The Future is Now
The Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
The Future is Now
Exodus 17: 1-7
Romans 12: 1-8
Luke 17: 20-21
“The future depends on what we do in the present.” —Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948), Indian Lawyer, Anti-colonialist, Activist, Philosopher
One of the things I’m finding hard these days, but must do, is to stop talking about what “we” must do. For 18 years, “we” have done many things. Now I go one direction and you, St. Stephen, go another. Today “we” discuss “you.” And I hope it is a discussion. I hope you ask me questions and continue to talk to one another and as a church about what we talk about today.
I have been learning recently about various theories of change. I find them helpful and will use them as we go along. For instance, our OT lesson today is a famous story about the frustrated children of Israel, wandering the desert under the still suspect leadership of Moses, wondering if they are going to die of thirst or hunger in this barren, forsaken land. They ask a key question. In fact, in my opinion this is the key question that defines the whole Biblical story, the whole story of human relationships with the Divine. To steal Douglas Adams’ phrase, this is the real “question of life, the universe, and everything”: “Is God among us, or not?”
According to the thinking of change theorist William Bridges, the lost and confused Israelites are going through what he calls Transition. Most of us think of “change” and “transition” as the same thing, but Bridges views it differently. Change is the specific thing that is changing or has changed. It may be planned or unplanned, but change is already taking place. What follows change is a “neutral zone” in which transition takes place. Transition is the “visceral and behavioral” impact of the change on people’s lives. This very human internal process ultimately results in new beginnings. This new beginning is not so much the result of the changes made, but of people’s reactions to them during the transition.
The 40-year desert wanderings of the children of Israel are an almost perfect illustration of this process of change. The change is that after hundreds of years, they are no longer slaves in Egypt: they are free. Furthermore, they’ve been freed by the actions of a God they only dimly understand, through the leadership of a man they barely know. Their sense of where they are going is vague at best—some “land flowing with milk and honey.” What does that even mean? It sounds like a fantasy land.
Moses’ challenge as a leader is how to manage the transition. Some people are mourning what has been lost. Some are looking forward to and working toward a future that they have defined in their own heads but may not be the one that is best for the most people or for God. How to move toward a healthy and faithful new beginning is the challenge before Israel in the desert. As people of faith, the key question during the transition, is “Is God among us or not?”
I can’t help but relate this to my own transition. For Margaret and me, the change has happened, or is happening. Both of us have to manage the transition—our sense of loss, our uncertainties, our hopes and dreams about the future individually and together, the expectations we have and how realistic and fair they are. But throughout that transition, the single most important part we need to hold before us is the relationship. We are making this change this way as a couple, so managing and staying focused on our relationship is the most important thing we must be doing.
It’s the same for St. Stephen. During this process, relationships are critical. Every voice needs to be heard, every feeling needs to be respected and processed. And in the midst of all that, the most important question is the one the Israelites are asking. One way or another, everyone in the church will be asking, “Is God among us or not?” Change always brings up that visceral uncertainty among God’s people. It’s not uncommon for us at some level to look at the stability of the past as God’s comforting presence, and the instability of transition and change as somehow a sign of God’s abandonment. So key to managing the relationship and visioning the future is trusting that God is not only in the change, and not only in whatever emerges, but also that God is in the transition.
Remember that not only was God with the Israelites in the desert, but in fact the most important things that Israel ever learned also happened in the desert. Think about it: it was in the desert that God revealed God’s self directly to Moses and indirectly to all the people. It was in the desert that the Israelites finally understood themselves to be God’s people, called by the name of the Lord. It was in the desert that the Israelites received the Ten Commandments. It wasn’t in slavery that the Israelites discovered who they are and whose they are. Nor was it in the established Israel, the land flowing with milk and honey, that the Israelites discovered who they are and whose they are. It was in the desert. It was in the transition.
And that is one of Wm. Bridges’ key points: we are more likely discover who we are in the transition than we are at any other stage in our corporate life. And the Bible’s point, a point that is hammered upon throughout the Biblical story, is that we discover and grow closer to God during the transition as well. It is a well-managed transition that gives us the wherewithal to go where we need to go—and a poorly managed transition that results in an unhealthy and troubled new beginning.
In a lot of ways Bridges’ theory of transition is the model for the Presbyterian interim process. The interim process is frustrating and often seems to be a period of decline. If you measure success by numbers—attendance, new members, and money—interims are rough periods for most churches, a kind of desert experience. But viewed from Bridges’ perspective, the interim process is a time in which a church can in a healthy way manage transition, taking the time needed to process all the mixed feelings about change that inevitably emerge, so that the new beginning under new leadership is also healthy and promising.
Our Gospel reading today is one of my personal favorites because it is Jesus’ own answer to the key question of all scripture, and arguably of all humans: Is God among us, or not? His answer is striking and profound in its simplicity. Jesus is getting that question we’re all too familiar with: when’s the end coming? When will the Kingdom of God be established? Heaven knows how often we’ve seen apocalyptic movements emerge that affirm they absolutely know when Jesus is coming back and when judgment day is coming. Jesus is impatient and frustrated with these prognostications that posit that the future matters more than the present. “The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For in fact, the Kingdom of God is among you.”
