Sermon: Resistant to Change

“Resistant to Change”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Mark 2:23-3:6
March 1, 2015

Choir Anthem

Sermon Audio

The Pharisees in today’s gospel reading are opposed to everything Jesus is trying to do. They are opposed for the very best reasons; what he is doing is in violation of established law and tradition. They have a duty, an obligation to uphold the law, to instruct those who don’t know better and chastise those who do know better in how more closely to follow the path to righteousness. They have it all figured out. Their way of thinking is the one true way, the right way, the real way.

It’s easy to criticize them. They are the whited sepulchers, the blind guides, the hypocrites. Jesus, in contrast to their strict adherence to the law, is the beacon of truth, the one who understands the purpose behind the laws, the one who knows that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath. We are to feed the hungry and heal the sick even on the Sabbath! God’s laws are meant to enhance life, not destroy it. When we hear these stories in Mark’s gospel, it is so easy once again to identify with Jesus, and cluck our collective tongues at those holier-than-thou, stuck-in-a-rut Pharisees who have unconsciously begun to worship the law and tradition more than God.

And yet, we know how dangerous that is, identifying with Jesus. A Savior complex is easy to acquire and difficult to shake off. We are the Pharisees, you know. We’re not Jesus. We’re the ones who are stuck in our various ruts, unable to see beyond them, thinking ur way is the only true reality, and unable to understand that there might be a more excellent way. Unable to see that self-salvation rarely, if ever, works.

There are various ways to be stuck in a rut. The Pharisee in us likes to point to others who are in some ways obviously stuck — the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the aliens, the poor, the hungry, those with messy bad habits, those who are their own worst enemies, those who just can’t seem to get their lives together, who keep on making the same mistakes over and over again. We all know them, don’t we? We see them in our everyday lives. We have them in our families and among our acquaintances. But rarely do we have the courage to admit that we are among them. We’d much rather dish out advice, or judgment or punishment. And in many cases, we perhaps unknowingly enable these behaviors because we get something out of it ourselves – a feeling of being needed perhaps, of being – there it is again – a Savior.

However, the less obvious ways to be stuck are just as destructive and more insidious because they disguise themselves to appear commendable, and worthy of imitation. In fact, our culture reinforces and encourages these behaviors so that it becomes difficult even to know how stuck we are in certain attitudes and assumptions about ourselves and about the world. They are so ingrained that they are the framework within which we organize and understand our lives, just like the Pharisees. That’s why Jesus insisted that we have to lose our lives to find them.

So can we all confess here this morning that none of us is Jesus and that we’re all stuck in a rut of some kind and either don’t realize we’re in it or don’t know how to get out of it. Fr. Thomas Keating, in his book Invitation to Love, tells with some degree of humor as well as chagrin about his own rut during his first years as a Trappist monk. He was “sold on the whole idea of spending [his] life in search of union with Christ.” (p. 142). He spent many hours on his knees in the chapel praying and asking for God’s help. Then a newcomer joined the order and also began spending much time in prayer. Before he knew it, Fr. Keating felt himself drawn into some kind of inner rivalry with the unsuspecting novice; he began to envy him and to feel a sense of competition with him, as though he was vying for a prize. He did not leave his pride or his envy or his competitive spirit behind when he entered the monastery; he was in the same rut, just in a different geographical location.

I can remember years ago feeling stuck in a particular rut, and praying to God to change the people around me so that I wouldn’t feel so stuck. It didn’t dawn on me until later that if I wanted change, I would have to be the one to change, and that when I did, I could expect those others whose change I had so fervently prayed for would be among those discouraging the attempts I was making. The truth is, there is nothing most of us would rather not do than change. We’d much prefer the world around us to change to change our way.

Our ruts are comfortable, known, and safe –even when they are not fulfilling, even when they prevent the complete expression of ourselves as the persons God has created us to be. Rebecca wrote about this in her devotion yesterday, speaking to her demons “Sure you make me uncomfortable, but I know what to expect from you. I’ve gotten used to being miserable with you living in me. How am I supposed to know how to live happily and freely?” We know that when we try our own formulas for change, they often lead us into other ruts that are just as constrictive and destructive because they are formed out of the same understandings and defenses that led to the creation of the previous one. Our demons can follow us from one rut into the next and we can truly jump out of the frying pan and into the fire! As Paul says in the Romans passage that Sharon read earlier, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

In the call to worship this morning, the choir sang “wash away the old ways, replace my pain with your joy.” Lent is that time wash away the old ways, wash away the ruts that hold us back. The old fashioned word for this cleansing is “repentance.” Fr. Keating calls repentance changing “the direction in which you are looking for happiness.”(p. 138)

And to change that direction, to find that happiness, our inner Pharisee has to let go and allow our opinionated heads to open to the possibilities of new understandings of what is true and good. We have to admit that whatever we think, whatever our knowledge of the world and of people may be, we don’t know it all; God is God and we are not. And we are not called to judge, but to follow.

We also have to open up our defended and closed down heart and risk loving and being vulnerable. That doesn’t mean that everything will at once become a rose garden. Far from it. But it does mean that we won’t let the woundedness of someone else be in control of our responses or our happiness.

And finally, and perhaps the most difficult of all, we have to accept the love of God that surrounds us always, simultaneously giving up both our Pharisaic belief in our own merit and our opposite belief in our own intrinsic unworthiness, rejoicing instead in the abundance of God’s grace that is greater than either of these things, knowing that our judgments are not superior to God’s and what God forgives we dare not hold against ourselves or others. Richard Rohr has written, “God does not love us IF we change; God loves us so that we can change.” (p. 41)

Did you hear the words of the anthem earlier? I confess I didn’t like this anthem when we first were learning it at Choir Music Weekend a few years ago. I didn’t like all that reference to addictions, and grief, and problems I can’t bear. I thought it wasn’t very “spiritual” or very “holy.” It was too prosaic, too much of this world. But it’s grown on me! I have to say today, as I think about the ruts in my own life, both past and present, on my own, I am not able; maybe that’s why I didn’t like the anthem; it hit too close to home! But when I can accept God’s grace and love that surrounds me, then I can say with great conviction and thankfulness, as well as no small amount of relief, “Halleujah! God is able.” Surely, God is able. Thanks be to God. Amen.