As a teenager, my favorite musical and social activity was being in a church handbell choir. It was so important to me that I chose a college with a handbell choir. That greatly limited my options, and it brought me to Massachusetts, for which I’m thankful! In high school I also began solo ringing. Rather than a choir in which a dozen ringers each has a few notes, I rang from a six-foot table full of bells with a piano accompaniment. It is delightful but unusual art form. From solos at my home parish and my college chapel, most everyone knew me as “the bell guy.” When visiting my home parish, inevitably someone still recalls the bell solos and asks if I keep ringing. I haven’t rung for years. I have new pursuits and even new nicknames. Yet to many, I’m still “the bell guy.” That memory sticks. Visiting California, I usually run into that memory.
People leave, change and then return only to run into memories, prior labels and expectations. Memories of who we once were jostling up against who we are now. Parents and children face challenging reversals as they grow up and age. Care and dependence become mutual and opposite, children changing to care for parents, parents changing to be cared for. Memories and patterns of prior years are powerfully present though the players have changed.
Memories may be of embarrassment, shame or guilt. We may be treated with aggression, evasion or suspicion based on our past actions rather than our present selves. People may restrict us, zeroing in on what we once did—even if we only did it once—an embarrassment, a failure, an accusation. They focus on a particular past action instead of the fullness of our life then and now. Perhaps you know what this feels like.
Jesus had a hard time returning home to visit. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? … Where did this man get all this?” His own home town, his neighbors and community, took offense at Jesus, at his change into a powerful prophetic teacher. He was no longer the boy they remembered watching grow up. He was no longer a carpenter like his father. He had changed radically, and they didn’t like it. Jesus knew what it feels like to be restricted and rejected, for others to want a static past and refuse to affirm who he is becoming.
Life is full of change and some of the hardest parts are responding to change. Much of how we hurt each other stems from resisting or taking offense at change. We so easily cling to sticky memories, wanting to trap people in a former time and place: “I keep putting him at a distance because he hurt me so much.” “I keep treating her as a child because I don’t want to lose my identity.” “I keep telling him what to do because I fear he’ll leave me.”
We resist change in others, and they resist change in us. But we also resist change in ourselves. Complacency, dejection and fear can hold us back. “Why take the risk? I can make do with what I have now.” “It’s never worked before. This can’t get better.” “I’ve fought to keep it like this. It would be like joining the enemy.” Yet such changes may be exactly what we need and what God enables.
The Acts of the Apostles is full of such radical change, divinely inspired and enabled. Sent by the Spirit, Philip goes to the excluded Ethiopian eunuch, explains the scripture and baptizes him. Saul, notorious persecutor of the church, meets Jesus and radically changes into Paul, famous evangelist. The Spirit sends Peter to the centurion Cornelius. Though unlawful to visit let alone eat with Gentiles, Peter does both, proclaims the gospel and the Gentile household follows Jesus. The Spirit keeps branching out and more Gentiles believe and receive the Spirit in the same way the Jews had.
It is a radical, unsettling time for the Jews who follow Jesus. They hotly debate inclusion of outsiders. Leaders gather in Jerusalem to respond to the crisis. Today we remember James, Jesus’ brother. James is the pivotal figure who leads the gathering to affirm huge change, to welcome Gentiles, all people, as equal followers of Jesus. He discerns that the present crisis actually fits with the grand narrative promise, that all people may be able to seek God.
The Ethiopian eunuch, Saul, and Cornelius were just the latest in the surprising line of outsiders Jesus welcomed into the circle. Jesus invited women, foreigners, tax collectors, prostitutes, all kinds of the sick and outcast. Most people were tripped by sticky memories and labels like Gentile and sinner. But Jesus wasn’t. He knew who they were and what they’d done, and he loved them still. He was even more thrilled and intent on who they were becoming.
Like James, we can affirm and encourage God’s new work in others and ourselves, discerning amid crisis what is just and divine, not simply sticky. Those who know and remember us can be healing and hopeful. We can encourage and delight in each other’s change and development. That’s the blessing and challenge of life together, being known and being called to further life. My brothers are glad to hear stories of who I have been, but it seems they most invite me to playfully engage the present and share who I—by God—am becoming.
Richard Meux Benson, our Society’s founder, wrote that in the Eucharist, God grasps us and pulls us onward. God does not simply give us sustenance for today. God reaches out a hand and pulls forward to the future, to change, to becoming more.
We may wish to stay in the past, clinging to sticky memories. We may wish to stay in the present. God calls us into the future. Jesus invites us to change, to become more. Others may take offense. We may take offense. But Jesus grasps us and pulls us on. It’s doesn’t matter if we’ve run wild or stayed put. It doesn’t matter where we are today. Jesus invites and grasps us right here tonight in the Eucharist to becoming more loving, more welcoming so that all people may seek God, to changing for the better, for good.
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