May 7, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
The Bible often describes faith as a walk. The Psalmist says to God, “I walk in faithfulness to you,” Isaiah implores us “to walk in the way of the Lord,” and Paul says that we should “walk by faith, not by sight.” Today following worship, we are going to hold our Annual meeting to launch a new year of ministry and in preparation for that meeting, I’d like us to think for a moment about walking with Christ and what that looks like as individuals and as a church.
I take a lot of walks. I have a five month old puppy with a lot of energy and a four year old dog who suffers from hyperactivity, or to be more accurate, I suffer from his hyperactivity, so every day at least once, often twice, and sometimes three times, the dogs and I take a walk. I own eight acres of land and have mowed and groomed paths around my property so every day we walk those paths and the dogs burn off energy while I use the time to think.
Although I say that the dogs and I are taking a walk, we go about our walks very differently. This is how I take a walk: first I decide where I am going to walk. The paths I have mowed loop and interconnect so I can vary my route changing the distance. I think about how much time I want to devote to this walk and then set out. I follow my planned route and after a while, I turn onto the path that takes me back to my house, my walk done. Taking a walk is not rocket science. This is the way we all take walks, whether you are walking for exercise or walking to the grocery store: first you decide where you are going, and then you go there using the route that you know will get you to your destination. This is how human beings take walks.
This is not, however, how my dogs Cody and Dexter take a walk. When Cody and Dexter take a walk, first they run out the door and gallop randomly around the yard barking with excitement. As they are running and barking, however, they are also keeping an eye on me and as soon as they see which path I’m taking, they run off in that general direction, into the woods to explore, or off to a clearing to dig in the mud. As I continue in my steadfast direction down my chosen path, periodically the dogs run back to see where I am and reorient themselves accordingly. If, for example, they took a left at an intersection but I took a right, they quickly figure out that they are now alone and so will reverse gears and come racing back to continue their explorations in a quadrant nearer to where I am walking.
In other words, when I take a walk, I think of a destination, lay out a plan in my mind, and follow that plan. When my dogs take a walk, they don’t follow a plan; they follow me. Their walk consists of running back and forth and in looping circles around a moving center which is me. They don’t know where they are going; they don’t know how long this walk will be; they just know that they never want to get too far away from me.
The reason I talk about dogs so much in my sermons is because I think dogs often get things right in places where we human beings go awfully wrong and this is one of those places. As I said, the Bible refers to our Christian life as a walk in Christ, but I would make the audacious claim that most of the time, we as human beings get the nature of that walk wrong and if instead of walking with Christ the way we walk to the grocery store, we were all to walk with Christ the way my dogs walk with me, our churches would be healthier, our faith would be more responsive to the needs of the world, and we would be at greater peace in our lives.
In Acts 15, we read that the apostles have gathered in Jerusalem to discuss the future of the young church and in effect, to decide what it means for the church to “walk with Christ.” It has only been a few years since Jesus’s resurrection and during those years, the apostles have been trying to carry on his work as best they can. When Jesus left them, he told them that they were to continue his ministry and he promised that he would be with them in the power of the Holy Spirit but other than that, he was really sparse with the details. Jesus didn’t take Peter aside on that last day and say, “Look; this is the route I want you to take. I know that so far we have done all of our preaching to our brothers and sisters the Jews but once I’m gone, you will need to expand your ministry beyond Judea. I’ve drawn up a projected itinerary for you to follow as you move into Asia Minor. Also, more Gentiles will want to join the church and so I’ve listed all of the rules and procedures you’ll need to follow for admitting them into the fellowship.”
