Introducing the candidate! The pastor nominating committee presents their candidate for Calvary’s new head of staff, who will preach “Courage to Be Wrong” before a congregation to elect our new pastor. Make sure you register for the congregational meeting!
Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, 15so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. 16A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.
17 Then the high priest took action; he and all who were with him (that is, the sect of the Sadducees), being filled with jealousy, 18arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. 19But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, 20‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’ 21When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching.
When the high priest and those with him arrived, they called together the council and the whole body of the elders of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22But when the temple police went there, they did not find them in the prison; so they returned and reported, 23‘We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.’ 24Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were perplexed about them, wondering what might be going on. 25Then someone arrived and announced, ‘Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!’ 26Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.
27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,* yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ 29But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.* 30The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’
33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35Then he said to them, ‘Fellow-Israelites,* consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I don’t know how much time you’ve spent with the Book of Acts. I confess it hasn’t always been my ‘go to’ book of the bible. But these days it is.
Because we’re in an Acts kind of moment.
Think about the early church. It started when a man died as a criminal at the hands of the Romans.
And then he came back to life.
And then he left again, after telling his friends, his disciples, to take his message of God’s love to the ends of the earth.
It wasn’t how his disciples thought it was going to go. None of it was.
But there they were, traveling around the known world, and preaching about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, healing people in his name.
They didn’t have a five year plan for church growth. They couldn’t look to history. They couldn’t read old copies of the annual reports to see how other disciples of other resurrected messiahs had done things.
They were building the airplane as they flew it.
Doesn’t that feel like the world we’re in now? None of us knew March 1 how to worship exclusively online, how to work exclusively online, how to educate our kids on zoom, how to navigate an economic downturn bigger than anything we’ve seen in a hundred years.
And yet, here we are.
“They didn’t teach me this in seminary” is a thought I’ve had more than one time in the past months. I’m in your sanctuary, but you are not. We will be starting our ministry and time together in a different way than we’ve ever done it before.
And yet, here we are. And I’m grateful for signs of God’s faithfulness that have brought us to this moment. Your pastor nominating committee, as you well know, has been faithfully preparing for this moment for a long time, and didn’t let quarantines slow them down, at least not too much. God’s call on my life kept getting clearer and clearer, even though moving during a global pandemic wasn’t anywhere on my 2020 BINGO card. We may not know exactly how things will play out, but as God has called us, we will answer as best we can.
Let’s look at this story from Acts, and see what it might have to say for us, as we begin our ministry together.
Peter and the disciples are preaching. And it’s a big deal. Folks are lining his path just so his shadow might touch them. It is a world desperate for healing. The disciples had big support from the people who need healing and no support from the people in power. Perhaps that’s a reminder to us about how to measure our success—do the people who need help think we’re doing God’s work? Or do the people in power?
The religious leaders are committed to keeping things the way they used to be. They put Peter and his companions in jail. They forbid them from preaching in their town. They still can’t control the disciples’ message, so the religious authorities tweet about how it is fake news, how the disciples are threatening law and order, how they wouldn’t be put in jail if they just followed the rules.
I suspect these religious authorities today would be suing to be able to worship in their buildings, even though it would put their people at risk, just because that’s the way they’ve always done it.
I like to pretend I’m more like Peter and the disciples than I am like the religious authorities. I confess that sometimes I can get entrenched in my own way of seeing things. I can persist in my wrongness too.
When they remind Peter he’s been forbidden from preaching his message, he replies that he answers to God, and not to any human authority.
And that gets the religious leaders in such a twist that they are enraged and want to kill them.
We are thankful for people like Gamaliel.
STOP. He says. Wait a minute. Calm down.
He’s willing to stand up to his friends when they are in a lather and about to kill some disciples.
We don’t know much about Gamaliel. According to a reference later in the Book of Acts, he was Paul’s teacher, teaching him everything he knew of the Hebrew law. Some Christian traditions claim he secretly converted to Christianity. Jewish tradition says he was a Pharisee and a leader in the Sanhedrin.
What we do know, from this text, is that he was brave, calm, willing to stand up to an angry mob and try to re-direct them away from their bloodlust.
Gamaliel’s been around long enough to remember situations that may help them understand their current predicament. He remembers when Theudas rose up. Yes, he drew quite a crowd. But nothing came of it and everything went back to normal.
He remembers when Judas the Galilean rose up. Nothing came of his rebellion either and his followers scattered.
It isn’t written in Acts, but I bet Gamiliel also remembered the time when everyone came to Temple, the pews were packed, the paint was new on the walls, and they had more kids in Sunday School than they knew what to do with.
Good, bad and everything in between, he has institutional memory.
And this is one of those times when they need to be reminded of where they have been—not so they can return to that time in the past—but so they can navigate how they are supposed to live together in the future.
This is the moment we find ourselves in too. How are we supposed to live into this unknown future?
I’m curious to learn what about your past you’d lift up to me, to help me get to know the things that are essential to Calvary. It’s a real question. I invite you to think about it. It’s your summer homework.
Gamaliel uses the past to give them permission to take a longer view on the situation. “Let it rest for a while. See what happens. Let it play out.”
“So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
What I love about this passage is the reminder that things that are of human origin have a limited shelf life.
Things that are divine will stand the test of time.
And sometimes it takes a while to tell the difference.
We are called to a larger perspective, to give things time, and perhaps most importantly, to be willing to be wrong.
Gamaliel doesn’t endorse Peter and the disciples. He doesn’t say they’ve got it right. But he acknowledges they might be right. And if the disciples are right about this Jesus guy, then that means the Temple leaders are wrong.
Who wants to be found fighting against God?
Lots of us, apparently.
