Sermon: Spiritual Practices: The Courage to Change

“Spiritual Practices: The Courage to Change”

Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
October 29, 2017

Acts 10:9-16

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

Mark 1:4-5

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

This is the final sermon in our series about spiritual practices – attitudes and orientations that help us deepen our faith and draw closer to God. Along the way we’ve explored gratitude, listening, generosity, compassion, and forgiveness; today’s topic is “the courage to change,” which, I would venture, is the common thread running through all of these spiritual practices. To adopt a new attitude or orientation can be life-giving; like evolution in nature, change can help us adapt to new challenges so that we thrive instead of just surviving. But particularly when we’re rather entrenched in our ways, change requires no small amount of fortitude.

I had a coworker once – let’s call her Mary – who was in her mid-50s. Whenever we talked about a change in the work culture, or getting someone to go against type, Mary would say something like “That’s fine for you young whippersnappers, but by this point us older people are set in our ways.”  I don’t yet have personal experience of how hard (or not) it is to change in my 50s, but I hope those of you who are 50+ are ready to reassure me that embracing new ideas and attitudes is in no way a function of age. Otherwise we’re all in trouble!
I think Mary’s insistence that change was beyond her reach was not so much rooted in stubbornness, or even in having a particularly change-averse personality, but in fear. Letting go of a long-held attitude, a cherished way of doing things, a deep-seated belief, or a behavior that we’ve practiced for years or even decades can be daunting. What will we do without the comforting routines we’ve grown used to?  How will the new way work – will it even be successful?  How might this challenge our relationships or upheave our lives?

We sometimes put off change by imagining that it will require us not merely to adopt or drop one concrete habit – walking every day, for example, or saying only positive things to our spouse – but that we will have to become impossibly holy, healthy, or righteous people for real change to occur. We compare ourselves to someone who seems to have it together in the department in which we would like to improve, and write off the gap between us as too great to overcome: “Oh, she’s just a naturally patient person; I could never be like that,” or “He’s a lot more spiritual than I am; of course he prays every day.”  But the reach might not be as far as we think.

Have any of you read the book A Man Called Ove by Swedish author Fredrik Backman?

Recently retired and widowed, Ove is a curmudgeon – the kind of man who literally yells at people to get off his lawn. “He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse,” qualities that have earned him descriptors such as bitter, anti-social, and my favorite, the ‘neighbor from hell.’ But one day a young family moves in next door and, after the husband accidentally runs over Ove’s mailbox, tramples his flowerbed, and becomes a “useless incompetent” in Ove’s eyes, the outgoing, outspoken wife persuades him to adopt the neighborhood stray cat. Ove hates cats and would just as soon leave this one in a snowbank, but his new neighbor is very persistent.

It’s the beginning of a transformation. Without giving too much away, I will say that by the end of the book Ove is still a curmudgeon, but one who has let his neighbors and his community heal his heart. Instead of dismissing a teenager as a good-for-nothing youth who can’t follow rules about where to park his bicycle, Ove now helps him fix the bicycle, all the while muttering about how young people don’t know anything useful nowadays.  Instead of refusing to speak to a neighbor – with whom he was waging a years-long war that began the day his neighbor dared to buy a foreign car instead of a Volvo or a Saab – he refuses to let social services move the dementia-stricken neighbor out of the care of his wife and into a nursing home.  And instead of looking at children as illogical beings with incomprehensible needs, he makes sure the little girls next door have regular visits from their adoptive grandpa, because otherwise who will teach them important things like the value of buying Swedish-made cars?

Perhaps you remember the road to Damascus story where a flash of light and the voice of Jesus convert the Christian-persecuting zealot, Saul, into…the church-planting zealot, Paul? These stories give us hope because they remind us that we do not have to get a personality makeover for God to work change in us.

With great joy today we celebrated this morning Sawyer’s baptism, an act which our popular imagination sometimes thinks of as a magical ceremony after which we will somehow, miraculously, “go and sin no more.” But baptism is more like Ove’s experience: the water touching our forehead does not instantaneously change us into saints; instead, its ordinariness reminds us that God works with who we are, works with the personalities and quirks God created in us, in order to bring about growth for ourselves and healing for the world.  That is good news, because it means that change, while sometimes difficult or even scary, is not impossible, even for those beyond “whippersnapper” age.

Hear these words from a previous version of Park Avenue’s baptismal liturgy: “God offers us the possibility of transformation, a continuing process of renewal of body, mind, and spirit from the first beginnings to the very end of our lives.”

