Spirited Reflection: Embracing Change
One of the gifts that the Magi present to us, which unfolds in the stories of Epiphany, is the willingness to embrace change. Their journey to the Christ Child explores the significance of a mysterious new birth, a change sure to upset the order of things. When they begin to sense the danger percolating in that moment, the Magi change their travel plans. All of us who travel know that changing plans takes effort! On the third Sunday of this season, we witness the newest followers of Jesus embrace another kind of change which redirects their whole lives. The fishers leave their nets and the family businesses to set out on a journey into an unpredictable future. Not everyone would be so courageous.
My life resonates with the first disciples’ willingness to engage the unpredictable. Although I had shaped my early university career to reach Law School, once there, ministry presented more engaging opportunities to pursue justice with compassion. So off to seminary I went. My years in ministry have led me to serve in many different roles in five different provinces and in Scotland, too. Embracing change at the prompting of the Spirit has been a gift I’ve depended on whenever God has called me to explore new challenges. In workplaces of the future, it seems most people will face the same need to shift positions and transfer skills throughout their working lives too. We would be as wise as Magi to cultivate the ability to embrace change with discernment and enthusiasm in new generations preparing for employment and community service.
Still, paired with the disciples’ willingness to move into the unknown, the story of Jonah reminds us that not everyone embraces change willingly. Jonah is a parable of resistance. In the first part of the story, Jonah’s well known adventure in the belly of the great fish is triggered by his resistance to God’s new task for him, the call to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. In the section read this Sunday, ‘post-belly’, I picture Jonah dragging his feet as he reluctantly carries out this task, crying out without much enthusiasm that Nineveh must turn from its ways to receive the mercy of God. It seems Jonah can’t get his head around the possibility God would show mercy to Nineveh. Pah! How could God forgive the Ninevites, those whom Jonah has been raised to despise?
The parable of Jonah’s resistance provokes us to ask if we ever resist God’s new possibilities.Have we considered some group so far beyond our own interest and concern that we could not imagine God showing mercy or compassion to them? When we work in the complexities of justice ministry these days, we sometimes confront Jonah’s attitude in the hearts of those who resist any compassion for those who seem like Ninevites to them. Within our churches there will be some who, like Jonah, cannot fathom that God will show mercy to those more readily labelled as “enemy” or “other.” For them the Magi’s gift of embracing change stretches the heart. Such change of heart and mind takes courage. How do we cultivate that gift for embracing change in each generation? Perhaps only as we are shown mercy are we prepared to
show mercy. This is something Jesus wouldn’t let his followers forget. And as Mark’s gospel will show us time and again, Jesus didn’t give up on those four fishers, even when they failed to get his point.
But then, what about Jonah, that most irritable and irritating of prophets? Jonah’s story ends with God arguing the case for Nineveh because God’s mind has changed toward that city. We never find out if Jonah embraces the change to which God invites him. Perhaps there is a lesson for us here, too. It is so much simpler to engage with those who share our views and commitments. Yet God doesn’t give up on Jonah just like God didn’t give up on the Ninevites. God expects change, even in the face of resistance!
The Spirit Jesus invites us to embrace change with discerning and merciful hearts. But Jonah reminds us that such change engages us not only with those who have been written off as beyond God’s concern but also with those resistant souls who are irritable and irritating, too! God’s mercy embraces every heart, including those we might think don’t deserve it. To follow Another’s Way is to prepare to embrace change because we have been embraced by a heart moved by mercy again and again. And again.
Rev. Dr. Nancy Cocks is a retired Presbyterian who has served as congregational pastor, theological professor and ecumenical staff. She is a member of the KAIROS Ecological Justice Circle.
This reflection is excerpted from Gifts for Another Way, Epiphany Year B Resource for Justice Seekers, available through KAIROS.