Allowance for Change

January 28, 2024

Series: January 2024

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"Allowance for Change"


Jonah 3:1-10
            The word of the Lordcame to Jonah a second time, saying, 2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s own mind about the calamity that God had said God would bring upon them; and God did not do it.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
            29I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 

Allowance for Change

            Picture a recent argument, one you were in or one you observed, maybe a debate of some kind.  How did it go?  If you were in it, how did you speak to the other and how did you feel about how the way they spoke to you?  Zero in on one critical question—Did the way each side engaged the other only try to persuade, but did it also offer the other the space they needed to actually change? So often our conflicts are not productive—and remember conflictcanbe productive—because the social cost to changing one’s mind, adapting a position, is too high.  Conflicts become only about shoring up one’s own side, when there could be an opportunity to get sides aligned on a common problem.

            A somewhat trivial example comes to mind.  I once heard Presbyterian pastor Steve Harrington share his strategy for navigating the harrowing labyrinth of customer service over the phone.  I think it was airline customer service, a special corner in Dante’s ninth circle of hell. When the conversation reaches the inevitable dead end, “There’s nothing I can do,” Harrington doesn’t lose his temper or his patience.  He says to them.  “So and so (I’m sure he learns their name), I need a hero here, and you’re going to be my hero.”  Harrington doesn’t take them on, he makes the problem a shared one, empowers them with his confidence, and enlists them in the service of overcoming it.  In Harrington’s experience, more times than not, people rise to the occasion and figure it out.  They change their stance, draw on resources they either didn’t earlier admit or invest the energy in exploring.  Sure, there may be some good cop vs. bad cop psychology at work, but the example opens up an important insight. 

          It's incredibly counterproductive to have a high social cost of changing your mind, reverting to tribalism as a default.  What we should want is people who take in data and adapt their positions accordingly.  It has to be real data, of course, recognizing the challenge of misinformation flooding our communication channels today.  Psychologist Adam Grant calls this thinking like a scientist, being passionately dispassionate about a position when new information should prompt you to change your mind. 

            If we want others to change but don’t allow them the space to do it, we’re really just trying to defeat them, not join with them in making progress together.  In the economy of transformation, there has to be an allowance for change.  Without it in practical terms, we are failed change agents.  In spiritual terms, we’re failed prophets.  Prophets stand up for what is right, speak the truth to power, put their wellbeing and reputation on the line for the sake of others.  But, that’s not the entirety of the work.  It can also involve turning the contest into a collaboration for a successful outcome.

            Take the example of Jonah, a faithful prophet of the Lord…sort of.  He gets the first parts right.  He is able to hear and discern the voice of God.  He employs the courage to speak truth to power in Nineveh – You had better change your ways.  This is feeling pretty good.  But, then the people and their king heed Jonah’s word and that’s where Jonah fails. They engage in a public ritual of repentance, of changing their ways.  They don sackcloth and ashes.  How does Jonah react?  It’s the first verse that comes after what you heard today, chapter 4, verse 1: “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”

            Huh?  If Jonah is disappointed that they listened to him, for what was he truly hoping?   He was more invested in eviscerating the other side than cultivating meaningful reform. Does this sound familiar?  It’s low-level thinking and consciousness, able only to think in terms of zero-sum contest between irreconcilable parties, rather than collaborative thinking, committed to transformation. 

            Transformation is a fairly fragile process, one that deserves care. Consider the caterpillar turning into a butterfly.  It must form a hard cocoon to protect itself during the delicate time of metamorphosis. We are not so different.  This is where spiritual wisdom and tools come in.  Prophetic speech is best served with a healthy dose of grace, a large portion of dignity, more dignity than you may feel your counterpart deserves.  It honors that changing one’s mind is hard.  It’s a little like learning a new language.  If you’ve ever learned a new language, you know that you make lots of mistakes.  You get corrected, and that’s how you get better.  Now imagine you’re ridiculed every time you mix up your verb tenses, you got the reflexive wrong.  You’d never learn anything.  A good prophet has to hold up a mirror to those in power that may reveal the ugliness of their behavior, but they don’t have to smear them.  Remember in the Jonah story the people, under the leadership of their own king, put on their own sackcloth and ashes when they accept the error of their ways.  We don’t have to throw it at them.  Might someone take advantage of that grace, sure, but how many more would take the opportunity to evolve with dignity?  Or, have we grown too cynical to be able to see that? 

