Sustaining our Legacy – January 29, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Conversion of St. Paul (transferred)
January 29, 2017

Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; Matthew 10:16-22

In the name of the God who made and knows us; the Savior who redeems and befriends us; and the Holy Spirit enlightens and sustains us. Amen.

A passenger in a taxi leaned over to ask the driver a question and gently tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. The driver screamed, lost control of the cab, nearly hit a bus, drove up over the curb and stopped just inches from a large plate glass window.  Everything was silent in the cab. Then the driver said “Are you OK?  I’m so sorry, but you scared the daylights out of me.  The badly shaken passenger said, “I didn’t realize that a mere tap on the shoulder would startle someone so badly.  “The driver replied, “I’m very sorry. It’s entirely my fault. Today is my very first day driving a cab. I’ve been driving a hearse for 25 years.”

Getting the daylights scared out of you—that’s just what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus, not with a mere tap on the shoulder but a knock off his horse. Today we celebrate our patronal feast—the patron saint under whose title this parish was formed two hundred and eighty years ago. I suspect the name Paul was chosen because he was a missionary and this was truly mission territory for the Church of England in those days.

Let’s see just who this guy Paul is, shall we? Paul was the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” the Jewish convert who became a disciple of Jesus and who made his principal mission work among the gentiles— the outsiders. He was born around the same time as Jesus but never met him. He began with a Hebrew name, Saul, a faithful Jew who had attended synagogue as a boy and studied Jewish tradition and the Law. Saul was a Hebrew born of Hebrews and a Pharisee.

It was the scandal of the cross that compelled him to act against Jesus’s followers: he could not imagine that an acclaimed Jewish Messiah should have been put to death by crucifixion on a Roman cross. He hated Christians, the subversive people who had arrived on the scene and challenged the religious status quo. He was instrumental in annihilating them or at least persecuting them. And then, something happened and that something is what we celebrate today.

Theologian Frederick Buechner describes the event which Paul experienced this way: “He was still in charge of a Pharisee goon squad in those days and was hell-bent for Damascus to round up some trouble-making Christians and bring them to justice. It was about noon when he was knocked flat by a blaze of light that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name twice. ‘Saul’, it said, and then again ‘Saul. Why are you out to get me?’ and when he pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, ‘I’m Jesus of Nazareth, the one you’re out to get.’

Buechner continues, “We’re not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed like at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish off one bowlegged Christian-baiter without even noticing it, and Paul waited for the ax to fall. Only it wasn’t an ax that fell. ‘Those boys in Damascus,’ Jesus said. ‘Don’t fight them. Join them. I want you on my side,’ and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterward, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world.”

Paul, with his new name in place, spent the next thirty years taking the message of Jesus out of the solely Jewish arena to the Gentiles, establishing Christian communities and writing letters to them, letters which are still read in churches today. It’s in those letters that we get a good look at Paul – full of flare and fire, passion and vitality, wit and appeal, pride and humility, immense self-confidence and fear and trembling—a bag of contradictions, just like us.

It’s easy to have a go at Paul. People have strong opinions about him and not always positive ones. He was a person of his times in many ways, shaped by his society and its values as we are and a lot of what shaped him no longer—thank God—shape us and, in fact, we find some of it just plain wrong.

On his better days, Paul wrote some of the most amazing texts on grace and he fought for the inclusion of the outsider in the life of the church. He preached a God with whom “there is neither Jew, nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He said that love lasts forever, even outlasting faith and hope, that we can’t do anything to earn God’s love—it’s a free gift—that nothing, absolutely nothing, past or to come, nor anything at all in creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus.

On his bad days Paul wrote some of the most awful stuff about marriage, sex and the place of women in the community of faith. Paul got himself in a lot of trouble with the authorities because of his ministry and his bold preaching, was put in jail several times, given 39 lashes more than once, and eventually taken to Rome for trial and executed—literally losing his head—as part of Nero’s extensive and horrendous persecution.

That’s our patron Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles. Under his patronage, this faith community has been a place of worship for two hundred eighty years. Thousands of people have prayed here, been baptized, confirmed, married, and buried; it has been a place of refuge, consolation, learning, and social action. It has seen the best of times and the worst of times.

It is a very different place from its establishment in 1737 and a very different place from my arrival in 1993. The story of Paul’s “knocked off his horse” kind of moment suggests that we might all do well with a little tap on the shoulder or nudge to help us recognize the importance of this place in so many people’s lives, how evident is God’s abundance evident in this community and how very precious it is. In our times of crisis, or loss or tragedy where do we usually turn first? As the disciples once said to Jesus, “Where else can we go?”

Paul has given us much more than just our name. He has given us a legacy. Just as he was transformed by the awesome light of God’s presence and revelation, so has this community been transformed over its many years of service, opened its arms and hearts wide to everyone—no matter who they are or where they may be on their journey; no matter how much faith or how many doubts they may bring when they come through the doors. Now we need to sustain that mission and that wonderful heritage. To that end, I ask your prayers and your presence next Saturday afternoon as we as a parish engage in conversation together about how we will do that. Our goal is that at least one person from every household will attend.

In his book Brightest and Best and meditation on this feast, Father Sam Portaro, writes: “We may not have reached Damascus yet, but neither are we lost in the darkness. It may be dim, chaotic, and difficult to find the way, but this is where God came to Saul and where God came to us…that we (like Paul) might see beyond discriminating distinctions to a new way of relating. In helplessness we learn anew the help we need and the help we can offer. God invites us, calls us, to engage the powerful conversion—and the conversation—of the world.”

From where I stand, I don’t know that there has ever been a time when that was more needed. May God help us in our work and bless this community with grace and peace.


Categories: Sermons, Worship