April 3, 2005

From Democracy to Discernment
Acts 1:15-26

I recently watched a rerun of the overwhelmingly popular television show CSI -- Crime Scene Investigation. The show, set in Las Vegas, details the intricate procedures that investigators from the crime lab -- not police -- follow in locating and analyzing evidence related to a crime. In this particular episode, the wife of a wealthy Las Vegas businessman has been kidnapped. In the opening scene, Gil Grissom, the director of the crime lab, and the wealthy businessman are listening to a tape sent by the kidnapper. After playing the recording several times, the businessman grows impatient, believing that it would be a better use of everyone’s time if they went out and actually looked for his wife. Grissom calms him down and plays the tape one more time.

As the tape plays yet again, the businessman blurts out in frustration, “I don’t hear anything!” “Exactly,” Grissom responds. “And where in Las Vegas do you hear nothing?” he asks. “In the desert,” they agree. Then Grissom adds that the fuzzy sound in the background on the tape suggests that the recording was made in the desert near high voltage lines. “How did you get all of that from this tape?” the bewildered businessman asks. “It is easy,” Grissom replies. “I listened.”

In his book entitled Transforming Congregational Culture, Anthony Robinson suggests that a gradual shift has increasingly taken place in the Church in America over the years, a shift largely resulting from our near total submersion in western culture.
Given our emphasis on such things as agendas, order and process—Robert’s Rules of Order Rule!—we have subtly moved, Robinson contends, from “discernment” to “democracy,” from “listening” to “voting.” We fast-paced, order-driven and often inattentive followers of Jesus might very well need to learn to listen all over again.

It is important to say, of course, that true discernment, whether on an individual or corporate level, is not necessarily mutually exclusive from our modern-day methods of decision-making. Practicing discernment—what Pierre Wolff refers to as “the art of choosing well”—involves order and rhythm, and the process of discernment might very well end up in a vote of some sort. There is nothing particularly virtuous about disorder and chaos! True discernment, however, goes beyond simple democratic procedures and requires us to listen—really listen—both to each other as well as to God.

In the opening chapter of Acts, the early Church faced a crucial situation that required genuine discernment. A more careful look at the process they followed suggests at least four perhaps obvious but no less meaningful guidelines that could be very helpful to us even today.

1. Evaluate the overall situation (1:15-20)
Peter, Luke informs us, stood up among the believers and gave them a general overview of the situation before them. Judas, one of the original twelve apostles, had just recently betrayed Jesus for a handful of silver. One can only imagine the impact that his actions had on these earliest followers of Jesus. Judas was, after all, an important leader in the group. Using various scriptural passages, Peter placed in context Judas’ act of betrayal and subsequent death. He gave the community, in other words, a frame of reference so that they could deal with Judas’ deeds and move on in a healthy manner.

Discernment, then, begins with a shared understanding of the overall situation. At times we stumble in making choices when we fail to consider the broader context. In initial comments concerning the possible successor of Pope John Paul II, for example, questions are already arising concerning the wider implications for the church. What are the lasting effects of John Paul’s papacy? What issues currently face the church? In the same way, though on an admittedly smaller scale, we at the Grantham Church face challenges—exciting ones, I might add—in the weeks and months ahead. Various sub-groups have been wrestling hard with certain questions, and we want at our council meeting this afternoon to begin looking at the wider context together as a congregation.

2. Identify the specific need (1:21-22)
After discussing the situation, Peter clearly identifies the specific need. As a result of Judas’ betrayal and death, the group of apostles is now one short. The number twelve carried considerable symbolic significance for members of the community. As there had been twelve tribes of Israel, so too had there been twelve apostles. Judas needed to be replaced, and he needed to be replaced by someone who met certain strategic criteria. A suitable candidate had to have accompanied the other apostles while Jesus was still alive, and he had to be a witness to the resurrection. Even Paul failed to meet these qualifications!

Think again about the impending selection of a new pope. The cardinals of the Catholic Church who will eventually make that decision will need to specify the need before proceeding. They will develop criteria to guide their selection. Given the wider context, they will consider to what extent geography matters. Should the new pope come from Europe? Central America? They’ll think about the matter of age. Does the fact that Pope John Paul II served so long—26 years—mean that an older rather than younger successor be selected? These Cardinals will meet and specify the need that they face.

