Based on Deuteronomy 34:1-12, 1Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46
This month we have engaged scripture which has given us a look at what it means to be a people of God. At the beginning of the month we explored what it means for God to have given us the Ten Commandments and how those rules can liberate us from the tyranny of the world. Two weeks ago we were asked to think about what full participation in the Christian life might look like if we were to commit to this way of living. Last week we spent time considering what fully belonging to God might look and feel like. Finally, this week we are going to be musing about what changes will be required of us to live into the life that Jesus the Christ modeled. We all are aware that living fully into the Christian life is not easy, neither is it any longer “mainstream”. While it makes sense to many of us that disciples should live in a way that mirrors the mind and heart of Jesus (what we call “salvation”) we’re afraid of “losing our worldly lives” in the process. This fear of loss is enough to keep us from doing the hard work of adaptive change which would allow God’s almighty love to transform us into the disciples God created us to be.
What is this thing called “adaptive change”? In 1997, in the journal the Harvard Business Review, authors Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie wrote a seminal article entitled, “The Work of Leadership”. In this article the authors discuss the difference between technical challenges and an adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are like the recent basement flood at Rose Park. This is a problem with a solution; we fixed the toilet so it stopped overflowing and now we need new flooring and new paint. With enough time, expertise, money and elbow grease, things will be put back in ways that allow the basement to function much as it did before. Adaptive challenges on-the-other-hand are larger and multi-factorial. These challenges manifest when people are confronted with the need to adopt new beliefs, adopt different values, or to understand that the ways that they have been doing things in the past will no longer work. This, dear friends, is the adaptive challenge the ministry of Jesus – and the teaching of the whole of the Bible present to us. Before we go any further, let us go to God now to ask for God to help us confront the adaptive challenges that beset us, and support us as we try to adaptively change…
Near the end of Chapter 31 in the Book of Deuteronomy, God tells Moses that he will soon die. Chapters 32 and 33 contain Moses’ farewell address and blessing to the Israelites as a whole and to each of the twelve tribes. Our reading for today is the death of Moses and the passing of the leadership mantle to Joshua. It is also the end of the Torah – the five books of Moses. From here the Israelites must face the adaptive challenge of conquering the Promised Land with a new human leader. They must also continue the adaptive work of becoming a people dedicated to God. God lovingly allows Moses to look upon the land toward which he had faithfully guided the people over more than 40 years. However, though he had served God exceedingly well, he was not the leader the people needed going forward, and thus he died.
Paul is reminding the believers in Thessalonica about how fruitful Paul’s visit to them was (especially in relation to his treatment in Philippi). Paul came to them speaking in a manner pleasing to God, speaking the message of the good news of Jesus the Christ. Out of Paul’s great love for them, he cared for them like a mother for her own children, sharing not only the gospel but sharing deeply of himself in the process.
Similarly, Jesus is confronted by a lawyer who was a member of the Pharisees. Once again, these clever religious leaders ask Jesus a question to test his knowledge and beliefs. The lawyer asks, “…Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?…” Jesus masterfully distills all 613 commandments into just two – the two fundamental concepts upon which all of the other 611 commands and prophetic teaching depend. Jesus tells us all that the greatest single commandment is to “…love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind….” The expanded answer Jesus gives shows that loving our neighbor as ourselves is nearly as important as the first and greatest commandment. What Jesus is saying is that if you fully give yourself to doing the first and greatest commandment then you will have adapted enough that the second follows along naturally.
Jesus’ brilliant response to the Pharisaic question was meant to take all the teachings in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and make them accessible to the average believer. With this simplification, it should have been a slam-dunk to convert all persons into disciples who actively practice these two transformative commandments. This begs the question then, why hasn’t it worked over the last 2000+ years? After all, Jesus identifies the adaptive challenge confronting the human race – we need to fundamentally change the way we love! This is not a technical challenge with a set of straight forward solutions, rather this requires us to fundamentally change our behavior towards God and each other. The main reason behind why adaptive change is so difficult (according to Heifetz and Laurie) is because changing a belief or a way of doing things requires that we confront the ideas around that belief or behavior and how our lives revolve around the routines associated with that belief or behavior. It will be painful to change; it requires a fundamental mindset and lifestyle change.
This is the crux of why we and so many of the believers over the last 2000 years all resist the process of adaptive change. Heifetz and Laurie suggest that “people don’t resist change, they resist loss”. What are we losing when we commit to loving God with heart, soul, mind (and in some translations, strength)? We are primarily losing our sense of independence from God; the disordered thinking that suggests that humans can solve all problems given enough time, money, expertise and energy. We like treat every problem like it’s a technical challenge – something that can be solved so that things can return to the way they were.
However, we are now living in a time of adaptive challenge – having to adapt our beliefs and behaviors of what it means to be the Church of Jesus the Christ in this new world. Adaptive challenges require adaptive changes – they are not solvable using our same old beliefs and behaviors. Think about just the last seven months of adaptive challenge. We had talked a bit over these last few years about providing an online worship platform and giving, and then within a week we first pivoted to online and a few months later to drive-in worship in response to in-person worship being closed by the Bishop and her leadership. We also worked with the Conference to take part in an online giving portal and promoted mail-in offerings to keep our ministries moving forward. In so doing, we have found that many people enjoy the freedom of worshipping and giving when it is convenient to them in a way that doesn’t require them to travel to a church building. We continue to be challenged to adapt our Sunday school and other studies so that we can all continue to move closer in our relationship to God and to each other in a safe and loving way.
During this time we have all felt the grief associated with the loss of “the way things used to be” and the nostalgia that goes along with that loss. Many, if not most of us, are moving through the stages of grief elucidated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross so many decades ago. We have found ourselves in denial, anger/blame, bargaining, depression, and some have come through all that to acceptance that things will never be exactly as they have been before. Those of us who have become accepting of this new reality must be patient so that we may lovingly accompany those who are still in the grief process. Jesus knew that even though he made all of God’s Commandments easy to understand, that humans would complain that it seems too complicated or difficult – that they were afraid of the pain of losing their lives in the world. They would say to Him that there has to be an easier way. However, if there were an easier way for people to adaptively change, then Jesus would probably have told us. There is no other way except giving ourselves over to loving God with all that we have and all that we are, and every other human as ourselves. This is the adaptive challenge before us that requires us to adaptively change our loving behaviors with the ever-present help of the Holy Spirit and God’s unconditional grace. May God continue to bless all of us as we struggle to become like Jesus. Amen!