Saturday, March 08, 2008

change (ephesians 5. 8-14)

The political pundits and pollsters tell us that this is the year of change. Low approval ratings of incumbents in office cuts across the partisan divide, and the desire for change is pervasive and real. 71% of Americans think we are headed in the wrong direction, according to a CBS/New York Times poll. And so, if you are an astute candidate for political office, you speak the language of change.

In the middle of this week, a front-page article in the Observer spoke of change in the American religious landscape. Only 51% of Americans refer to themselves as Protestants, and younger generations are much more likely not to follow the denominational traditions of their parents; although, upon reflection, my grandfather chose a denomination different from his father, and my mother chose a denomination that differed from her parents, and Pam and I chose a tradition that differs from our parents. What will our children do? Who knows?

But the landscape has changed. The churches on the four corners of the village green have been supplemented by mega churches and storefronts and congregations out toward the edge of town---that was Providence, once upon a time, at the sleepy intersection of Providence Road and Sharon Lane, but the religious landscape has also been changed by the internet, and by leisure (simply the number of people, many of them middle class, with two homes), and by the growth of youth sports, and by corporate mergers, and the mobility of people in our culture, and immigration. Change.

A recent movie, not one that garnered any of the Academy Awards but one that has been mentioned to me perhaps a dozen times in our congregation tells the story of two men who have a terminal illness. If you knew you were going to die, what would you do differently? What changes would you make? And so, they make a list, a “bucket list” of things they are going to do before they “kick the bucket”. And off they go. Along the way, there is change.

A woman in our church says to me, “you know, we have Lent coming up, I need to do something different, I need to read something, I need to give up something”, she is serious, “I need a change”.

The Epistle and Gospel lessons speak of the change that comes when a person encounters Jesus. A man is born blind. Jesus spits on the ground and makes a composition of mud and saliva and rubs this into the man’s eyes, and they are opened. “I was blind”, he later confesses, “but now I see”. Paul, writing to the early Christians, speaks of the moral struggle that faces them. “Once you were in darkness, but now, in the Lord, you are light. Live as children of light”, he urges them.

Methodists have had a word for this change: we have called it sanctification. This is the work of God’s grace in our lives. It begins in creation, in the One who says let there be light, in the One who creates all things and calls them good. And yet, the creation is marred by human sin, by what we do and choose not to do. We read in Ephesians 6: “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness…”.

This present darkness. American has, over the past decade, been immersed in the culture wars, the battle lines drawn sharply between distinctions of light and darkness, the light being in here, the darkness being out there, the light being our side, the darkness being the other side. And so a prominent member of the clergy points to a darkness that is out there, among a certain group of people, and then, when he is exposed, it is apparent that the very darkness he had pointed to so persistently in the culture was actually a part of his own behavior. We have always struggled with the present darkness. John wrote in a letter to the early Christians, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1. 8).

And yet, even in the present darkness, we want to live as children of light. Most of us look at our world, at our country, at our church, at ourselves, and we imagine something different. We desire change. Lent is a season of change. In the first few centuries devout men and women emerged who looked at the world and imagined a different reality. They sought change. The desire for change led them to go out into the desert, we call them the desert fathers and the desert mothers. In the desert they sought not so much to escape the world as to save themselves, and hopefully, the society in which they lived. They found solitude and silence, which forced them to encounter the demons that come to the surface when we allow them to: anger and greed, anger rooted in our compulsion about what others think of us, greed related to our connection of self-worth, who we are, with our possessions, what we own.

Anger and greed represented the darkness within, and yet they are also the weapons with which we destroy one another---the economic crisis of the present time, where does that come from if not greed? And the increasingly violence of the past years, where are the origins of terrorism and torture and warfare if not the human heart?

The desert fathers and mothers were often criticized for seeking to escape from the world, but they saw it differently. In the words of Thomas Merton,

“They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety with them.”

In the desert, devout men and women experienced what Henri Nouwen has called “the furnace of transformation”. Actually, this was the experience of Jesus, in the desert, in the wilderness, where he was tested. And this is our experience in the wilderness, in following Jesus in the forty days of his temptation. In the furnace of transformation, he was changed. And so we are left with questions: Do we desire change? Is change possible?

In the wilderness we sort these questions out. Most of us do not make geographical journeys toward wilderness, although some do. Instead, in the Christian year, we find the wilderness not in space but in time, in the season of Lent. My friend had it exactly right. Lent offers us the opportunity to change, to flee from the wreckage of our world, and to find places of solitude and silence. Lent offers us the challenge of facing the present darkness of our anger and our greed. When the ashes are rubbed on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, in the sign of the cross, we know, like Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, that we are mortal. “Teach us to live as those who are prepared to die”, we pray in the liturgy of the memorial service. In other words, teach us to change.

Once you were in darkness, but now, in the Lord, you are light. Live as children of light. Live as children of Light. What a hopeful word, for us, for our world. And yet new life always comes with some difficulty. The old must pass away before the new comes into being.

A friend from the Midwest wrote about a little coffee shop near a college campus. There was a little sign next to the cash register. A neatly handwritten message was wrapped around a three-pound empty coffee can, which read: “Fear change? Drop it here!

God’s great desire is to change us and to change our world. Methodists have traditionally called this personal and social holiness and at our best we have never divorced the two. And so we pray for change, in ourselves, and we work for change, in the world. In the midst of this we ask for help, we join hands with each other and we kneel to receive grace at the altar, which can become, for us the furnace of transformation, the bread and the wine can become manna in the wilderness.

God loves change. And yet we fear change. Change, if we are honest, can be a little scary, and yet change is necessary. This change—we call it conversion---is our only hope. The good news is that this is the great work of God. We hear the promise in words given to the prophet Isaiah (43):

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

And so…

Let us be open to some “new thing” in these days of Lent. Let us confront our anger and our greed. Let us not resist the change that is the great work of God in us, and in the world, Let us know, in moments of solitude and silence, the undeniable reality of grace. Let us hunger and thirst for this gift, as we eat manna in the wilderness and drink from streams of water flowing in the desert. Let us confront our fears while knowing that perfect love casts out all fear. Let us feel the healing touch that would open our eyes to perceive a new world.

In this present darkness, let us live children of light. Amen.

Sources: Henri Nouwen, The Way of The Heart. Philip Amerson, “Fear Change? Drop It Here!”, Aware.


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