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Sermons

Doing is Believing

September 11, 2011

Some congregations only use one reading each Sunday. In fact, they only will use a sentence or two from the Bible as “the reading.” This is due, I believe, to a modern preaching maxim that tells the preacher that focusing on one or two sentences, on a really simple concept, is the only way to get the message across.

Bible Reading

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
   you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
   as with joy at the harvest,
   as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
   and the bar across their shoulders,
   the rod of their oppressor,
   you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
   and all the garments rolled in blood
   shall be burned as fuel for the fire. (Isaiah 9:1-5)

Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep." (John 21:2-17)

Message

I have to admit, this approach bothers me. And yet one can make a good argument for its success. It’s like the motivational speakers who focus on a variety of simple acronyms to drive a particular point home. I’m not sure whether or not those acronyms really can transform a company, but they give people a common thing to say and paste across their walls. In my other life as a community organizational participant, the district organizational officer called a meeting of all the local heads, so I went. The district head spoke about how happy he was to have been appointed and about how he understands his job to be supporting us and so on. Toward the end of his talk, he talked about how we are all a team, and how “team” stands for “Together Everybody Achieves More.”

The motivational/business speaker alarm bells went off. I knew that he had attended a leadership conference—and this was not the first time I had heard this motto, because I remembered when my mother had come back from a conference bearing a tote bag with the TEAM logo on it. I was instantly put off! But over the past month, I have watched the group produce more communication and input than we had over the last two years, and at the bottom of each of our leader’s emails the slogan “TEAM: Together Everybody Achieves More” is written. It has given me pause. Are these seemingly trite acronyms really that powerful?

I have spent much time thinking about it. What are the most effective ways to lead? When I ask myself this question, I look to Scripture for insight. In the last two weeks, we have been looking at the call of the disciples; this week we read Matthew’s version of the call of the first four disciples, the same disciples we heard about in John’s version last week. This week’s version of the story is more familiar: the disciples were called, dropped their nets immediately, and followed Jesus.

I don’t remember Jesus using leadership acronyms to motivate people. What would have happened if Jesus had used the TEAM acronym as part of the Sermon on the Mount—or, for that matter, in any of the parables teaching the twelve? Only after a few weeks and a phone call or two were both my suspicions confirmed. The powerful TEAM acronym had little to no true effect in itself. That acronym, like the printed words on the page of a Bible, is dead. Whew! I was afraid someone would throw tomatoes.

Words are containers. They hold something. They hold a meaning and also give rise to a meaning. That TEAM acronym is a container. People in this community organizational group are communicating more and working harder, but it’s not because of the acronym. Rather, it’s because the district officer really meant the words he said. He is constantly working behind the scenes with people, asking people to do things, calling them and checking up on their progress. Teams achieve more because being accountable to other people drives us to work with more focus. Our district leader uses the TEAM acronym, but he is also monitoring us to see that the motto is enacted.

Just like that cute little motto, the Bible is a container. Only to the degree that we understand that it is a holy book given to us by God are we able truly to understand the power that lies within it. In communication theory, people are taught that a filter stands between an author and his work, as well as between the work and its reader. This filter consists of a worldview and an understanding of language itself, which is why educated translation is such a difficult task. To translate well, one must understand the work’s culture of origin, the culture of the reader, and the language itself.

When I read a piece of fiction, it can offer sage advice, be a timeless tale or a morality tale, and so forth. I can learn good moral lessons from other forms of media, too. They can all contain meaning, but there is a difference between that and Scripture. We can learn good moral truths from external sources, but God tries to reach us from the inside as well. When we look to Scripture as a container for the Lord’s words, we understand it in such a way that the truths that survive in the outside world—truths that God has put in place—can reform us at the same time that God is attempting to transform us from the inside. A good moral book can only do the former. We, like words, are containers too! And we can only mean what it is that is in our core. In the organization I mentioned above, previous district leaders have used the same type of acronyms and platitudes as the current leader, but to little effect. The difference? The person who is currently presiding in the office means what he says.

Martin Luther King, Jr. faced many accusations during his career and even after his death, among them that he had used other people’s speeches as the basis for his own and that he hadn’t said anything all that new— and yet he was able to lead the civil rights movement to new heights.

Some have asked what Martin Luther King, Jr. Day should be. Does an extra shopping day or a vacation day really celebrate his legacy? For some time now, MLK Day has been a day on which people are called to service. President Obama is using this day to perform community service; so are students on college campuses across the nation. This movement came about because acknowledging Martin Luther King Day became a container . . . and people were beginning to fear what it did or did not contain. Sunday, too, is a container.

I don’t know about you, but I have known a good number of fishermen. They all sit on their boats and talk a lot. I like to think of those first disciples as folks who were complaining about the Roman hierarchy, looking for the light in the darkness, and going about Daily Meditations their day—until one day, when they heard the call to follow the Lord.

In this tradition, we understand fish as truths. The fishermen were thus gathering truths, which is a noble pursuit, but it was not in itself enough. (We could compare what they were doing to modernday folk who attend leadership conferences, in the process learning cute acronyms and catchy leadership slogans.) They were gathering truths in their boat, piling up more and more and more. But to what end? They were already dissatisfied with politics and religious bodies—what changed?

Our reading from Isaiah today is a prophecy that this verse in Matthew fulfills. It talks of a light coming and the Lord breaking the yokes burdening the Israelites.

What things were keeping these two men in their boats when they were questing for something else? What gave them the fill of the truths they were removing from the water to seek a new understanding?

It was the call of the Lord. It was a message to them to start being.

We labor under the yoke of doubt and fear. Trusting in the Lord relieves that burden so that we can free ourselves from our restraints, whatever they may be. Dr. King had all the reasons in the world not to act for the causes he believed just, but he did. Knowing something is different from believing it. Believing in something means that we are motivated to action!

Sunday is a container. We are here because we believe—but how, this week, do we put that belief into action? How do we take one thing—our favorite aspect of our church, our faith, or the Bible—and put it into action? How are we called from our boats to follow the Lord?

I’m sure each of us has a different answer, but there is an answer there for each of us, because the Lord is present to us all. If we can overcome our fears, if we can overcome doubt, the yoke will be broken and the Lord will be there to carry us. To do so, however, we must not think, but believe. Amen.

Meditation

One cannot wait for conditions to be easy in order to act. . . . When God becomes a child, he knows there is no better way to express himself than through the weakness of a child. That is love telling us that it comes unarmed. - Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa

Rev. Kevin K. Baxter