SERMON: Can You Spare a Little Change?

OPENING WORDS

May we be reminded here of our highest aspirations
And inspired to bring our gifts of love and service
To the altar of humanity.

May we know once again
That we are not isolated beings
But connected, in mystery and miracle,
To the universe, to this community,
And to each other.

READING
“Our Faith Says” by Reverend Lee Bluemel

Society says: “Life is about survival of the fittest! Compete! Win! And leave the losers behind!” Our faith says: “Life is about generating compassion, forming a beloved community. Walk together, eat together! And remember the least among you.”

Society says: “Speed up! Keep busy! Work harder! Do more!” Our faith says: “Take a break. Observe a Sabbath. Reflect. Be quiet. Do nothing!”

…Society says: “Your worth is measured by what you achieve, and by your bank account.” Our faith says: “You are of inherent worth. You are a child of God, of the universe, of the Creative Energy of Life.”

Society says: “Buy! Purchase! Hoard!” “Keep it for yourself!” Our faith says: “Giving is an expression of our interdependence! Generosity is a hallmark of a life well-lived! You can’t take it with you when you go!”
…Society says: “Salvation comes through perfecting our bodies and accumulating things.”  Our faith says: “Salvation is in being present in the here and now. It is in recognizing the impermanence and absolute preciousness of life, and our interconnectedness with all of creation.”

Society says: “Concentrate on yourself and your own small circle of family or friends.” Our faith says: “Keep widening your circle to include people you’d never otherwise meet. Learn from them. Let them challenge you, and reveal a new spin on the human spirit. Try to love your neighbors as yourselves- and remember, it’s not “all about you.”

Society says: “The Haves and Have-Mores are in control and there is little the average person can do. So why even try?” Our faith says: “That is an illusion. No one can control the most important aspects of life—the human spirit, the movement of love. We may not be in control of much, but we are in control of how we respond to the vagaries of fate, and we chose to be guided by religious wisdom of the ages and the knowledge that we are not alone. Faith can move mountains and stand against principalities and powers because it has nothing to lose, and because it is in touch with the glory, beauty, mystery and power of Life upon this earth.”

SERMON

Change: it’s the word of the month here at South Valley and it is, as they say, “in the air.” As you’ve undoubtedly heard many times, the only constant is change…and so much depends on how we go about facing and enduring change. So my question for you today is “Can you spare a little change?” or “Can we, as a community, learn to face change together?”

There’s a story of a minister who went to visit a deathly ill parishioner. Knowing his time was short, he gave her precise instructions for his memorial service—the hymns to be sung, the suit he wanted to be buried in. With his strength ebbing, he seized the pastor’s hand and whispered, “I want to be buried with a fork in my hand.”

“I don’t understand,” she replied.

“In all my years of church socials and potlucks, whenever the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would say, ‘Hold on to your fork.’ It was my favorite part of the meal because I always knew something better was coming, like chocolate cake or apple strudel—something wonderful! When people see me in the casket, they’ll ask you, ‘What’s with the fork?’ And you tell them for me, ‘Hang on to your fork. The best is yet to come!'”

What a marvelous attitude! I too want to keep my fork, because I believe the best is yet to come. Even though I too, struggle with accepting and appreciating the inevitability of change—personal, congregational, and societal—down deep I have come to believe that it’s worth holding on to your fork…

There have been a lot of stories told and sermons preached in the face of change. In one way, the whole religious enterprise is about change. Almost every Sunday I urge you to make another step toward becoming the person you want to be…What is that, but change? Almost every sermon encourages you to put your values into action, to practice random acts of kindness, and to do something to make the world a little better…to change the world in large ways or small. Change—personal or societal—is at the heart of almost every faith tradition. Being “born again” is just one of many religious rites of passage that marks a significant change of heart, marked by new habits and new ways of being in the world.

If you watch much television, you know that religion isn’t the only—or even the primary—place that people are being asked to change. Advertisers spend billions of dollars trying to convince us that if we simply change our hair color, our toothpaste, or the car we drive we will make our lives significantly better. The only thing indispensable in our culture seems to be the pressure to become better—whether that means getting saved or simply getting our teeth whiter in seven days.

Our culture even verges on an addiction to change. “Extreme Makeovers” that turn “ugly ducklings” into “The Swan” are the new staple of the reality television market. After only three months, six surgeries, and countless hours of coaching, regular men and women are turned into supermodels. In less than an hour we get to see the entire transformation—minimizing the dangers of surgery, the bruising, the isolation, the pain. And of course, at the end of every episode we hear the “new” person’s testimony that “It was all worth it!”

These stories of sudden transformation are not new. For centuries, frogs have turned into handsome princes and pumpkins into carriages. We seem to like, at least in our stories, the magic of a sudden and sweeping change. But real life is different. In real life, change is often frightening and we don’t meet it so much with optimism—keeping our fork because we know dessert is on its way—as we do with resistance.

Now resistance is not all bad. It can keep us in balance, keeps us from running from change to change without weighing the costs. I recently saw a talk show that featured a twenty-eight year old woman who had completed twenty-six plastic surgeries. She’d begun as beautiful woman—one who was often told she looked like Julia Roberts—to looking like a walking, talking Barbie doll. In my estimation, and according to members of the audience as well, she was far less beautiful than when she’d begun. But more important than our opinion of her appearance, she was miserable. She spoke of never feeling perfect enough and spent most of the show weeping. She was particularly pained when she spoke of her relationship with her daughter, who sees her constantly bruised and in pain from surgery and who, the woman admitted tearfully, is sad that she and her mom no longer look anything alike.

