Sunday, July 7, 2024

Sermon: "Aaaaand ACTION!", 1 John 3:16-24 (July 7, 2024)

As some of you may remember, this past week was the biennial gathering of General Assembly, the national governing body of our denomination. This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to most of you, but many clergy (myself included) watch the livestream of these meetings with the same fervor that regular people follow the Olympics. (In fact, I’m all but certain that I watched a lot more of GA than I’ll watch of the actual Olympics later this summer.) Anyway, the gathered body addressed many topics over the course of four VERY full days, including everything from online worship to divestment from the fossil fuel industry to an official policy of non-discrimination against our LGBT+ siblings. And while of course everyone always waits with bated breath to learn how the assembly will vote, in my opinion, the most riveting part of GA is actually the debate. It’s the most nuanced way to “check the pulse” of the denomination as a whole, and it’s where you can most clearly see the Holy Spirit moving throughout the week.

Since a majority of these debates occurred during the day, I found myself trying to plan worship while listening to the livestream in the background (which is something I definitely do NOT recommend, by the way). Over and over again, I read through this scripture passage while multitasking, hoping that a nuanced and clever interpretation would strike me in the middle of a vote about whether or not to end the debate regarding an amendment to another amendment that had been proposed for the substitute motion, which had replaced the main motion. For some mysterious reason, I was finding it really difficult to focus. But while my brain struggled to grasp any meaning in most of the words on the page, there WAS one sentence that managed to cut through all the background noise and reach my consciousness each time I read it: “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with actions and truth.”

As one of those weirdos that appreciates the deliberate and measured nature of parliamentary debate, I was surprised to find this sentence pursuing me so doggedly. After all, one of the central tenets of Presbyterianism is that human beings discern God’s will best together in community, and we can’t do that without an abundance of orderly discussion – which, generally speaking, requires both words AND speech. But as debate wore on over the course of the week, a familiar pattern began to re-emerge, and this sentence started to make a lot more sense to me.

In every General Assembly that I’ve observed or taken part in over the years, there are inevitably some items of business that take a long time to resolve. These debates drag on and on, with opposing perspectives volleying back and forth for hours. As fatiguing as it can be, this is an important part of discernment, and in my opinion, not what 1 John is concerned about. Every so often, though, someone hoping to serve as a “voice of reason” on an especially divisive topic will step up to the mic with an alternate motion, a “third way forward”. If you’ve been a Presbyterian for any length of time, you can probably predict what that suggestion usually winds up being. Any guesses? Most often, they urge the body to “form a committee to report back to the next GA” in order to avoid what they usually refer to as “a hasty decision”.

Now, there are certainly cases where this IS the prudent path forward, but there are also many, MANY times that this advice is just silly. One such example is when the matter has ALREADY been considered by a committee during the preceding week (as is the case with every single item of business brought before General Assembly for a vote). But another is when the matter being addressed is clearly urgent, and further delay will only cause more damage. When our unnecessarily prolonged conversations allow human suffering to continue without actually accomplishing anything other than kicking the can down the road, then it’s past time for us to make a choice.

Discussion has its place, but we’re ultimately created to love one another, not to talk at one another. This is what the passage is trying to say. 1 John isn’t suggesting that words and speech are COMPLETELY useless – after all, if he were, he probably could have come up with a more compelling way to make this argument than writing a letter with, you know…words. What he IS saying is that the time for words and speech will always eventually come to an end, and that’s the point at which we NEED to act in order to live into God’s call on our lives. Words can only ever communicate ideas; it’s actions that communicate love. And LOVE is what Christ has commanded us to share.

As much as “GA Junkies” like myself love the process, the POINT of GA isn’t to be a forum for conversation. The POINT is what happens afterwards – General Assembly is a vehicle whose decisions lead the Church to ACTION, out of love for God’s creation. Because no one will come to know Jesus from our committee work or the minutes of our meetings. And they certainly won’t come to know Jesus through our descriptions of what we think or believe. None of that is especially compelling to anyone who isn’t already an insider. The world will come to know Jesus through the way the Church embodies Christ’s love in what we DO every single day. So when God calls for action, we have an evangelistic responsibility to stop talking and get to work.

If the director of a movie were to call “ACTION,” can you imagine the actors arguing that they hadn’t had enough time to study the script, or that they wanted to see how someone else would act out the scene first, or that they’d rather try DESCRIBING the scene to the audience? Of course not. Because if they did, the screenwriter’s vision would never be realized, the movie would never get made, and we, the audience, would never get to experience the story as it was meant to be experienced. There’s a time and a place for behind-the-scenes work, but it’s not the main point. The POINT is what happens when the director yells, “ACTION!”

Friends, General Assembly’s diligent committee work was like writing the script, the plenary was like rehearsal, and now, God is calling us to action. How will we, Christ’s hands and feet, respond? Will we bury ourselves in more words, or are we ready to actually communicate the story of God’s love? Several of the items approved at General Assembly still need to be ratified by 2/3 of our presbyteries before they officially go into effect, but we don’t have to wait to respond to our divine director. We ALREADY KNOW the lengths we should be prepared to go to for the sake of love. Jesus has not only told us; he’s SHOWN us. No debate necessary. The time to act is now.

There are far too many matters that have already been talked to death when God has been yelling, “ACTION!” at us for years. Our LGBT+ siblings are still unsafe in the world, racism and nationalism are permitted to exist virtually unchecked within our country AND the Church, and our planet is literally burning – we can’t afford to hesitate even a moment longer. This doesn’t mean that we’ll always agree on how to do it, or even that we’ll be 100% confident in our own choices. But we still have to act. One way or another, we need to take a leap of faith together, despite our personal doubts, fears, or misgivings.

The truth is, we’re better off acting out of love – and possibly making the WRONG choice – than we are trying to delay a decision in order to make sure we get it “right”. Even if we second-guess ourselves, we don’t have to fear divine punishment – we know that God judges our actions using different criteria than our own hearts do, and we trust that God will always keep pointing us towards the next right step. On the other hand, if we wait and dither and weigh our options in an effort to protect ourselves, odds are that we won’t feel any better about our ultimate decision, and we will be responsible for withholding God’s love from those who need it the most. And how, 1 John asks, can the love of God dwell in a person like that?

At the end of the day, I can come up with metaphors and examples and explanations to try and convey this message all day long, but that would just be more words and speech. This passage already speaks for itself – and loudly. So I’ll read it one more time, and then, it’ll be up to each of us to decide what comes next:

“This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?

“Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence. Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows all things…. This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other as he commanded us.”

Aaaaand ACTION. Amen.

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