level of uncertainty and anxiety extends beyond my Midwestern congregation to encompass our society as a whole.  Regardless of political beliefs or other differentiating factors, there seems to be a heightened sense of uncertainty and anxiety, as we stand on the brink of a new year, 2017.

            As we gather to worship on New Year’s Day, I want our Christ United Methodist community of faith to reflect on this heightened sense of uncertainty and anxiety from a biblical and faith perspective.  As my foundational text, I have focused on Jesus’ discussion of worry and anxiety in Luke 12:  22-31.  To fully understand this text, it is important to notice the context in which it appears.  Just before this passage, Jesus has told a parable to the crowd of people who had gathered to listen to him teach. 

            In this parable, which immediately precedes our passage, Jesus tells the story of a rich farmer who has an incredibly good crop yield, one year.  In anticipation of a hugely bountiful harvest, the farmer tears down his barns in order to build bigger barns, in order to hold and store his incredible harvest.  After all of the crops are harvested and stored in the new barns, the rich farmer reasons to himself that he has “amble goods laid up for many years…[so that he can] relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19).  However, in a great reversal, the rich farmer dies that evening.  The point of this parable concerns where we place our trust.  The rich man trusted in his own ingenuity and good fortune as a farmer, and he used his bounty to serve himself alone.  This proved to be a misplaced trust.  By contrast, Jesus calls us to trust and serve God.

            Jesus follows this parable on the basis for trust with a discussion of human worry and anxiety.  He begins by noting that people frequently worry about having enough physical resources, focusing on food and clothing.  Jesus encourages his followers not to succumb to worry and anxiety about these needs.  And, he gives five reasons why we should not be consumed by anxiety and worry:

            1.  First, Jesus reminds his followers that “…life is more than food, and …clothing” (v 23).  It’s important to recognize that Jesus was not speaking to an audience of desperately poor persons, who were living “hand-to-mouth” and were in desperate poverty.  Instead, he was speaking to people who had enough to eat and who had sufficient clothing.  Christ’s basic point was about keeping perspective. 

            It is part of human nature to worry and be anxious.  Sometimes, anxiety breeds more anxiety.  We become like hamsters running on a wheel.  The faster we run, the faster the wheel spins, and the faster we have to run to keep up.  So, we end up running faster and faster.  Similarly, our anxiety breeds more anxiety, which breeds more anxiety and we become more and more anxious and worried about the future.  As we stand on the brink of 2017, we face much uncertainty, and it is tempting to become more and more anxious.  However, I think that Christ’s advice to us in 2017 is that we should remain balanced, keeping our legitimate fears and worries and anxieties in perspective.

            2.  Then, Jesus exhorts his followers to trust in God’s providence.  Using the metaphor of birds, he tells the crowd, “Consider the ravens, they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (v. 24).  This message of faith remains the same for us today, despite the uncertainty and anxiety that we face in 2017.  We should remember and trust that God’s love for us continues and that God will guide and take care of us.

            3.  By contrast, obsessively worrying reveals a lack of faith in God and God’s providential love for us.  Jesus says, “Consider the lilies, how they grow:  they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even [King] Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—oh, you people of little faith!” (vv. 27-28)

            4.  Jesus also appeals to our common sense.  He points out that worry and anxiety in the face of uncertainty actually accomplishes nothing.  “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” he asks.  The answer is obvious:  of course, not.  So, why be consumed by worry and anxiety, since it doesn’t really make any actual difference?  Similarly, for today, even though there is high uncertainty around the future and direction of our country, worry, anxiety, and fear do not accomplish anything positive.

            5.  Finally, Jesus observes that when his followers are fully devoted to pursuing and building his Reign, then they will not need to be anxious about other things.  He exhorts his followers, “strive for God’s kingdom, and these things [food and clothing] will be given to you as well” (v. 31).  Similarly, in our 2017 context, we must work to establish God’s Reign here on earth; a Kingdom characterized by justice, equality of opportunity, care for the poor and needy, as well as good stewardship of God’s Creation.  Undoubtedly, this will entail opposing some change, while supporting other change.

            If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, I invite you to come, join us as we celebrate the New Year through Worship this Sunday, January 1st.  As we worship, we will explore Christ’s advice to his followers on coping with uncertainty and anxiety. And, we will remember that Christ calls us to join with him in establishing and building the Kingdom of God in the here and now.  Although we normally have two worship services at 8:30 and 11 am each Sunday, on New Year’s Day we will have a single worship service at 11 am.  Come, join us. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Reflections on the Star, the Wise Men, and Seeking the Divine

             There’s been quite a hiatus since my last blog post.  Over the past weeks, I have taken some vacation time and on many of the other Sunday mornings , the various church choirs at Christ United Methodist Church have been performing.  As a result, I have not been posting to this blog because it is designed principally to preview my sermons and provide more in-depth scriptural interpretation than the worship service allows.

            This Sunday, December 18th, our 8:30 and 11:00 worship services will be led by the “Serenity Singers,” a women’s choral group that is part of Christ Church’s music program.  However, I am collaborating with the Serenity Singers by offering some theological reflections, interspersed with their lovely Christmas music.  So, I thought that I would post a blog about our service this weekend.

            Our focus this Sunday will be on the Christmas Star and the story of the Wise Men, who went to visit and pay homage to Jesus.  The story of the Star and the Wise Men occurs in Matthew 2: 1-12.  Biblical scholars tells us that the Greek word, “magi,” can be translated variously as “wise men,” “astrologers,” “magicians,” or “sorcerers.”  These individuals were affluent scholars, who belonged to the priestly class of Babylonian experts in the occult, such as astrology and the interpretation of dreams. 

Traditionally, we have assumed that there were three wise men because there are three gifts:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  However, the Gospel does not specify the precise number of wise men.  For Matthew, the story of the wise men is important to tell because the Wise Men are pagan, non-Jews who followed the Star they had seen in the sky.[i]

            In the music which the Serenity Singers will be performing during our worship, there are these words which raise an interesting observation:

“When they [the wise men] saw the star, they rejoiced with great joy!
Others saw the star, but they followed it not;
To them it would come and pass.
The wise men kept trusting with all of their hearts
that the star would find the Baby at last.”[ii]
These lyrics raise an interesting question, which I had never thought about much.  According to Matthew, the Wise Men saw the Star in the sky and recognized it as a special sign from God, pointing the way to the Divine.  Yet, if the Star was visible in the night sky, then it was seen by many, many people gazing into the night. 

            This raises a very profound question:  Why is it that, out of the thousands of people who saw the Star, only the Wise Men recognized this Star as a sign from God, pointing the way to the Divine?  Think about it.  Why did only the Wise Men recognize the Star as a sign?  The Wise Men were not even Jews; they were practitioners of pagan religions.  Yet, they recognized the Star as God’s sign to humanity.  Could it be that the Wise Men recognized the Star because they were actively seeking the Divine in their lives? 

            This raises several interesting questions for us today:  Are we actively seeking the Divine in our lives, just as the Wise Men?  What are the signs pointing to the Divine, which God has given to us?  That is, what is our Star today?  Not in a celestial sense, but rather in a symbolic sense.  What are the signs which God has given to us today, that point the way to the Divine?

            During our worship service, we will hear an abbreviated version of “The Story of the Other Wise Man” by Henry van Dyke[iii].  In this imaginative and fictional story, van Dyke imagines an additional Wise Man, named Artaban.  Artaban plans to take three precious jewels as his gift to the Messiah:  a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl.  Artaban has already arranged to rendezvous with the other Wise Men. However, just before he reaches the pre-arranged rendezvous point, Artaban encounters a dying stranger, lying in the middle of the road.  Artaban reluctantly stops to aid the stranger.  As a result of his unplanned stop to aid the stranger, Artaban fails to reach the rendezvous point in time to journey with the other Wise Men.

            Desperate to see the Messiah, Artaban uses one of his jewels to buy camels and supplies so that he can travel across the desert to Bethlehem.  When he reaches Bethlehem, he discovers that he has once again missed the Wise Men.  He has also missed Joseph, Mary, and the young Jesus, who have already fled to Egypt out of fear for King Herod.  So, Artaban decides to follow the Holy Family to Egypt, so that he can see and pay homage to the Messiah. 

As the story unfolds, Artaban spends the next 30 years searching for the Divine in the person of this great King.  Along the way, he helps those around him, performing incredible acts of charity and doing much good.  Artaban decides to travel to Jerusalem, thinking that perhaps the “King of the Jews” can be found in Jerusalem.  When he arrives in Jerusalem, the streets are filled with discussion of the impending crucifixion of Jesus from Nazareth, the “King of the Jews.”  Artaban decides to go the place of Christ’s crucifixion, in order to finally see Jesus.  However, once again, he is asked to defer his trip in order to help someone in need.  Using his last jewel, he helps a young woman pay her father's debts and escape slavery. 

After helping the young woman, Artaban is struck on the head by a falling roof tile, loosed by the earthquake which occurs at Christ’s death on the Cross; see Matthew 27: 50-54.  As he lays dying from the falling tile, Artaban has a vision in which he sees Christ.  In his vision, Artaban laments that he was never able to realize his quest to see Christ, the Messiah.  In reply, Jesus tells Artaban that he has seen Christ multiple times, whenever he has helped someone in need.  Quoting Matthew 25:40, Jesus says:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Since God loves us so much, there is, undoubtedly, no shortage of signs pointing the way to the Divine.  For the Wise Men, it was the Star in the heavens.  For the shepherds, it was the Heavenly Host of Angels.  Sometimes for me, it can be walking in a majestic forest of trees; or being in Worship celebrating The Lord’s Supper.  God provides us with a plethora of signs.  Yet, Christ is very clear that the most important sign pointing to the Divine occurs when we reach out to those in need; when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, build housing for the homeless, care for the sick and lonely, visit the imprisoned.  There, we will see the face of the Divine.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, come, join us this Sunday, December 18th, at Christ United Methodist Church.  Together, we will experience an inspiring worship service with the music of the “Serenity Singers” and our reflections on the Star and the Wise Men.  God offers us many signs which lead us back to God and into a loving relationship with the Divine.  I pray that some of these Divine signs will be evident in our worship together.  Our church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, and our traditional worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] For this paragraph, I drew from Eugen Boring’s exegesis of The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8.  Accessed by CD-ROM.

[ii] “Rejoice with Exceeding Great Joy,” Lanny Wolfe, arr. By Tom Fettke.

[iii] Henry van Dyke, The Story of the Other Wise Man, see