"Give Change A Chance"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - August 18, 2002

Genesis 45:1-15; Matthew 15:1-10

     The bishop of our Annual Conference has the ability to appoint pastors to a church any time he chooses to do so.  According to the Discipline of the United Methodist Church, there is not anything a congregation or pastor can do but cooperate with the process. This practice goes back to the days when Methodist preachers road horseback to various churches that were united in a geographical cluster known as a circuit.  Such ministers became known as Circuit Riders.

     As this tradition continues in our day, it offers incoming pastors an opportunity to stretch and grow as they greet a new group of the faithful.  However, these initial moments to create a favorable impression or to polish skills for smoothing the transition can be ignored.  There are some incoming shepherds who enjoy using shock treatments to jump start their ministry in the new setting.  

     One colleague, who has since retired, upon entering the pulpit for the first time, always preached the same sermon in each new parish.  His message was entitled, "Useta Is Dead."  His message was always greeted in a manner that could be predicted.  It was like the Queen of England christening a new ship with a bottle of champaign only to have it sink soon after leaving the dock. 

     In essence, the message communicated that the way this church "Useta" do things had just ended. The minister would bring swift changes to the order of worship and to the church's committee structure.  He constantly introduced unfamiliar hymns to the congregation.  He informed the choir master what anthems he preferred.  As he was leading his flock to the promised land, midway in his sojourn he would look back and see that a number of the pews had emptied. 

     Few of us like change, particularly alterations to our lives that are unexpected, unanticipated and unwanted.  When our routines are threatened, we can become angry.  We can withdraw into an intense emotional state believing that everything is against us.  Some of us strike out against whatever it is that precipitated the change.    

     People who have e-mail on their computers know the volume of petitions that have come our way attacking the idea that our United States Government may have to remove "One Nation Under God" from our Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" from our money.

     Proposals to remove these words have produced an interesting array of responses from people everywhere.  Some reactions are so charged with hostile emotion that a number of people advertise that their lives have neither the guidance of nor the trust in God.  Who knows where "Love Thy Neighbor" is among the defenders of our traditions.

     Our Gospel lesson this morning is quite challenging, particularly if we are among those who resist change.  As we listened to it being read, few of us chafed at what we heard. We did not find the words offensive nor were we uncomfortable during the reading. The chief reason Jesus' teaching did not threaten us is that we are looking at him through our rear view mirrors. We now understand that his departure from several traditional values of his heritage displayed great logic. 

     However, go back in time and characterize yourself as one of the protectors of tradition and orthodoxy.  How would you respond to this carpenter who appeared to be a self-styled authority on life and death matters of faith? There is no evidence that Jesus had any rabbinic training.   If we are people who find change difficult, we would have been tempted to stand our ground and fight just as they did.  We would have circulated petitions and developed strategies for dealing with this perceived threat to our sacred inheritance. 

     Both the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Hebrew Law approached Jesus with a question.  "Why is it," they said, "that your disciples disobey the teaching handed down by our ancestors?  They do not wash their hands in the proper way before they eat."  Jesus responded to them by citing a number of teachings in their tradition which even they do not follow.  

     Following this, Jesus made a dramatic departure from centuries of Hebrew tradition.  He said, "It is not what goes into your mouth that makes you unclean; rather, it is what comes out of you."  As he said this, the disciples watched in amazement at the reaction of his listeners. They pulled Jesus aside and said, "Did you realize that your words hurt their feelings?"  Jesus said, "Don't worry about them. They are blind leaders.  When blind leaders lead blind people, they all fall into the ditch."

     It was this kind of action and teaching that put Jesus on a collision course with the established church of his day. He was creating problems.  It was this kind of action and teaching that put Martin Luther in direct opposition to many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  It was this kind of action and teaching that put John Wesley on the offensive against the Church of England.  Many people who were willing to color outside the lines drawn by years of habit and tradition usually became the authors of sweeping change that forever altered the course of human events. 

     Very few people can see the future with any degree of accuracy, and this includes stock analysts. How many years into the future can you see?  For that matter, how many of us can accurately determine the meaning of anything that evokes change?  We do not know where the various change agents will lead us.

     People who were manufacturing carburetors for automobiles could not have anticipated fuel injection.  The people who created 8-track tapes could not have foreseen music being produced digitally on compact disks.  Few of us can imagine car engines fueled by water and Borax or simple hydrogen, but prototypes of such automobiles are already being used in California.  We cannot imagine all the contributions this will make to the quality of our environment. Importing Middle East oil will become as useless as killing whales for theirs.  The truth is that sudden change often takes us to a "promised land" we did not know exists. 

     An automobile accident killed a husband, leaving his wife with their two children to rear.  As the years went by her emotions did not move beyond her bitterness.  She was angry at God but was determine to show the universe that she was tough and did not need the faith in which she had been reared.  