            The unspoken piece here is that sometimes we are the ones who will need to change, evolve.  Wouldn’t we want those who correct us to afford us the same dignity? This is not abandoning accountability. It actually improves accountability because the invitation to change is more, well, inviting. 

            Sometimes the space people need is about principle. Other times it’s more practical. It’s about changing habits and that’s hard too.  It takes time, and that’s not to say some change isn’t urgent, but not all is, and if you can find that right amount and sort pressure to apply, your success rate goes up.  Did you know Bethany and Camie’s car has an on/off button?  Did you know it doesn’t need an on/off button?  The senses when you sit down and then is effectively “on.” Why does it have the button? Because drivers are used to turning their cars on and off.  There’s little cost to keeping the button around until people get used to not needing it, so they do.  Save your prophetic capital for the issues that really need it, and plenty do.

            Even though the Christian walk, not unlike certain other spiritual paths, is about the art of transformation or growth.  Ironically it can be the so-called faithful who are the most stuck in their ways.  Fundamentalism is the refusal to budge on a certain set of tenets, but if you look over time, those inviolable set of tenets invariably changes.  Change isn’t bad.  Different eras and contexts perhaps call for different emphases.  I, too, have some absolutes, or at least close to absolutes, but I am constantly questioning them.  We should be better at evolving, yet curiously many Christians cling to their childhood understandings of the faith, with which, not surprisingly they express dissatisfaction.  Of course some of your Sunday School understandings of faith no longer serve you. Are you also a first-grade math fundamentalist?  But now I’m preaching a sermon on our need to be open to change rather than becoming experts at giving others the room they need.

            Christianity requires a high degree of change tolerance, of letting go to open to holding something else.  The language Jesus uses is of dying!  Paul writes in our other reading for today about the totality of change that we will be asked to make.  His writing is somewhat cryptic to us.  He was clearly an apocalyptic writer, though that concept is often too simply understood.  On one level, it seems as though Paul was awaiting, and expecting, the imminent end of the world.  Over the course of his life, interestingly for this conversation, his beliefs on that appear to evolve.  On another level, though, he is painting a picture of a total transformation of this world that God has in mind.  He doesn’t in our passage today, for example, say the world is ending.  He says, “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31).  The present form.  This form is collapsing.  A new form is emerging.  This is true apocalyptic seeing and the word just means “revealing.”  It is an end of the world, of sorts, but within this understanding the world has ended several times before and it will end again, followed by a new beginning.  This is good news for much needs to change, and you may have experienced in your own lives as well.

            Imagine what it would look like to normalize letting old ways go, not the ones we need to hold onto, not ancient wisdom of that ancestors that still holds, not core values that kind find new forms of expression, but old ways of being that when met with new data, we realize do not serve. 
What if we held things more lightly?  You took this stance.  I thought this.  We supported that or them, but now we’ve seen something and we’ve shifted.  Is there repair to be done?  Okay.  This is great because we’re working toward the same thing, we’ve enlisted one another, and we’ve now taken a step closer to the way we want our walk to look. 

            Finally, what about those people who want no part of that dream, who are hell-bent (words intentionally chosen) on seeing the other destroyed, like Jonah initially was.  By the way, Jonah does come around after God applied the right sort and amount of pressure.  Psychologist Valeria Sabater identifies the ones who are especially committed, maybe even addicted, to fighting, the “type of person who seeks to destabilize, break the family harmony, create disputes between neighbors, and start pitched battles at work.”[1] Incidentally, this is a small minority.  Sabater says when facing this kind of person, the key is not to get hooked. Don’t take their approach personally because really they’re at war withthemselves.  They’re in conflict internally.  Did you know an early Aramaic term for Jesus was the ihidaya, meaning “the unified one.”[2]To be the Son of God is to be the one healed of internal conflict, internal violence.

            Rather than playing into people’s internal conflict, we can work to heal our own and work with those who are able to do the same in order to form a greater unified force, unified with a greater, greater One, and shared way.  We can, and should, speak the prophetic word, and receive the prophetic word, and we should do the prophetic task of building a space where people can change, saying, in effect, “I need a hero here and you’re going to be my hero, or rather, we’re going to be heroes together.  How does that sound?”