Something Completely Different

So here we are—we made it through yet another shift from Daylight Savings Time. Researchers say we all tend to be a bit more grumpy and irritable, and may even clumsier, on the two days of the year that the time changes. That means we should be gentle and even more forgiving than usual with each other I suppose. Change—especially changes we didn’t choose ourselves—are hard to adjust to. And there’s a good reason for that.

As a species, we are naturally resistant to change. Predictability means safety. It means things are in control, or, as we Quakers might say, ”in right order.” We like things the way we like them. We get used to a routine, doing certain things at certain times. Dinner at 6. Our favorite shows in the evening. Bedtime like clockwork.

Doctors now say that this routine helps us function not only emotionally and mentally but physically, too. Our bodies do better when they know what to expect. When we’re young we may burn the candle at both ends and get little sleep during the week and then have sleep-a-thons on the weekends, plus naps. But the older we get, the more likely it is that we get up at the same time and go to bed at the same time, every single day, weekend or not. Our biological clocks seem to thrive on routine.

Deep in the quiet center of our brains, our amygdala—that little almond-shaped gland that controls our fight or flight response and pumps hormones into our bodies when we’re stressed—stays a lot calmer when we know what to expect. Life is smoother if we don’t have huge wrenches thrown into our plans, if life proceeds along a fairly normal and expected course.

The trouble is, wrenches do get thrown, and we don’t always have a lot to say about it. Daylight Savings Time rolls around again, without our permission. In fact, changes happen around us and to us constantly—I’m sure you’ve noticed. We roll along on a sea of continual change—changes in government, in societal norms, in the climate, in our families, in our moods, even in our faith. Our traditions and routines get stretched pretty thin. And new people come along and suggest maybe those things we thought were so important don’t matter much anymore. It sometimes feel like new generations have some kind of mandate to disrupt—if not dismantle—the sacred cows of the generation before.

As upsetting and uncomfortable as all this sounds—and it is, for those of us who are doing the changing—I see God at work in this process, as God continually creates something new in the world. Something is always emerging with God. Each generation is the soil in which new seeds will be planted, and as every good gardener knows, the soil has to be turned and loosened so that seeds can spread roots and grow tall.

When I was 13, my older brother started watching a show that seemed a bit shocking to me. I’d never seen anything like it. It was called Monty Python and the Flying Circus. Maybe you’ve heard of it—or watched it yourself. The show started in England, the brainchild of a comedy group that wanted to do something new and irreverent with the comedy of the day. They were funny and free and smart and they turned a lot of the expected comedy norms upside-down. They did away with things like punchlines and carefully crafted characters. Their comedy was creative and unexpected, with zany characters and improbable situations and unlikely, nonsensical endings. They worked hard to end their sketches in ways that the audience wouldn’t see coming. One iconic scene ending was developed by John Cleese: He appeared in the foreground of the shot as a television commentator, saying “And now for something completely different.”

In the context of a comedy show, this kind of zany, free-for-all change—expecting the unexpected—is fun and funny. When we’re watching something on the screen, which we can control by pushing the Off button, we don’t mind much when we are surprised or challenged. Even when sticky issues like gender roles and race are part of the joke, we usually take it in stride. That’s part of what makes it funny: we see ourselves in the characters and maybe get a glimpse of things in a new light. Maybe having the freedom to laugh at ourselves a little helps us have more compassion or humility, perhaps we let a little more truth shine in. New ideas can begin to sprout in that soil.

Earlier this week we marked the 500th anniversary of the day 34-year-old monk Martin Luther pinned his document called 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther had written the tract because of questions and concerns he had about indulgences, a practice the Catholic church allowed as a kind of payment for sin. A common saying of that day was, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Luther insisted that forgiveness was a gift that could be given only by God, not something that could be earned or bought by God’s children. The theses Luther offered asked people to question deeply their long-held beliefs, lived out in their faithful practices of the day. Did individuals need a priest to intercede for them, or could they pray and receive forgiveness from God on their own? Are we brought into relationship with God because of our own good works or because of God’s good grace?

