Expanding Leadership

Sermon by Wesley White, Interim Pastor
Milton United Methodist Church
August 28, 2005

Acts 6:1-7

 As we have listened in on the earliest congregation we have found a number of very helpful models for deepening the spiritual maturity of increasing numbers of people. We have affirmed the importance of waiting for GOD’s spirit to become clear and to work together in learning more about the experiences of faith, actually being friends with one another, attending to regular spiritual disciplines, praying, and sharing resources as well as time. These are actually excellent values for any organization that desires to grow in quality as well as in quantity.

Even as we have heard again these basic building blocks for our congregation that transcend times and cultures, we have also heard about difficulties that arise when we only work half-heartedly at being a living and vibrant congregation.

When we last looked at Acts, we found Ananias and Sapphira who promised to share their resources with those in need within the community of Jesus’ Way. We heard the dramatic end to their hypocrisy of promising one thing and delivering another – they died. This remembered event is not to say that if you make one slip that GOD is going to get you. It is to affirm the importance of working together on our basic honesty and encountering one another at a deeper level than just what we show on the outside.

This week we hear about another weak moment regarding sharing  in the experience of the early congregation. This one is not as dramatic as Ananias and Sapphira, but it is just as problematic – discrimination. Here we are not looking at individual behavior as much as we are at social class behavior. If you hadn’t noticed already there are class differences among us, no matter how we try to pretend that we are all just the same. Facing these differences is an important part of being a community. There were all manner of people who followed Jesus – rich and poor, wise and foolish, healthy and sick, Jews and Gentiles. We also know there were all manner of folks in the early congregations – slaves and slaveholders, unnamed women and women of wealth, deeply spiritual people and beginners in the faith. And there are many different groups in today's church – gay and straight, Anglo and Hispanic, fundamentalists and progressives, and the list can go on. An instance is this next weekend when the Reconciling Ministries Network is having a national meeting at our Lake Junaluska grounds in North Carolina to explore the connection between our church slogan of "open hearts, open minds, open doors" and our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. As they meet the KKK and others have been stimulated by such organizations as the Institute for Religion and Democracy and Good News (both known for wanting the church to only look like themselves) to protest their meeting. Discrimination is still alive in the church and the world.

Just as now, the first congregation in Acts had to come to grips with the differences between groups as well as differences between individuals. In the case before us, there had been property sold by some who had it to sell and it had been invested in food for the widows (in Bible talk, widows and orphans stand for the poorest of the poor, the loneliest of the lonely). So a gift of food had been provided by the congregation for those in need of it. The question was its distribution.

Just so there is no mistake about it, there is also enough food that has been provided for the hungry of the world and the question we face is its distribution. This very day more than 17,000 children will die of hunger because of distribution issues – that is one child every 5 seconds or 720 children dead while we spend one hour here. It adds up to more than 6 million deaths this year. If you want to talk about morality and terror you might want to focus on the issue of hunger and see how feeding people reduces terrorism much better than trying to kill terrorists. Our scripture for today is very pertinent to today’s world.

It is evident, in this and many other ways, that when systems are left to their own devices, unconscious divisions between groups become visible through processes of discrimination.

To pick up the story of things falling apart even when the people involved are committed to God and neighbor and one another, we need to hear the simple, human truth that we each strive to maximize the amount of our resources and the degree of our comfort.

When this maximizing of ourselves occurs on a personal level, like Ananias and Sapphira, we need to wrestle with issues of forgiveness and assisting one another to make the changes in our living that will better match our insides with our outsides.

When this maximizing occurs on a social level, like the Hebrew and Greek widows, we need to wrestle with issues of restitution and equalizing power.

A first step is when awareness finally dawns that there is discrimination going on. It is never easy to come to this awareness, for it is not only embarrassing, but to change it threatens the well-being of those who have had the advantage. Sometimes folks have to kick and scream for generations before the issue of discrimination can even be seen, much less dealt with. Here folks seemed to have caught the discrimination fairly early. That does make it easier to deal with.

I would like you to hear two important decisions that went on in the earliest congregation. The first one is the same one that Moses had to come to – the visionary leaders recognized that they needed to keep on envisioning a better tomorrow. This is not to say that one type of leadership is more important than another, but that keeping a forward looking leadership looking ahead is important. It is very easy to lose focus on the big picture and get caught in trying to micromanage all the details. When this happens, those who had been keeping the big picture before us get worn out and we lose our engine and slow down. When we slow down it is much easier to pick at one another.

So the first decision, after recognizing that something had to be done, was to affirm the present leaders in keeping on with their leading.

The second decision had to do with who would become new leaders to deal with the issue at hand – one group of widows not getting enough.

Here there is a great learning that we seem to keep forgetting. Those who are currently benefiting cannot set the rules for caring for those who are losing out. This is like a slave owner deciding to make things better for the slaves by adding an extra room on to their hovel. As much as that is an improvement it doesn’t address the basic problem of slavery. Those who are on the short end of the stick need to be the ones to address the problem in order to resolve it.

If you pay attention in the scriptures to some of the details it helps in the understanding. Here note the names of those who are set to the task of equalizing the distribution of food. The names are Greek names. When we remember that the widows being discriminated against were Greek widows we can see this process at work. Set the folks with the most to lose at finding a solution.

In simpler terms, if you have a piece of cake that needs to be divided between two hungry young boys who you know are going to complain that the other one got the bigger piece it is important to engage them both in the distribution system. One boy cuts the pieces as equally as they can and the other boy gets first choice.

We keep forgetting to engage the whole system in resolving seemingly intractable issues. This scripture story can be important in our homes and here in the congregation. It can be helpful in our community, nation, and world.

What would it be like to challenge ourselves to decide the discriminated against will set the next rule of thumb for our common life? Can you see it happening between Israel and Palestine? Between Iraq and the United States of America? Between the Mechanics Union and Northwest Airline? Between you and your spouse? Between Democrats and Republicans? Between those who want “this” in a new building and those who want “that” in a new building? Between those who are the oldest members and those who are the newest?

Wherever there are things we can’t talk about there is a seedbed for personal hypocrisy and social discrimination. We are challenged to find a way to deal with issues without giving up differences and conversation. To be healthy and creative in our decision-making we allow the first voice or the loudest voice or the angriest voice get their way again because our life together requires us to live together in diversity, not give in to those who play the bully or pity card.

When these two decisions to affirm present leadership and to recruit new leadership from those who have a stake in redistributing things for the benefit of “all” take place, the scriptural witness is that a congregation is strengthened internally and this is noticed by those outside the congregation to such an extent that their numbers increased.

Leadership that is not out for its own benefit but for the benefit of the whole congregation is a blessing. This blessing is not just for the moment, but extends out into the foreseeable future by modeling for others what it means to be a congregation that waits for GOD’s movement among us to become clear by paying attention to the teachings of those who have gone before, widening our fellowship by liking one another and not just putting up with each other, participating in many forms of worship and symbolizing GOD’s presence, deepening our prayers by intentionally praying together as well as individually, and sharing our resources with each other in honest and honorable ways.

Acts is filled with wisdom for us if we are willing to stop repeating our fragile and selfish behaviors that we have been doing for years and reclaim the power of congregational living that will change us on the inside and better demonstrate to those on the outside how we love each other enough to wrestle with our demons of hypocrisy and discrimination. In so doing the expansive love of GOD will be seen again and again.