Sunday, January 22, 2012

Big Changes

I refer to all of the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary in this sermon. They are Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; and Mark 1:14-20.

I woke up one morning about 4 weeks ago. As soon as I tried to swing my right leg out of bed, I was hit by a sudden sharp pain in my right thigh. I hobbled around most of the morning but as the day went on the pain receded. Until the next morning when the pain returned with a vengeance. By afternoon the pain was but a memory. The next day, when I again awoke in pain, this time simply from shifting my leg in bed, I thought, "I gotta get this checked out." I limped to the doctor's office in hopes of someone else canceling their appointment. It took a lot of pain to get me to make a change in my daily routine.

Pain is an effective motivator. You don't realize how important it is to feel pain until you've taken care of a patient who doesn't feel it. For a while I was taking care of a young man whose neck was snapped in a hockey game. He could move his arms but not his hands and he had no feeling in his lower body. That meant his butt didn't send his brain signals when he had been sitting in one position for too long, which in turn meant he didn't shift his position. So capillaries got squeezed off for too long, blood flow was shut down and tissue died. Besides daily care, I had to dress the pressure sores that formed on his bottom. He had an inflatable seat cushion on his chair but if he wasn't sitting just right, he could still end up with tissue necrosis. I bet he wished he could feel pain or at least discomfort to warn him that he needed to change his position and prevent damage and tissue death.

The theme that runs through our Scripture readings today is that of change. In 2 Kings 14 we are told that Jonah was a prophet at the time of King Jeroboam II of Israel. Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian empire, which would come to defeat Israel and take the cream of its society into exile. So the original audience of the Book of Jonah would have seen Nineveh as the wicked center of an evil empire. They'd understand why the prophet Jonah did not want to preach to its people. Jonah was afraid that they would listen and repent. And they did. They must have known that something was wrong in their society. They must have been uncomfortable enough to realize they must change. And then what Jonah really feared happened: seeing their repentance, God changed his mind about destroying Nineveh.

This bothers more folks than just Jonah. There are people who are uncomfortable with the idea that God ever changes his mind. They point out that it was the people of Nineveh who changed their attitude and actions. It was as if a boat being blown towards some rocks changed the orientation of its sails to take advantage of the direction of the wind and turn. The wind didn't change; the sails and the boat did.

But God is not an impersonal force. And there's a way in which he could both change his mind and yet not change his nature. One of my son's sugar gliders got wounded. They aren't sure whether she was wounded by one of her sisters or did it herself. The vet sewed up the wound but Ed bit through her stitches. So the vet restitched her, put a "cone on shame" on her neck and bound the front leg nearest the injury to her body to keep Ed from reopening her wound. Then an abscess formed. Ed had to go to the vet every other day for treatment. On one visit the vet noted that the bound limb had lost almost all its strength. He told my son and daughter-in-law that he might have to amputate the leg. They struggled with the decision and asked him to hold off. Eventually Ed was well enough that her stitches, cone and binding were removed. Ed got a lot of strength back in her front leg and the vet decided she could keep it. In response to his patient's changing condition, the vet changed his mind about his course of action. But he never changed his purpose: to save the creature's life. God is the same. He may change how he goes about carrying out his purpose but his purpose remains the same. He never stops working to save us.

Jesus' basic message is given in Mark: "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." In other words, "Now is the best time to change your mind and your lifestyle. Now is the time to put your trust in the good news I'm about to deliver." We know from the reaction to John the Baptist that the people of Judea were in enough pain to see the necessity for change. Now John is in prison for telling King Herod he must change and stop sleeping with his brother's wife. Jesus takes up the call to repent, to change your thinking and life. And when he runs across some fishermen who used to follow John, he tells them to follow him. And they literally drop everything and do so.

N. T. Wright points out that not only were James and John following in their father's trade but that fishing was likely the family business for generations. So for them to just leave it all behind was astonishing. They must have felt that things were so bad that kind of radical change was warranted. And they must have felt that Jesus was the one who could fix things.

It took Paul more than a mere invitation to change the way he thought and lived. It took a dazzling vision of Jesus that knocked him to the ground. He lost his dignity and his sight for a while but he gained a whole new perspective on what was wrong with life and who could fix it. In our passage from 1 Corinthians 7, Paul echoes the choice that the original twelve disciples were confronted with. Time is short and if you want to follow Jesus, you are going to have to change your priorities towards the things in your life. Don't let anything hinder you from getting the message out. Eternal matters must take precedence over those of this passing world.

Skeptics point out that the world didn't end in the first century AD and Jesus didn't return during Paul's earthly lifetime. Why the rush? Because in a sense the world was ending--is ending for people all the time. When we die, it might as well be the end of the world for us. In Paul's and Jesus' day the average life expectancy was half of what it is today. If you had the secret to a new life, life eternal, and all around you people were living lives that were nasty, brutish and short, wouldn't you let them know? If you could help people who were slaves to self-destructive attitudes and actions find freedom from their sins, wouldn't you make that your number one priority?

