7th Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Intro: Our text today from the Gospel of Matthew comes after Jesus has been baptized by John and has spent his time of retreat and trial in the wilderness. He has just emerged from that experience to discover what is happening with John and to begin his own ministry of preaching and teaching and healing.
12Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of [the ancient tribes of] Zebulun and Naphtali. 14This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:
15Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light, and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death.
17From that time Jesus began to announce, "Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!"
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 37965-37972). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
For the Word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us,
for the Word of God within us…Thanks be to God!
I was in high school when David Bowie’s “Changes” came out in 1972. I’m sure I heard it but didn’t really notice it. I was listening to Loggins and Messina, Carole King, John Denver with a little Allman Brothers thrown in. Now, thanks to our Director of Music, Mark Heiskenen, I have finally fully encountered and read the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Changes.” And watched him perform it live on YouTube. I’ve always been a late bloomer.
(Turn and face the strain)
(Don't want to be a richer man)
(Turn and face the strain)
(Just gonna have to be a different man)[i]
So goes the first refrain. The literature nerd in me wants to analyze the meaning of all the poetry in Bowie’s song, but I will spare you. Suffice it to say…. the song is about facing change and facing it within ourselves before and along with facing it in culture, in the world we live in. Facing change within to create change the without. And there’s a bit about the resistance we face from the world when we face into change.
Jesus could have sung along with Bowie as he faced into ministry and headed out of the solitude of the wilderness into the chaos of society. “Don’t want to be a richer man; turn and face the strain; just gonna be a different man; ch-ch-changes.” He was getting ready to face off with the powers of empire and establishment as he called God’s people to the vision of the kingdom of heaven. Other gospel writers use the phrase, the kingdom of God; Matthew, good Jewish Christian that he was, defers to kingdom of heaven instead because Holy One’s name is too mighty to even pronounce. Either way, Jesus is proclaiming a new vision of God being in the world and with the world. It is at hand, its near! It’s not a place…it’s a way of being in God’s ways, a way of living, and the time for it is now!
Now we know from family systems theory that when one person in a system decides to change, to grow up, to mature and to be as healthy as possible, to stop enabling the dis-ease of the family or the community, that resistance occurs. Oddly, the system, the community resists healthful change at first, before it can spread its healing power throughout the whole system. Jesus certainly experiences that resistance throughout his ministry. He is proclaiming God’s ways “to those who have treated God’s sovereignty with disdain.”[ii] John the Baptist has experienced that resistance as he proclaimed Jesus’ coming, preaching the new vision of the kingdom of God. He has been arrested and we know he will be executed, a foreshadowing of what is to come for Jesus. The powers of the worlds, those who disdain God’s ways, do NOT like change, do they? They like to move comfortably in their habits of greed, oppression, patriarchy and fear without challenge. Too Bad, says Jesus! Those are not the ways of God! There is a new way of justice, compassion, healing and love! It is God’s way and it is here! Time to change!
Too Bad, we say as the followers of Jesus. Bullying, lying, excluding others, scarcity thinking, greed these are not the ways of God! Poverty, hunger, homelessness, lack of healthcare, these are not the ways of God! God’s ways are compassion, inclusion of all, abundance, enough resources, food and shelter for all, listening to every voice! Things need to change! And as we proclaim God’s ways we too meet/ have met resistance.
Change…..we are weary of change and of proclaiming change in so many ways. Yet it is the stuff of life. How do we come alongside the changes God is calling us to proclaime in life-giving ways rather than life draining ways? I recently Octavia Butler’s sci-fi novel, The Parable of the Sower. Published in 1993 and set in the years 2024-2027, it is powerful and prophetic. Times are apocalyptic, climate change and destruction, political upheaval so devastating that people must live in walled communities for protection, unchecked violence is everywhere, water is precious and expensive. As the protagonist, a Black teenage young woman, observes civilization crumbling around her, she begins to write verses of observation to stay hopeful. “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.” “We do not worship God. We perceive and attend God. We learn from God. With forethought and work, We shape God. In the end we yield to God. We adapt and endure…. And God is Change.”[iii]
Now I’m still chewing theologically on the assertion “God is Change…. Shape God.” Yes,…. and I’m not sure I can or want to sum up God in that one word. However, it got me thinking about the change that we are facing in our world here in 2022. Climate change, political upheaval, gun violence, pandemic…. scary changes. AND there are miraculous changes at work in our world as well, some made by human hands and some within the very systems of the natural world. So how do we live and work with the changes of our world proclaiming and manifesting the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed? How can we come alongside change so that even if it feels like upheaval, it is life-giving, full of justice and non-violent truth-telling?