We see it all the time. We get so entrenched in our way of seeing things that we can’t change course, we can’t entertain new perspectives, we can’t admit we were wrong.
And our entrenchment in our mistakes get deeper and deeper, leading us to create a reality to defend our viewpoints.
In the book, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” the authors recount this story:
In the 1950s, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21. They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group’s leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20.
Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech’s own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.)
Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.
At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. “And mighty is the word of God,” she told her followers, “and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.”
The group’s mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group’s members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them.”
Festinger described that behavior as cognitive dissonance, the state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.
We experience cognitive dissonance in big and small ways.
We know what a healthy diet looks like, yet I love french fries.
We know smoking causes cancer and other bad health outcomes, yet people still smoke.
We know our dependence on fossil fuels is bad for the environment and not sustainable for the future, yet we still drive gas powered cars as if their convenience is worth the cost.
In the Acts story, the Temple leaders were entrenched in their story. We didn’t kill Jesus. Pilate did. Jesus was a trouble-maker, preaching blasphemy. It wasn’t our fault he said those things and got himself in trouble….
They could have seen the healings done in his name and said they must have made a small error. They could have seen the crowds converted upon hearing the good news, lining up to be baptized, and realized they might have missed something.
But they couldn’t do it.
They had to keep telling the story they’d already told. Even as it was wrong. Gamaliel tries to open them up to a new narrative, one where they can back down from their rigid perspective and find a new path into the future.
What I need to be reminded about, again and again, is that it is important to be wrong, or at least be willing to be wrong. Making mistakes is part of being human. So we try something. We do our best. Some days we get it wrong.
One of the gifts of being church is this is one of the places where we can cultivate the relationships we need to help each other out of our cognitive dissonance, where we can ask each other, “are we sure we’re getting this right or do we need to change our minds?”
There’s a church in Boise that is in the midst of some cognitive dissonance right now. The sanctuary was built in the 1950s. It is a gorgeous, cathedral-like downtown church, with beautiful stained glass windows. This congregation partners with mine on issues of welcome, inclusion, and anti-racism. They do good and important work in the community.
I recently discovered that one of their stained glass windows has Robert E Lee in it, standing next to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. I have no idea why a church in Idaho built 100 years after the Civil War would include a confederate general in their sanctuary. But there he is.
This week, the leaders of the church announced the window will come down and the traitorous confederate will be replaced with a black American, yet to be determined.
The Boise church had a Gamaliel moment. There had been other voices in their past who had questioned the window, but someone whose voice they could hear finally questioned, “why are we defending a confederate general?” I don’t know why they are listening now when they couldn’t hear it earlier, but better late than never, right?
I’m wondering how many other Gamaliel moments we’re seeing right now. NASCAR and branches of the military FINALLY banned confederate flags. The Southern Baptist Convention just spoke out on behalf of Black Lives Matter, calling it a Gospel Issue. A country singing trio, Lady Antebellum, just apologized for choosing a name that had such connections to slavery and changed their name to Lady A.
Now, finally, dare we hope, our culture is moving out of our cognitive dissonance about the systemic racism in our country, and are recognizing some of the ways we’ve been fighting against God. We are starting to let go of a lot of ideas that were of human origin, and not divine.
And we can wish things had changed sooner. But we can be thankful things are changing now. And we can commit to continuing the work of anti-racism that is so desperately needed in our country right now. Because our black siblings are tired. And they are tired of dying. And they are tired of having to explain, again, to white America what the issue is.
With what’s happening in America right now, in response to the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd— is’s as if once one Gamaliel speaks up, it gives cover for another person to speak up too. We shouldn’t need cover to do what’s right, of course, but maybe the question is who needs you to be a Gamaliel right now?
It may or may not be about racism, but think about the times we all keep silent because it isn’t worth the hassle to question our family member, our co-worker, our friends when they are persisting in their wrongness. Where are the situations where we can ask, “wait a minute. Let’s calm down and think about this for a minute. Maybe we can change our minds”.
You’ve already had to change your minds about a lot of things since the virus hit. I’ve been silently worshiping online, along with you the past number of weeks, and I’ve been impressed with how well your pastoral staff has pivoted to change the way worship happens. It’s not the same as worshipping together in your building, but it is much better than any of us would have thought it could be before the quarantine started.
You’ve also continued vital ministries of the church, distributing food to hungry people in the community, and providing other mission assistance. You’ve showed up with appropriate distance at rallies and vigils, recognizing the need for justice doesn’t take a break.
There’s a lot we don’t know about how the coming months will play out, but we do know that Calvary is a church with a rich history of caring for San Francisco. How can we live into that calling in new ways in the time to come? Like the disciples in the Acts passage, we are in a world desperate for healing. How is God calling us to respond?
Morgan Harper Nichols is a singer and a poet. Recently she wrote these words that embody the challenge we face, both as a nation and as one congregation:
So here’s to new beginnings,
knowing it is impossible to ignore the long history,
opening up to the mystery
that grace still finds you here.
And grace is unmerited favor
but it might not always look the way you want it to.
It will invite you out in the open
and it will also reveal what has been broken.
You might have to unlearn the way you thought things would be.
You might find that being undone
is the best way to move on, humbly, mindfully, wholly.
For how liberating it is
to pursue wholeness over perfection,
finding that grace is more than a beautiful word,
but a daily act of being undone, an awakening, a direction.
I pray we, like Gamaliel, will keep our eyes open for the Spirit of God moving in our midst, working for divine plans in the midst of our human, error filled ways, so we might be agents of God’s healing for the world.
I am looking forward to being on this journey with you, so we can figure it out together. May grace undo and awaken us each day.