“If Change is So Good, Why Don’t YOU Go First?”

a sermon based on Jeremiah 29:11-14

As I said just before singing today’s solo: We’ve all heard the news of the protest marches following the killing of George Floyd while he was being arrested in Minneapolis two weeks ago… including two rallies of peaceful support that took place here in Alpena this past week. I saw Vicky Lindsay there, and Marcia Aten; both Keith & Ginny Titus were there on their motorized wheelchairs; Jay & Marilyn Kettler, and others of you.

In an article about the protests sweeping the nation, I read: “This has to change,” said 39-year-old Aisxia Betiste, an out-of-work massage therapist in Orlando. “Something has to give. We’re done. This is the beginning of the end of something. It has to be.” Change.

On the next page, the Colorado governor & Denver Mayor issued a joint statement: “This is a time for healing, for bringing people together, and the best way to protect civil rights is to move away from escalating violence.”

In the editorial that same day in The Alpena News, Bill Speer & Justin Hinkley wrote: “What occurred to George Floyd in Minneapolis recently was a tragedy. His death was senseless and wrong. Thus, if most of us can agree to that fact, let justice play out there, and let us, as a society, concentrate on working to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again. Let’s have dialogue and discussion to see where we have fallen short in treating people the same.

“Let’s identify areas that could be improved upon and let’s develop plans to make change. (Change!) Let’s work to correct the wrongs that have existed for too long.

“But let’s not continue to destroy property, burn vehicles, and create chaos. Let’s end the violence, the anarchy, and the vandalism. … We need to heal. We need to come together. We need to return to the place where one person can still make a difference in another’s life.

“We need to bring together leaders of all sides and sit down and start the change. (the Change!) We need to give those men and women the latitude to work together with no agenda in mind other than creating a world where humans repsect each other and value each other.” (unquote)

“If I could change the world…” Last Sunday, in that solo by Shawn Philips that I sang for you, the opening verse said: “If all the kings and castles of the world would become as one, we’d rise in the light of God’s desire, and live in the house of none. We’d see with the eyes of total love, and live in the heart of everyone in love. And those that are there will find us; and those that are not, won’t bind us; for we cannot believe in their madness nor their blindness.”

What all those articles & editorials, all the lyrics of those songs are getting at, is the creative challenge that opportunities for change give us. Many folks resist “change” because the unknown firightens them; they prefer settled certainties to creative novelty with its uncertainty.

If there is one thing that’s for certain, it’s that “Things Change.”

In our own lives, we have all experienced many changes. We change as we grow up… and change again as we grow older. Our bodies change, our relationships with our parents change; perhaps we move away from our home to go to college, or to get married… We change jobs; people divorce; friends & family members die.

Things will always change. We don’t have much choice about that, but we do have a choice abot how we react to change. It comes down to whether we manage change as it is occuring, or whether we let it manage us.

For many of us (as I said) change is hard… especially if we think that the change is more about someone else’s needs than our own.

As we think about all the losses and changes that have come upon us since we closed the church back in March (12 weeks ago), I sense a undercurrent of anxiety and sadness about the changes we are going through. We miss seeing our friends in the sanctuary. (Right?) We miss shaking hands or giving a hug. We miss the conversations during Fellowship Time as we used to eat a donut hole and drink coffee with other church members and friends.

Especially for long-time members, each of us carries the memory of the church as we found it; the ways it met the needs of our lives back when we arrived and decided to stay. My family got involved here more than 50 years ago (and I’ll talk a bit about that next Sunday for Father’s Day – I hope you’ll come back to hear some of my Mother’s thoughts). Others of you were born into families that already went back for two or three generations here at Alpena’s First Church.

We realize that our lives have shifted over the years, but the church experience here in worship has remained largely the same: Kat plays the organ as a prelude, we sing the Gloria Patri & the Doxology, we pray the Lord’s Prayer and sing two or three old hymns; we pray, and we listen to a 20-minute sermon (give or take five minutes either way). Until we closed in March, we had a robed choir, made up of people who loved to sing “anthems” in four-part harmony instead of everything always being sung in unison with melody-only. “Those were the days, my friends, we thought they’d never end!”

