Trust & Obey... God!

SJF • Easter 7b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Jesus prayed, Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and that puts me in mind of wars and rumors of war, which sadly we have had more than enough of in the last few years. But Memorial Day also put me in mind of some of the great military leaders of our nation’s past. I was reminded of one of them this morning in an NPR broadcast: General George Patton, who wrote a book about leadership. In it he described how he would pick a soldier for promotion — a task he believed was one of the most important a commander could undertake. Patton wrote,

I line up the candidates and say, “Men, I want a trench dug behind warehouse ten. Make this trench eight feet long, three feet wide, and six inches deep.” While the candidates are checking their tools out at the warehouse, I watch them from a distance. They puzzle over why I would want such a shallow trench... Some of them complain that such a trench could be dug more efficiently with power equipment... If the men are the rank of lieutenant or higher, there will be complaints that they shouldn’t be doing such lowly labor. Finally, one man will say, “What difference does it make what Patton wants to do with this trench! Let’s get it dug and be done with it.” That man will get the promotion.

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In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles today we hear the leaders of the early church setting about a similar task, the task of finding someone to be promoted — not to a superior military post, but to something far more important in the scheme of things. The disciples are about to promote someone to the rank of the apostles, to take up the empty slot created by the betrayal of Judas.

Patton’s way to choose who to promote from lieutenant to captain, and corporal to sergeant tells us what he valued in a leader in the army: he doesn’t want complaints but obedience. And what the apostles do to find a replacement for Judas tells us what they are looking for in a leader of the church.

The apostles agree that the candidate must be a witness to the whole ministry of Jesus, from the time of his baptism on through his ascension. They don’t want a newcomer won over because of the resurrection. They want someone who for three years has followed Jesus with faithfulness and trust, even through the dark times when he foretold and then underwent death on a cross. In short, they want someone they can trust because he trusted Jesus. They want someone who will remain faithful because he has remained faithful.

The chosen one’s faith would be focused on one who offered his followers nothing in way of an earthly kingdom, but whom all — with one exception — followed in obedience and trust. And it is to fill that empty slot in the roster, left by that one exceptional traitor, that the Apostles now set about their work.

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Now, to get back to earthly armies, we know that an army could not function if every soldier simply did as he pleased. Even with one soldier a superb sharpshooter, another an expert in breaking codes, another skilled at hand-to-hand combat, without leadership to orchestrate these skills the army would be useless. So the army has a strict chain of command and a strict code of conduct.

In the army you do what you’re told by you superiors. There can be no ifs, ands or buts — as General Patton’s story indicates. And the army’s success or failure depends in large part on how well the individual gifts and skills are woven together by the leader to produce an effective force, individual skills knitted together by the masters of tactics and strategy.

The church works in the same way, but with a vitally important difference — which I’ll get to in a moment. First, though, the church’s similarity to an earthly army lies in the fact that each individual Christian has unique gifts and skills, whether in prayer or witness, music or teaching, worship or fellowship or stewardship. But the members don’t simply “do their own thing” — the church has its leaders too, both lay and ordained. And a major part of the church leaders’ task is to weave the talents of all of the church’s members together into a strong fabric that can bear the weight of responsibility placed upon it.

Christians work together, not as free agents, but as parts of a body. Look at how the apostles describe the treachery of Judas. He “turned aside to go to his own place.” He turned aside, to do things on his own; and cut off from those he betrayed and rejected, he died a terrible death.

So what the apostles are most concerned about in finding a replacement is to find someone who has been with them from the beginning, someone who has proved his loyalty by staying with them. They want someone who stuck with it even through Christ’s betrayal, capture, trial and death; someone who trusts and obeys God, and so who can be trusted to take up the responsibility of leadership, someone whom the members of the church will also be able to obey, and trust they will be led in the right way.

That is how the apostles choose the candidates Joseph and Matthias, and the way they make the final decision as to which one joins them as an apostle tells us that vitally important different thing about the church. It shows us that vital thing that makes the church different from an earthly institution like an army or a government.

And that lies in how the apostles put the final choice into God’s hands. They choose able candidates, yes, but then they pray to God for guidance, and put their trust in God to make the final choice, casting lots to see who will be the new apostle. Can you imagine a general or a business owner choosing who to promote on the basis of casting lots? Can you imagine a nation electing its leaders by drawing straws or holding a lottery? Of course not.

This is where the church is so utterly different, so utterly unlike the world and its armies and industries. For although there are leaders in the church, both lay and ordained, whether vestry members, priests or bishops, the reason we follow them, within the church is not just because they hold authority, but because we know they are on the same journey with us — the journey of faith; and because we know that ultimately they are not in charge, and know they aren’t in charge. For they, and we, answer to a higher authority. There is one commander in chief above and beyond all who follow him, one in whom we can with sure confidence place all of our trust, and to whom we can commit and affirm and fulfill our promise to obey.

When the apostles cast lots to determine who was to join their number, they were placing their complete trust and obedience in God. They said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen.” Both candidates had shown themselves faithful and obedient — so in once sense the apostles couldn’t lose — but the final choice as to which was to be called would be left to God.

The apostles trusted God completely, trusting and obeying. The apostles knew that God is in charge, not any vestry, vicar, rector, warden, bishop or pope. We are, all of us, obedient servants who place our trust in the One we seek to follow with all our hearts. And we trust and obey our earthly leaders in the church when we know that they too trust in God. We know that they are fellow pilgrims and fellow workers, and that they seek with all their hearts to follow him in obedience to his will for the good of the church. We are all in this together, my sisters and brothers in Christ, all of us together trusting in God to make up for what we lack, obedient to him who saves us and who strengthens us to serve, as he promised, all of us Christian soldiers, marching onward in the confidence that the one leading all of us is none other than God himself, guiding us by his Holy Spirit and the cross of Jesus, “going on before.”

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I want to end this sermon with another war story but of a different sort. When the Japanese invaded China at the beginning of the last World War, missionary Gladys Aylward led a group of more than a hundred Chinese orphans to safety over the mountains from Yangcheng. It was a harrowing experience, and at one point she was on the verge of giving up, without hope of ever reaching safety. A young girl tried to comfort and encourage her by reminding her of the story of Moses at the Red Sea. Gladys complained, “But I am not Moses.” The child, with that special wisdom granted the pure in heart, said, “Of course you are not Moses. But God is God.” May we too always have such trust and such obedience.

God is God, to whom, as is most justly due, we ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for ever more.+