2020 is perhaps the most challenging year for our city, our nation, or world, and our churches in a very long time. Our collective struggle and personal tribulations brought by Covid, isolation, deepening civil polarization, poverty, and systemic racism will not disappear at the stroke of midnight. Dr. Martin Luther King advises that “no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals.” (The Case against Tokenism NYT Magazine 1963).
How do we assess the past year? There are folk theologies of a stiff upper lip, not crying, putting on a happy spin, distracting escapism, deferral to Heaven, or always praising God with a forced smile. These are strange unbiblical hearsays, perhaps rooted in our Christian consumerism. The Bible tells us that God hears the groans of the oppressed and sends Moses. Leading the recently liberated people around the wilderness for decades, Moses complains to God about the burdens of leadership. In the Promised Land, the prophets cry out to God about injustice, war, conquest, and tumult. The suffering of the Exile profoundly reshaped and refined our spiritual practice. When Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps. Seeing the systemic injustice within the capital, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and flips over tables in the temple. In the cross, God’s love incarnates the deepest of our human suffering. Christ names the struggle teaching us to pray “deliver us from evil” and “Lord, Your kin-dom come, Your will be done (through us) on earth as in Heaven.” So as we review the year, we must name our losses, lamentations, and ongoing challenges; anything less is likely a temporary spiritual distraction. And yet, grief, courage, and thanksgiving can coexist within a year. Forty years in the wilderness were not for nothing. The cross was not in vain.
And so even as we have a longer struggle than any of us want ahead, let us rejoice in how far we have come. As Elton John crooned, “I’m still standing.” And so I turn my mind today to the reliance, adaptability, and generosity of our church family. I long to see children singing in church as seniors steady their steps to the Communion rail with rollators or an usher’s arm, but I rejoice that 2020 saw our worship services expand the table to New York City, California, and the Congo! I wish you could see the Weekday School children racing around the playground, smiling, and asking questions about my mask. Our amazing staff, teachers, lay leaders, and your generosity allows us to provide high quality childcare during a pandemic. I rejoice in the innovation, dedication, and orchestration of our Feast of Lights service. The amazing connections of Zoom discipleship and small socially-distanced gatherings has sustained us. I give thanks to God and celebrate our scientists who have brought forth a vaccine. We rejoice that some of Belmont UMC’s frontline healthcare providers have already been vaccinated. I celebrate your financial generosity that has sustained our ministry this year. We’ve even exceeded our Christmas Miracle Offering goal for our siblings in Malawi. These are some of the things that remind me that this wilderness season holds moments of human victory amid our collective suffering. It is okay to name both our grief and gratitude in equal or uneven measures. God loves and guides us just the same.
Sunday, we begin the new year considering the Magi, outsiders who persevere, making a long journey undeterred by an evil king or disinterested church, they press on until they see the Christ Child and open their treasures in joyous worship. They then go home by another road. Friends, we are on another road – a wilderness road – but God is with us and ahead of us. Thank you for being part of God’s work in 2020. Let us with the Magi press on!