Monday, February 23, 2009

Yesterday's sermon: "Change for the Better?"

Based on 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
We’ve all heard the clichés about change. In the words of the song, “A change will do you good.” My grandmother used to say, “A change is as good as a rest,” usually when she wanted me to do some chore outside in the hottest part of the day when I was thinking about a little rest in front of the TV. “The only thing that never changes is change,” someone said, or how about “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’m not even sure what some of these mean. And we then talk about change for the better, and change for the worse.
We hear sometimes about resistance to change. There’s a phrase sometimes flippantly referred to as “the seven last words of the church”: “we’ve never done it that way before.” All clichés aside, change is a part of life. In fact, in some definitions of life, the capacity for change is one of the major determiners of what is or is not alive. In physics we talk about inertia: an object at rest tends to stay at rest, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Change surrounds us, and sometimes it seems like it’s moving too fast.
Our lives are changing around us: our economy is changing for the worse, it seems. Marriage is a major change in our lives, as are the births of children. And then those children grow up, and marry, and have children of their own. Generations change, and bring change. The world changes around us, as we hear on the news about changes countries’ leadership, shifts in the borders of countries, advances in science and medicine and technology. And here lately it seems like change comes faster than ever.
Change can be positive or negative. The rise and fall of the tides is a change, as any of us can attest. A low tide can leave you high and dry on a sandbar; a high tide can float you free…or it can cover up the oyster bed that you were planning to make your supper. Sometimes a change is clearly one thing or another, but often the impact of change is complicated, even frightening. Others are more benign, like the changing of the seasons, from winter to spring or from the season after Epiphany in the church to the season of Lent, which will begin this week with Ash Wednesday. This Sunday is the bridge between the seasons, the day in which we commemorate the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. It marks a kind of tipping point between the seasons, leading up to Lent, when many of us will make changes in our lives to make us better people.
Transfiguration literally means change or transformation into something that reflects the glory of God. On that day we now remember and celebrate as Transfiguration Sunday, Jesus went up onto a mountaintop with Peter, James and John. Jesus was transfigured, changed, transformed in front of the disciples. They saw two men with Jesus, who seemed to them to be Elijah and Moses. They were frightened by this change, and even more so when they heard a voice from the clouds saying, “this is my son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Jesus’ appearance changed there before the disciples, and we know that Jesus’ life and ministry changed their lives forever.
It changes ours, too, and sometimes I wonder if we need to be reminded what a cataclysmic change Jesus brought to the world. To speak of the cross as a symbol of God’s mercy and grace marks a sharp contrast, a paradoxical and radically new understanding of what was a cruel and harsh symbol of Roman oppression of the Jews. The resurrection is a kind of transfiguration, when Jesus’ dead body is transformed into his resurrected body. And we are transfigured, changed, any time we encounter Christ in our own lives, from a moment that we might identify as a conversion of our hearts to a time when we just particularly need grace and find ourselves touched by Jesus’ love shown in another person’s grace toward us.
In today’s reading, Paul finds himself trying to explain the transforming power Jesus brought to bear, the changes Jesus made in how people might look at faith and come to know God, to the church at Corinth. The church at Corinth had a bit of a reputation of being problem children. Eric preached a few weeks ago on a passage from First Corinthians about meat offered to idols and whether or not a Christian could or could not eat it without sinning. Paul came to a lawyerly and gracious conclusion: if one’s faith is strong, there was no sin in eating meat that had been offered to idols, but if doing so would weaken someone else’s faith, then one should not eat it. The Corinthian church had lots of these kinds of struggles and questions. It was a diverse church, made up of people who had followed many different gods before, in many different ways. Corinth was a major port city, so there were merchants and vendors from all over the work. What a task it must have been to try to wrestle all those different people from all those different places into one common understanding of who God is, and how God asks us to live.
In today’s passage, Paul writes of the difficulty in understanding the transformative power of Christ. It seemed foolish to those who had not yet been changed, transfigured by the love of God. The values of the world blinded people to the virtues of the love and compassion espoused by Jesus. While declaring this new understanding of how the love of God is communicated and incarnated in Jesus Christ, how it is made real in our lives, Paul reminds us that God’s love has stayed the same, that Jesus is not some new god come to displace the God Jews had known and served for millennia.
Instead, Paul goes back to Genesis, back to the very beginning of things, and says, “it is the God who says, ‘let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Those in Corinth who were Jewish would have heard the echoes here of the creation story, and in it the transformation, the change, from the void to the creation…from nothing to God’s people. In this way, Paul tells us, Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop brings God’s presence and God’s attention to God’s people. Paul is telling us subtly that Jesus was not a new God, nor was he the prophet of a new God. Jesus marked a change, a new way into relationship with God, a transformed way of understanding God’s love for people. He maintains continuity with the Jewish faith and belief in one God, even while showing that Jesus came for change, for something new.
Those who were not Jewish to begin with, not “God-fearers,” non-Jews who nonetheless followed the God of the Jews, had their own issues with understanding Jesus. Paul emphasizes for them Jesus’ nature as one who was there before there was even light, or a world, or people to worship God. And we get the sense that even as darkness was transformed into light at the founding of the world, so too can the darkness in our own lives be transformed by the power and presence of God into something new and different.
