Courage to Be Wrong

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

May 25, 2014

Acts 5:27-38

Our story continues from last week.

Peter and John had been told to stop teaching in the name of Jesus. And they didn’t listen.
So the authorities bring them back.

‘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.’

I’m struck by how differently the religious leaders see the disciples activity. Peter says they are compelled to witness to what they have seen and heard. He speaks about healing that is possible in Jesus.

The authorities say the disciples are doing it so people will think the temple leaders are guilty for killing Jesus. “You are determined to bring this man’s blood on us”.

While Peter would certainly be fine with such an outcome—there is no love lost between him and the temple leaders—it is not his motivation.

I’m reminded of the dangers of presuming someone else’s motives. It is fair for the authorities to be worried about the outcome of Peter’s preaching and teaching. They are not heroes in his story. But once you’ve determined you know why someone else has acted the way they have, you are not having a real conversation. You then mis-read the rest of the conversation.

And you end up enraged and wanting to kill people.

You’ve probably already figured out that most weeks I tend to preach to myself. If you get something out of it too, that’s great. But I have certainly been guilty of assuming I know what motivates someone else.

How many conflicts in the world could be avoided if we took the time and energy to figure out why people do the things they do that we just do not understand and we just cannot fathom.

Clearly that’s where the temple authorities are. Stuck in this frustrating loop of “stop it already. This isn’t how we do things around here!! Why won’t you go away and leave us as we were?!

We are thankful for people like Gamaliel.

Willing to stand up to his friends when they are in a lather and about to kill some disciples.

STOP. He says. Wait a minute. Calm down.

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, willing to stand up to an angry mob and try to re-direct them away from their bloodlust.

It suggests he was a respected leader, well known by the angry crowd.

Would they have listened to a stranger with the same advice?

Would they have listened to the rookie in their midst?

Would they have calmed down and heard the wisdom from someone they didn’t know and trust?

I don’t think so.

Last week I talked about speaking boldly for the gospel, without being a jerk.

Perhaps the corollary to that is you have to have a relationship with people to share a difficult truth.

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 everyone 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 and the paint was new on the walls and they had more kids in Sunday School then 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.

He 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!”

Human origin?

Divine origin?

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. 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:

Half a century ago, 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.”

The psychologists 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 we eat donuts.

We know smoking is bad for us, 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.

The Temple leaders were entrenched in their story. They didn’t kill Jesus. Pilate did. Jesus was a trouble-maker, preaching blasphemy. It wasn’t their 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.

Just today, Pope Francis stopped at the wall that divides Israel from Palestine, while on his tour of the Holy Land.

His route had been planned to pass close by the separation wall. Palestinian officials had hoped he might stop briefly to contemplate the Israeli-built structure, which weaves through the occupied West Bank, but instead the pope stopped his cavalcade, stepped out of the white, glass covered pick-up truck and made his way up to the wall, where he was quickly surrounded by children from the nearby Aida refugee camp.

Mideast Pope

Approaching the wall, which is close to the main Israeli checkpoint by Rachel’s Tomb, the pope put his palm to the towering concrete structure, covered with graffiti appeals to the Palestinian cause, and bowed his head in prayer, flanked by two girls with Palestinian flags. The heads of Israeli soldiers were visible at the window of a nearby watchtower.

Here’s the Pope’s statement from today:

In expressing my closeness to those who suffer most from this conflict, I wish to state my heartfelt conviction that the time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable. For the good of all, there is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of the rights of every individual, and on mutual security.”
The pope continued: “The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good, the courage to forge a peace which rests on the acknowledgment by all of the right of two states to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”

Here is Pope Francis, acting as Gamaliel to both the people of Israel and Palestine, inviting them to let go of their entrenched views, which have caused death, heartbreak, and unrest for so many years. He’s inviting them to the Vatican to talk peace. I pray they take him up on it.

Because at its best, the church is the place where we can come together and foster a place where it is safe to admit we were wrong and to change our minds without being called a flip flopper.

Are we willing to live our lives boldly for the gospel while still being open to the idea that we might not get it right? Are we willing to be bold for the gospel without being entrenched in the certainty that we hold the only right answer?

Are we willing to be a congregation that really fosters an environment of flexibility, mistake making, and apology?

As our culture continues to demand perfection, or at least the appearance of perfection, can we be the place that instead demands honesty?

I pray we, like Gamaliel, will trust that perfection is only for God, and so 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. Grateful to be on this journey with you, so we can figure it out together.

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