by Rev. Joe Connolly
“After that I visited the regions of Syria and Cilicia. The communities of Christ located in Judea had no idea what I looked like; I was still unknown by sight to those churches. They only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’” — Galatians 1:21-23.
I need to start my comments this morning by saying I am disappointed two people are not here today. One, of course, is Tom Rasely— you heard about him not being here.  He expected to make the trip in from Michigan to be here for a special guest appearance, to use the show business term. As you will see later, his music will be here but Tom will not be here in the flesh.  He could not attend because of family commitments is how I like to put it.
The other person I am sorry to say is not here is Bob Oehme. We normally expect Bob to be here Sunday to Sunday. But today Bob could not be here, also because of family commitments.
Now, I say I am disappointed Tom and Bob are not here because they both appreciate the fact that I have a finely developed if somewhat warped sense of humor. In fact, they appreciate the fact that I have a finely developed if somewhat warped sense of humor because (rumor has it) that they themselves also have a finely developed if somewhat warped sense of humor and similar sense of humor.
Indeed, rumor has it also if you put the three of us in one room together laughter will break out shortly thereafter. Please note: the jokes being told in that room will probably be old and they might not be funny. (At this point I can hear Tom saying, “Speak for yourself!”) The fact that the jokes are old and may not be funny does not mean we will fail to laugh at each other’s set-up lines and punch lines as we flail around making futile attempts at witticisms. (Slight pause.)
Well, I needed to say all that because the sermon topic today is “change” and there are two very, very old church jokes I want to tell, both relating to change in the church. You see, if Tom Rasely or Bob Oehme were here, they might laugh at them.
I also need Tom or Bob because this is the point at which one of them would say, “So Joe, how old are these jokes.” And then I say, “These jokes are so old, they were told before the salad was served at the Last Supper.”
And then the other one would say, “So Joe, how old are these jokes.” And then I say, “These jokes are so old I fell of my dinosaur laughing at them.” I’m not sure anyone else here will oblige me on that, so I just had to provide the lines, the set ups.
Well, both of these old church jokes are similar. You will notice that when the denomination is mentioned in the set up you can fill in whatever denominational group you want to insult.
I’m going to stick with ‘Congregationalists.’ Self-deprecating humor is usually safe. So, here goes.
“How many Congregationalists does it take to change a light bulb?” (Pause.)
(The pastor prompts some of the congregation.) “How many Congregationalists…” (Someone finally picks up the line and repeats it.)
“Change? Change?” (Pause.)
Second joke, same as the first, different answer. “How many Congregationalists does it take to change a light bulb?” (Pause. This time a number of people in the congregation asks the question. The Pastor then repeats it.)
“How many Congregationalists does it take to change a light bulb?”
“My grandmother paid for that light bulb!” (Pause.)
Change— change in the context of the church is no joke. In the history of the church universal, change has not been favorably looked on for a long, long time.
That seems quite peculiar to me. Why? I would argue that about 2,000 years ago the church was born in change. The church was the product of change.
Equally, I would argue that the secular world into which the church was born and in which the church developed was a place where lack of change was treasured. That secular world was the world of the Roman Empire, where a lack of change was treasured.
About thirty years before the birth of Christ the Roman Empire entered a period known today as the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. That peace, that stability was especially prevalent in the area of the Empire centered in the Mediterranean Basin, the place which the church took a foothold.
And in that time, during that Pax Romana, there was, for the secular world, a period of extraordinary stability. That stability meant there was a decided lack of change in many phases of life. And then, just about the time when the Pax Romana ends, some 300 plus years after its start, the church becomes the religion of the State, the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Part of me suspects the church picks up the mantle which says the stability of the Empire is good. Indeed, any stability is good, no matter what the price. The church, effectively, endorses a lack of change and makes stability, equilibrium its own. Therefore, the church, an entity born into change and in change has, for 1,700 years, seen a lack of change as its rightful heritage. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Galatians: “After that I visited the regions of Syria and Cilicia. The communities of Christ located in Judea had no idea what I looked like; I was still unknown by sight to those churches. They only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’” (Slight pause.)