Jesus didn’t do any of that. He just said, “Go, minister, and I will be with you.” This wasn’t a problem at first because at first, the work of the young church was very similar to the work the disciples had done with Jesus, but here in Acts 15, a situation has arisen for which there is no blueprint and the young church has to decide how to proceed without clear instructions from Jesus: what should do we do with the Gentiles? One faction argues that the Gentiles must adhere to the old way of doing things and all male converts must be circumcised before they can join the church. In other words, this faction is treating faith like a walk to the grocery store. They argue, “This is the route that we have been walking; this is the path that our ancestors chose, and our job is to stick to the plan and continue to follow that path until we reach our destination.” And we shouldn’t be surprised to hear this argument put forth at the Council of Jerusalem because it is the way that many Christians have approached new situations for two thousand years. They search the scriptures for old rules and regulations that they can apply to this new situation. They write creeds, and pass resolutions; they lay out their strategic plans so that they decide where they are going as a church and plan how they will get there. They treat faith like a walk to the grocery store, as if a life in faith means carefully following a human constructed route to salvation, and most often that human constructed path that they choose is one that is familiar and well trod. After all, that path took us to where we wanted to go before, we argue, so why wouldn’t it take us to the same place now?
But of course, the world changes. People change. Society changes. Times change. And we change. And because life changes, the old routes won’t always take us to where we need to be and when we insist on following our human planned paths instead of following Christ, we end up beating our heads against a wall. How many churches spend their energy developing outreach programs to increase their Sunday School not imagining that God could do any real ministry with a small group of retired senior citizens? That’s not the path that they know. Or churches beat the bushes for men who will become priests ignoring the huge pool of women capable of Christian leadership because their human prescribed paths have never included the ordination of women. God couldn’t possibly ask the church to do a new thing, they think. As a result, churches often spend all of their energy and resources trying to look ahead five, ten, fifty years to ensure their survival instead of keeping their eyes on Christ and doing the ministry to which he calls them right here and right now. So too it is with us as individuals. We worry about what our worlds are going to look like in five or ten years and waste our energy in worry over an unknown future instead of keeping our eyes on Christ and answering his call in this moment, in this place, today. When we treat faith as a walk to the grocery store, when we assume that the only path for us as individuals or as a church is the path that worked before, or the path that we carefully lay out what we are in essence saying is that we don’t trust Christ to be Christ. We don’t really believe that Christ can manage the future without our help and as a result, we miss what Christ is doing in our lives right here in this moment, and we fail to believe that Christ might have new things, unimagined things for us tomorrow.
I’d like to end with this story from Ken Davis, a youth pastor. He says, “In college I was asked to prepare a lesson to teach in my speech class. We were to be graded on our creativity and ability to drive home a point in a memorable way. The title of my talk was, ‘The Law of the Pendulum.’ I spent 20 minutes carefully teaching the class the principle that governs a swinging pendulum, [namely that] a pendulum can never return to a point higher than the point from which it was released. Because of friction and gravity… each time it swings it makes less and less of an arc, until finally it is at rest… [I demonstrated the theory with a small child’s toy and …] I then asked how many people in the room BELIEVED the law of the pendulum was true. All of my classmates raised their hands, so did the teacher…. I then invited the instructor to climb up on a table and sit in a chair with the back of his head against a cement wall. [Using strong parachute cord, I hung a 250 pound metal weight from one of the steel ceiling beams and stretching the rope tight, brought the 250 pounds of metal up to the professor’s nose and said,] ‘If the law of the pendulum is true, then when I release this mass of metal, it will swing across the room and return short of the release point. Your nose will be in no danger.’ I looked him in the eye and asked, ‘Sir, do you believe this law is true?’ There was a long pause… Weakly he nodded and whispered, ‘Yes.’ I released the pendulum. It made a swishing sound as it arced across the room. At the far end of its swing, it paused momentarily and started back. I never saw a man move so fast in my life. He literally dived from the table. Deftly stepping around the still-swinging pendulum, I asked the class, “Does he believe in the law of the pendulum?”
The students unanimously answered, “NO!” (Ken Davis, How To Speak To Youth, pp 104-106.)
Do you believe that Christ is truly present in our world, in our church, and in our lives? Do you trust that Christ is here leading us to the ministry that he needs from us, and that Christ will find a way to do that ministry even if sometimes the paths he chooses are new and unfamiliar to us? Do you trust that Christ is at work in your life right now and will continue to be in your work tomorrow even if everything about your life changes so that you cannot see the way ahead?
May we all walk with Christ in faith, not as we might walk to the grocery store, but as Cody and Dexter walk with me, not worrying about the route, not worrying that we don’t know where we are going or where we will end up, but worrying only about keeping Christ at the center of all things.