But now, with concern for coronavirus contagion, we’ve become a “virtual” worship service – meeting here like this, on line, every week, on our website, over the internet, connected through Facebook and email. We’ve been pushed (as a congregation) into a digital-world, out of our comfort zone. And when we eventually return to the sanctuary (probably the third week of July), it will be under very different conditions! We wonder if the changes we are being forced to go through are about OUR needs, or if we are being caught up in some developmental process that is NOT really about US. It’s about other people, in other places, who hold other agenda.

Frankly, I think that much of the push to “re-open” – to “liberate” the state, as some have put it – without proper precautions in place (mandatory face masks, for example, or keeping six-to-16 feet of space between people) is because we want things to get back to “normal”! We’ve been inconvenienced for too long already. (!) We don’t like some of the changes which are being demanded of us because we sense it is being done in order to protect others than ourselves – people in a more vulnerable age-bracket than our own, or who are at risk because of other underlying health factors. (Some of the churches tell their older members: “You are welcome to stay home.”) Change is much harder to accept when we think that it is coming at us because of someone else’s need.

Change is hard, mostly, because it is an emotional process. We are “creatures of habit” who usually resist change and welcome routine. That’s especially true of long-time, old-line, church-goers like us!

Uncharted waters can be scary. The uncertainty of the spread of COVID-19 -- especially with the severe lack of testing in Northern Michigan and the long-time-frame before getting a vaccine -- makes us want to stay safe, stay home, and self-isolate… I get that! For many of our members that’s the driving force to keep our distances: to stay well!

On our better days, we realize (of course) that too much same-ness and safety puts us on the fast track to nowhere. It is only when old patterns are broken that new worlds are able to emerge. You may recall the butterfly story I told two weeks ago... During the co-cooning-stage of chrysalis, what had been a plump and mobile caterpillar becomes genetic mush… the life forces become goo. But within the DNA of that amorphous goo, cells were creating a process to emerge in a new form -- through a small opening, with great pressure & struggle – out came the slim body & radiant wings of a butterfly. Wow!

Change can be a wonderful gift. In fact, it is the key that unlocks doors to growth and excitement and innovation. We are now doing “zoom” classes from the safety of our homes, still in conversation (but it’s in a little picture-box on a computer screen… People sit down at home on Sunday morning (as you are doing now) to watch a “virtual” worship service, knowing others are doing the same. We talk about it. (I doubt I would ever have ventured into the digital social media world!)

If we sense that the new “thing” that is happening to us is for our good -- appropriate to our stage in life -- a developmental phase that one must go through as one matures, a growth spurt, or a life transition that puts us on the next level -- then we see its value and we tend to appreciate the changes that are entailed as we mature. These are the kinds of changes that we anticipate for our own good; we may even welcome them.

But if the change is coming upon us for other reasons -- perhaps to suit other people’s tastes, or to “keep up with the Jonses”… or perhaps we feel it is being forced upon us, like the abrupt and arbitrary shut-down of the economy, because some government official has demanded it; or like the long-overdue review of racial profiling and police brutality that’s been going on since the killing of George Floyd, because it’s been too heavy-handed and it’s been going on for too long… because there’s too much in your face media coverage…

If we feel that the change is being forced upon us against our will… like (perhaps) your partner desires something that you do not, or your parents have laid down the law and decided something for you… we might very easily resent that “imposition”! Change is much harder to accept when we sense that the new way will not meet our need, but is coming at us because of someone else’s need.

Sometimes change feels like growth, or a blessing, a flowering, or any of the many positive terms we have for change. Other times it feels like we are out of sync, growing apart, rubbing each other raw. That’s how the relentless partisan political divide has felt to me for many years! We’re getting nothing good accomplished (in my opinion) because our politicians and pundits are spending all their energy trying to fix the blame on the other side, rather than to fix the problems. (!!)

In a little book by Dallas Brauninger, published by our United Church Press in Cleveland, entitled “Talking With Your Child About CHANGE” (©1994, page 3), he writes:

“Change occurs continually during our lives. Childhood is the time to develop a positive attitude toward it. People may face large and small changes with anger and fear, or they may learn to accept them with grace, and see beyond them with hope. Our trust in God’s presence helps us to meet change with greater perspective, a perspective based on God’s love.”

So we come back to my original statement: Things will always change. We don’t have much choice about that, but we do have a choice on how we react to change. Will we manage the change that is coming, or let it manage us?

