May 19, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Last week, I preached about the ways in which our institutions and corporate lives develop certain characters that endure even when individuals within those institutions come and go. Those corporate cultures are persistent over time and resistant to change, and consequently when that institutional culture includes injustice or inequality, it can feel like we are, to use the metaphors of the book of Revelation, battling dragons. I left you at the end of that sermon with a promise to preach this week about how to change the world. What I didn’t think about at the time, was that I would only have about ten minutes to preach today with everything else going on in this service, and moreover, that I’ve already used 45 seconds that to remind you that I was going to preach about changing the world. It would seem that I have set myself up for an impossible task. Fortunately, however, though changing the world is difficult and will take much longer than a few minutes, telling you how to change the world is really not that hard at all. In fact, in good preacherly fashion, I am going to reduce the formula for battling institutional injustice to three easy steps — at least, three easy to remember steps, if not necessarily easy to do — and all of those steps are found right here in Revelation in Christ’s words to the church at Ephesus. So, hold on to your seats: here comes, “How to Change the World in ten minutes (or less.)”
1. I actually gave you the first step for changing the world back during the ceremony of confirmation when I said to you that faith is not about having the right answers but about asking the right questions. Step one is: Ask the right questions.
In Revelation 2, Christ commends the church at Ephesus for rejecting false apostles by testing them. In those first years of the church, before there was an official structure to teach and ordain church leaders, anyone could claim to be sent by God and many did. They enjoyed the status that apostleship gave them as churches welcomed them, financed them, and fell at their feet lapping up their teaching. Many newly minted Christians accepted the claims of these false apostles without question because they liked having an authority figure to tell them exactly what to do and how to think. The human mind abhors uncertainty and authoritarian types have always taken advantage of that. The church at Ephesus, however, was willing to, as our modern bumperstickers say, “Challenge authority.” They tested the claims of the false prophets to see if what they were teaching lined up with what Christ taught; they probed, they challenged, they asked the right questions.
The first step to changing the world is asking the right questions. The right question is, “Why is it that while African-Americans make up only 13% of drug users in America, they comprise 37% of those put in prison for drug use?” or “Why is the poverty rate among women head of households in Allegany County higher than the national average?” and of course, the most important question, “What could we do to change that?” If no one asks those questions — if everyone just accepts the status quo and accepts the authority of the systems and institutions over us as inevitable, then nothing will change. Step one is simple and obvious and unfortunately, rarely done: it is to dare to ask the right questions.
2. Believe that change is possible. Asking the right questions can lead to greater understanding but greater understanding doesn’t lead to change if you just sit there with your insight and believe that there do nothing about it.
The old joke says, “How many church people does it take to change a light bulb?”
“Change the light bulb? What do you mean change the light bulb? My grandfather gave that light bulb to the church. Nobody’s ever changed that light bulb!”
The second step to changing the world is simply to believe that it is possible to change the world; that just because things have always been a certain way doesn’t mean that they have to continue that way. Here is where the young take the lead because the young have the idealism to believe that anything is possible. A young person stepping fresh into the world has the heart of a warrior and is ready to wrestle those dragons into submission. When told, “No one has ever been able to change that,” their response is, “Maybe not, but that’s because they didn’t have me yet!” The certainty of invincibility in the minds of the young, the confidence of their opinions, and the passion of their convictions that often drive their parents and other adults around them crazy are what enable them to be bold in the fight. As we grow older, we become worn out with the struggle, jaded, and bruised and we are tempted to surrender and just accept the status quo because its easier. We might add to the joke about the lightbulb, the members of the church saying, “Why change it? It’s just going to burn out again in a few years anyway.”
Christ says to the church at Ephesus, “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” We who have seen a few years need to have our love re-kindled by the passions of our youth, to remember what it was like to believe that we can make a difference, because change will not happen if we don’t believe that it can happen.
3. And finally, for change to happen, we must endure. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was its power of oppression broken in a day. Justice may require years, even generations, to be fully enacted and if you are not in it for the long haul, if you are not willing to plant seeds that you may never see sprout, then change will not be possible.
An old Rabbi teaching a young student said to him, “If you are to truly understand Torah and follow its ways, you must be prepared to devote yourself fully to the task, to live without luxuries, to deny yourself entertainments, and struggle every day until you are 40 with the deprivations this life will demand of you.”
The student said, “And what happens when I am 40?”
The Rabbi smiled and said, “By then you’ll be used to it.”
If the young can remind the old of the passion they once had, the old who have kept the faith and continued the fight can prepare the young for the reality that justice is never complete in our lifetimes and the struggle for change never finished but we will carry on.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance,” Christ tells the church at Ephesus, commending them for their persistence. Injustice, like weeds in our gardens, will sprout up in the righthand corner while we are clearing the soil on the left and if we try to rest on our laurels, the weeds will overrun our laurels and choke them to death. The work of changing the world is the work of a lifetime, of many lifetimes, which is why we are all here together. Not one of us can do this alone. Not one of us can change the world permanently with the days we have been given, but we can beat back injustice, weed out inequalities, plant seeds of goodness and grace, and together, the young who are full of passion and the old who are full of stubborn persistence, can bring our world closer to a God’s vision of peace for all people and a culture where grace and compassion reign.