For example, this week I have had to adjust to the fact that in an accident or emergency room I could be refused medical treatment because of the attending physician, nurse, or first responder’s Religious Freedom.
This is no small thing to adjust to.
The show even mentioned what feels like an increasing pace of change each day, and the impossible mental task of trying to keep up with everything.
This happens at every level of life, not just on the news or social media.
As I wrote this sermon I was acutely aware of our community and the many changes I know some of us are facing: medical challenges, the illness of loved ones; employment issues or worries; storm damage, stressed family relationships; moving from one housing situation to another; aging parents, family members, and friends.
Life is, as they say, “organic.”
I was reminded of this in a very real way as I read the report given to the United Methodist Council of Bishops by The Commission on a Way Forward. In the Abstract of the report the Commission members referred to ongoing conflict, steady denominational and church decline in every expression of Christianity but especially mainline bodies such as St. Nicholas in what they refer to as our “post-denominational age.”
Citing a long history of transformation and change within Methodism, often instigated by means of conflict and schism, the report talks about the organic nature of the Church, and how, like individuals, the Church too, is never stagnant but always changing.
As many cultural colloquialisms point out, however, the universality of change in our personal, social, and church relationships does not make it welcome or easy to handle.
The only person who likes change is a wet baby. -- Mark Twain
When big, or sometimes even little changes come in life we often find it unsettling!
When I was newly ordained and serving my first congregations all I wanted was to lead them to a place of comfortable stability. I thought this was the goal, partly because, in spite of seminary classes, bible studies on Scriptures such as the Book of Acts, and my own experience, I still envisioned the early church as a stable, solid, tranquil community of like-minded followers of Jesus.
What I quickly discovered however, as the Bible reveals again and again- people, just like plants, streams, rivers, and every other living thing, are never “stable” or “stagnant” or “done.”
This has always been the case with humanity.
And at the same time, humanity has always resisted change.
This is one reason the Book of Acts is so important for congregations to study; we are just beginning another reading through it in our Monday night Bible study class. We meet at 7:00p.m. Please join us!
This truth about resistance to change and some of the reactions it can bring cannot be missed in the reading from Mark 1:21-28:
They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24"What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are-the Holy One of God!" 25"Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him!" 26The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. 27The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching-and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him." 28News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
Beginning with the man possessed by an “impure spirit” notice how upset some of the other members of that congregation were by Jesus’ presence and teaching. Why?
One reason is that it threatened change- disturbing the status quo, the comfort level of the community. In some ways, this single person described as possessed by an unclean spirit represents the entire community that, confronted by Jesus, senses big changes ahead.
What concerns the gospel writer here is not the content of Jesus' message.
We are told nothing about what Jesus said or what texts he read. For Mark the significance of Jesus' teaching is the authority with which he speaks (verse 22) and the power of his words, different in tone and texture from the traditional interpretations of the scribes. These professionals followed established scholarly procedures in interpretations of the Torah. They debated points of law along familiar designated schools of thought. In Jesus' day, before the full flowering of rabbinic Judaism, scribal interpretation was intellectually demanding, but not expected to be spiritually surprising. Therefore, if Jesus was speaking "not as the scribes," not along the known and comfortable parameters of biblical exhortation, then his words would surely have stirred up the sleepy congregation at Capernaum.
Just how deep the stirring was became evident when, on this first venture into public ministry, Jesus is confronted by this frightened "unclean spirit."
Terrified of a new word from God, this demonic being had thus far been able to live nicely in the comfortable status quo of the synagogue. Fear of this new authoritative voice calling for a fresh interpretation of a faithful life stirred the spirit into speaking, thus betraying its presence to Jesus. Mark makes sure we understand the cause for the intensity of the demonic spirit's fear by quoting its wheezy outcry directed at Jesus, "the Holy One of God."
With this outburst the unclean spirit seals its own fate.
Invoking the very authority the spirit feared, Jesus orders the demonic spirit out of the man, re-ordering that man's very being with his words.