Luther’s proclamation started the Reformation and it served then—and serves now—to break up the soil of common practices, to make us question our assumptions about the way life is, the way it should be, and the way God wants it. Instead of keeping priests on pedestals, shrouded with mystery, Luther brought the church leadership into the realm of all believers. He set the groundwork for what George Fox would experience and share so powerfully 100 years later: Christ has come to teach his people himself.

By the time George Fox was born, in 1624, the reformation was in full swing and several generations had pushed back against the Catholic practices of the earlier era. Fox was born into a Puritan village, which means he grew up with the idea of purity—personal purity, made possible by God—all around him. Even as a child, people recognized he had a religious, contemplative disposition. He later wrote in his Journal, “When I came to eleven years of age, I knew pureness and righteousness; for while I was a child I was taught how to walk to be kept pure. The Lord taught me to be faithful in all things, and to act faithfully two ways: inwardly to God, and outwardly to man.”

Even though young George Fox seemed to be in harmony with the beliefs of his time, God was raising him up to be a challenger of the status quo. After a time of difficult seeking and struggle, Fox had an experience of God that enabled him to bring something completely different to the world. Christ himself had answered Fox’s deep need, after he’d sought relief from the best minds and spirits he knew. Because of that experience, George Fox has been able to show people ever since that Christ’s immediate, guiding, loving presence is available to them as truth, constancy, guidance, and comfort, every day of their lives. No intermediary needed.

George Fox was sober and serious minded, and no one would have mistaken him for the Monty Python of his day. But he was about the business of breaking up the soil of common practice. It was time for a new thing from God. Fox felt led to challenge many social and religious norms. Instead of preaching in elaborate, steepled churches, Fox brought his message anywhere people gathered: homes, hillsides, orchards, and fields. He pushed back on the idea of outward rituals, teaching that traditions like baptism and communion should be inward works of the spirit, practiced as a natural part of a larger sacramental life.

As these ideas circulated and Fox’s crowds grew, other challenging ideas came to the forefront. Friends used plain speech—thee and thou—in addressing everyone, not distinguishing between people of high or low office. This was seen as disrespectful, especially by those in power. Fox believed in the ministry of all believers, teaching that because it is Christ within that preaches and teaches both men and women were equipped to share the Gospel, as they were so led. Friends refused to swear oaths or take up arms, which seemed to separate them from expected norms of citizenship. And Fox made good use of the many times he was imprisoned for these various ideas, writing copious letters to judges and leaders, protesting unjust imprisonments of Friends and pushing back on corrupt laws; calling for those in power to turn toward the light of God as the compass for their governance. His ideas challenged—on personal and societal levels—all those who heard or read his writings. And their influence—and stirring power—is still evident today.

Our Old Testament reading in Isaiah is a challenge for the people of his time. He is asking them to pay attention, to watch for the new thing God is doing in their midst. In the verses just before the ones Sherry read for us, Isaiah described God as the “one who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.” This imagery of course brings up the heroic effort in which God saves the children of Israel as they are being pursued during the exodus by parting the Red Sea. This is a beloved story the Jewish people hold as a sacred part of this history. But here Isaiah was asking them to release their tight grasp on that important story of the past. He wanted them to know their God is also acting in the present. Don’t always be looking back, Isaiah says. Watch for God doing something new today.

In his time, George Fox brought this same idea to people looking for a pure, true way to worship that bypassed external forms and political hierarchies. Fox showed them a way to meet God in the immediacy of their need. God met with them—and meets with us—in that inward silence, preparing us for the next new thing on our paths. No matter what our age or experience, God may be about to bring something completely different into our lives in the name of love. This is part of the secret of eternity Paul shared with the Corinthians in our New Testament reading. Our outward circumstances change, but our inward relationship with God—where we meet God one on one in the stillness of this precise moment—that relationship is unchanging and forever.

So today, in 2017, as we adjust to a new time, in a new era, with its ever-changing social and political norms and its confrontational and sometimes divisive struggle toward truth and light, we can watch with hope for the new thing God is doing. New ideas—God’s good ideas—are being planted in us and in our world even now. May we turn toward God’s light for guidance and comfort as we do our best to adjust to the changes in our world. If we do, we’ll be in the best possible company, walking with our reliable, wise, ever-loving God, who unfailingly speaks truth and brings peace into every situation we face, in every age, without end.

Amen.

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