Preached by the Rev’d Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul – January 25, 2015
Welcome to St. Paul’s this evening as we conclude the celebration of the feast of our patron saint. I trust you have been uplifted by the beautiful music, the readings and the prayers. And I hope you know that you are always welcome here.
As you heard from the Acts lesson, our friend St. Paul didn’t start out on the same page with Jesus. He initially was a strident and zealous opponent of the early Christians, persecuting them in Jerusalem and beyond. He was present at the stoning of Stephen, the first deacon. He saw himself as a protector of the Jewish tradition, which he thought Jesus had distorted and corrupted. He was a Pharisee, member of a group that subscribed to strict adherence to the letter of Jewish law. Saul’s change of heart came through the conversion experience on the way to Damascus, and eventually he became a great evangelist, with a new identity as Paul.
In our Gospel lesson we read of Jesus’ confrontation with the religious authorities in Jerusalem over his healing of crippled man on the Sabbath. These persons too, were die-hard adherents to Jewish law and tradition, and were referencing texts that proscribe work on the Sabbath, including carrying one’s mat, which they defined as work. Never mind that a man was healed and made whole.
What strikes me about Paul and the Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus is their certainty of the correctness of their positions. Certainty doesn’t allow for questions, for doubts, for struggle. Certainty is, well, certain. Definite. Unequivocal. And not how Jesus dealt with people. Jesus allows lots of room for reservation, skepticism, uncertainty, about Sabbath laws, about belief in him, about God.
Through much of Christian history, certainty about issues of faith has held center stage, has been used to draw lines about who was in and who was out. Who believed correctly and who didn’t. Who could be married and baptized and buried and who couldn’t. Whose sacraments were true and whose weren’t. Who read the Bible correctly and who didn’t. God knows such tribalism is sadly still alive and well today. Certainty has led to wars, pogroms, genocide, segregation, denominationalism, and a host of other horrors in God’s name.
Perhaps you’ve heard this story.
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.”
I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
While the story is silly, it suggests where certainty about matters of faith can lead. It purports to know God’s mind and speak for it. I think such certainty actually saddens God. As it saddened Jesus throughout the Gospels. Because I believe God is bigger and more inclusive and more loving than we can understand. Throughout the Gospels Jesus welcomed and embraced persons on the margins, be they non-Jews, those with disabilities, deformity, mental illness, as well as prostitutes and tax collectors. People the “religious folk” were certain, positive, convinced, were unworthy of God’s love and grace. Jesus made clear that the major theme or story line of Scripture, of God, of our faith is that God’s love is limitless, that nothing can ever separate us from that love, and that God goes to infinite lengths to find and be in relationship with each of us.
Which is why Jesus came, as a human, just like us. This is the mystery of the Incarnation. To remind each of us that we are made in God’s image and likeness. To assure us that every person carries a piece of the divine in him/herself. To declare that God loves us totally and never excludes what God has made. To remind us that our God is a God of mercy, loving-kindness, of generosity, and wants healing and wholeness for us all. To reconcile us to one another and to all of God’s creation. To assure us that our God weeps when we weep and suffers when we suffer. To tell us that we each are God’s beloved child. Even when we mar God’s image in us. Even when we hurt one another. Even when we commit despicable acts in God’s name such as we saw in Paris earlier this month, no matter what, God continues to love and cherish us.
And our patron Paul had to learn this. He had to do a lot of growing out of his certainty. That transformative, growing-into-God’s-love experience on the Damascus road changed his life, and the life of the early Church. He took the message of Jesus’ love all around the Mediterranean world both personally and by his letters, teaching that God’s love and care were very close to us (Romans 10:8), that God makes no distinctions between the sexes or races or nationalities and loves and cares for all equally (Galatians 3:28), and most importantly, that nothing, nothing can ever separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:39).
Just as he went beyond his thinking and was transformed by the awesome light of God’s presence and revelation, so you too are invited into this community to be part of it, to learn and share and grow in God’s love. St. Paul’s has opened its arms and hearts wide to everyone—no matter who you are or where you may be on your journey, no matter how much faith or how many doubts you bring, no matter what, you are always welcome here.