Change happens. It’s not an option, really, as much as we might dig in our heels and resist. Change happens. Our bodies are changing constantly, with literally a new skin every 7 years, and every breath a dynamic flow of a concoction of air that moves through and is transformed in our bodies. The earth is in constant rotation around its axis and orbit around our sun, and the whole galaxy is on a pilgrimage outward. Change happens.
In case you hadn’t noticed, there is a fierce campaign going on right now about the change our country needs to be going through. One candidate says derisively that our current course is toward transforming the U.S.–in a bad way–while he promises to restore it, to change it back–in a good way, of course. And that’s just one side of the argument. We haven’t even begun the campaign of both the major parties.
Church historian Phyllis Tickle writes that we are living in a time of profound social, economic, political, and ecological change or emergence. Whether we like it or not, the church is also going through a time of profound change, and we are in the midst of a period of transition. (Paraphrase, The Emerging Church)– Change happens.–but in the midst of these swirling waters of change, one masthead of changelessness many people want to hold on to is God–unchanging, eternal, absolute. “Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday, and tomorrow.”
Indeed, that has been the orthodox Christian view of God–changeless, unmoveable–lest divine purity and holiness be tainted. In this view, there is a fundamental discontinuity between God and humanity, or at least it’s only a one-way connect–God can act upon us, but we cannot have an effect upon God. We “wither and perish,” as the hymn says, “but nought changeth Thee.” God has determined everything even before we were created; God’s knowledge is always active and predetermined. “It was meant to be,” we say.
“But such changeless visions of God,” writes Bruce Epperly, a “process theologian,” are bought at a price–God is aloof from our world, insensitive to our pain, and–much worse–the likely source of the evils we experience.” (Process and Faith website, 1/22/12) “Process theology sees the universe as creative, interrelational, dynamic and open to the future. In process theology, God is relational, present in every moment of our lives and in all entities and levels of being. The world is interconnected–in effect a giant ecosystem–where what harms or blesses one, harms or blesses all.” (From Process and Faith home page) Process theology is always seeking new formulations of faith, which is actually what the United Church of Christ states as its understanding of statements of faith–they are to be re-written to have meaning for each generation.
The prophet Jonah was of the opinion that God, although powerful and almighty, was distant from human beings and, in fact, could be escaped from. When told to go to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and warn them of the certain destruction that God intended for them, Jonah in fact headed the other way in an attempt to get as far away from Ninevah–and God–as possible. Let the destruction begin, Jonah thought. While our passage this morning is just a sliver of this fascinating little theological folk tale–worth reading and a quick read, if you haven’t already–most of us know the part where Jonah gets swallowed up by the whale (or leviathon), and spends 3 days and nights in the belly of the whale. He finally prays to God in his distress, in effect, crying “uncle!” and the whale vomits him up onto shore.
So, as we read this morning, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time”–once more, with feeling!– And the soggy prophet goes to Ninevah and walks the length of the city, crying, “Forty days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” Jonah was all for the last part of the message–the destruction–, not so much for the first part, the timing. Frankly, he didn’t see why God should have to wait to destroy the city.
Writer Anne Lamott writes, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” (Cited in inward/outward from Church of the Savior) Jonah assumed God hated the people of Ninevah as much as he did and so was distraught, to say the least, when the people listened to him, repented of their evil ways from the king down to their flocks, and God, of all the nerve “changed God’s mind about the calamity that God had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.” God changed God’s mind.
“Two key theological points emerge,” writes process theologian Epperly. “First, this passage describes the vision of a changing God, who not only calls but also responds. In the dance of relationship, when we change, God also changes. God is not bound by God’s past eternal or temporal decisions. God is free to act creatively in relationship to our creativity.
Second, this vision begs the question: does God choose to destroy cities and nations, or is there a dynamic synergy of acts and consequences which leads to certain results to which even God must respond?” Process theology says that it’s the latter–“God’s aim or vision for each moment is ‘the best for that impasse.’ (Alfred North Whitehead). (Epperly, op cit.) Crisis, as the Chinese symbol for the word suggests, is both calamity and opportunity. God’s intention for every crisis is opportunity. God respects our autonomy, and sometimes God can only do damage control, instead of pro-actively doing something beautiful or good.
So, rather than pre-ordaining the course of our lives, this view of God sees us in a constant dance with the Divine. At every moment, we are free to act creatively, and God, in turn, responds creatively to our moves. We actually do make a difference; we have the ability to effect change, for good and for ill. We can actually make a difference to God. We see this not only here in the story of Jonah, but also in the story of Abraham, when he convinces God not to destroy Sodom if there are ten righteous persons left in the city. We see it in the story of the Cyro-Phoenician woman who convinces Jesus that her child is as deserving of help as a Jewish child.
Change happens. God is able to do a “new thing” even when we have done our best to fortify the “old thing.”
In the story of the calling of the disciples in Mark’s gospel, Mark simply states that “after John [the Baptist] was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come hear; repent – CHANGE – and believe in the good news.” The change from one important figure to the next happened. In John’s gospel, we get a little more insight into this shift, as John says that Andrew had first been a disciples of John the Baptist’s. When Jesus walks by, John says to his disciples, “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” and the two disciples, including Andrew, follow Jesus to check him out. Andrew is convinced that Jesus is now the one to follow. “At that point of decision,” writes J. Russell Crabtree, “ the momentum in his life shifted in another direction. The capacity to embrace that shift makes St. Andrew a symbol of a dynamic life.” (The Fly in the Ointment, p. x)
In the midst of change, we can feel like we’re being tossed around, first one way then the other, but in this dance with God, it is important to discern which way our momentum is taking us. Is it taking us toward greater intimacy and deeper relationship with God, deeper, richer into Life and Love, or is it taking us in a direction flowing against God’s current, like Jonah, taking us away from Ninevah, where God may have to respond by putting a great fish in our path so that we can stew in our own–and the fish’s–juices until we come to our true selves, our deepest wisdom?
That may be true not only of us as individuals, but also in the life of the church, or in society. At any given moment in the life of our church, for example, we may look at the “state we’re in”–struggling with budgets, stagnating membership numbers, feeling worn out at the edges–and see it as a sure sign of our demise or as an opportunity to learn new ways of doing things, listening for & discerning where God might be leading us in the dance, taking time to explore what new areas of service and witness God might be calling us to.
We may choose to see the current state of our nation and world–with its widespread economic woes, the blessings and curses that technological changes are bringing, the uprisings in the Middle East, in our own country’s “Occupy Wall St.” demonstrations–we may see this as an unraveling of all we hold dear or the birth pangs of a new order. Rather than assuming God has pre-ordained either one, perhaps God is engaged in an increasingly energetic dance with us, longing for our co-creativity with the Divine and our trust in God’s ability to meet us every step of the way.
We can see climate change and the human involvement in it as the inevitable course of progress and evolution, or we can see it and the effects it is having on weather, on island nations and others as an opportunity for “blessed unrest,” as Paul Hawkin calls it in his book of that title. There is an uprising of social, political, grassroots movements, like the earth’s own immune system, engaged in a mighty, holy dance of creativity to reclaim a more healthy relationship with the earth and its peoples.
In the most broad sense, God is immortal, unchanging. If we believe that not only is God within us but that we are in God, it is God who ultimately endures, as we are subject to mortality and death. But even death is not the endpoint, as we learn through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is a dynamism, a life, that endures, even beyond death. “We shall be changed,” as the apostle Paul states it so simply and beautifully. “Follow me,” Jesus says. “Join me in the dance.” And so the dance goes on. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark