(Proverbs 29:18, Acts 15: 1-14, 19-21)
You’ve heard before, I am sure, the expression, “a fork in the road.” Here’s they way I’ve always understood that: there is a critical juncture that is being reached. And there is a choice that must be made: go this way or go that way. And in making this choice, three things come into play: first, the choice will have huge ramifications. In other words, this isn’t a little fork. This is a huge fork. The stakes are high. Second, the choice is irreversible. Once you start down whichever way you choose, there’s no going back. And third, the better choice is not always the obvious one. Sort of like that old Russian folk tale where a vityaz, a Russian knight, comes to a literal fork in the road with a large stone in between, upon which an inscription that read, If you ride to the left, you will lose your horse, if you ride to the right, you will lose your head. Neither is a great choice!
We all face forks in the road; decisions big and small. Nations have encountered numerous forks in the road that literally changed the course of history. And I’d venture to say that our scripture today from the book of Acts is one of those forks as well. A huge fork. A magnanimous fork. And a fork that you and I often miss because it gets lost in the shuffle between Pentecost and Paul, between the church’s birth and its mass explosion. None of which would’ve happened, incidentally, had it not been for the events of today’s passage.
I mean, it was inevitable, right? Perhaps they didn’t see it at first, but, as they say, hindsight is a wonderful thing. It is hindsight that tells us some 2000 years later that, when Jesus spoke to that gathering of disciples at the end of Luke and told them they were witnesses and he was sending them out to the world – well, it was inevitable that “the world” would mean more than just their world; their first-century Palestinian, Roman-ruled world. It started there, of course, because that’s where they were. But it didn’t stay there – it couldn’t stay there. It grew wings and spread like wildfire and whatever other metaphor you wish to employ.
The point is, there came a time when those same disciples – and the many others who came on board as the message grew – those disciples found themselves no longer bearing witness to just their fellow Jews. They found themselves bearing witness to non-Jews – Gentiles, they were called – people who were geographically and culturally removed from their first-century, Palestinian, Roman-ruled world. People who were different from them; people who didn’t understand their Jewish faith and sometimes didn’t even speak their own language. It was inevitable.
And it was a good thing, if you thought it was a good thing. But not everyone thought it was a good thing – and there’s the rub. If you were like, say, Paul and Barnabas, you were thinking to yourself, Jesus wanted us to tell the world, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. So absolutely we should let Gentiles follow Jesus just as they are – they don’t have to become something they’re not first. But if you were like those Pharisaic Jews, you were thinking to yourself, The heart of everything about Jesus is rooted in the Jewish faith. And these people are not Jewish. If they want to follow Jesus, that is fine, but they must become Jews first.
And wouldn’t you know it, barely two decades into the church’s very existence, and we already have a church conflict. I don’t know if that makes me feel better or if it bums me out more! Either way, they do what any self-respecting Presbyterian would do: they call a session meeting. A rather lengthy session meeting comprised of all of the main church leaders of the day. They meet in Jerusalem, with this single action item on their agenda: can Gentiles be welcomed into the church as they are, or do they have to become Jewish first?
And this was a huge fork in the road for the early church – and here’s why. Imagine what would’ve happened if this group decided that, nope, sorry Gentiles, you’ve got to become Jewish first. Just like Jesus was, just like we are. Take it or leave it. Play that scenario out in your mind a little bit. Play it out and ask yourself, how many people realistically would’ve signed on for something like that? Not many, right? Play it out even further: how likely is it, in light of that decision, that the church would’ve grown over the coming years? Not very, right? Because you’re confining your pool of potential converts to an ever-shrinking populous, see? What do you think the church would’ve realistlically looked like five years down the road? Ten, twenty, fifty years? Do you think there would’ve even been a church a hundred years after Jesus?
Play all of that out, and you know what that means for you and me? It means we’re not here this morning, or any Sunday morning. It means I’m not standing in this pulpit, wearing this robe. It means you’re not sitting in this sanctuary, because there is no sanctuary – here or anywhere. It is nearly impossible to fathom the absence of Christianity from our Western culture, from our world; but that is precisely what very likely would’ve happened, had those church leaders in Acts 15 decided to take that other fork in the road.
And the thing is, I seriously doubt they were thinking about us two millennia later. It would’ve been easier for them to just focus on their immediate situation. Let’s take it slow, be methodical, we can’t just fling the doors open for everyone. But thank God they didn’t think like that! Thank God they were given the ability to see the wisdom in expansion over contraction; in open and welcoming as opposed to closed and exclusive. Thank God they realized that what they were dealing with wasn’t a simple church conflict, but indeed was so much bigger than themselves; something that called them to think and act differently than they might have otherwise.
It took something special for them to do what they did. It took vision. As Merriam Webster’s defines it, the ability to think about or plan the future with wisdom and imagination. More than what is seen right now. More than anyone sees. Vision.
Now I know you’ve been hearing a lot about vision lately. It’s entirely possible that you feel you’ve heard more than you care to hear about it! But there’s a reason you’ve been hearing a lot about vision, and the reason is that it is at the very heart of our Stewardship Season this fall, and today’s Response Sunday. Each of our sessional clusters have come before you this month and have shared their vision for the next year for our church: EQUIP. GROW. SERVE. And I hope you’ve recognized and appreciated the very different way that your session has approached not just the entire structure of our church’s ministry and mission, but specifically Stewardship.
See, here’s how a lot of churches typically go about stewardship: first, they take a look at the things they did the previous year and then develop a budget to keep doing the exact same things for the coming year. Then they send it out to everyone with a nice letter and pledge card and say, Look at this wonderful budget we’ve created, which is pretty much the same budget as last year. Isn’t it exciting! Because we know this is so exciting – budgets and doing what we’ve always done – we’ve included a pledge card for you. And we want you to give what you’ve always given, because we want to do what we’ve always done, and because we all just love budgets so much!
Now I’ve never been through Stewardship here before; I don’t know if this is the way Trinity has done Stewardship;. But if it is, if some of this feels familiar, then perhaps there is some comfort in the fact that this is the way a lot of churches do stewardship. Because, truth be told, it used to work just fine. It got the job done. But not anymore. Not anymore. Something has changed. People do not give anymore to budgets. People give to a vision.
Which is why your session did not start with a budget. They started with a vision. And I’ll tell you this: creating a vision is a lot harder than creating a budget. But it’s also more rewarding. And I wish you could’ve been a fly on the wall at our session retreat up in Davidson last May. You would’ve witnessed the unmistakeable presence of God there, because what came out of that retreat was far more than any of us brought into it. And when the session approved the combined vision statement at our August meeting, the same one you got in the mail a month ago, the same one on the placards out in the narthex and the cloister, I told your session that it was a bold vision, it was a powerful vision; and that if you as a congregation choose to support it, it would fundamentally change this church in every possible good way. Because that is what a vision does.
In fact, the very truth about vision is so engrained in scripture that it is summed up in a single verse from Proverbs:
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
It’s a great verse. Even if it’s kind of a downer! Far be it from me to contend with scripture, but just for the sake of argument, what would it be like if this verse was rephrased in a more positive rather than negative light? What would happen, what would things look like, if there was a vision? Where there IS a vision the people…..
…..what? What do they do? What’s the opposite of “perish?” Grow? Improve upon? Revive? I actually posed this question years ago to Margaret, a 90 year-old matriarch of my very first church. In her advanced age Margaret’s eyesight had mostly failed her, but the beautiful thing about Margaret was that she had a wonderful way of seeing things around her that others could not see – if you know what I mean. Margaret could sing nearly every hymn from memory, and I used to love watching her in the pew singing along to any hymn we were singing, her eyes closed, totally from memory.
One spring afternoon I was visiting her in her kitchen, sipping coffee, and I noticed a framed embroidery above her head on the wall behind her. It was the Proverbs passage. And I said to her, You know, Margaret, I’ve always wondered how that verse would read if it talked instead about there being a vision, rather than not being a vision. If the verse read, “Where there IS a vision,” what would the people do?
It took vision for those disciples at the Jerusalem council to see not just the wisdom of welcoming the Gentiles, but the fact that that’s precisely what Jesus was all about. Even though it was hard to do. Even though it required everyone – including the people who were in favor of it – everyone to embrace some degree of change. Even though it meant an increased commitment on everyone’s part. Even though it would’ve been easier to take the other fork in the road and ride off into the sunset, just doing what they had always done……
I give thanks to God that I have learned, in my eleven months here, that this church is not a church that is satisfied with just doing what it’s always done. I give thanks to God that you not only put up with being challenged to grow in the faith and to change, but that you relish in it. You eat it up! I give thanks to God that this year’s session did not use a weekend retreat in May to simply reinforce the same old programs and ministries and commitments, but to dream and dare to engage a vision that I am convinced has the power to transform us from the inside out – if we are willing to take it on.
Because my friends, we are at a fork in the road. Perhaps we’ve been here before, I don’t know, forks in the road tend to be cyclical things for churches. But what I do know is that right now, on October 26, we are at a fork in the road. We have a choice to make. And our choice is not unlike the one faced by our Christian ancestors at the Jerusalem council: to either continue being who we’ve always been, OR to live into a new vision. Live into the hopes and dreams that so many of you have shared with me in cards and emails and casual conversations and Thursday morning coffees. Live into the vision that your session, your spiritual leaders, have fleshed out for you, with God’s amazing help.
It’s an exciting time to be at Trinity, isn’t it? That’s what visions do! They help us “see” like dear old Margaret saw. The people of God, flourishing! Let’s take the next step and, with the help of almighty God, make this vision a reality. Let’s do this.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. And may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fork_in_the_road_(metaphor), visited on 10.16.2014.