“The possibility of continual transformation and renewal” sound pretty appealing – almost like we get a new lease on life. Indeed, in the words of writer Steve Almand, “Our hope in life is predicated on the idea that we are able to change.” (repeat)

“Hope” may not be the first word you would pair with the concept of change, but the two ideas are intimately intertwined: think of people living under a despotic regime, or someone wrestling with an addiction, or a family suffering the effects of a deep-seated estrangement. If we believe that these conditions will never change – cannot change – then our outlook is bleak, hopeless.

Almand calls such a refusal to believe change is possible a “dark, cynical trap” – one that lets us off the hook, leaves all the hard work to others, and leaves oppressive systems unchallenged. As my colleague Mary knew, in some ways it is easier to reject the possibility of change altogether – but scripture reminds us that that way lies death, if not literally, then spiritually.

How, then, do we embrace growth and change even in the face of fear or hopelessness? The common wisdom that you have to want to change is one of the keys to successful transformation. But I think before that step comes another, equally important key: recognizing the power of the stories we tell ourselves, stories that either stunt or encourage our ability to change, either stunt or encourage our possibilities for growth.

Because often, even when we acknowledge the need for change and we deeply desire to do so, we end up sounding like Peter in this morning’s Gospel reading – repeating over and over again to God and to ourselves the reasons we can’t make it happen, why it will never work, why our cause is hopeless.

When God tells Peter to eat food considered “unclean,” we may chuckle at Peter’s audacity in talking back to the creator of the universe not once, but three times. Because we live in modern-day America, where people bounce from vegan to paleo to Whole30 to going off sugar in the span of a few months or years, we have a hard time understanding the momentousness of what God was asking Peter to do. Peter’s people, the Israelites, had been avoiding “unclean” food like pork and shellfish for over a thousand years, not as part of some fad diet, but as part of a profound religious commitment to the Torah, which they understood as coming straight from God. They believed to their core that avoiding certain taboo foods was part of what set them apart as God’s people, part of how they maintained a state of holiness that connected them to God.

So when God asks Peter to take and eat this food neither he nor his ancestors have touched for centuries, the request didn’t compute. The stories in his head about what this food represented, what it meant to belong to his people, and what it meant to follow God were simply too powerful.

As Peter would later discover, God wasn’t merely asking him to eat bacon cheeseburgers and shrimp; Peter’s vision was a symbol for welcoming non-Jews into the newly birthed church – a task just as disorienting and difficult as eating pork, with some equally powerful stories standing in the way about who could be God’s chosen people and who couldn’t.

Here was Peter’s dilemma: at the risk of endangering the fragile, newly birthed church, do I embrace the people who had always been seen as unholy outsiders? Do I put everything I believe on the line as a response to where I feel God calling me in this moment?  Do I have the courage to change course, to go far beyond where I’m comfortable?

In our Gospel lesson this morning, John the Baptist is out in the wilderness calling people to repent and be baptized.  Like “sin” last week, “repent” is another one of those heavily freighted religious words that immediately transports some of us to fire-and-brimstone memories we would rather not revisit. But also like “sin,” the literal translation of the word “repent” – metanoia in Greek – is much less scary. Metanoia simply means “to change one’s mind.”

That seems almost childishly simplistic until we realize how much of our caustic political rhetoric is built around the toxic idea that changing your mind is a sign of weakness, a signal that you are untrustworthy instead of open to genuine evolution on a political or moral subject. In this climate, metanoia – realizing that there is a better way and then taking that way – is a revolutionary act, and most definitely one that requires courage.

Have you been where Peter’s been, trying to find the courage to exchange one worldview for another? Have you been standing at the edge of the river Jordan, discerning a call to metanoia but feeling the weight of those powerful stories pressing your feet down into the sand so deeply that you can’t even take the first step? You’re faced with some kind of change, some kind of opportunity for growth, and all you can hear running through your head is: “I’m not strong enough,” “I’ll fail,” “that’s too scary,” “it’ll be too hard,” “people like me don’t do that,” “I’m too old (or too young),” “what will people think?”, “that will never work,” or simply “I just CAN’T!”

No wonder our response in these situations, whether as individuals or as institutions, is often “By no means, Lord!”

As I shared with our Bible study group on Wednesday, I put off the call to full time ministry for several years because while I knew I could pastor and preach, I was afraid that I couldn’t do the administrative work of leading a church.  Thank God, literally, that that story got changed!

And last night, Park Avenue hosted a screening of Bending the Arc, a documentary about the limiting stories our society tells about poor people and health outcomes and how the non-profit Partners In Health set out to change those stories.

