Sermon – A Place for You, Sunday, September 29, 2013
This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ as part of my Pastoral Care internship. Audio is not currently available and as a result I cannot post my exact words – here is my manuscript.
First Reading: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Second Reading: Luke 16:19-31
It was a crazy thing to do. Jeremiah, buying a field at Anathoth, in the middle of Jerusalem, a city under siege by Babylon. Jeremiah surely knew better – he’d spent years and 31 chapters warning the Israelites to shape up and follow God’s covenant, and then when they failed he told them that they would be going into exile. Today, this would be like buying land in the middle of Detroit, or Damascus, or Camden. Sure the land would be a bargain, but why would anybody want that land, want to live there, under siege?
In the Presbyterian Church – and by that I mean the PCUSA denomination that we are part of, things look a little disconcerting too. In May the numbers came out and we lost just over 100,000 members in 2012. That’s about a 5% loss. Two-thirds of that loss came from the silent departure of members – those who were removed from the membership rolls for inactivity. It’s not just us either – all Protestant denominations are shrinking, and the Catholic Church is barely holding its numbers. And yet, a Pew Research study says that while increasing numbers report that they are “unaffiliated”, 80% of Americans still say “I never doubt the existence of God.”
In her book “The Great Emergence,” the church historian Phyllis Tickle talks about the different big changes that have happened in the Church since Christ left us and Pentecost happened. She sees a pattern. About every 500 years, we get to arguing with each other and go through a process where the way that we do church is overhauled. She calls it a Great Rummage Sale – we sit down and figure out what we do that is important and should be kept, what we do that isn’t as important as we thought and should be jettisoned, and sometimes what we stopped doing and should do again. The first of these started with the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where the early church worked out exactly what we believe about Christ. Our definition of Jesus as fully human AND fully divine comes from that meeting. It sounds a little boring now, but trust me – the fights over whether Jesus was of two natures in one person or two different persons in one body were just as nasty as fights over gay marriage are today. People were excommunicated. The second big change was the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in 1054. Then, and most importantly for us, came the Reformation in the 1500’s. Each time the church changed in a radical way – both the winners and the losers – and each time it was difficult for those living in the church. Phyllis Tickle’s assertion is that we are going through one of those times again now, and that we are looking at what we do with an eye towards cleaning house.
Things change here at this church, too. Before the Memorial Service for Virginia, her daughter Debbie brought some old picture directories and other booklets of Watchung Avenue over the years. This space where I am standing underwent a major change, one that I’m sure that some of you remember. The picture on the front of the bulletin has the old look at the top, and today’s look at the bottom. The pulpit used to be at the center, the choir used to sit where these curtains are, and this raised area was round. There were more pews up close. Also, the events that the church holds each year have changed. The leadership has changed – when this church opened Shannan could never have been ordained, being a woman, and neither would the five women on the Session today. I wasn’t here, but it seems likely to me that at each change the church had people in favor and against who felt like winners and losers – it was certainly painful at some point.
So what do we do? How do we get ready to ride the wave of change? Will there be a spot for us on the other side?
In my first career I was trained as a Project Manager. Some of that came out last year with the revision of the Bylaws. One of the things that project managers need to understand and be able to work with is Change Management. You can change the organization that you’re in, but you need to do it right. You need to make sure that you’re making the right change. You need to make sure that the change matches the direction that you want to go in. You need to make sure that the change matches your values, that you aren’t selling yourself out with the change, OR avoiding change that must be made to live your values. And it’s very important that people understand why the change is needed, and that you plan to help people along the way. You need to be there for those people who are uncomfortable with the change and help them through it. You want them to feel there is a place for them on the other side. That’s especially true in the church.
The Session here is talking about that. One thing that they’re looking at is the difference between Technical change and Adaptive change. Technical changes are those that you already know how to make, and are generally clear. If the boiler breaks, you fix it or replace it. If people are having trouble reading the bulletin, you print it on bigger paper. You run the Stewardship campaign each year to make sure that we have enough resources to operate. You schedule Church School for the children. Things like that.
Adaptive change is change that isn’t quite so clear. You know that something needs to be changed, but you can’t even tell what the problems are. You have to learn what the questions are before you can find the answers. Maybe you need to learn how to do something new to answer the need. Adaptive changes might be things like moving to a mostly electronic newsletter (while still printing it for those who can’t get it online). Or working with other Plainfield churches to figure out what the Presbyterian community here will look like. Or studying discipleship as a church in order that we may make and become good disciples.
She doesn’t say it in quite this way, but I feel certain that Phyllis Tickle would call the change that the church is undergoing Adaptive Change. The whole church knows that things are changing, but they don’t quite know how. The whole church is realizing that the way that we are doing things isn’t quite working the way it used to, but we don’t yet know how to change it. We’re worried about where the young people are. We’re worried about how to reach the people living around the church. We’re wondering how to be socially responsible Christians in a difficult world. And while we’re considering change, some folks are uncomfortable with the idea of change.
Scary? Yes. Necessary? I’d say yes.
Jeremiah was in that sort of “what do I do?” place too. He’d been held in the court of Zedekiah – a ruler that the enemy King Nebuchadnezzar had put in place over Judah. He was imprisoned there because he’d been speaking out, saying first to shape up, and later telling people that losing the battle was inevitable, and that they would be at best exiled to Babylon (and at worst, might end up dead). And then the call from God came to him, telling him to do this crazy thing and buy land in a place that he was telling everybody they’d be forced to leave. He had to work through intermediaries to buy the land, and the process also ensured that the purchase would come to the ears of many. And he followed God’s orders and put the deeds in a sealed earthenware jar. This was the closest thing the Israelites had to humidity and temperature controlled storage – you put the document in a big pot and sealed it up to protect it – the Dead Sea Scrolls were found like that. He was told to make sure the deed lasted for a long time. Why?
Because God was telling Jeremiah that there would be a place for him after the exile ended. After the great upheaval, he would be back to use that land. God said explicitly, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” The Israelites would again have a home. The previous three chapters are a letter that God told Jeremiah to send to the exiles already in Babylon, promising them that they will return, and prosperity will return again to Israel after the captivity – after the change is complete. Jeremiah had the word from God to have faith and he did have faith, that there would be a place after it was over.
And it is the same with us. Our faith, our belief call us to make a home for all. While change will bring discomfort for some, we are in a time when change is a must. And we must be sure to bring everyone with us to the best of our ability. It will take bending by all. Those who are uncomfortable with change will need to give it a chance, and keep an open mind. Those who are pushing for change will need to listen to others, and help them to understand why the change is being made, and to make accommodations where possible. We need to get through the change together, with new people as they join us.
Jeremiah lived in interesting times. Times of great change. Life was difficult, different, and confusing for a while. But Jeremiah went into the change knowing that it would all turn out well in the end – that he and his people would be returning home. Prompted by God, he planned for that time when the Israelites would return.
And so it is with us. We live in interesting times, with great change. Life is confusing, difficult, and the church of the future may be quite different from what we grew up with. We go into the change with that same hope. That God, through Christ and the Spirit, is making a home for us. That we will have a place in the church on Earth and the church in heaven after the changes. That we should plan for the 200th anniversary of this church. And that we should keep moving forward into the future.