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Community and Change – Letting Go

Community and Change-Letting Go-Jeremiah 1: 14-16 & Mark 2: 18-22

 (February 2, 2020)

Here is another light bulb joke for you, how many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb?  The answer—ten, one to change the light bulb and nine to say how much they liked the old one.  It can be hard to let go of the old, even when it doesn’t work anymore.  We all receive comfort from the familiar, the known, the routine, from the toddler who has to have his nap at exactly 2pm to the senior who…well has to have his nap at exactly 2pm as well.  You get what I mean. 

However, there are times in our lives when the call is to trade in the comfort of the familiar because the familiar simply doesn’t work in a new situation.  Sometimes the call to let go of the known and familiar is hardly a choice.  Such was the case for Israel.  Jeremiah writes in the context of massive upheaval for the Jewish people.  In 587 B.C.E. the temple in Jerusalem is burned, the city is destroyed, the line of kings that originates with David ends and the people are deported to Babylon.[1]  The book of Jeremiah is the prophet urging the Jewish people to move on, to let go of the kingdom of Judah.  In the passage we just heard, Jeremiah lets go of the past, he says that what has happened is God’s judgment against the Jewish people for their unfaithfulness.  God is introducing necessary change. 

A few years ago over Christmas, a cousin of mine suffers a near fatal heart attack.  The pressures of his work as a civil engineer for a major construction company dominate his life.  At first, he is bitter, that the reward of such hard work was nearly death. 

However, he comes to see that the way he is leading his life is not sustainable.  In that hospital room caught between a life to which he could not return and an unknown life that lay ahead of him, he pondered the meaning of this heart attack, this life-altering event.  He describes it, as so many people do who have been through it, as a “wake up call”, a call to live life more intentionally, with a sense of purpose, not allowing himself to be swept up by other people’s agendas.  Have you ever been in a situation like that? 

He wasn’t quite sure of what all the implications of that would be but it allowed him to begin letting go of the destructive path he was on and head out on a new path.  So often, it’s the case that in the letting go of the familiar and the comfortable God is actually calling us to a life of greater wholeness, integrity and health. 

So, asking the question, ‘what is God doing here?’ is an important one to ask in the midst of the discomfort and unfamiliarity of change.  That’s the point of the passage from Jeremiah; the point is not to believe in an interventionist God who punishes the unfaithful, that’s Jeremiah’s interpretation.  The point here is the importance of the question that Jeremiah asks in the midst of this upheaval; “What is God doing here?”  The question transforms a situation in which the Jewish people feel like the helpless victims of politics into a situation where the challenge is to confront the reality of a new situation with the hope of a new beginning.

“What is God doing here” is an important question in the process of change.  It’s the question that allows us to let go by opening us up to possibilities that might exist beyond the pain of the moment, beyond the pain of grieving what we have lost or are about to lose.  It takes courage to ask that question.  It’s not an easy question to ask because we open ourselves up to the possibility that we’ll leave the comfortable behind and head out on some new and unfamiliar road.  It’s also the question that gives us hope in the midst of a difficult transition, hope that fuels the courage to let go and move on. 

“What is God doing here” is an especially important question for the church right now.  Christendom, the era that has lasted well over a millennium and a half where the Christian church ordered public life is largely over, in Canada at least.  Those traditions that many in the church have valued for so long, others no longer value.  Where is God in this, where is God leading us?  What is God doing here as mainline churches bleed members?  What is God asking us to leave behind and carry forward?  These questions are important because they open us up to new possibilities and allow us to begin letting go of church as we knew it for a church that is faithful to what God is doing in the world today. 

That’s one of the messages in our gospel today—when the new comes, you need to let go and make adjustments.  We’re not sure but some scholars believe this passage is used by Mark’s community to defend against accusations they didn’t follow Jewish fasting practices.  Remember that those first followers of Jesus identified themselves as Jews and worshipped in the synagogues.  Their response is the old practices are based on a religion of waiting, of waiting for the messiah.  But, things have changed; Jesus is the long awaited promised one.  It’s not time for fasting it’s time to party.  You don’t fast at a wedding; you live it up and celebrate.  You don’t patch old clothes with new cloth or else when you wash it, it will shrink and tear away.  You don’t put new wine in old wineskins or else the wine will spoil.  New situations call for new ways of thinking and behaving.  Often that means letting go of cherished ways that no longer work.

Many people who love the church define the challenge facing us as the need to attract new people because the problem is declining membership.  But, as writer and church leader, Anthony Robinson says, membership losses are just a presenting symptom to a deeper challenge.  The real problem he says is we have lost our identity and our voice as bearers of the good news of Jesus the Christ.  Robinson contends that we need to get back to being focused on the purpose of the church, asking, “Why are we here?”, “What business are we in?”, and to lead from those answers. 

The solution to the malaise of the Church is not in church growth programs, but in returning to the purpose of the Church. Robinson states, the purpose of the church is no mystery and requires no discernment. The church exists for the transformation of individuals and the world in the direction of the gospel of Jesus.  Churches need to make sure that everything they do, how the members relate to each other and the world is rooted in that one purpose.[2]  “What is God doing here?”  God is always calling us to love, that means letting go of cherished and comfortable things sometimes so that we can be where God is leading. 

The grace of letting go is to be opened up to what God is doing and where the Spirit is leading.  The grace of letting go is that we make ourselves available to participate, to cooperate with what God is doing in the world.  What God is constantly doing is healing—healing lives, healing our world.  The grace is that we can be a part of that, we can be healers, whether its bringing purpose and balance to our own lives or bringing the good news of God’s love in Jesus to a new generation.  Being a healing partner with God is the grace of letting go.  Amen.

Rev. Joe Gaspar

[1] Walter Brueggerman as quoted in Gilbert Rendle’s book Leading Change in the Congregation, p.39.

[2] This and the preceding paragraph are taken from Robinson’s book, Transforming Congregational Culture.