Summary: We are in transitional times; we will be helped through transition if we remember who got us here and why, but if we also remain wary of popular bandwagons. The ultimate measure is whether we have been faithful to Christ's call.
Gethsemane Baptist Church, Washington, DC, Nov. 24, 1996
Some folks are allergic to change. They want everything to be just as it always was. They get used to things and they want everything to stay put. Some folks just won’t deal with change.
A few weeks ago the electricity went out at our house. Some transformer blew, and for several hours we had no power, which meant no light, no stove, precious little hot water, and, for me, oh, what torture: no computer! Couldn’t play games and pretend to be working! But I noticed something very strange; I noticed how much a creature of habit I’ve become. The lights are out, right? So you need to find a candle. How do you find a candle? Well, you go to the room where there’s a chest of drawers in which we keep candles, and, let’s find them, flip the light switch. Oops! That’s right, won’t work. But the habit was, flip the switch.
Well, then, I found the candles and lit a few. Now we can see our way around. I wonder what’s going on out there? Wonder what’s caused all this? Let’s turn on the radio and find out. Oops! Caught again! I found I was such a creature of habit that even though I knew that the circumstances were changed, I couldn’t change. I couldn’t adjust to fit the situation. Some of us are allergic to change.
And when it comes to church, we are especially allergic to change. We want church to be what church has always been. We want tradition and familiar things. We want to tell the old, old story and sing the old, old songs. We want to hear it one more time and we want somebody to tell us we are safe and secure from all alarms. Many of us want church to remain unchanged. We are allergic to changing churches.
But, guess what? Change comes anyway. Things do change, and we can’t always stop them. The times change, and, as the poet put it, new occasions teach new duties. Churches do change. And that’s what my assignment is this afternoon: to think with you about the church in transition. The church in transition.
One image comes to my mind as we begin. My wife and I spent a couple of weeks in September touring parts of Germany and England. It was a fascinating time, especially Germany, where we had never been before. And most especially Eastern Germany, where Americans could not go until the Berlin wall came down.
Touring Eastern Germany was rather like touring a construction site. Everywhere you look, construction cranes and concrete mixers, trying to make up for the devastation of war and forty years of Communist rule. So many of the buildings were brand new, modern to the last degree, bright, sparkling, clean. Oh, I have to tell you about one building that really sparkled, by the way. In Berlin there is a congress hall, and it has a curved roof-line, supported by a long row of white pillars, set close to each other. The Berliners call that building, “Jimmy Carter’s smile”. Don’t you like that!?
Well, all these bright, clean, new buildings. Stores, offices, hotels, apartments. But usually, in the middle of it all, you would see an old, old building, with dirty-looking stones and hazy windows; with worn steps and a slightly shaky roof. Guess what? The church. The churches were old in a city of the new. The churches were the unchanging, in surroundings of tremendous change. Some like it that way; it’s good to hang on to traditions. But doesn’t it say something rather frightening, that the whole society can be changing, and the church does not respond? The church does not change? The church does not open up?