In a delightful little book by Spencer Johnson, MD (co-author with Ken Blanchard of “The One Minute Manager” -- the world’s most popular management method) entitled “Who Moved My Cheese?” (G. P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 1998) the first two principles for dealing with change in your life are: (1) Change Happens & (2) Anticipate Change.

Dr. Johnson’s book is dedicated to Robert Burns, the 18th Century Scottish poet who wrote: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men, aft’ gae aglie” (often go astray). The book’s preface is a quote from A. J. Cronin: “Life is not a straight and easy corridor along which we travel free and unhampered; but a maze of passages, through which we must seek our way, lost and confused, now and again checked in a blind alley. But always, if we have faith, a door will open for us; not perhaps one that we ourselves would ever have thought of, but one that will ultimately prove good for us.”

When we decide that a change is in order -- for the good and the growth and the future of our endeavor -- that decision on the part of the leadership team may be the easiest part. Getting our people on board with the prospect of change is much more difficult.

That’s because (as I said a few minutes ago) change is an emotional process, tied in to other changes and losses along the way. As Dallas Brauninger reminds us: Childhood is the time to develop a positive attitude toward change. Unfortunately, childhood may have been when we were forced to under-go changes that upset us (maybe even traumatized us), and as a result we seek safety in routine. We are all creatures of habit, but some folk’s “temperament” is more at ease and welcoming of habitual routine than others.

In the book from which I derived today’s sermon title: “Change is good… You go first” (by Mac Anderson and Tom Feltenstein, Simple Truths, 2007), the back cover has a quote from Tuli Kupferberg: “When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge.” “When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge.” Pattern are being broken all around us right now: because of racism injustice and popular revolt, because of the coronavirus and economic turmoil on Wall Street & in government.

Let’s hope a new world is emerging! Let’s trust that a new world, a better world, is possible! But it’s also true that when patterns are broken, people become upset. We may become angry. We may want things to go “back” the way they used to be. (!) We may feel unsettled, un-comfortable, on edge; or even become defensive. Still, if we want the new world to emerge as a positive construct, some old patterns may need to be broken.

Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah was addressed to the defeated Jews who were in exile in Babylon (500 years before Christ), but I believe it fits any person who has become dislocated to their core by bad news… It pertains to people who are upset by forces of change over which they had no control, distressed by changes that have gone against their personal good fortune. Jeremiah says to the exiles in their bleakest hour, that God has a plan:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not your harm, to give you a future and a hope. Then when you call upon me, and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart. I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes, … and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

Now, defeat in war and dislocation of the population into exile (such as Jeremiah was addressing in the Bible text) is a far more traumatic change than almost anything that will have happened to us. For the most part, American forces win their wars! For the most part, people are secure in their homes all across the country… even though some are behind in their rent, behind in their mortgage payments, most of us have a roof over our heads and some food on the shelf.

Even the “panic buying” of the early pandemic (which emptied some store shelves) and the “protest looting” in the big cities do not directly affect us in Alpena (unless we watch the news for too long!).

Yes, times are tough for the unemployed, and times are scary for the folks most at risk of contagion, but we’ve got it a lot better than the defeated Jewish nation to whom Jeremiah addressed his remarks. Their Capitol City Jerusalem had been obliterated, their Temple destroyed, their civic leaders and priests taken into exile in Babylon; the Promised Land (Israel) was a smoldering ruin of widespread death.

Jeremiah encourages “searching for God” -- seeking with all our heart the restoration of our hope and our future -- which is a noble pursuit. I hesitate to bring it down to the mundane level of our current anxieties and our relatively trivial life-changes. … But if the topic of managing change interests you – Dr. Johnson’s “Who Moved My Cheese?” (1) Change Happens, (2) Anticipate Change, and (3) How to Deal with it -- I will post a YouTube tomorrow that walks us through the book, and we will explore the metaphor in some detail. But not now!

For today, let me just say: Living with change – living through change – takes faith. Faith that God is not finished with us, individually or collectively. Faith that blessings sometimes come in un-expected (even un-wanted) ways. Faith that we are part of something that is larger than ourselves, and larger than any given moment: any pandemic, any protest riot, anything.

The Lord God said through the prophet Jeremiah: “I know the plans I have for you… plans for your welfare and not your harm, to give you a future and a hope. Then, when you call upon me, and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart.”

I pray for that kind of faith and grace for myself and for all of us, for all the changes that are coming in our lives.

May God bless you & keep you.

Amen.

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