Saturday, August 19, 2017

“Faith trumps Fear of Change”

            This Sunday, August 20th, we begin an exploration of the resources which Christians have to confront three prominent fears.  I begin by examining Christian resources to cope with the fear of change this Sunday.  Next Sunday, August 27th, Beth Menhusen, our Associate Pastor, will reflect on fears of the “other,” and then on September 3rd, I will look at our fear of failing.  We call this series, “Faith trumps Fear.”

            We all experience change as we go through life from childhood to adulthood.  Change is a part of the human condition.  Change is not necessarily good or bad.  Sometimes change can be good; at other times change can be bad.  There are actually four different types of change:

1.      Change may be voluntary, but good for us.  For instance, a high school student may study and work very hard in order to be accepted into their favorite college far away from their home, family, and friends.  Matriculating to this new college will bring great change for the young student, but she voluntarily embraces the change because she believes that studying at this school will be good for her.

2.      Change may be voluntary, but not good for us.  For instance, someone may become dissatisfied with their current living arrangements, so they voluntarily decide to move into a new house or apartment, only to find that their new home is actually worse than their previous home.

3.      Change may be forced upon us, but actually be good for us.  Suppose a young couple discovers that they are unexpectedly pregnant with a child.  The couple were not planning on having a child at this point in time, perhaps because of ongoing education or the launch their professional career or striving to achieve financial stability.  Yet, after the baby is born, they love their child and discover that having this child is the best thing that could have happened to them.

4.      Change may be forced upon us, and not be good for us.  Consider the employee who loses their job in a corporate downsizing.  This person has done nothing deserving of termination.  Yet, they lose their job and experience severe financial difficulty.

In all four of these types of change, there is uncertainty about the outcome.  And, it is this uncertainty which causes us to fear change, even if it turns out to be good for us.

            In the long history of humanity, perhaps no other age has struggled with the scope of rapid change with which we have been confronted over the past 50 years.  These challenges by change cross multiple dimensions of life, including  technology, medicine, transportation, communication, politics, economics, social, sexual, and religion.  These are rapid changes, which force persons to adapt, then re-adapt, and finally re-adapt again.  For many of us the speed and scope of change can seem terrifying.

            The people of Israel faced a similar seismic change in the scripture reading which we will be reflecting on during our worship services this Sunday.  The scripture reading is from Numbers 14: 1-10b.  This passage occurs after the Israelite have been wandering in the desert for 40 years.  This has been a long ordeal, filled with much sacrifice and suffering.  Throughout this ordeal, the Hebrews have been sustained by God’s love and commitment to them.  God has promised to lead them to a paradisiacal land “flowing with milk and honey.”  Finally, after years and years of wandering in the desert, God has finally led the Hebrews to the edge of this “promised land.”  This new opportunity in a rich and fecund land of their own represents a profound change from their previous lives wandering the desert.  It is a good change, promising much richer, more comfortable lives for the Hebrews.

            Yet, the Hebrews are terrified by this significant change.  This Promised Land holds great potential for a better life, but there is much uncertainty as well.  So, they send spies into the new land to discover what the conditions are.  The spies return after forty days.  They confirm that the land is indeed “flowing with mild and honey” and it is very fruitful.  This change promises much easier lives, when compared to the harsh life of wandering in the hostile wilderness of the desert. 

            However, at the same time, the spies warn that the current inhabitants who live in this new land “are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large” (Numbers 13:28b).  This report causes fear in the hearts of the Hebrews, as they contemplate moving into the Promised Land, which God intends for them.  The Hebrews worry:

“Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’” (Numbers 14:  1-3)

Rather than rejoicing that God’s promise is being fulfilled and their lives are about to become much easier, the Israelites are frightened by this significant change and the reaction of those who already inhabit this land.  Their fear of change is huge; so huge that they never enter the Promised Land.  Instead, it is not until their sons and daughters come of age and enter this land which God has promised to them.

            The Israelites fear this transformative change because they lack sufficient faith to trust God and God’s love for them.  Isn’t that the same challenge which we as Christians face today?  We live in an epoch of rapid, expansive change.  The whole world is changing around us.  The very moorings of society seem to be shifting.  There is great uncertainty about what will happen.  And so, we are afraid of all the looming change. 

            Sometimes it is very difficult to trust in God’s providence when we are staring into the teeth of monstrous uncertainty created by the prospects of large seismic change. 

            This is especially true for American Churches, such as United Methodists.  For the past forty years, the United Methodist Church has steadily declined in the United States in virtually all statistical measures.  It has also declined in terms of social influence.  Clearly, the ministerial approach which was so successful for our parents and grandparents is no longer working in our changed circumstances.  We must adjust our thinking and change our ways of being communities of faith because the society and culture in which we minister has changed.  I am not advocating change for change’s sake.  No.  I am arguing that we must change in order to remain faithful to God.  This is not easy because of the uncertainty and so we are afraid.  Yet, our faith should trump our fears.  We must learn to trust that God loves us and God will provide the insight and resources we need in order to prevail as disciples of Jesus Christ.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, August 20th, as we reflect on God’s promise to provide for us and sustain us, even in the face of dramatic change.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come and join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

This Sunday, August 13th

I am on study leave this week, so I will not be preaching and do not have a blog.

Check back next week, as we begin a new series of reflections entitled, "Faith trumps Fear."  My initial proclamation will focus on "Fear of Change."  Subsequent weekends, we will explore:

  • "Fear of the Other," August 27th, with Beth Menhusen preaching 
  • "Fear of Failing," September 3rd, with me preaching.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

“Mary Magdalene, Love and Persistence”

          This Sunday, August 6th, we complete our five-week exploration of “Woman of Faith in the Bible.”  During this study, we have explored the life and faith of five women from the Bible.  The first four were Miriam, Naomi, Ruth, and Rachel.  This Sunday, we conclude by examining the life and faith of Mary Magdalene. 

            Let’s begin by quickly highlighting what Mary Magdalene was not.  First, despite claims within the Church and popular culture, there is no scriptural evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, whom Jesus had rescued from sin.  Secondly, despite the claims of writers and filmmakers, there is no scriptural evidence that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus of Nazareth – or, that she even had any romantic interests in Jesus. 

            What little we do know about Mary Magdalene’s background comes from what we can extrapolate.  For instance, given her name, many Jewish and Christian scholars assume that Mary Magdalene was originally from a town with a similar name, located on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, north of Tiberias, in what is now Turkey.  At one point in his ministry, Jesus seems to have gone there (see Matthew 15:39).  This town may have been very prosperous, basing its economy on fish drying, weaving, and clothes dyeing.

            We first encounter Mary Magdalene in Luke 8:2-3, when we learn that she is among the women followers of Christ: 

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”

Luke’s reference to Mary’s “seven demons” can carry many different meanings.  It could refer to some physical ailment, such as Jesus’ healing of the woman with the flow of blood described later by Luke in 8: 43-48.  Alternatively, it could refer to some form of mental illness, such as the man Jesus healed in Gerascenes, who was possessed by a “Legion” of demons, described later in Luke in 8:26-31.  The fact that Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven demons indicates the severity of her condition.

            Whatever her condition, Jesus was able to cure Mary Magdalene, and she continued to follow him throughout his ministry.  Mary was one of the regular followers of Christ for the remainder of his ministry.  As Luke observes in the closing verse above, Mary Magdalene was one of a group of women who were followers and supporters of Jesus throughout his ministry.

            Mary Magdalene was always there, with Jesus, even until the very bitter end of his ministry.  At the Crucifixion, when all of his disciples—except John—had run away and deserted Jesus, Marg Magdalene was one of the women who stood near the Cross with Jesus throughout his ordeal and death (see Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25).  After Jesus had died and his body was taken down from the Cross, Mary Magdalene watched as Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ body in a clean sheet, placed it in a new tomb, and sealed the tomb with a great stone. (Matthew 27:57-61)

            All four Gospels report that Mary Magdalene was among the first to see the empty tomb on Easter morning, and Mary Magdalene is the first to see the resurrected Christ in three of the Gospels:  Matthew 28, Mark 16, and John 20.  John describes Mary’s first encounter with the resurrected Christ this way:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him. ‘When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20: 11-18)

There is a great deal of poignancy in this interchange between Mary Magdalene and the resurrected Christ.  In the exchange, we can sense familiarity, affection, and intimacy.  Yet, it is not a romantic exchange.  It is more like an exchange between a teacher and student in which a close relationship has mutually grown.  Mary Magdalene has a close friendship with Christ.  Yet, it is not a friendship among equals.  No.  In her first word to the risen Christ, Mary says:  “Rabbouni!”  This word is an Aramaic word, which is a form of endearment for a teacher or master.  In this exchange, we learn of Mary’s close, intimate, affectionate relationship with the resurrected Christ.

The question for 21st century Christians is how can we develop the same close, intimate, affectionate relationship with the resurrected Christ, which Mary Magdalene had?

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, August 6th, as we reflect on the life and faith of Mary Magdalene.  Come, join us, as we ask how we can achieve the same close, intimate, affectionate relationship with the resurrected Christ, which Mary Magdalene had.  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come and join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.