When PIH began their work in the mid-1980s, the global health world championed the story that poor people should get medical care that was “sustainable” – do what you can with what you have, where you are. This, admittedly, sounds very reasonable. But this mindset had led the World Health Organization to label multi-drug resistant tuberculosis cases in developing countries as untreatable, despite the fact that there were successful drug regimens available in places like the US. Since untreated tuberculosis kills, this story essentially meted out death sentences to countless people in developing countries.

And then there was the prevailing story that poor people were a lost cause – treating them costs too much money and they won’t be compliant anyway, so let’s just focus on prevention instead of treatment, meaning everyone who has the misfortune to already be sick will just have to…die.

Dr. Paul Farmer, Dr. Jim Kim, Ophelia Dahl and the other founders of Partners In Health, were telling a different story. Their story went like this: poor people are human beings, and as such they deserve not the leftovers of the developed world, but the very best medical science has to offer. And poor people are no more or less incompetent than rich people; if they aren’t sticking to a treatment regimen, it’s not because they’re stupid but because of contextual factors like not having access to clean water to take with their pills or nutritious food to help them gain weight. Treating them works.

This different story changed the face of global health and saved millions of lives. In late 2002 when Paul Farmer met with President George W. Bush about AIDS treatment in developing countries, he shared that by using the same antiretroviral drugs available in the US, Partners In Health had turned AIDS from a death sentence into a footnote in healthy people’s lives, and they had done it in central Haiti, the poorest region of the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Two months later, the president announced the creation of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which flooded developing countries with treatment money that would turn the tide in the global fight against AIDS.

Paul Farmer’s story had roots in another story, one called a “preferential option for the poor” – the aforementioned idea that the poor deserve not discards but the best we have to offer. He learned that story from liberation theologians in Latin America, and guess where they picked it up?  Jesus.

As people of faith, we are called to believe, embrace, and share stories like this, stories that will change us and the world: “Fear not!” “I am with you.” “By losing your life you will save it.” “When you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me.” “Behold, I am doing a new thing!”  We follow a God who sprung the Hebrews out of centuries of enslavement in Egypt and called the wicked inhabitants of Nineveh to transform their ways and based religion not in the old power-based model of fear, but in a new relationship-based model of covenant. We follow a redeemer who converted persecutor Saul into preacher Paul and said the kingdom of God is like estranged family members who have reconciled and who healed people afflicted for decades and who challenged his followers to change their minds about who they were and how they could live.

In short, we are called to believe that change is possible, and we are so called by the One who continually gives us the courage to live into that change.

Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation – when Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses and apocryphally nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. They were meant to fuel a dry academic debate about one particular church practice Luther found problematic; but instead they fueled a theological firestorm that ultimately led to the birth of the Protestant church. (We don’t often mention this, but it also led to the reformation of the Catholic church, which, in the mirror held up by Luther and others, saw its own need to change.)

As Christians descended from this tradition, we like to say that the church is not just “reformed” – not just one and done, Luther nailed it (pun intended) – but that we are “always reforming,” always open to change and willing to embrace it. This has sometimes opened us up to criticism that we have no roots or are willing to “believe anything,” but the truth is actually the opposite: we believe deeply in a God who is not a monolithic deity frozen somewhere in the Stone Age, but rather a God who is always, as the prophet Isaiah says, “doing a new thing” – calling us to go beyond our comfort zones to adopt a deeper, richer, fuller way of being that heals the world.

“Always reforming,” always responding to God’s still-speaking voice, always having the courage to change – this is the story we tell ourselves. It’s the story that has helped Park Avenue become Open and Affirming and the story that has helped you navigate significant transition in the last few years.  We might be forgiven for associating institutional change with instability and chaos, but the truth is that churches that can adapt to change are statistically much more likely to be vital, thriving communities. PACC has the courage to change – this is a story that, if we can keep telling it to ourselves, will help us grow into a bold, bright future.

Friends, change is not without challenge.  It’s not without uncertainty and struggle and growing pains and grief.  But we get to choose which stories we tell ourselves. We can choose having the courage to embrace change; to see ourselves as whippersnappers instead of stuck in our ways; to think of ourselves as willing to change our minds; to see in the mirror people who can do new things without necessarily undergoing a personality transplant; to perceive change as part of a beautiful new thing God is doing. This is what leads to life. These are the stories we must tell ourselves. This is our calling, on the day of our baptism and on Reformation day and every day.  Thanks be to God.