In a recent study by the Barna Group, 46% of American churchgoers say that attending has made no difference in their lives. I have some ideas why that may be true. One is that more churches are focusing on entertaining worshipers, with music and spectacle and flashy preachers, making the folks in the pew just a passive audience. People like entertainment but it rarely changes their lives.

But the main reason why churches fail to change people is that they don't ask them to change. We have become so afraid scaring people off that we don't tell them to make radical changes. We tell them they don't have to; they are perfect just the way they are. We pare down the Bible to comforting and affirming passages only. We bless the status quo like the state churches of long ago, the same churches that are dying all over Europe. People don't need to go to church to be told what they can get at home from a popular culture that's devoted to boosting people's self-esteem. So they don't go.

Another reason people don't go is that they have an awful lot of stuff to distract them from any discomfort in their lives--movies, TV, video games, the internet, all manner of electronic toys. They keep us entertained and occupied and keep us from from noticing how dissatisfied we are. Who hasn't finally turned off their computer amazed at how much time they spent on it and how little they have to show for it?

Yet with all these amusements we are, as a society, suffering from stress. Continuous stress kills. But we are richer than our ancestors, and in the West vastly richer than most of the people in the world, who live on an average of $2 a day. If we have it so good, why are we so stressed out?

The pace of life is part of the reason. We work long and hard for our living. We don't get enough sleep and while we have days off, we don't observe the Sabbath--not as we should, as a day of holy rest.

Then there is the uncertainty of life. Many have discovered, as our psalm says, "though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it." Fortunes have evaporated. In 2008, there was a 27% decline in the number of millionaire households. For those of us who were never millionaires, the inflation adjusted median household income has declined by 7%. The Great Recession has wiped out all income gains made by the middle class in the last 15 years. So everyone has learned how ephemeral wealth is.

But stress was a problem for decades before the boom and bust. The source could be the the cognitive dissonance we feel caught between a culture that tells us we are OK and the deep knowledge that we really aren't. The world is not what it could be and neither are we. And it's not just that we haven't fulfilled our potential. We sabotage ourselves. We know what's right and we don't do it. We know what's wrong and we do it anyway. We need to change. Something deep within us needs to change. And we are powerless to do it ourselves. We need Jesus.

And we need to leave behind whatever it is that impedes us. If you were a recovering drug addict, you would have to leave behind the people and places that were part of that life, that would suck you back in. If you were recovering from a heart attack, you'd have to leave behind the potato chip aisle, the fries, the fat, and the sedentary life. If you are a recovering sinner, you have to leave behind the stuff that goes with all that and tempts you. Nobody wants to hear that…unless they have gotten to the point where it's so painful that the need to make a radical change is undeniable.

Jesus calls us to open ourselves to radical change. That makes us uncomfortable He calls us to put him first. That makes us uncomfortable. He calls us to disown ourselves, pick up our crosses and to follow him. That makes us really uncomfortable. We want a Jesus who lets us keep our lives just as they are but who enhances them, enriches them. To tweak something Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, we don't want the Lion of Judah but a comfortable pussycat of a Jesus, with his claws trimmed, who will curl up with us and make our world cozy.

But a tame Jesus, a Jesus who inspires not awe but an "awww!" is not what we need. Small wonder that people are leaving the churches. You can get that kind of no-cost, no-risk, feel-good inspiration by reading any one of the many self-esteem-boosting books out there or watching the specials they play during pledges on PBS. Heck, you can get it by renting a Disney film. You can worship Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Doctor Who or the Force, all safe alternatives to the definitely not-safe Jesus. You can be lulled into an uneasy passivity towards what's wrong or respond to Jesus' call to change and follow him. You can be a bearer of the good news, a fisher of people, a citizen and ambassador of the Kingdom of God.

Change is scary. And not all change is good, especially the changes that come when you do nothing. Do nothing and you get out of shape. Do nothing and your life stalls. Do nothing and things go from bad to worse. Make a change, the right kind of change, and a new life begins. Make the right kind of change and possibilities open up. Make the right kind of change and you can change your relationship with God. Make the right kind of change and you can be part of the bigger change that God is making, transforming the world into a new world, and transforming people into new people.

The changes Jesus is calling us to make aren't arbitrary; they are for our and the world's healing. They aren't about taking up arms against evil people; they're about opening our arms to evil people, inviting them to change just as we are in the process of doing. The satirical comic strip Pogo famously mangled Commodore Perry's "We have met the enemy and he is ours" into "We have met the enemy and he is us." We are our own worst enemy. That's part of the reason that Jesus commands us to love our enemy. Another is to remember that we, like they, were God's enemies who through his love became his friends. Now we are to go and do likewise. It's a big change from what we'd normally do. But such change is all part of God's big plan.

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