Change Run Amok?
Sermon preached on January 25, 2009
Scripture Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20
Today’s sermon is built around the Scripture readings for today and around two words – change and call. Now that’s not “change for a call.” Do you suppose two generations from now people will even know what it means to have asked for change to make a call? I picture people watching that old episode of Seinfeld where George is annoyed because he is trying to call his girlfriend from a Chinese restaurant and others keep using the phone in front of him. I can imagine people saying, “Why doesn’t he just use his cell phone?” The other day I was showing a clip of the film Million Dollar Baby to my health care ethics class and there was this scene with an old black dial phone. I wondered if any of the class had ever used such a phone.
I guess all these astute observations about contemporary life already speak to the ubiquity of change in our world. That was evident to me again this week as I attended a meeting of the Commission on Theological Education of the University Senate of The United Methodist Church – now that’s a mouthful. During the opening worship service we sang a song, it’s number 444 in our hymnal, O Young and Fearless Prophet. The man singing next to me, a former seminary president said that the song brought back fond memories for him of time in a youth group, and a woman a row ahead of us said the same. Later the man told me he had grown up in a more Pentecostal Church and that this song was his first encounter with the idea that the gospel has a social dimension to it. I confessed that I don’t think I ever sang this song before. I remember Pass It On from my youth group days – not O Young and Fearless Prophet. I hope I didn’t make him feel old. It’s not a bad hymn, though and we will sing it sometime here. Change happens.
This week represented momentous change in our national life. A candidate whose campaign slogan was “Change We Can Believe In” was sworn in as the 44th President of these United States. Not only that, but President Barack Obama is our country’s first African-American president and our first multi-racial president. He has promised to work with the American people to make changes in our national life that will help us meet the current crises we face. Whether or not you voted for him, I believe we all hope he succeeds, because change is needed right now. Our economic life is too tenuous. We have not yet done enough to meet the environmental and energy challenges of our time. Health care is in need of reform. Change is what was voted for, change is what is needed. Change is what we must all commit ourselves to.
But is change always positive? Can there be too much change? Can change run amok? Grace Valley Baptist Church has been losing about a dozen members a year for the past few years, but with their new system, they now report a 7% annual growth rate. They have decided to measure worship attendance not by the number of people present, but by weight. An industrial scale was installed under the entry way door, and the numbers look good. The holidays have been especially good for growth.
Maybe change can run amok.
A proctologist decided that he needed a change of careers. He was interested in cars and thought he would check out becoming a mechanic. He enrolled in the local technical college and found he really enjoyed the work. His first exam went extremely well – he scored 150%. While he was pleased, he was also mystified, so he went to speak to the instructor. “It’s not that I am unhappy with this evaluation, but help me understand it better.” The instructor replied, “Well, you took the engine apart perfectly, that was worth 50%. You put it back together perfectly, that was worth another 50%. I gave you an additional 50% because you did it all through the tailpipe.”
May some things shouldn’t change. Maybe change can run amok.
President Obama was elected on a platform of change, yet in his inaugural speech he said that in meeting the challenges of our day we need to return to truths deeply embedded in our history – “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.” Not everything needs to change.
How about with God? Where does God fit into all of this – the God of our faith, the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ. We sing in the old song, “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise:” To all life, Thou givest, to both great and small/In all life Thou livest, the true life of all/We blossom and flourish like leaves on a tree/And wither and perish/but naught changeth thee. Change may threaten to run amok, but here we can stand on solid ground. God never changes – right? That’s what many of us have been taught.
Yet here we run into a problem – – – Jonah indicates that God changes. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity God said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it. God also seems to repeat Godself – God called Jonah a second time. The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. What’s going on here? Change may be needed, but shouldn’t God be a part of what remains stable?
The Jonah story also introduces the second word I said would center today’s sermon – “call.” God called Jonah, and when Jonah ran from that sense of call, only to run into problem after problem, God called Jonah a second time. How do we think about change and call together? We often hear language that suggests God’s call in our lives is singular – to one task, to one purpose, to one vocation, to a particular marriage partner. Careful – I believe God has something to do with bringing people together and certainly has something to do with couples staying together. I don’t believe that God has some single person picked out for someone – so that if you get it wrong you simply married the wrong person. Some of you may remember the popular song from the 1970s – It’s Sad To Belong to Someone Else When the Right One Comes Along – England Dan and John Ford Coley. Not a bad soft rock song, but a terrible theology.