Someone is probably going to say, later on today or maybe this week, that I preached today on how the church has to change, how the church has to give up old things and embrace the new. They’ll be both right and wrong. With Paul, today I am saying instead that while change will come, God remains the same. While change is inevitable, so is God. If one thing you can count on not to change is change itself, another thing you can count on is God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, present with us in the Holy Spirit, eternal and holy.
Change will come, whether we like it or not. That’s just the way it works. We can’t grow unless we change, and I don’t mean growth in the sense of new buildings or even new members. I’m speaking of our relationships with God. If we are not changing in our understanding of God, in our sense of the nearness of the Spirit and the love of Christ, then we are not growing in our faith. We all go through dry spells, of course, where our spiritual lives become problematic, when we don’t want to grow or don’t feel the nearness of God. But over the course of our lives, if we choose not to grow and change, it is as if we say to God, “I want to know you only so much, and no more. I want you to change me only so much, and no more. I want to give you only so much influence in my life, and no more. I want only so much of you, just a little, just what I can handle without challenging myself, and no more.” It is as if we cut ourselves off from all God has to offer when we reject the changes a relationship with God brings to us.
Change simply is. The seasons change inexorably. We grow older and hopefully wiser. We (hopefully) learn from our experiences and react to things that happen around us. I believe that a Christian response to change is not to embrace every change whole-heartedly, nor to reject every change out of hand to maintain the status quo. Instead, we are called and empowered by God to look at every change, and to respond to it in faith and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It is said, and I honestly have no idea whether this is true or not (but it makes a great story), that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters, one meaning “danger” and the other meaning “opportunity.” It’s probably not true, but if it is, it gives us a sense of the duality inherent in change. Each opportunity to change presents us with two options: we can embrace it or reject it. What marks us as Christians, as followers of Christ, is how we choose what to do.
If we embrace the change, believing that it is necessary to who we are and who we feel God wants us to be to make the change, then we are growing in our faith and practicing the discernment God asks us to use when we make decisions. If we embrace it because we are bored, or simply ready to stir things up, or because we think a change will improve our lives or make someone else’s worse, we are perhaps more in danger of changing for change’s sake…not for the sake of our relationship with God, and not for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Likewise, if we reject a change because we truly believe, having prayed and talked to one another and invited the Holy Spirit to guide us, that it is not right for us, then we are making a faithful decision that reflects our relationship with God and convictions about where God would lead us. But if we reject the change because it makes us nervous, because we don’t want things to change, because we’re trying to protect “the way things have always been,” we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to the kingdom of God. Yes, friends, this is a sermon about change, but it’s about discerning what changes will transfigure us, will change us for the better, not about simply chasing every new idea without making room for God to have some input, for God to transfigure us and the circumstances.
To look at it another way, for Jesus to die on the cross marked a kind of change that could have been catastrophic. Peter and the other disciples probably thought of it as an astonishingly bad decision…particularly in those anxious days and hours when Jesus’ body lay in the tomb. But without death, there could be no resurrection. Jesus chose, over and over again, to do the will of God, understanding the cost both of doing what he had to do, and the cost of not doing it.
And in making the hard choices, in embracing the change from life to death so that there could be resurrection, Jesus brings light into our lives, sharing with us God’s love and the strength to make the hard choices in life. When we are faced with change, we can ask ourselves: whose will are we seeking, ours or God’s? Whose sense of what is best are we looking for, ours or God’s? It is not easy making many of life’s choices: where to go to college, when to marry, when to look for a new job or decide where to retire. It’s the same in the church: over the years, churches make decisions about starting new programs, about welcoming new people, about expanding their buildings and how to maintain them. These are not always easy decisions.
Jesus’ way is not the easy way, or the comfortable one. It’s not the way of doing what we’ve always done, just because we’ve always done it. Nor is it the way of embracing every “wind of change” that blows by. Instead, we remain steadfastly God’s, seeking to do what God wants us to do, transformed by our lives with Jesus Christ, and sharing in the compassion and mercy that has been shown to us. It’s definitely not the easy way: the easiest thing is to either simply adopt every new thing that comes along, sure that if we chase the “next best thing,” we’ll get it right somehow, or to keep everything the same, rejecting every change for fear it will upset our precarious apple cart, and we won’t know who or whose we are any more.
On that mountain, Jesus’ appearance changed with the glory of God. In the story of the Exodus, when Moses goes up onto Sinai to speak with God, his face was also changed, so that the people asked him to wear a veil so that they could look at him—he shone with the glory of God. Jesus brought change in how we relate to God; Moses brought the law so that the people could learn to relate to God. These transfigurations bring no small changes to the people of God…but they also bring the comfort of knowing that God is with us, that we can sense some direction about where we are going. A glory that changes lives and faces, a love that changes hearts and minds, a grace we can offer as freely as we have received it: in these are the power of the Transfiguration, a definite change for the better.
May we continue to experience that power, grace and love of God, as our world changes around us, and as we choose what our faithful response will be.


  1. "These transfigurations bring no small changes to the people of God…but they also bring the comfort of knowing that God is with us, that we can sense some direction about where we are going. A glory that changes lives and faces, a love that changes hearts and minds, a grace we can offer as freely as we have received it: in these are the power of the Transfiguration, a definite change for the better."

    LOVE IT, LOVE IT, LOVE IT!!!!! Thank you for this - too awesome! Keep inspirin' the masses :D

  2. Loved your sermon. I'm going to copy it and give it to my session. Adverse to change.


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