It is noteworthy that this dramatic change in the man's self is not a simple or smooth transition - there is great "convulsing" and "crying out" (verse 26) that necessarily accompanies the changes wrought by Jesus' words. Witnesses present are "amazed" and whisper uneasily about the implications of Jesus' power and authority for their own lives.
Change can be an energizing force for growth and transformation. But if not handled well can also be a force for fear, stagnation and regression.
The bible, including today’s readings, is a book about changes, and stories about those who handled change well, as well as those who handled change poorly and experienced great loss.
There are many clues and stories about the healthiest way to respond to change in the pages of Scripture. These are the recurring themes found there:
1. The first thing to recognize when facing changes is that God never changes … this is the foundation of our peace, security, and confidence when facing the past, present, and future! This is the anchor for dealing with all change and transformation because God can be counted on to not change!
2. The second thing to recognize about change is that God is always ready to move plans forward. The vision is never conditioned on just a single person, still, God engages single individuals and whole communities as part of the process.
3. Thirdly, God’s work with creation will continue on! Like the first disciples, like the terrified man Jesus healed in the Synagogue, as followers of Jesus, we are invited to participate in the fulfillment of this holy work, and while it is difficult to face changes, God will always be there ready to continue the progress of what the Spirit has raised up.
The good news of the gospel is that even in the midst of what feels like chaos and dissolution, change in the hand of our changeless God is safe and positive; and will lead to growth and transformation for those who, like the demoniac, respond and embrace it.
It is good to recognize the past, appreciate it, celebrate it, but then it is essential to continue to move forward! Change is not always or even often easy, but change is a part of life, and an important part of the movement toward the fulfillment of God’s kin-dom.
Every person and every faith community is an important part of this movement:
There was a man taking a morning walk at or the beach. He saw that along with the morning tide came hundreds of starfish and when the tide receded, they were left behind and with the morning sun rays, they would die. The tide was rising and the starfish were alive. The man took a few steps, picked one and threw it into the water. He did that repeatedly. Right behind him there was another person who couldn’t understand what this man was doing. He caught up with him and asked, “What are you doing? There are hundreds of starfish. How many can you help? What difference does it make?” This man did not reply, took two more steps, picked up another one, threw it into the water, and said, “It makes a difference to this one.”
What difference are we making? Big or small, it does not matter. If everyone made a small difference, we’d end up with a big difference, wouldn’t we?
There is a sense in the world that with all the changes going on there must be something that never changes, something that can always be counted on.
The good news is that there is!
The grace of God will never change; the love of Christ will never change; and the presence of the Holy Spirit will never change.
These are the constants that can be counted on, even in our rapidly changing world!
Life is moving at such a fast pace- sometimes it is difficult not to feel possessed, crazy, not knowing which direction to turn. That’s when it is important to remember:
The one thing that never changes is that everything except God changes! Because the grace of God and the love of Christ do not change, we can be at peace when everything else around us does.
Like the healed man in that synagogue, God works in and through our changes, even the ones that terrify us, to move us forward, never backward.
One of my favorite stories of personal change:
About a hundred years ago, a man looked at the morning newspaper and to his surprise and horror, read his name in the obituary column. The newspapers had reported the death of the wrong person by mistake. His first response was shock. Am I here or there? When he regained his composure, his second thought was to find out what people had said about him. The obituary read, “Dynamite King Dies.” And also “He was the merchant of death.” This man was the inventor of dynamite and when he read the words “merchant of death,” he asked himself a question, “Is this how I am going to be remembered?” He got in touch with his feelings and decided that this was not the way he wanted to be remembered. From that day on, he started working toward peace. His name was Alfred Nobel and he is remembered today by the great Nobel Prize.
Just as Alfred Nobel assessed his feelings and redefined his values,
I invite you and I to step back and do the same.
What is your legacy?
How would you like to be remembered?
Will you be spoken well of?
Will you be remembered with love and respect?
Will you be missed?
Answering these questions may help us recognize the challenges and changes facing us today.
The good news is that in every change we may be certain God is planning for our good, moving us always closer towards the kin-dom.
Trusting this, as individuals and as a congregation, we may not only embrace change but welcome it.