Three weeks ago I didn’t go to church. Our family had planned to be out of town, but Heath had been a little puny, so Carrie and Ella Brooks took off and the guys stayed home. I often enjoy worshipping at the many great churches around here, but that day I didn’t want to. I just didn’t. Maybe you have been there. It was a gorgeous day, and I read the whole newspaper on the porch while Heath played, then we went to get a snack. All of the folks who weren’t at church were in the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru, then we went to the fields at Woodcroft. There were a surprising number of people there – bike teams with matching outfits, families on the playground. We had a really nice morning. And while I was reminded of what a gift it is that YOU set down your coffee and your paper and get motivated and get here, it also got me to wondering about this thing we call church. No New York Times here, though the library does have some interesting stuff. I’d probably take Dunkin Donuts coffee over ours. But we still come. After all these years – you, we, new people choosing to visit. What in the world are we doing?
Today’s text happens in a courtroom. The disciples had been causing too much trouble, and they were wrong, and it was time it was over. Right before today’s text Peter had made his case again, and while it sounds great to us it just made the elders furious, enraged, the Greek means ‘cut to the heart.’ But then, slowly, one stands. Gamaliel, Luke tells us, a teacher of the law respected by all the people. Not only was he gifted in his own right – Paul claims he learned from Gamaliel in Acts 22 – he was the grandson of Hillel, a legendary sage and scholar, one of the more important figures in Jewish history. Gamaliel told them to put the disciples outside, and then gives these angry leaders a dose of perspective. You all remember Theudas? Hundreds of men followed him and he was killed, and they all melted away. Same thing with Judas, he says, you remember? His followers sure were excited, but where are they now? So, in the present case, his voice was rising now, let them alone. If this undertaking is from human origin, it will fail, he says. But if it is of God. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. There is nothing we will be able to do. In fact, we may be making a horrible mistake. In that case, he says we may even be found fighting against God! If it’s true, if it lasts, we’d be fighting against the very power of God.
Because it doesn’t make sense. Why in the world would this small group of Jews claim the man they followed, recently executed by the state, was alive and loose and whose Spirit was doing powerful things among them? Just lay low, go back to your homes and your fishing nets until the chaos dies down. But they wouldn’t quit. Stubborn as they were, after imprisonment and arrest, over and over, they kept on. They did ridiculous things like gather before work and after work to worship. They ate together all the time. They took what they had and put it in a pot and shared it with the poor. And they continued to worship – not the emperor, not themselves, not the gods of the wind and the rain and their crops, but the Living God, whose son Jesus Christ walked among them, whose Spirit broke in at Pentecost and changed everything, empowering them to engage in all sorts of illogical behavior.
And for whatever ridiculous reason, they kept at it. For century upon century, in seasons when their lives were at risk, and seasons when they had access to the halls of power. We remember especially today these last 500 years, from the moment a monk nobody had heard of named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, when he called the powers of the day to greater faithfulness. When bibles were translated for all to read, when the printing press took those ideas and spread them like a wildfire throughout all of Europe. And we remember how we, here, in this extraordinary church, don’t come to this on our own, but stand on the shoulders of those giants who had a vision for a church here as Durham grew this direction almost 50 years ago. And of our part in the project that is Presbyterianism in this part of the world, folks from Scotland shaped by John Calvin’s slice of that 500 year project of Reformation, which is a part of a 1500-year Christian project before that, standing on the shoulders of centuries of faithfulness before that. We don’t come here by ourselves, a fact that should both inspire us and humble us.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference or that we should just sit back and wait. Gamaliel isn’t saying that. Because there is too much suffering. And too many are hungry and without places to sleep as these nights get cold. And too many teens are bullied, the world our kids are growing up in – as evidenced by the school shootings in Fayetteville this week – too violent. There is much to do, and we keep coming, keep working, keep singing God’s praises, because this project is too important, because our God is too good, because this thing is not worth doing part-way, but requires ALL of us. Gamaliel is calling us, I believe, to an attentive and trusting faithfulness, where our deep love for God and for the world, meets the wisdom of the self-control of which Paul speaks, in which we remember that we have a part to play in a long and glorious story. And that while each piece is crucial, God is sovereign over it all. And the teacher stands in the courtroom, and lowers his voice. If this undertaking is from human origin, it will fail, he says. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. There is nothing we will be able to do. If it’s true, if it lasts, we’d be fighting against the very power of God.
If you do it right, the text says, you’re in for some flogging. Faithfulness will put us in conflict with the world that tells us it is about us and our needs, that we shouldn’t worry about anyone else. As Herman Cain said a few weeks ago, if you are poor it’s your own fault. And it won’t make any sense to teach our children to share and to love ALL people, especially when life is so busy and full, when there are books to read and people to spend time with and trips to take. This life of faith, this thing called church, it doesn’t make sense. Let’s just go get a cup of coffee and go to the park and not worry about any of that sad stuff in the world beyond us. We probably can’t do anything about that, anyway. That will be enough. Unless, that is, there is something else to this thing, Someone else that nags us, nudges us in the middle of the night, that calls us (YOU) beloved, and calls YOU to serve. Unless, perhaps, as Gamaliel says, this thing has lasted because there is something to it…dare we even believe that this project is of God….and we have work to do…
All praise be to God. Amen.
 We don’t know much about Gamaliel, but what I have here comes from: "The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church", F. L. Cross Editor, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 654; "The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary," Paul J. Achtemeier, Editor, (New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 1996), p. 361-362; and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamaliel, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder
 Josephus mentions a Theudas, who leads an insurrection in 46 and 47, which obviously presents some complications for the time Luke depicts this conversation as happening. F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingston, eds, "The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church," (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1997), p. 1609.
 "Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself." http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/10/05/cain-not-rich-no-job-blame-yourself/