Pondering these questions, Spirit led as Spirit does in sometimes circuitous routes to a system of “social change work” that is vital and happening in our country called, “emergent strategy.” Emergent strategy has been developed particularly by women and people of color as well as our sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ community. I think its time we let those who have been marginalized take the lead. I want to learn from them. I am learning from the book, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown. brown, a social justice facilitator of twenty-five plus years, healer, writer and doula, asks: “what can [the natural world] teach us about how to be humans and how to be humans in a better relationship with each other?” What emerges from brown’s question is “emergent strategy,” ways of change for our time. Ways of change that, I believe, go hand in hand with the ways of the kingdom of heaven which is at hand and among us!” Indulge me as I briefly explain her work a bit more because it this way of change-making will be informing my preaching in the months to come.
“Emergence,” says brown in a podcast interview, “is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of relatively simple interactions. Strategy is the ability to adapt to changing conditions, while still moving towards our vision of freedom and the future and being in [the practice of emergence.] … how do we get in a right relationship with change that allows us to harness and shape things, towards community, towards liberation, towards justice?”[iv] And the strategic practices of change are taken from creation.
What if we look at the marvel of communication that happens in flocks of birds, such as a murmuration of starlings which can be huge, upwards of over a million birds at a time. I’m not sure I have seen one live in the world, but I have seen videos. “They move in synch with one another, engaging in clear, consistent communication and exhibiting collective leadership and deep, deep trust. Every bird focuses attention on their seven closest neighbors and thus manage the larger flock cohesiveness and synchronicity.”[v] Wow, it’s all about relationship, not policy! Or perhaps, the policy is in the relationship! The kingdom of heaven is at hand and is like a murmuration of starlings! How can we work like that as church?
Or consider a stand of oak trees surviving the fiercest hurricane winds, such as Hurricane Katrina, because their roots are so intertwined underground in life-giving care for and communication with one another? Or the underground mycelial network of mushrooms that not only creates communication, but food for the growing mushrooms above ground as it also detoxifies the soil? The kingdom of heaven is relationship like oak trees and mushrooms! So, I ask myself, how can we learn emergent strategic systems of change from these miraculous, yet ordinary, beautiful relationships of nature to be a better outpost for the realm of God, a better church community turning to face the strain of change as our friend, David Bowie prompts us?
Change is within us, upon us and we cannot hide, can we? God has given us the leadership of Jesus’s call…. “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!" God gives us the spiritual imagination and social justice intelligence of change leaders such as adrienne maree brown, the prophetic imagination of writers like Octavia Butler. The world is at a tipping point, longing for relationship leadership, ripe for the justice of non-violent change-making that works with creation not against it. God’s realm is at hand, upon us, we are in it NOW!
So, I leave you with this challenge, look and see how Spirit is among us transforming our hearts and lives through relationship and communication for the challenge of the kingdom of heaven. It’s already happening! And how can we strengthen our changing community in new and vital ways, such as emergent strategy, so that we focus on the kindom of heaven rather than majoring on minor issues that can pre-occupy our time out of fear and lack of vision?
(Turn and face the strain)
Jesus is calling, calling us to be the change we want to see! The kingdom heaven is coming!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] David Bowie, “Changes” on YouTube
[ii] Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2009, 29.)
[iii] Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower ebook, (Open Road Integrated Media: New York, NY, 2012, 10, 63.)
[v] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press: Chico, CA, 2017, 67.)