Looking Forward

Sermon for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time …. Luke 21:5-19 …..

We live in an anxious and fearful age. This week, I read and heard many expressions of anxiety and fear. I felt some anxiety and fear myself.

I was reminded of a lesson about fear that I learned from a family, members of the church I served in Wichita during the early 1990s. Each spring, I led a father-son retreat during Memorial Day weekend. One year we stayed at a small lodge on the Kansas prairie near Junction City. On one side of the camp there was a swampy area leading down to a small river. During breaks from organized activity, the boys searched for swamp creatures.

Down in the swamp, some boys caught turtles and frogs, but a boy named Cy outdid them all by netting a black snake, a good-sized but non-poisonous reptile. The other boys were in awe. Cy convinced his father to let him take it home to Wichita for his herpetarium. The snake escaped its cardboard box, and disappeared into some crack or crevice of the family van. A door panel was taken off. Part of the dashboard was removed. But the snake eluded capture.

Back home, Cy’s mother heard about the snake. The van remained parked in the garage because she refused to drive it. Cy, the daring adventurer, was surprised by his mother’s attitude. “Mom,” he said, “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal. Don’t you know that this snake won’t hurt you?” “I know, Cy,” his mother replied. “But if I’m driving in traffic, and your snake comes out of the dashboard, I’ll be so frightened that I’ll hurt myself.”

In this close-knit family that shared so many things in common, there were two very different responses to one experience. To Cy, a snake was a beautiful, fascinating creature that presented an opportunity for learning. To his mother, meeting a snake, even one considered benign, posed a danger. The perception of danger was more powerful than the reality: she knew that the snake might scare her so much that she would hurt herself.[1]

The power of fear is addressed by Jesus in today’s gospel text, in which the Luke records the final words of Jesus’ public ministry. After these last days of teaching in the temple, Jesus will turn his attention to his inner circle of disciples. Scholars call Jesus’ final public teaching “apocalyptic discourse,” meaning that in it Jesus talks about the end times, looking forward to the future that God is beginning to reveal.

If it were up to us, this is not a vision of the future that we would choose to offer our hearers. It is a future in which terrible things seem poised to happen. It is a future in which there seems plenty of reason to be anxious and afraid. Yet Jesus says, “do not be terrified . . . . not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Jesus seems to be addressing several circumstances through which his disciples are called to endure. He says “not a hair of your head will perish,” which doesn’t mean, I think, that disciples are exempt from physical suffering. Jesus knows enough about the state of the world that he has foreseen his fate, and could easily predict violence against his disciples. It seems to me that Jesus means that persecution may kill the physical body, yet never harm the soul.

It is as if Jesus is saying that in the end times, as the old order gives way to the new age of my kingdom, you’re going to meet a few snakes along the way. Though the snakes may look particularly menacing, their venom cannot destroy God’s children. Be careful that you don’t allow fear to make the snakes more powerful than they really are. Don’t let the snakes scare you so badly that you hurt yourself.

This is an important message for Christians in the wake of an election. By its very nature, an election always creates winners and losers, and leads to corresponding emotions like joy and sadness. In an age when traditional conventions about civil discourse seem to be waning, it’s natural to be especially disturbed by the coarseness of debate, to be fearful of where all the expressions of anger, hostility, and rage will lead.

On a local level, I know many of you are worried about the consequences of failure to pass Proposition E, which would raised the property tax rate to benefit the education fund of the Edwardsville School District. If you’re a parent who wonders how many more fundraisers you’ll have to manage, or an educator wondering how many more student-related responsibilities you can possibly juggle, then you may feel like you have come face to face with a menacing snake. Sometimes I feel the same way.

If you’re a ruling elder commissioner, or a minister member of presbytery, then you may be troubled by votes in the realm of our regional Presbyterian church. The vote for a staff redesign means we started the year with eight presbytery staff members, and will end it zero of the eight remaining. The vote of the B. Church to leave the denomination has resulted in less mission and per capita dollars at the same time that congregations are being asked to provide additional support for hosting the General Assembly in 2018. If you’re engaged in the life of the regional presbytery, and care about its health, then at times it may feel as if a venomous serpent threatens.

But Jesus’ words tell me that the future is in God’s hands. They teach me to focus on faith rather than doubt, to live in hope rather than despair. I am learning to trust God with more of the things God has entrusted to me. I am growing in my ability to believe God will provide, because God cares more about this community and church than I do, than any of us do.

One more thought, which I want to preface by saying how much I admire the dedication of those who devote themselves to public service and to the challenging vocation of political office. Alongside this word of praise and admiration, I also place a word of caution: there should always be enough emotional distance between our faith and our politics that the one can be critical of the other. We should never let allegiance to one party or candidate be the single measure of Christian faith. Political candidates and parties will rise and fall, but God is something and Someone altogether different. United Methodist pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes meant something similar, I think, in a blog post, saying, “When the temple falls we become the resurrection. We let ourselves be raised, let ourselves be changed. Don’t look to the temple or the World Trade Center or the White House. Power structures will not save us, but God will. God pours love directly into our hearts. Live that love.”[2]

Looking forward, the promise of the gospel is that the future is in God’s hands. On the way there, you’re going to encounter a few snakes, and, depending on your perspective, the snakes may be fascinating or fearful. So be careful that you don’t allow fear to make them more powerful than they really are. Don’t let snakes scare you so badly that you hurt yourself. By your endurance, you will gain your souls.

[1] My memory of Cy’s snake is inspired and shaped through reading of a similar story by Joanna M. Adams, “Faith and Fear,” appearing in Pulpit Resource, 15 Nov. 1998, p. 28.

[2] Steven Garness-Holmes, “Unfolding Light,” http://unfoldinglight.net, accessed 9 Nov. 2016.

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~ by JohnH1962 on November 13, 2016.