Today the disc we record the service and sermon was corrupted, so I am giving you my notes in preparation the sermon. It is not a transcript, since generally I work without notes, but it should give a sense of what was said.
Systems Thinking - The Fifth Discipline and the Discipled Life
Sermon Notes for Proper 21, Year A, 2011
Our life for the last year has revolved around a growing sense of discipleship. And the sermons, classes, and worship have all centered in this one area. Why?
Discipline is based in the Latin for “to learn.” When we claim to be disciples of Jesus, we are making a statement about ourselves as learners in relation to a man, the Son of God, and to his set of teachings. This is an important thing to bring to light periodically, because we often think in terms of belonging to a religion or a group that has merely certain practices.
We are followers of Jesus, a community of disciples, or at least that is our vision of life here at Grace. We are human beings seeking the relationship with God as children of a parent whom we know through our Lord, our Rabbi, teacher.
So why do I read business books? Well, in part because it is essential to the future of the church to read what the greatest minds of our age are saying, and they are in business and marketing. We are a people of capital and packaging. But there is more being done and deeper philosophies arising in business books right now than among many of our academic philosophical writers. There is more practical application of Biblical principles in some business books than the “Inspiration” section of the bookstore.
Peter Block and his writings collecting the work of others and moving beyond the boardroom and workroom to developing whole communities has had a big impact on me and on our Great Conversations. Jim Collins on the vitality of wisdom and humility among leaders has helped us develop a mission that is about what we do and not what we think we do AND to stick to it when we’d rather run away. And now I am coming years late to the work of Peter Senge and the The Fifth Discipline: the art & practice of the learning organization. He is an MIT professor of business, but his work sounds like our vision here at Grace. So I am stealing it and sharing it with you this morning.
Peter says that there are several disciplines for learning organizations: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning. These disciplines, his word, are superseded by a single discipline: metanoia. Metanoia is maybe my favorite word in any language. The same word that we have interpreted in scripture as repent, thank you Latin Vulgate, really is about the shift or change of mind or knowing, and he points out that this shift is usually considered by the Greeks as transcendent. This isn’t one of those secret Christian books mind you. This is a hard core business book from MIT.
This year as we work our way through the terrible parables of Matthew, I have kept circling back around to the pervasive vision of a call to grow up, to be greater than we are, to be disciples. I think the call to grow up is a helpful one because it points to both personal mastery and natural ongoing metanoia.
This morning the priests come to challenge Jesus about his authority. By whose authority do you do these things, is one of the great underlying challenges of the New Testament. It is at the heart of most of the conflicts in the Gospels and Acts. Forgiveness of sins and healing, the grace of God, blessings, curses, were all the purview of the priests, or more accurately, the temple. God channeled his relationship to people through holy channels, official, and measurable by law. The problem is that this constricts God. “You don’t go into the reign of God yourselves, and you stand at the door and keep others from going in!” Jesus railed at the Pharisees and scribes.
Jesus comes along and heals and forgives sins, blesses, and exorcizes without the official sanction of the temple. He flaunts this. His teachings confirm that he is against the official channels that constrict God’s blessing to his people. They have become fruitless and corrupt. They are a law unto themselves, but a law which does not bind the religious rulers. So they ask the central question: By whose authority do you do these things? And here Jesus returns their challenge with his own. But they cannot answer honestly because they “fear the crowd.” They fear their external circumstance.
Then he names their righteousness as an external “yes” to God without internal obedience. They go to church but aren’t changed. They read the Bible but don’t love their neighbor. They focus on the external events and realities without actually becoming the children of God.
At MIT Senge and his colleagues created a lab where business leaders would come to learn about the fifth discipline concepts. In the lab, they were put in a system where they were one part of a retail distribution system, either brewery shipper, distributer, or retail outlet. Then they introduced a crisis, a change in ordering. And guess what the business leaders do?
Senge says that business leaders immediately blame events and enemies. Sound familiar? They don’t look inward or at the whole system. Thank goodness, that is only true of business leaders. Right?
We do the same thing. We do. We name events: 9/11, the Sixties, Constantine’s conversion, or the post-modern, relativist era. We blame others: Arabs, the French, the Greeks, the administration, popes, priests, poor people, absent fathers, bad children, unruly teens, old people, young people, media, culture, Jews, Germans, Lutherans, the people in the past or anyone over thirty-five. But we rarely look at our own behaviors, thoughts, and participation in a complex system.
In systems thinking, he says, in order for us to win, everyone must win. This is perhaps the greatest leap in thinking we can make in our maturity as human beings. Jesus says, Love God, love others as you love yourself. But we talked about that last week.
This week I want you to look at that simple phrase: self mastery. This is the path of discipleship. We do not blame others. We do not fear events. We don’t have to if we begin with self-knowledge as children of God. Wisdom’s Child is another name for Jesus. If we know who we are, then we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to be either silent passivitistas or reactionaries. We can be something greater.
We do not look to external events or to other people to define us and our relationships. We don’t judge. (Jesus again.) We ask how we participate in the system and how can we change ourselves in order to cause real change.
In conversation with some of the men of the parish, I have begun to articulate what I think is great about an older model of manliness. That is that it was a identity built in being virtuous, guided by a deep set of values, rather than power over others or competition or Monster Trucks, NASCAR, or ultimate fighting. It wasn’t about flexing muscles but about virtues. Deep seated habits of self leading to wisdom and a way of being in the world that was not dependent on exterior events.
That seems like a lost concept, no? I think this helps in understanding the discipled life. If we know who we are in Christ and who we are called to be before the crisis comes, then we know that our actions arrive from within. Personal mastery.
Personal mastery is the path of the disciple. As we learn from Jesus, we are called to look within at our actions, our beliefs, our loves. The path here is simple: worship, study, and serve. We worship to transform our hearts. We study to transform our minds. We serve to transform our wills. Well these actions put us on the path. It is the Spirit of God, the transcendent element, that really fires our metanoia.
This is why I stress Study so much as your priest. If I am to lead you closer to your own sense of self in relation to God in Christ, I have to insist that you do the work of being conformed to the image of Christ. You have to study what that image is. No one else can do that for you. I can tell you all about the Mona Lisa. I saw it in the Louvre once. But I can’t make you see it. You don’t become biblical people by listening to someone else tell you about the life. You read the Bible and live the life.
Peter Senge’s articulation of the discipled life is helpful.
We have to begin to look at the whole system, not just our desires and wants. That means taking on a larger vision of what is the good and who is involved as a child of God. The poor and the rich, the sinner and the saint.
We begin to master our selves, rather than others, in submission to Christ. That means we stop throwing blame around and judgement and begin to really study and change our behaviors. That is all we can control anyway. Influence through living the way is more powerful than anything that comes off our couches.
We examine our mental models and open ourselves to changing them to ones that are more biblical and Christlike. That means we control what gets to shape us. We choose our influences and our media. If you want a better mind, control what goes in and measure what comes out. Simple. Everlastingly difficult, sure. But what isn’t?
Finally. We develop a shared vision of our life as we converse together and begin to learn as a whole system through Great Conversations like the one this afternoon or through smaller ones within the Christian community here at Grace.
Or you can go home, curl up on the couch and watch people dress up and pretend at war so we can care about things that don’t matter and people’s games we aren’t touched by and fuel you self satisfaction with cable news, and they will provide you with plenty of people to blame, fear, and serve. All while insulating yourself from your true self as a living steward, heir of God, a child of the most high. That way leads to death.
Join us on the path to life, the way of discipleship, following Christ here at Grace.