The same is true here at our church. People—our commissions and board—have been “discerning” over recent months, and certain rather specific needs will be brought to you today for careful consideration. We have a clear organizational need here that we want to talk about with you. We face certain stewardship challenges that involve every one of us. And we have goals to address, including our ongoing partnership with the Harrisburg Church. There are specific needs in our congregation that we have identified, and it is time now for us to wrestle with them together.

3. Suggest a range of options (1:23)
Now that everyone understands the situation and recognizes the specific need, they begin to brainstorm among themselves as to who might meet such qualifications and serve well in the intended role. My suspicion is that the conversation was far livelier than Luke indicates. He merely informs us that two people, Joseph and Matthias, were ultimately nominated. You can rest assured that other names were initially thrown around the room.
Some in the community probably suggested a family member or a close friend. Others perhaps even debated the criteria and wondered if certain potential candidates actually met them or not. They discussed, debated, and perhaps even argued a bit.

What is vital to the issue of discernment, however, is this: the people in the church listened to each other. They threw ideas around and considered various options. From all indications, everyone had the opportunity to speak. The entire notion of discernment is that God can speak through anyone, not just through leaders like Peter. In the middle of a feisty conversation, an otherwise quiet and unassuming person might very well offer a comment or suggestion that strikes a chord with the group. As Christians, we believe that God actually does speak to us through even the least likely sources.

This precise conviction was expressed just last night on CNN. One of the journalists asked Cardinal McCarrick about possible successors to Pope John Paul II. Cardinal McCarrick, who is a member of the College of Cardinals and will be involved in making the selection, responded: “We are in the process of grieving now, and nine days are set aside for that purpose. I can’t begin to discern what guidelines are needed apart from the other Cardinals. It’s part of the process to listen to each other.”

Our staff meeting this past week is another interesting case in point. The entire pastoral staff sat together on Tuesday afternoon, and we were discussing certain roles here at the church and who in the congregation might fill them. In the middle of the conversation, Pauline offered a name, and the entire group grew quiet. That name resonated with each of us, but it came through this lively process of sharing and listening.

4. Wait together on the Lord (1:24-26)
The people here in Acts 1, however, did even more than listen carefully to each other. After naming Judas and Matthias, they took time to listen to God. We do, at times, miss the crucial point of this passage by thinking too much about the concluding method that the community employed. Casting lots was a relatively common practice in antiquity, and we find evidence of it in the Old Testament when certain important decisions needed to be made. Although the actual procedure sometimes varied, a stone or piece of wood or fabric was often marked and placed in a container with similar though unmarked objects. The person or group who drew the marked object was then selected for whatever position or role was being filled. Interestingly enough—and I’m honestly not certain just how important this is—there is no example of the casting of lots in the New Testament after Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

More important than the casting of lots was the deep conviction of the peoples’ hearts. Just think for a moment about their prayer: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen.” They affirm that God knows far better than they do which course of action to take. In praying this way, they demonstrate a heartfelt desire to set aside their own agenda and wish-lists—their own personal favorite of the candidates—and genuinely proceed in a manner that is most beneficial for the church.

In that same interview on CNN last night, Cardinal McCarrick continued his response to the journalist. After suggesting that part of the process of selecting a new pope involved listening to each other, he said without apology: “In this process we know that the Holy Spirit will guide us.” Discernment involves far more than simply following contemporary democratic procedures or organizational protocol. True discernment requires us to listen—really listen—to each other and to God.

I remember hearing the story of a Native American and a Manhattan businessman walking together up 5th Avenue in New York City. Planes flew overhead. Busses and taxis sped by. Horns were screaming. Suddenly, the Native American said, “I hear a cricket.” The businessman, as you can imagine, looked at him in disbelief.. A moment later, he said it again. “I hear a cricket.” And the Native American walked over to flower pot at the base of a street light, looked under the leaves, and pulled out a cricket. The business man—and the others who overheard—were amazed.

As these two drastically different men walked on, another person going in the opposite direction passed them and accidentally dropped some change on the sidewalk. Almost instantly, the businessman and others on the sidewalk turned and looked. It really makes a difference, the Native American responded, what you are listening for. “I listened,” Gil Grissom said on that episode of CSI. That is precisely what discernment involves. Listening to each other. Listening to God.