Due to Winter Storm Jonas, Sunday morning services were canceled. Today’s sermon was preached at a service of Evensong w/ Holy Communion on the evening of January 24.
All loving and creating God, anoint our lips with the seal of your Spirit that we may witness to your gospel and sing your praise in all the earth. Amen.
If you were standing by the office water cooler over the past few weeks, the buzz would not have been about who is winning the debates or even the war on ISIS. The rave was Powerball and the more than billion dollar jackpot everyone dreamed about winning. A news clip the day before the drawing featured a woman standing in freezing cold Midwestern weather on a long line outside a convenience store to buy her tickets. “It’s freezing out here,” the newscaster said, “what keeps you waiting in this line?” “It’s life changing,” the shivering woman responded, “so it’s worth it.”
Life changing. That’s the kind of event about which we hear in the first reading today, describing the conversion experience of our patron, Paul.
Paul was born around the same time as Jesus but he never met him. He began with a Hebrew name, Saul, and would have gone to the synagogue and learned the traditions and the Law of the Jewish faith. He was taught by an eminent rabbi, Gamaliel, and consequently rose through the ranks a bit himself.
One thing we know of Saul at this time – he hated Christians, these subversive troublesome people who had arrived on the scene challenging the religious status quo. He took it upon himself to annihilate them. And then, probably around 33AD, something happened and that something is what we celebrate today—the conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, that mysterious, transformative event on the road to Damascus.
The term “conversion” may raise some strong reactions for us. Both of the former denominations to which I belonged—the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches—required “conversion” from one’s former affiliation in order to be a full-fledged member of that church. In more idiomatic jargon, folks often referred to the switch as “turning Catholic” or “turning Orthodox.” For those who become converts in these churches—as well as for those who do that in fundamentalist denominations—it implies a turning away from some things one believed to the acceptance of different beliefs or at least perspectives about belief.
But conversion isn’t for me an instantaneous, rapid transformation but rather a journey that begins with some “aha” moment, an epiphany of sorts, that is the impetus for our looking at a new direction or, in the words of the Epiphany story, “to return home by another way.”
There is one piece of information in Paul’s narrative that is worth some attention. He talks about being furious and enraged with Christians. Herein lies a key to the process of conversion—not so much an adoption of “isms” and doctrines but rather a change of one’s heart. In truth, I think we all need a conversion. I think our world needs conversion , our country and some of its systems certainly needs conversion, and it’s clear that there is need for conversion within our Anglican Communion.
If conversion has to do with a change of heart, if conversion has to do be some transformative experience that changes our direction, then who of us does not need it at some point in life?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus in his inaugural address in Nazareth was ready to unleash a powerhouse of wisdom enveloped in image —and the most profound metaphors of all concerned his own person and mission. As the synagogue typically did not have professional rabbis, members of the congregation read Scripture passages much as they do today in church. And I suspect that many of you who have done that are at least a little bit nervous the first time you are scheduled to do it. It isn’t easy to get up in front of people you know and who have known you, and read what are often deep and sometimes disconcerting words. Using this wonderful passage from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus was telling his audience to look for God where people are hurt.
The Gospel — the Good News— is most powerful when the Spirit of the Lord, dwelling in the people of God, is brought to bear on human suffering. It was not only the congregation that Jesus addressed that day in his home town that needed waking up to that truth. So do we today. A renowned rabbi once used this analogy to make this point. “When it is winter and freezing cold, there are two things one can do. One can build a fire, or one can wrap oneself in a fur coat. In both cases, the person is warm. But when one builds a fire, all who gather round will also be warmed. With the fur coat, the only one who is warmed is the one who wears the coat.”
I wonder if the good Rabbi wasn’t on to something big. I wonder if our work as a church community isn’t to build fires—big metaphorical fires—to provide warmth and comfort and healing for the poor and by the poor I mean not only the economically deprived, but anyone in any way oppressed and marginalized or abused by society or religion. If we want to look for God, then we need to look where the Good News Jesus preached that day intersects with the actual lives of those who most need to hear it; we need to look where the Gospel releases the broken and broken hearted.
I have a theory that on some level that would be all of us. I think each of us just wants to be accepted for who we are in the fullness of our imperfect but splendid humanity. Bestselling author Paulo Coehlo describes a scene in the garden of an insane asylum where he met a young man who was reading a philosophy book. This man stood out from the other patients both in his behavior and good looks. The author asked him: “What are you doing here?”
“It’s very simple,” he replied. My lawyer father wanted me to be like him and my uncle, a successful CEO, wanted me to follow in his footsteps. My mother wanted me to be the image of my father and my sister always held her husband before me as the model man. Meanwhile, my brother tried to get me to be an athlete like him. “Even at school I couldn’t escape that. Every teacher I had was convinced that they were the best possible example to follow. None of these people in my life ever looked at me for who I am, but as if they were looking in a mirror. So I decided to come here. At least I can be myself.”
Poor Jesus couldn’t be himself in his own neighborhood and next Sunday we will hear how his peers drove him out of town. I hope Jesus would be able to be himself here. I hope that all of us know that God invites us to be just that, to be who we are, in the fullness of our imperfect but splendid humanity, made in God’s own image, called God’s own beloved.
And anointed, yes, anointed. You and I. Anointed. Anointed like Isaiah and Jesus and Paul to figure out ways to bring good news to those who are most in need of hearing it, to proclaim release to captives, to build huge warming fires to draw others in and offer sanctuary and healing and hope.
All that power is expected of each one of us. It’s daunting. It’s awesome. It’s life changing and it’s so worth it.