A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 1, 2016
Acts 11:1-18 CEB
There is an old, old story, which you may have heard, about a church deacon (or it could have been a church board member in general) who opposed anything new that came before the congregation. If the new idea represented progress or change, he was against it. At a congregational meeting one Sunday, someone stood up and proposed that the church purchase and install a new chandelier for the narthex, or entrance area of the church. As you might expect, the deacon immediately jumped to his feet to oppose it. And he said, “Well, I’m agin’ it. First of all, we can’t afford it. Second of all, we don’t have room enough to store it. And third of all, we don’t have anybody who can play it!”
But on a more serious note, in my many years of ministry, I have run into people who, curiously enough, stood in the way of the Good; or in the way of progress; or it might even be said in the way of God. By the passion with which they stood in the way of the Good, or progress, or way of God, you would think they felt it was their God-appointed calling to do so. Whether it meant installing new lighting to make the worship or educational space more modern-looking and conducive to seeing, or starting a new adult Sunday school class to attract younger adults, or to reach out to the community in an effort to attract new families and grow, or making some other change so as to better fulfill the mission of what a church is supposed to do, there have been those who were “agin’ it,” who dug their heels in, and stood in the way.
Well, I was reminded of all of this a few weeks ago when I read a devotion or meditation where the writer made mention of that passage in Acts where Peter relates his vision which influenced him to welcome Gentile believers into the new Christian movement. Previously, you see, Peter had been against welcoming Gentiles. The key verse is where Peter says, “Who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17 ESV) God forbid that I be the one to thwart God’s plan! God forbid that I stand in the way of something of God that would bring blessings and benefits to others! God forbid that I be the one to prevent something good from taking place!
This situation that involved Peter being open to change and getting out of the way of the plan of God—as he saw it at least—proved to be a critical juncture and watershed moment in the history of the fledging Jesus movement. Had Peter and others like him not been open to allowing the Gentiles into their fellowship, Christianity might have died a premature death. Had the early Christ movement been limited to Jewish believers, it might have withered and died before the end of the first century. How critical it was that Peter and his comrades get out of God’s way so that the Christian movement could grow and thrive!
Well, thinking about all of this led me to ask myself, “Why is it that people—why is it that we ourselves sometimes—choose to stand in the way of God, way of progress, or way of the Good?” Now, let me assure you that in giving this sermon, I have no axe to grind, no agenda, no big change in mind, and there was no issue that prompted it. But the devotion or meditation that I read that prompted it spoke to me about an issue that is common to every church and to every one of us at one time or another. And what is that old Ben Franklin adage? “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Often, I decided, people may stand in the way of the Good out of a fear of change. Perhaps it is due to the mentality that says, “We have done it this way for the past 50 years, gosh darn it, so why should we change now?” Or maybe we fear change so much because we think change will lead to all kinds of chaos and mayhem. I am sure that there were Jewish Christians who feared if they let those Gentiles into the church without making them first become practicing Jews that all kinds of chaos and mayhem and pagan rituals would ensue to tear things apart.
Many of us are uncomfortable with changes from the ways we have become accustomed to doing things. We fear that life as we know it will break down if we allow changes to creep in. We are familiar with the known, but we fear the unknown that we cannot yet see. And so, we dig in our heels to resist change, even though that thing we are resisting happens to be something good, perhaps even the “way of God.”
Sometimes, perhaps, people stand in the way of the Good because of downright stubbornness. This is my way, or our way, the way we have always done it, and by golly it is the right way and we are going to continue doing it that way! So the battle becomes not so much about which way is the best way, but a matter of personal ego or pride and not wanting to lose. I think this can be true for religious leaders, world leaders, and especially politicians. The issue of what is best for everyone concerned can get lost in the determination to win or be number one at any cost.
Yet a third reason people sometimes stand in the way of the Good can be jealousy or not wanting to give up control. I have seen this play out over and again in some of the churches I have known. (Not in the United Church of Oak Ridge; let me make that clear, but in other churches I have known.) From the very beginning of my ministry I have had a commitment to trying to help the churches I have served grow to their full potential. Because what is the opposite of church growth? It is church decline, which can ultimately lead to church death. So from the very first small congregation I served, I have studied and sought to put into practice solid church growth principles and ways of extending hospitality, which means, of course, reaching out to and welcoming new members. But the sad truth I learned early on is not all congregations want to grow beyond their current size. One reason is growing equals welcoming new members, and new members may upset the status quo, and new members may eventually desire places of leadership, which in turn means those places of leadership currently held by those in control may be threatened. And so, out of jealousy, some persons stand in the way of growth, the way of God, what would actually be good for the congregations they seek to control.
Now granted, discerning what is actually good for a congregation is not always easy. I understand that. And we as church leaders are often faced with decisions which affect the congregation and its image in the community and possibly its future success.
But as individuals and families, we also often face decisions and have to determine the best course of action for our individual lives or the life and well-being of our family. Sometimes we find ourselves trying to discern what is really good for us, what course of action would mean progress, or perhaps for some the “way of God” for our lives. We don’t want to stand in the way of that which would ultimately be good for us or the course of action that God would approve of for us; but sometimes making that determination is not always easy. So what do we do when we are faced with such dilemmas about the ultimate good, true progress, or the way approved by God?
Returning to Peter and his dilemma and decisions that pertain to the church, I think it is important that we let ourselves and our actions be governed by compassion, justice, and what is truly best for the well-being of all concerned; that we not resist change simply because it is change without considering the merits and benefits involved; and that we put our own ego and sense of pride aside in deference of the common good.
And when it comes to decisions about what is good, true progress, or a way that would be approved by God for our individual lives or life of our family, I have learned over the years to trust my gut. I have considered life decisions in the past, and every time I would think about moving in that direction, my gut would feel like it was tied up in knots. I have made a few choices in life that at the time didn’t feel completely right, but I went ahead and did them anyway, and they later proved to be a mistake. By the same token, I have made many choices in life that I felt very relaxed and good and at peace about at the time, and they proved to be the right step.
When it comes to following in the way of God, someone has said that if the course of action you choose is true to your true, inner self and it makes you happy, then it probably is something that God would approve of. It is something to ponder.
We will in the future, no doubt—as individuals, families, and as a congregation—be faced with decisions which call us to discern the best course of action, the way of the Good, or the way of God. When we are, may we (like Simon Peter) have the grace and wisdom to not stand in God’s way, but to make way for the Good. Amen.