     After a number of years, another tragedy struck.  Her daughter complained of a stiff neck.  She was listless, weak and soon developed a high fever.  A trip to the family doctor resulted in a spinal tap at the local emergency room.  Soon the child was in the intensive care unit diagnosed with viral meningitis.  The team of medical specialists told the mother that they could do nothing but wait.

     The vigil started.  The hospital waiting room became her second home.  She was bitter, upset and rejected everyone's invitation to help.  One night she was exhausted.  While lying awake in her bed the phone rang.  Fearing the worst, she picked up the telephone receiver to hear the kind voice of the person who had been watching her little son, Tim. 

     The woman said, "I'm sorry to be calling you so late but I have to tell you something.  Timmy wants to help.  He keeps asking me to take him to the hospital so he can see his sister.  He wants to sing to her.  Do you think the hospital will allow a child into the ICU?"  The mother said, "I don't know.  It is not a very good place for a child.  At this point, I'll do anything.  I'll ask." 

     The protocols of the ICU were set aside and Timmy was allowed to see his sister.  Motionless, he stared at her for the longest time.  Nothing could have prepared him for the bottles, tubes and electrical equipment attached to Debbie's body. Then he summoned his courage, took his sister's hand and began to sing: 

Jesus loves me this I know.  For the Bible tells me so.  Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  The Bible tells me so. 

     At once his mother began sobbing uncontrollably.  Two of the nurses were tearing to the point where one of them had to leave.  It was a very emotional time.  Timmy sang the well-known song several more times, a song he had learned in Bible School. Tim's mother was unaware that he had learned the song.   Following the car accident that took the life of her husband, she and her two children had not returned to church.

     Little Debbie turned a corner that night.  This episode in the family's life has a pleasant ending.  They returned to church.  Debbie recovered completely. In one of the classes for adult studies there was a man whose wife had died of breast cancer.  Today the four of them are together.

     Think of  the harsh judgments we make when change agents have appeared in our lives.  The Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law had perceived Jesus as a threat to their traditions and symbols of faith.  Many of us may have responded the same way.  How could they have known that Jesus was ushering in an entirely different frame of reference for living, one that had nothing to do with strict obedience to the Hebrew Law?

     How was a mother to know that viral meningitis would make Timmy a hero and bring her family back to church where her future husband awaited in an adult studies class.  None of that would have happened had little Debbie not gotten sick.  That mother might have nursed her bitterness toward God for the rest of her life.  However, something unseen and unwanted intervened which changed  the direction of four people's lives.

     There are lots of things that can create change in the church and in our lives, but the interpretation of what it means is ours.  If we lived with "In God We Trust" written on our hearts and "One Nation Under God" inscribed within our spirits, then we would not be so willing to make all these doom and gloom assessments of where change is leading us. 

     It would not be long before Jesus would be in a garden, looking at something that was most unpleasant to contemplate -- the possibility of his death.  This episode in Jesus' life did not have a story book ending.  Did he know how his death would impact humanity?  Did he realize at the time that he would have to embrace self-annihilation for us to learn that none of us die?

     When we are facing something potentially threatening, as were the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, we have to decide whether we want to preserve life as it has always been, or remain open to the possibility that life may be leading us to a "promised land" we cannot now see.  One decision is a sure thing; the other one takes trust and faith in what, by its nature, must always remain unknown -- the quality of the future.  

     Jesus put everything on the line and stood on the rock solid relationship he had developed with God. He showed us what trust and faith look like and it changed the world.  Are we prepared to do the same?  Many experiences in life can be unsettling and threatening.  Jesus' message was that even in the worst possible circumstances none of them will ultimately harm us.     


     Merciful and ever present God, all of us desire to fill our cups with the water that shall cause us never to thirst again.  Yet, we confess that our lives appear divided.  We live with an unspoken attitude, "this for God and this for me."  There are moments when humility escapes our grasp.  We reverence what "is right" while leaving little room for opinions that differ.  There are times when we give voice and visibility to unmet needs.  We ask that you allow healing to flow through our divided selves.  Teach us that consistency of spirit is what allows our discipleship to become the magnet that draws others to you.  Enable us to embrace others with a presence that radiates our love for you.  Amen. 


     We come into our sanctuary today grateful for the moments when we intentionally focus our attention on our relationship with you, O God.  There is very little in our lives that gives us permission to experience the hush of stillness. The noise within our lives has made us a stranger to silence. 

     As we reflect on who we have become, we need your help to shed some of the habits we have formed.  Our responses to others have become so automatic, we seldom ask ourselves if what we are doing has anything to do with love.  We sometimes wonder if others would know we are followers of your son if they listened to our conversations or observed how we conduct our lives.   

     May your words this morning be greeted by open minds.  May these moments spent in prayer and meditation find our spirits listening.  May some word come to us today that might help us rise above those things that make us afraid, lift us above the unwholesome things that beckon us, and bring a spirit of joy, peace and enthusiasm to those we meet.  Life is so much bigger than our needs, O God.  Help us remember that.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .