Note: If this seems familiar, it’s because it is. It’s one of the most enduring messages I’ve heard and one I feel I need to share in each place I serve. It’s always one of the most memorable sermons I give and even years later people remember those seven last words, because it rings true for us all. I wanted to share the message again as I’m about to leave BMUC and pave the road for the next person coming in, because if there’s one thing for sure during a pastoral change is the change! Change happens whether we want it or not. The best we can do is be prepared for it.
The countdown to climate crisis started decades ago.
Back in 1998 while earning my MA in Poli Sci at Long Beach State, we were watching a video about what we once called “global warming.” Even then humanity was being warned we were on a countdown to disaster. At the time, the guy in the video said we had about 30 years before it was too late and irreparable damage would be done to the earth. That was in 1998. The clock has almost run out and when it does we likely won’t even know it because the devastating effects of climate change won’t happen overnight. It happens slowly over decades. So why are scientists all over the world saying we’re running out of time? Because the damage to the environment can’t be stopped on a dime. All the horrible things we’ve done to the planet have taken their toll and after a certain point, there’s no way to reasonably recover. The guy in the video from 1998 explained it like a tanker in the ocean. When you try to turn a tanker it doesn’t immediately start to move in a new direction. It takes a very long time, and in the meantime, the tanker continues to drift in the direction it was already going. To turn the tanker around, you have to anticipate for the drift and start the turn early. By the time you see the shoreline, it’s already too late. The same goes for climate change. We keep thinking we have time to change course and so we put off doing what we know needs to be done. Worse yet, people deny the evidence piling up in front of their eyes because that would mean they would have to change and human beings are notorious for their resistance to change. What we fail to face is that whether we want it to or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, it’s happening anyway.
Climate change isn’t the only change we are resistant to doing something about.
As human beings, we typically don’t like change no matter what, even when it’s better for us. People have a tendency toward the status quo. You may have heard of your body having a “set point,” meaning that your body gets used to the size and shape that it is in and any attempt to alter it is met with a LOT of resistance. That’s true not just physically but mentally, too. I remember taking a psych class at UCLA where we talked about how your brain gets used to certain patterns of behavior. The brain creates neural pathways to make it easier to process information. But once those pathways are created, we have a hard time drifting away from them, even if they are not good for us or the most efficient way of doing something. There was a study done about how people drive to work, and when presented with a better, quicker alternative, most people didn’t go that route. They were used to the way things were. That’s called being stubborn. Just so we’re clear, Google defines stubborn as “having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.” At times, we almost take pride in being stubborn. We call it “grit” or “perseverance.” But those are different than being stubborn. Grit and perseverance are qualities of being steadfast in the face of adversity. Stubborn is being so unwilling to change that even when all the evidence points to the need to do so, you don’t. This is something we all struggle with and have apparently for at least 2000 years. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to the Gospel of Matthew chapter 19 beginning with verse 16. Matthew 19:16.
We are a stubborn people.
And that shows up not only in our politics but in our personal lives, in our jobs, in pretty much anything human beings are involved in. About 25 years ago, I was working for a credit union down in Southern California that was considering switching over to using debit cards (that’s how long ago 25 years is). Up until then it was still a relatively new technology. Most of the big banks had it, but it was just starting to become affordable for smaller institutions. At the time, I was in the marketing department and we were given the task of figuring out if it was worth it. My friend Albert did the research and in every analysis, the credit union ended up making a ton of extra money. Our investment was minimal. The risk was almost non-existent. It seemed like the perfect fit. But the CEO and the board turned it down. Turned it down flat. The reason? The CEO said he couldn’t see how anyone would want to use it. He figured he didn’t want to use it so no one would. It didn’t matter that the evidence was overwhelming people were in fact using debit cards. It didn’t matter it presented virtually no risk. It didn’t matter we could make a ton of money. His vision was short-sighted because it would mean changing the way HE did something. Despite the facts, he was too stubborn to see the opportunity before him.
I’d like to say that’s an isolated incident. But it’s not.
And we all know it. You and I have both been victims of other people’s stubbornness, and I’m sure we’ve also been the ones too stubborn to see the obvious. Two-thousand years ago, Jesus encountered the same problem when a young man with all the prospects in the world in front of him asked Jesus what he must do for eternal life. And this is what Jesus told that man.
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:16-24
What is holding you back?
For the young man, it was the thought of giving up his wealth; giving up the lifestyle that he had grown accustomed to. That was holding him back. He had accomplished pretty much everything else he wanted to in life, like a young Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg; wildly successful at a young age. But he still felt this hole inside and wanted to know what he needed to do to fill it. He found Jesus who people had been saying was this incredibly wise man and asked him, “What must I do?” and ended up walking away sad. Because even though he had received the answer he was looking for, it wasn’t something he wanted to do. It would be easy to judge him. After all Jesus promised him eternal life if he would just give up his possessions and give them to the poor. You might think that’s a small price to pay for eternal life, but think about the mistakes you’ve made in your own life. The things you were told to do differently that you just didn’t do. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Eat healthier. Your friends all told you, don’t go out with THAT guy, but you did anyway. Jerk. Or your buddy told you that girl was only using you for what you gave to her, but you didn’t believe them. What a user. The list just goes on and on.
What we need to do is recognize we are all like this to some degree.
And then do our best to overcome it. We can’t afford to sit by and hope things will change. Be the change you want to see. Don’t wait until it’s too late to do something about it, because we never know how much time we have left. Like the tanker trying to turn around, even when we decide to change it will take time to see the results. The same is true for our church as it is in our personal lives. The reason most churches fail to grow is because we have ceased to be relevant to the next generation. It’s because we have become stubborn, rooted, and unwilling to change. It doesn’t seem that way to us because we like what we do. For us, it works. But does it really? If it worked, wouldn’t we keep reaching new people for Christ? That’s why Thom Rainer said most unhealthy churches have little chance of turning things around. Not because it’s impossible, but because people are unwilling to do what is necessary to make a difference. We become like the young man in our reading and are unwilling to let go of the lifestyle we’ve created, even though it would lead to a better and brighter future. Even though it would lead others to Christ. We become stubborn.
We have to make a choice.
Are we too rooted or too stubborn to change? Or are we willing to do what’s needed to be done to make a difference? And in our church, are we willing to shift our culture in a way that we can reach the next generation? When I was in seminary, we read a book by a pastor and he shared something I will never forget, “the seven last words of any church are, ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’” We have to constantly challenge ourselves as individuals and as a community of believers to never be so comfortable with what WE like and what WE want that we forget the rich tapestry of life that awaits us when we are open to where God is leading. We live in a world of change and sometimes we forget that God is part of that change. Open yourself up and embrace it. And see where God is leading us next. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.