What’s Up With Church: Afraid of Change

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on June 6, 2021. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with 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 gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Jeremiah’s letter was to a group of exiles, who were a long way from home. They were full of discomfort, traumatized, and had lost everything, including their own city, Jerusalem. They had lost their homes, their family, and even their language and means of practicing their faith. These refugees were uprooted in monumental ways, and so Jeremiah is responding to their question of ‘now what’. 

Today’s theme on the final week of our “What’s Up With Church” series is that church people are afraid of change. We know that the church is slow to keep up with society at large and that because of this, changemaking has historically been a long process. But why are we so resistant to change? 

In general, change is scary to most people. What about change is uncomfortable for you?

Those Jeremiah was speaking to found themselves in the midst of big changes. They didn’t have a choice but to change, because their entire lives had just been destroyed. They had to survive, and change is integral to survival.

What is something in your life that has had to change this past year and a half?

The hard part here is that while change allows us to survive, change also triggers fear. And usually, that fear is one of loss, being afraid that what was there before the change will go away completely. As you all mentioned, change is uncomfortable. There are pieces of change that involve not knowing what will happen, meaning it requires us to let go of the calculated nature of how things have gone in the past. And while that’s scary, it’s required in order for us to grow. 

The refugees Jeremiah was speaking to were trying to return to a semblance of normal, but they had to also realize that normal would look different. Because they had already lost a lot of what they considered to be ‘normal’, they were trying to hold on to what was left. But what they realized is that the things they had left to hold on to weren’t the physical things, rather they were the emotional and spiritual values that had never left them.

Instead of relying on the theme of loss, Jeremiah reminds the refugees just how much they have that has never left them, much of that being their faith. He frames his letter by talking about God’s promises to them, providing them with a hope-filled future. Even when there is change, even startling change, God had never left. God continued to be involved in their lives. 

In the church, it can be easy to fear change so much that we don’t think about what will stay. Because God evolves with us, we get to continue to journey with God through all the life changes we go through personally, and also in the changes we go through collectively as a community. When we think about change as letting go of something to make room for something else, it feels like loss. And sometimes it is, loss of the physical thing that has historically been there. 

I talked to a friend of mine whose contemporary worship service outgrew their space, so they had to move to the sanctuary, and the traditional service that had always worshipped there had to move to the chapel. The traditional folks were angry and felt hurt, like the pastors had abandoned their service, when in reality, new life was happening in big numbers for the contemporary service folks, and because of that, they were making room for that in addition to taking care of the needs of that traditional crew. 

It can be easy to think of tending to change as abandonment; abandoning history, tradition, ritual. But when we do this, it sends a message that the Holy Spirit is only present for one period of time, or for one style of worship, or for one expression of faith in one physical location. It’s as if the refugees in our passage today had abandoned all hope because, well, if they weren’t in Jerusalem, there was no way they could ever connect with God again. 

Our God is too big for us to avoid change, simply because we are afraid of the newness that might spring forth from it. The Holy Spirit is too present to limit her reach to only things we have experienced or have done repeatedly for hundreds of years. And when we do change, we get to remember that the things that we hold as valuable are not going away, even if the physical representations of that thing transition. 

For instance, our means of worship have shifted in the past year and a half. We’ve gone from a local reliance on space to changing our ‘home’ for worship, which is now the internet. We lost the physical space, our sanctuary with the pews and the lights and the pulpit. We lost the parlor, where we have coffee and snacks following the service. But the valuable part of those things aren’t the pews or the snacks. Those are symbols of sacred space and community, which are elements that change of any kind can’t eliminate. 

What the refugees are asked to remember, is that change can be mourned, absolutely. God makes room for us to grieve what once was, especially if it’s been taken from you in an instant, like Jerusalem was for them. And God grieves that with us. In addition, change allows for us to hold sacred the value beyond the symbols of what we desire for our church and our community. It allows us to see perspective that looks ahead and beyond, rather than looking back simply because it’s comfortable for us. 

Embracing change means re-framing what is important to us, to see our motivation behind the symbols and rituals we hold as sacred. So my final question to you: What is something about church you find sacred that goes beyond the physical symbol? For instance, if contemporary music is important to you, what is the ‘why’ behind that importance? Is it the Holy Spirit’s presence? Is it a feeling of safety? Is it being stirred with emotion? 

What about church do you find sacred that goes beyond the physical action or ritual?

As we leave this place today, I encourage you to remember these words from Jeremiah: 

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with 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 gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

May you be sustained by God’s promise, that no matter what is ahead, no matter what change we face, we are not alone. May you allow yourself to seek your motivation behind the things you find sacred. And may you give yourself space to grieve still what once was, knowing that God makes space for it, as you look ahead to God’s future for you and your community.

Let us pray: 

God of promise and future, you have shown us the sources of your great love and your character. You have proven yourself faithful to being our guide and rock along the mountains and valleys in our lives. Help us to look ahead, not with fear, but with hope, knowing that the things we hold dearly; family, community, emotion, openness, those things come with us, even when there is change. Allow us to be mindful of the Spirit’s voice and presence in the midst of change, a breeze that guides us closer to the plans you have for us next. In the name of your son Jesus, we pray, Amen.

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