This woman’s addiction came about, in part, because she lacked the ability to resist change. Every time she heard about a new procedure she would talk her plastic surgeon into performing it on her. Just moments after she was in tears about her daughter, the host asked her what “work” she hoped to have done next. Her eyes lit up and she answered, “Oh, so many things! So many things!”

Change, then is not necessarily good. But neither is it necessarily bad. Change is inevitable, or as they say, “Change happens.” It is our response to change that can help us or hinder us. We can welcome change as a natural, if sometime uncomfortable companion, or we can exhaust ourselves denying and fighting our way through every change that comes our way. We need to be balanced—to judge carefully what changes are necessary and beneficial and to welcome those while fending off the tendency to change everything just because we can or because it is trendy.

Balancing openness to change with healthy resistance is a challenge. It is a challenge to individuals and perhaps even more of a challenge to groups. In groups there tend to be two kinds of people, those who welcome change and feel energized by it, and those who are skeptical of change and feel anxious about it. In seminary, we learned to call these groups the “pioneers” and the “tradition-bearers.” We also learned that both are necessary for healthy, balanced change.

If a congregation were made up of all pioneers, it would run the risk of running itself ragged, chasing after every project, every new program, every new way of doing things that came along. If a congregation were made up of all tradition-bearers, it would simply become irrelevant as the outside world changed and the church stayed stubbornly the same. An open dialogue and interplay between the pioneers and tradition-bearers can keep a congregation healthy and balanced. While the pioneers blaze trails that bring new energy and ideas, the tradition-bearers make sure that the center holds firm: that the congregation stay true to its purpose and reason for being. We need both if we are to keep moving while staying on course.

Paul Wilkes, religion editor for the NY Times wrote: “Religion should be a great adventure and not a leisure activity.” I think he is on to something important. Religion is, at its best, an opportunity to risk learning new ways of living and to put ourselves on the line for what we believe. We don’t do this simply for fun. Perhaps that’s why, when we face change within our religious community, it can be so scary. Even if the changes we face are good—say, being a community that has a compelling message and is good at welcoming newcomers and so grows at a rapid rate—change can be hard. In seminary we learned that people—all people—believe that the best religious community is the one that they walked into. They believe that the best size, the best message, the best architecture is the one that they entered into and eventually made the choice to become part of. It’s not that we don’t think our congregations should change and grow—it’s that it makes us anxious if things begin to look too much different than when we arrived, felt at home, and joined. A larger church, a more modern building, even a new parking lot can stir deep questions, “Is this still my community? Do I have a place here? Do I still belong?”

Change is disorienting. Even the smallest changes can feel incredibly big. In one Unitarian Universalist church I know, they painted the front doors. Now, this may seem a small thing until you understand that the doors had been red for over one hundred years. The committee that chose the new color—a beautiful blue to reflect the sky and to set off the stained glass windows—was thoughtful and deliberate and they communicated well with the rest of the congregation. Still, the decision caused a fury. In the end three members left. Somehow, they felt they did not belong in a church with blue doors.

That may seem like a silly example, but I share it to remind us all of how deeply people identify with their religious community. The size of the congregation, the arrangement of the chairs, the color of the walls or the doors can take on deep significance. These things define “home” and when they change, people can feel displaced and disoriented. In times of change, it is important that we take extra care with one another. It is especially important that the pioneers and the tradition-bearers remember to listen to each other and appreciate each other.

At South Valley, we are wrestling with change. The classrooms, the parking lot, and the offices are full…even overflowing. More and more people are finding us and wanting to be part of this amazing, loving community. This is good—it is a sign that we are healthy and vital and that we are becoming known as a good place to be—and it is disorienting. We don’t want to turn people away, but talking about change is difficult too.

There are three things I want us to be clear about as we walk into our changing future. These are things I believe are true and will always be true about South Valley and which can keep us “on the right track” as we move forward.

They are all simple and familiar. The first you hear every Sunday: “You are welcome here.” South Valley’s first priority has always been a radical welcome. Anyone who comes with an open mind, a loving heart, and willing hands is welcome. This truth has two important implications. First, I want each and every one of you to hear that you are welcome here. This is your church and it always will be. No matter what changes are to come, you will have a place here. We can’t guarantee that South Valley will stay the same, but it is here to stay and as long as you are willing to live in harmony with our principles, your welcome will never be rescinded.

The second part of our radical welcome is that we do not turn people away. We are here to offer a home to those willing to join us on this new kind of religious endeavor, even if growth is uncomfortable and the building gets too small. And so while you are welcome here, all those who are seeking and finding us are welcome too. We will make room to welcome them all.

My last point is simply this: We must continue to be a loving, compassionate, forgiving community. We must hold on to the very things that make us who we are: a warm welcome, true caring, and laughter and light-heartedness as we move forward. We must honor our tradition-bearers and our pioneers. We must cultivate patience, empathy, and caring. We must remember who we are and why we have come together. Change is here. It is upon us. It is real. It is inevitable. It is complicated. We must treat ourselves and one another gently. We must meet the future, holding onto our forks, knowing the best is yet to come.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

CLOSING WORDS
Heraklietos of Ephesos

In searching for truth be ready for the unexpected.Change alone is unchanging.
The same road goes both up and down.
The beginning of the circle is also its end.
Not I, but the world says it: all is one.

Gentle people, go in peace and bless the world.

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