Thursday, May 21, 2009

...Or Get Out of the Way (Acts 10:44-48)

When I worked for the newspaper, the rest of the reporters and I had a little tally board that we would use to mark when people said silly clich├ęd things in a meeting.

“Let’s not reinvent the wheel,” was one of them. “We need to think outside the box,” is another. Much of the time, it sounded like people said those things just to be saying something, rather than actually making a point.

One of the ones I didn’t get as tired of hearing was “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” For one, it wasn’t a tired metaphor; it was just a simple sentence. For another, it was a call to actually do something rather than sit around talking about doing something, which usually meant that the meeting was getting close to being over. You have no idea how boring small-town meetings can be when you have to sit through every last minute of one of them.

As Christians, we face the same choices. Not just once and then done with, of course, but repeated. Sometimes we lead. In our Methodist denomination, we have invested the leadership of our church in pastors, men and women who have heard a call from God to step out and proclaim God’s word to the people. We train them, mentor them, educate them and the set them apart in what we call ordination.

But of course, not all of our leaders are clergy. In our denomination, lay people have several leadership roles as well. Smaller churches use volunteers to handle important jobs like treasurer or mission chair. Since the body of Christ does different things, leadership in that body is handled by different folks.

Which also means that there are times when we follow as well. Nobody since Jesus has been able to be a great leader in all areas of ministry and work, and even he delegated. So obviously some of us have abilities in some areas that are, ah, less than our abilities in other areas. In those areas, we follow others. We may follow them because they were picked for that job or because the system we use has set them up in a supervisory or managing-type position. Or we may follow them because we realize they are gifted to lead in that area.

The saying was constructed to sort of look down on the third choice, wasn’t it? If you’re leading, you’re contributing and if you’re following you’re also involved in an effort. But if you’ve gotten out of the way, then you have no role. You were in the way of the people who wanted to lead, or even of the people who wanted to follow the lead of others. You weren’t helping, you were just “in the way.” So all of the people doing something suggested you remove yourself and stop hindering their efforts.

But Peter’s experiences at the house of Cornelius show us how sometimes we need to do exactly that: Get out of the way of God at work. Remember that Peter visited Cornelius, a Gentile, and during a nap he had a vision of all kinds of animals. Having been brought up as a nice Jewish boy, he knew the animals in his vision were unclean and could not be eaten by anyone who wanted to follow the law of Moses. But wait, God said. I made those animals to; who are you to call something unclean and unfit when I tell you to eat of it? Remember who Moses was speaking for.

Later, when Peter speaks about Jesus and his work, the Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentiles gathered in the room and they begin to speak in tongues and show the Spirit at work, just like the disciples did at Pentecost. Peter immediately understands that God will now be at work beyond the boundaries of the nation of Israel.

Abraham’s descendants will no longer be only those physically related to the clans that came from him, but God will bring them out of all tribes and tongues.

He asks, “Can anyone deny water for these to be baptized?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course. If anyone had said yes, then I think it would have made for a whole different kind of sermon from Peter.

Peter, who has more than fifteen centuries of religious tradition and regulation built into his culture, would no more think of offering religious baptism to a Gentile than he would have to a rock. Not because he looked down on them, but because “baptism” was a religious concept that wouldn’t have any meaning for them. But now he realizes he needs to move some of his preconceptions about how God does things out of the way in order for God to work. Peter must get out of the way.

Our need to do the same is frequent and shows up in many areas. Favorite kinds of music, preferred prayers or orders of worship, thoughts about how we should dress for church – these and more can hinder us. Yes, more experienced folks should realize the sanctuary roof won’t fall in if someone brings drums under it. But hip folks should realize that their carefully manufactured look of skinny jeans, skinny glasses and overly-hopeful attempts at soul-patch facial hair can be just as much an exclusionary uniform as are three-piece suits and strands of pearls.

We all have ways of doing things that sometimes need to get out of the way when God wants to work. After all, we are not only a part of that work in the sense that God uses us for his purposes. We’re also a part of it in the sense that sometimes he needs to work on us as well.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Commandment Performance (First John 3:16-24)

It’s beyond me as to why, but it seems like we like reducing things to either-or situations a lot more often than is warranted.

We Christians are not immune. We have plenty of people who suggest that what we say or what we do is much more important than what we believe. And we have people who say that what we believe is much more important than what we say or do.

In seminary, we called this something like “the tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxy,” which is one reason I’m glad I’m not in seminary anymore. What we meant was that sometimes we find ourselves trying to figure out whether or not we should emphasize right doctrine (orthodoxy) or right action (orthopraxy). The answer, of course, is yes.

Trying to say we should pick one or the other as more important is like trying to say we should pick whether or not our right leg or our left leg is more important. It can’t really be done, and it will only lead to confusion if we try.

Many people today say they are disgusted with all the church fights over doctrines and dogmas. They say they don’t want to put up with people who just want to argue about Jesus’ divinity or whether God is a trinity and similar ideas. Jesus, they suggest, was interested a lot more in whether or not people followed him than he was in how many rules they followed or how many different theological concepts they got right.

There’s some truth to this. Jesus did seem to suggest people follow him a lot more often than he gave pop quizzes on theology. He did say a whole lot more about caring for each other than he did about professing all the right beliefs.

But can you imagine watching someone for a little while, seeing what they say and do, how they react to people and how they handle issues that come up, and not understanding a few things about what they believe? It wouldn’t be a perfect picture, of course, because none of us always practice what we preach, but it would be a pretty good snapshot. I read an article once about an executive who had two candidates for a promotion. He watched how they handled themselves at dinner and how they treated the person who waited on them, and he promoted the one who showed her more respect. He said that both candidates said they cared a lot about people who worked under them, but only one showed it.

What we do flows out of what we believe. My preaching professor in seminary said the three short sermons we prepared for his class would tell him more about our theology than the 40-page paper we turned in for our systematic theology class.

But the flip side is just as true. Yes, what we do flows out of what we believe, but what we believe has to flow into what we do or else it’s just some words.

There’s a series of novels by Andrew Vachss about a career con-man, thief and sometimes private investigator named Burke. Burke has no blood family, just a group of people he considers his family because they have stood by him in every situation. He knows he can count on them because they have always come through for him. They may never have said they would stick by him, but they always have stuck by him, which leads Burke to one of the codes he lives by: Behavior is truth. He has heard a lot of people lie to him and say things they didn’t follow through on, so he accepts behavior and behavior only as the truth.

We can’t un-link doctrine and action – and John’s letter uses that link to show us how God’s promise of salvation is real: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” It also directs how we ought to act in response: “…we ought to lay our lives down for one another.”

That, after all, was the commandment John emphasized from the Last Supper, when Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” That would become the basis of our doctrine as Christians. Everything we say roots in it. Think about it. Somebody asks us, “Why do you all always help each other out?” or something similar.

“Well, Jesus told us that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

“Who’s Jesus?”

“We say he’s the Son of God.”

“What?”

And you can see how from there we will eventually get to our doctrines of things like Jesus being fully human and fully divine, as well as how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit make one God, not three, and so on.

I’m not stupid. I know that we don’t always have that reputation as the people who help each other out, and I know that even if we did, there would be people who wouldn’t care or who would work to make up rotten stuff about us. But I’m pretty sure that’s their problem. My problem is making sure that the actions I take proclaim the doctrines I believe, and that in whatever small way I have available to me, I point the way to the gospel that has offered me salvation.