Here’s a simple question: ‘what is church about?’ I think it’s likely a lot of people today would say church is about recruiting new members or about converting people or about getting people to be with us on a Sunday.
I don’t think that’s accurate. I want to suggest church is about making disciples. But I need to be a little clearer about the term disciple, since I think we generally do not understand what a disciple is.
The kind of disciple the church needs cannot be simply reduced to those who profess a specific set of beliefs. I maintain the church is not simply about what you believe. The church is about how you believe what you believe. Therefore, the church needs people, disciples, who see Christianity as a way of life.
And that’s where we come back to what Paul says and that’s where what Paul says is a direct reference to change. I hope this is evident: Paul is a Jew. And Paul has taken on a personal mission to attack these apostates, these followers of Jesus.
(Quote:) “You have heard, no doubt, the story of my former life in Judaism. You know that I went to extremes in persecuting the church of God and tried to destroy it.” Indeed, Paul was zealous for the (quote:) “traditions of my ancestors.”
I would, therefore, suggest that change is not where Paul is at. But I would also suggest change is not Paul’s idea. By Paul’s own testimony it is God Who has brought about an astonishing change in Paul’s life.
And what is that change? Yes, there is the revelation about the Messiah, Jesus. But, because of Jesus, there is this great revelation about Who God is. In Jesus Paul discovers God is a God of all people, not just some. God is not a God of a tribe. And this is a massive change, for Paul and for the world.
So, it should be obvious is that since this God is a God of all people this God is not one bound by conformity. Indeed, this is a God of change, a God therefore revealed as a God of hope, a God of freedom, a God of justice, a God of liberty, a God of wisdom, a God of peace, a God of joy, a God of love.
Hence and also, discipleship needs to be a way of life for Christians because seeing God as a God of hope, freedom, justice, liberty, wisdom, peace, joy, love means acting on that vision of God which embodies change. And make no mistake about it: hope, freedom, justice, liberty, wisdom, peace, joy, love embodies change.
And please remember: today we live in the midst of Empire. And Empire does not take change well. It never has.
Empire is not about change. Empire is about stability. I would also invite you to note: there is a difference between peace and stability.
I would be hard pressed to say the Pax Romana was about peace. Rome was constantly at war. The Pax Romana was about stability— stability— a lack of change.
And of course hope, freedom, justice, liberty, wisdom, peace, joy, love— each of these— are about different aspects of change. And so, if we expect to be disciples, if we expect to be about hope, freedom, justice, liberty, wisdom, peace, joy, love we need to commit to change as a way of life— discipleship— change as a way of life.
Well, that leads me to think this way: what is the real issue for us? I think the real issue for us is ‘will we commit to Empire and stability?’ Or ‘will we commit to a God who embraces change by empowering hope, freedom, justice, liberty, wisdom, peace, joy, love?’
Oh and by the way— this is no joke. And that’s no joke! Discipleship— it’s a way of life. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I, of course, did not mentioned the one obvious problem with change. When you want the other person to change but you don’t want to. That doesn’t work— ever.”
BENEDICTION: Let us walk in the Spirit, remembering that we are one in Christ, for, in the Dominion of God, the grace of true freedom is the inheritance of those who walk in the love of God. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.
 Early in the service this was announced.
 This was the Anthem heard after the sermon.
You Call Us – Music by Tom Rasely, Lyrics by Joseph Connolly – © 2012
You call us, you guide us,
Forever beside us.
Your Grace abounds,
Your presence is real.
Your love surrounds us,
Your wisdom astounds us.
And your spirit is active
To nurture and heal.
Your realm is never ending,
Our hearts to you are bending,
For yours is the glory
Throughout this time and space.
One service, now ended,
Again arms extendedWith service to others
Revealing God’s Face.
Oh, You call us, you call us;
Yes, you call us
And Your presence is real.
Oh, You call us, you call us,
Yes, you call us
To nurture and heal—
To nurture and heal.