That sense of an unchanging God issuing an unchanging call in our lives can be found in lots of places. Rick Warren, who was a part of this week’s inauguration sold many copies of a book entitled The Purpose-Driven Life. Our Tuesday morning men’s group read it together awhile back. In that book Warren writes things like: “Before you were born, God planned this moment in your life.” About calling he says things such as: “You were put on earth to make a contribution” (227), and talks about “serving God in a way that expresses your heart” (289). I agree with both these statements wholeheartedly, but then he goes on to write “to fulfill your mission will require that you abandon your agenda and accept God’s agenda for your life” (288). I find this more problematic, not that idea that God may have something different in mind for us than we have for ourselves – I am nearing 50 and am not a multi-millionaire – given my recent pension report I can tell you that I am further away than I was last summer! But the idea of “God’s agenda” matched with that sense that God has planned every moment of our lives leaves us feeling that there is just one unchanging plan and our job is to figure that out in the midst of a world that changes all the time. A similar idea is found in the book the Monday night First and Ten men’s group is reading, John Ortberg’s If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. “You have a purpose – a design that is central to God’s dream for the human race” (58) – again, the language seems singular – one plan, one design, never changing. Admittedly, both Ortberg and Warren are sometimes more nuanced in exploring what that means, but they often fall into this language which suggests an unchanging God and an unchanging call.
Here’s my problem with that, the world changes. We change. We are not the same people we were five years ago. We have made decisions about our lives – some better than others. We have tried to be responsive to our sense of God’s Spirit in our lives, and sometimes we have been and other times maybe not so much. We know Jonah’s story because it is ours – we go the other way from God’s Spirit sometimes. And I believe that God genuinely responds to the changes in our lives. I believe God changes with our changes and that God’s call in our lives responds to our changing circumstances and the changing circumstances of the world.
The language in Mark’s gospel is interesting. After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Jesus responds to an event, John’s arrest. He preaches a message of change – God is doing something new, get on board. He calls Peter, James and John from the midst of their lives.
God calls to each of us, but we may do better to think less of “our calling” than of God calling in each moment of our lives in response to what we have chosen and the choices of others. God is responsive to our lives and to our world, and in that way, God changes. I am not saying the character of God changes – God is always love, and God’s Spirit is always working in the direction of love, reconciliation, peace, forgiveness, justice, the common good, beauty, community – what I have called God’s dream for the world. Theologian Bruce Epperly puts it well. Our callings and vocations in life are grounded in our environment, DNA, family of origin, religious upbringing, past choices, and many other factors, including God’s emerging vision for our lives. God’s basic character does not change, but God’s call in and on our lives changes in response to changes in our lives and in our world.
What does all this mean for us more concretely? Most important of all I think it means that no matter what changes in our lives and in our world, God never stops calling to us, never stops inviting us into new life, never stops luring us into a better life and toward a better world. There is nothing we can do, no decision we can make, that takes us so far from God that God does not still see a purpose for our lives, a purpose that makes a difference to the world. That is grace. That is good news.
I also believe that this idea of a responsive God who changes and whose call responds to changes in our lives and world invites us to be open to the movement of the Spirit in our individual lives. If God never stops calling us, we ought never stop listening. Sometimes that call may be to a long range plan – like becoming a pastor. God may be calling someone here to that life. I believe God calls me to be a pastor, but could God call me to something else in the future – yes. Could I do some things that require God to change my calling? Yes. I always need to pay attention – and within my calling as a pastor, I need to pay attention to the ways God calls me to live out my ministry. I truly believe God has work for us to do together here as a part of my calling and yours. We need to listen to the Spirit together.
Responding to God’s call is often less a matter of trying to figure out the rest of your life in one fell swoop than responding to the voice, the touch, the gentle inkling of God’s Spirit in your life even now. Sometimes the call may be to a life changing vocation, but more often it is the still small voice asking us to take a next step in our journey of faith.
The same is true for our congregation. I believe God continues to call us to ministry in ways consistent with our history and our values, but we need to pay attention day to day for that calling. Where is God calling us now? How is God inviting us to build on the rich history of this congregation, a congregation that has tried to unite being prayerful and progressive, a congregation that has long welcomed all and welcomed the community. I see us growing together as a congregation that nurtures others – inviting them into our community life so that all who are part of our congregation are open to these movements of God’s Spirit in our lives. I see us growing as a congregation that helps people take the next step in their journey of faith, whatever that next step may be – deeper prayer, reaching out in compassion to the world in new ways, struggling for justice, connecting faith more deeply with caring for the world, a richer reading of our scriptures. I see us growing as a congregation in our being a good neighbor in our community, seeking to make a difference in Duluth and in the world. Responding to God’s call to our congregation is not simply something I define, it is something we figure out together.
Change happens, and often needs to happen. Change happens inside the life of God, but one thing never changes – God’s desire for our lives to be all they can be, God’s desire for our congregation to be all that it can be. The exact nature of God’s call may change, but that God will call us a second time, a third time, a hundred times, that doesn’t change. How well are we listening? How well are we responding? Amen.