There it is, the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. Is God among us or not? And it is from the very person we hold to have the ultimate answer, the person we call “the way, the truth, and the life.” If anyone knows the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything, it is Jesus. And Jesus says, “THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS AMONG YOU.”
The Kingdom of God is not in the future. It is here, in the present, in and among you. The Kingdom is now.
I like to read it as “the Kingdom of God is among you,” because that way it so clearly refers to that old question of the Israelites, “Is God among us?” But the Greek can also be translated “within you,” and in many Bible translations it reads exactly that way. Two theories of change seem directly to address this idea. Wheatley’s theory of emergence maintains that “people and organizations have inherent ways of self-organizing and adjusting and adapting.” As one source puts it, “In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn’t change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationship form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what’s possible.”
Jesus is saying that the Kingdom is already here, right now, among us. Our job is to trust that it is there and let it emerge from within us. This is what Wheatley is saying as well. Organizations change through ‘networks of relationships’ among people with shared values and dreams. So your ongoing job is to allow the Kingdom to emerge naturally through the networks of relationships that make St. Stephen who and what it is. This is especially vital, and especially possible, in a church like this: a program-centered church, a church with between 150 and 350 in attendance. As you recall I’ve said this is the most democratic of church models because it is too big to just do whatever the pastor tells it and yet still small enough that relationships really matter. During the interim process, and in fact all the time, leaders need to facilitate the emergence of the new through cultivating this democratic quality of a program church—through focus groups, talking to different and diverse interest groups and cohorts, through listening and learning. I hope we’ve already established some models for doing this over the last couple of decades.
I think this is the key to how we’ve managed to navigate the various crises and defining moments we’ve faced over the last few years—by listening and learning and letting the Kingdom of God within and among you emerge naturally and help you know who you are and who you are called to be in whatever times you’re facing. I suggest you hold the words of our great saint, St. Walter, Walt Adams, before you. In the 90s during the AIDS crisis when the session was debating whether or not to house an AIDS outreach here in the building, Walt ended the discussion with these words: “If we are who we say we are, then we know what we have to do.” And so the church welcomed the AIDS assistance group.
“If we are who we say we are, then we know what we have to do.” That is the theory of emergence in a nutshell.
There are two other theories of change of which I’m very fond and to which I call your attention. The narrative theory of change is similar to the emergence theory but approaches it from a different angle. Narrative “focuses on generating experiences and telling and retelling a story to create change without judgment, believing what is needed is already present.”
The narrative approach might look, for example, at the times in St. Stephen’s past when change occurred, perhaps focusing on transitions between one pastor and another. How did the story go? Who was St. Stephen then? What did that experience teach us? One useful tool of narrative change theory is to rewind the story—tell it differently, perhaps with a preferred outcome. What might the church have done or avoided to achieve that goal? How might that help you think about the process of change you’re involved in now?
A final, very favorite approach of mine is appreciative inquiry. It’s pretty straightforward: “Value the best of what is and make more of it happen.” What are you doing well? There’s a lot to talk about there: community mission, amazing music and worship, a positive reputation in the community for LGBTQ inclusion and for leadership in homelessness, social justice, and music. Great CE programs for all ages—look at that amazing high school worship service last week! Strong, capable leaders. Two successful capital campaigns. There’s a lot to focus on if we focus on what we do well. As Paul says in Phil. 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about[d] these things.” Focus on what you do well and then do more of it.
Both the narrative change and appreciative inquiry approaches are excellent for reframing, that is, helping the church see its story and its situation in a new, more positive, and more hopeful light. Much of my time here we have worked to reverse a narrative of scarcity—that is, believing that we just don’t have enough and therefore can’t do much. The church’s situation today is very different. One of the challenges of the interim period, this transition period, is that people will be tempted to fall into that narrative of scarcity again. It is much more faithful, especially because you have the evidence before your eyes, to adopt a narrative of abundance. St. Stephen has the resources it needs, financially and otherwise, to get the best pastor it can have, the best staff it can have, to have better and better programs, to shoot for higher and higher goals. Obviously, judgment and pragmatism need to be used—but this church has proven it can do all things through Christ who strengthens it.
I hope your overall takeaway from this sermon more than anything is simply this: The Kingdom of God is among you and within you right now. There is not some faraway idyllic future in which all the pieces come together that is more of a fantasy than a reality. You already have the tools you need, because the Kingdom of God is already within and among all of you and within St. Stephen Presbyterian Church. Right now you can tap into God’s dream for you during this transition period. During this transition you can rediscover and possibly redefine yourselves in new ways as you focus on your relationships with God and with each other. Hold tight to the most essential tenet of our faith as Christians: God is among and within us. Hold tight, and you will certainly rediscover God and St. Stephen in this time of transition.