Radical Change or Jesus Leans In

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

October 4, 2020
World Communion Sunday
Scripture reading: Matthew 21: 33-46

Whenever I attend my mother’s family reunions, which occur every four years or so, there are always beloved individuals that most of us seek out.  One of them is an elderly cousin, who is the patriarch of my mom’s family.  Over the years, I have noticed that this particular cousin had begun to limp.  Each time I saw him, he was always in great spirits and unfailing good cheer.  But I noticed that the limp was worse each time we met.  One year I asked him about it, and he admitted that he needed hip replacement surgery.  He remarked that he was dreading it and putting it off.  I admit I didn’t blame him one bit.

Then at the next reunion, I noticed that he was hardly limping at all.  He also accompanied us all down to the Guadalupe River for swimming time and even walked up several flights of stairs at his brother’s Hill Country home.  When I finally got a minute alone with him, I asked him how he was feeling and commented that he was walking really well.  He grinned and told me that he finally had that pesky hip replaced.  He remarked, “Honestly, I don’t know why I waited so long.  Should have done it years ago.  I guess I just wasn’t ready yet.”

Actually, without asking my dear cousin, I knew exactly why he had put that surgery off.  It was not because he was afraid.  It was not because he knew it would be painful.  It was because he was not ready for the changes it would bring.

For years, I have had the following theory about change, especially radical change:  

People won’t change until or unless it is forced upon them – or they cannot tolerate the status quo any longer.

Explanations are often wasted on people who are not yet prepared for radical change unless they are ready.  If change is forced upon them, they will often reject it, fight against it, or accept it grudgingly and resentfully – which doesn’t really count as accepting it.

In many ways and in many instances, Jesus of Nazareth was asking people of his day to face radical changes.  He was certainly coming up against forces that didn’t want to change, others who didn’t believe the changes he described, and still others who were frightened by the changes he taught, demonstrated, and even led by example.  In short, those people were not ready for the radical changes that Jesus was bringing, even though…

  • it was announced clearly by John the Baptist; 
  • Jesus worked miracles and healings such as had not been seen before; 
  • Jesus was the most amazing teacher, one who taught “with authority.”  

All these things made Jesus a radical change agent in a time in which all changes were routinely put down with brute force by the religious leaders of his day, by the puppet King Herod and his cast of Herodian stooges, and by the mighty Roman Empire.

Think about those three forces and how hard they each worked to maintain their control of that part of the world, and you can clearly see what Jesus faced.

And yet he came bringing change anyway…radical change.

Today’s Scripture lesson is Jesus’ second response to the opposition leaders against his radical changes.  When he and his Apostles arrived in Jerusalem after three years of ministry all over Judea and Samaria, it was obvious that the changes were coming whether the religious leaders accepted them or not.  Confrontation was definitely not something they tolerated well – or at all.  They knew the sad, uncomfortable history of how other prophets had been treated in their own past history.  Yet, they were seemingly blind to its lesson and truth.  Instead, when Jesus arrived at the Temple, the first thing they did was to question his authority.  Recall that this scene came immediately following Jesus’ triumphant parade into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday.  Picture that scene for just a minute:

  • Jesus riding into town on a young donkey…just as the Scriptures had predicted.
  • Jesus entering to the shouts and cheers of the masses… and no one could stop it.
  • Jesus hearing the word “Hosanna!” being shouted…a word that means “Save us!”  That must have REALLY rattled some cages in those intolerant hearts.

And so, their first move was to confront Jesus at the Temple, a location sacred to everyone and one in which they had control.

And was Jesus’ reaction?  Jesus leaned in.

Make no mistake.  “Leaning in” is a phrase with many meanings.  In this context, I use it to emphasize how Jesus confronted those religious leaders, those intolerant high officials, those locked in their old ways of thinking.  Jesus didn’t just stand back, weave a clever tale using parables and an allegory or two, and walk away smoothly.  Instead, he directly confronted them in front of the people and made it clear that their way was false and their time was ending.

Jesus didn’t tell a story or teach a parable with soft, easy words and a tender lesson that made the listeners smile with recognition of its loving truth.  No…he told the story of an owner of a vineyard who leased the land to tenants, who then responded with beatings and even the cold-blooded murder of the owner’s own son who rightfully came to collect the harvest.  

Note their reaction that was described in Matthew’s Gospel:

“When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.  They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” (Matthew 21:45-46)

When radical change is coming, someone has to do the leaning in before that process can truly begin;

  • someone has to explain how changes will occur,
  • someone has to demonstrate what will happen, 
  • someone has to show that change is even possible…
  • or someone has to confront those who will just continue the status quo if nobody rocks the boat or causes trouble or even asks that most dangerous of all questions:
  • “Why are you doing this?”

In the life of our church, I have had to introduce radical changes only a handful of times.  Each time I did, those changes were introduced through announcements from the pulpit, through meetings with various church leaders, through emails and mailings, and through conversations held in meetings and small groups.  But inevitably, I almost always leaned in and had a one-on-one conversation with someone with influence.  Most of the time, even if we disagreed, our conversations were good ones because of the strong bonds that have been formed in this church over the years.  

However, we all know of changes in other churches that caused a mass exodus of people who refused to change at all.  

We all know of other churches in which some members remained out of loyalty to “their” church and yet undermined all that was going on.  

We all know of other churches in which radical change agents moved too quickly and too radically – and lost the support of everyone; those leaders almost always had to move on, leaving behind a collective sense of relief and some hard feelings.  

And we also know of other churches in which radical changes were introduced and implemented due to changing circumstances and because to do otherwise would be to stand by and watch churches slowly become irrelevant and die out.

Radical change is hard.  Radical change often hurt.  Radical change forces us to confront what we just don’t want to confront.

Look no further than how we are currently meeting for worship: face-to-face via a computer program called Zoom.  

If we had not started this method of worship, I shudder to think of what might have happened to our church…

Yet, think for just a minute how all of you got here and why you are here.  Was a radical change involved?  Do you even like it?

Or, like me, do you pine for the good ol’ days?  Sometimes, I certainly do.

Throughout my own life, I have made several radical changes and I have had many forced upon me. My first go-to reaction is almost always a sense of “Oh-what-now?!?!” instead of wondering “What is the Lord up to and why is the Lord leaning in about it?”  Looking back, I see the folly of my reactions and the wisdom of the Lord’s plans.  Of course!

Hopefully, as change has entered our lives and that of our church, I hope that I have not inspired anyone to plot my arrest and execution.  If so, please let me know so I can leave town.

Seriously, as changes continue to come at us, in our lives, in our country, in our church, and in our own families, let us hold fast to the lessons that Jesus is always ALWAYS teaching us.  

After all, if change never really occurred, then…

  • the Temple in Jerusalem would still be standing;
  • the Roman Empire would still be in charge;
  • a descendant of King Herod would still be a puppet leader;

And the message of salvation and Good News that began with the proclamation by John the Baptist would be nothing more than an obscure footnote in religious history.

One last thought:

At some point, hopefully next summer, my mom’s family will once again gather for our reunion in the Hill Country. When we do, many of us will have a few more gray hairs, a few more limping walks, a few more instances of aging that come to everyone.  There will be a few faces that are no longer to be seen, having moved on to their Heavenly rewards.  But we will also have new children to delight us and make us all smile.  We will have new weddings and new pregnancies that point to a future full of possibilities.  We will have new stories that interweave with the beloved stories of years past.

And we will all have the love that continues to bind us to our Lord and to one another.  

That is something that I hope never changes.