“Courage and Curiosity”

January 10, 2016


Isaiah 60:1-6

Matthew 2:1-12


The Magi arrive from the East, asking: “Where is the child who has been born?”

They are a curious lot, these ancient astrologers. They search the skies looking for signs. They are not reluctant to stop and ask others for directions toward their destination.

We shouldn’t scoff at them, for they are, no doubt, sincere in their efforts, trying to understand this always mysterious world by using all that is available to them.  As recently as the beginning of the seventeenth century—not that long ago in the grand sweep of history—even learned scientists and mathematicians looked to the stars and the planets for some sort of guidance. We recognize them for their contributions to astronomy, but Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo all respected astrology as well.

And while our neighbors down at Van Allen Hall don’t have much to do with such efforts today, they continue to search the heavens in wonder and awe, seeking to understand, wanting to know more, hoping to discern the still hidden secrets of our universe.

Both astrologers and astronomers recognize what the one-time Dean of Harvard Divinity School, Samuel Miller, was getting at when he said that stars “belong to the human scene. They lend to it a sense of cosmic perspective. Though we dwell on a tiny earth, we are companions of the stars, caught in the same vast web of creation.”[i]

“Where is the child…?” the Magi ask. “For we have seen his star…”

Stars raise more questions than answers. The Magi remind us that at its richest the Christian life is not so much a life lived as though all the answers were given, but a life lived as though all our answers are only gateways into deeper levels of answering. The Christian life begins in wonder and ends in worship, which in a sense is an even more profound sense of wonder.

The Christian life is one of wonder, of curiosity.

Curiosity drives much of the activity in this city. We want to know:

What causes this?

Can we put these two things together—and what will happen if we do?

How do build this or fix that?

Do I dare to write about this?

What will it look like if I sculpt that?

What will it sound like if we play these instruments?

People come here from across the state, across the nation, from around the world to ask questions, hoping that they will find answers to at least some of them.

Of course, sometimes the answer is: nope, it can’t be done; no, that won’t work; and even, well, I made it, and it was atrocious. And, again, all answers only seem to fuel further curiosity.

We live with our questions under the stars. We are all modern Magi.

So I would call us toward a curious faith in the coming year. I would invite us to ask questions.

And let me offer a few suggestions about the kinds of questions we should be asking.

We should be asking about the university and the students who are here and our relationship to them. We should be asking about our ministry to and with students.

We are surrounded by a major university, undergoing growing pains with record enrollment, moving uneasily through this academic year with a sense of trepidation among many faculty, staff, and students.

In her book College Stress Solutions, Kelci Lucier suggests that religion can be a source of strength for young adults before, during, and after college. With all the challenges of university life, faith can be a guide and a congregation can be both a home and a community of support. A church can provide needed renewal, helping students to refocus and reprioritize as they study and grow. Lucier tells students: “Religion can be a great way for you to alleviate some emotional stress while helping you feel rested, restored and revitalized.”

As the new year and the new semester begin this month, let us remember the great gift that we have and that we are as a congregation. Every day, every hour, countless students walk by here. Many need what we can offer—acceptance, challenge, meaning, faith, hope, and love—but they are unaware of who we are and what we value.  Part of our calling as people who have decided to stay in this place is to find new ways to minister to the students who are our neighbors.

I’m curious. How are we going to do this? What resources of staff, time, space, energy, and finances do we want to develop and allocate to such a ministry?

We should be asking about the downtown and our relationship to it.

A lot has changed in downtown Iowa City since I arrived here eight years ago. If you’ve been around for a while, you’ve noticed that, haven’t you? Yes, the bars are still here, but so, too, are new restaurants, stores, music venues, apartments and condos, and a movie theater. Come down here day or night, weekend or weekday, all year long, and you are as likely to see young parents with children or middle aged adults as college students. You are likely to see the homeless, the hungry, the addicted, and the mentally ill next to the well-educated and well-to-do.

Again, the questions start to arise: What do we have to offer to those who have become city-dwellers in high-rises and all the other new housing that is being built? What do we have to offer to those doing business downtown and the people who work and play here? What, in short, is our mission to the people in our neighborhood?

And we should be asking, as our Mission Board is currently helping us to do, how do people of different races, different social backgrounds make a community together? Is there anything that we who announce in our song that “in Christ there is no east or west” can offer to this conversation?

There are many other questions as well. You no doubt have your own. This, then, is a year for curiosity. It is a time in our life as a congregation to ask questions. And we pride ourselves on honoring questions here.

So let us ask questions like:

What causes this congregation, this community to thrive and prosper?

Can we put new and long-time members together; can we put people of various races and sexual orientations and political affiliations together—and what will happen if we do?

How do build a vibrant congregation?

Do we dare to speak the truth of our hearts to one another?

What will it look like if we fashion a church that lets its light shine?

What will it sound like if we make new melodies and attempt unfamiliar harmonies and sing a new song?

Let us, like the Magi, use all the resources available to us in order to better understand this always mysterious world around us.

With our curiosity we also need a type of courage—the courage to hold the new before us; the courage to honor not only the questions but also to honor the different answers that will arise among us as we talk and listen together. We haven’t always been so good at that, have we? It takes courage to speak our truth, to hear the truth of others, and to stay together—to follow were the bright star of our common vision might lead us.

We are people who sense that something significant happened with the birth of Jesus—something so significant, in fact, that it leads us to announce that a new creation has begun, that life overcomes death, that love is stronger than hate, that peace will win out over war, although the signs of that reality are few and far between. And we also sense that our purpose here on this corner is to in some way announce and even show to the world that indeed in Christ there is a new creation and we are part of it.

Let us go from here this morning with curiosity and courage.

And let us go from this place with the words of the prophet echoing in our ears. Let us go into the world holding the words of the prophet in our hearts, in our very souls: Arise! Shine! For your light has come.

That light, we affirm in faith, is Jesus, born in Bethlehem. That light is the same Jesus who called himself the light of the world and who tells us, his followers, that we—we—are the light of the world.

We are the light that is desperately needed in this world.



[i] Samuel Miller, What Child Is This?, pg. 14.