Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon for the Conversion of St Paul

St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield--Acts 26:9-21

We all have lots of stories we could tell, about lots of things. These stories are the way we mentally organize our experience of the world, whether it’s the story of my drive to the cathedral this morning from my home, or the story of the birth of my first child, or the story of the rise and fall of Russian communism. The stories we tell provide the vocabulary and the grammar and the plot by which we make sense of ourselves, make sense of our relationships, and make sense of the world around us.

Those who study such things have a slightly more sophisticated name for these stories—they’re called narratives. We all have networks of large and small narratives. Sometimes narratives are “amplified” to serve a purpose. As the federal government tries to call attention to the new Affordable Care Act, they have seeded the media and cyberspace with a certain narrative about that law; and, of course, the opponents of the Affordable Care Act have vigorously promoted a counter-narrative.

We get very attached to our narratives. When I was in school, I was taught a certain narrative about how the United States came to be. Many of you learned the same story—about the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, and the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, and the growth of the colonies, the King of England oppressing the colonies, the American Revolution, and the creation of our constitution. We learned to revere names like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison—all heroes of the revolution and founders of our republic. Most of us have simply taken that narrative for granted. But Brenda and I, just this past summer, spent some vacation time in Canada, in Nova Scotia, to be specific. It’s very historic territory, and as we visited various places, and read historical markers, and listened to presentations by docents in museums, it dawned on us that Canadians in general and Nova Scotians in particular, have a very different narrative of the British colonies in the eighteenth century and the American Revolution than do those who were raised in this country. A very different narrative indeed.

Saul of Tarsus, the first-century Jew whom we now know as St Paul the Apostle, had, as a young adult, a very clear narrative about Jesus. Jesus was one in a series of false claimants to the venerable Jewish title of Messiah. He was deservedly crucified by the Roman authorities, but his body was then stolen and hidden somewhere so his followers could claim he had been raised from the dead.  The teachings of his followers perverted Jewish doctrine and identity and subverted the structure of authority that was necessary to deal effectively with the Roman Empire. They were a dangerous menace and needed to be quashed ruthlessly

The Christian community supposedly has a corporate narrative about Jesus. He is, after all, the star of the show, and the reason we build funny-looking buildings like this and come together at inconvenient hours on Sunday mornings and other times. In actual practice, however, in many places, it’s more a matter of lumping together a bunch of personal narratives held by individual Christians, rather than individual Christians being formed by a common narrative. In this, we drink deeply from a sort of common cultural narrative, a narrative that transcends any particular church or even Christianity in general in our culture, and it goes like this: Jesus is a remarkable fellow who may or may not have been born under mysterious circumstances around 2000 years ago, but who grew up to be a popular teacher who gave us some really good advice on how to live happier lives and make the world a better place. He challenged the authority structures of his day, which got him killed prematurely. Those who are attached to his teaching gather in communities to remember him and honor his example by organizing and contributing to programs that improve people’s lives.

Now just let that sink in, and ask yourself whether it pretty well resembles the prevailing common attitude about Jesus in our society. That’s our culture’s narrative about Jesus.

Back now to Saul of Tarsus: Something quite remarkable happens. He actually meets Jesus—directly, suddenly, and dramatically. As a result of this encounter, his narrative is instantly shattered, because he’s right in the undeniable presence of the risen Christ. Everything he had been saying about Jesus was revealed to be just untrue. And everything Paul’s enemies had been saying was revealed to be true. It would be difficult to imagine a change in perspective quite so sudden and quite so complete. Like I said, it was shattering. It led to temporary blindness. It led to old friends now becoming new enemies, and old enemies now becoming new friends. Imagine a baseball player who plays for both teams in a double header because he was traded between games, and you get a faint inkling of what happened to Paul. Think of a  spy who is “turned” and defects to the side that had been his mortal enemy. Think of the painful experience of finding out you’ve been deceived by someone you love, and having to suddenly call into question the entire narrative by which you have understood a significant relationship in your life. Paul had to suddenly embrace a whole new narrative. Over the years that followed, he would set forth the details of that new narrative in a series of documents that we now read from in church most every Sunday. They’re part of the Bible. But the change in narrative about Jesus happened for him the instant he heard the voice of the risen Christ asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

After visiting Nova Scotia, and worshiping in the Anglican parish church where 500 colonists from New York who were loyal to King George took refuge, along with their priest, I have had to modify my narrative of the American Revolution. It’s not quite as simple, not quite as black and white, as the narrative I learned in school. This doesn’t come anywhere near the change in narrative that Paul had to embrace when he met the risen Christ; it wasn’t at all what I would call shattering. But there are plenty of examples of others who have had their narratives shattered as a result of meeting Jesus. Did you see the movie Amazing Grace a few years ago? Then you may recall the story of a fellow named John Newton. He went from being a participant in the horrible slave-trading industry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to being an ardent abolitionist. Through meeting Jesus, he laid aside one narrative, and embraced a new one. “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

Be careful what you ask for: If you want to know Jesus, prepare to be shattered, and then prepare to be transformed. I have no more earnest prayer than for people all over this diocese to lay aside the harmless, toothless, narrative about Jesus I described a few minutes ago. I have no more earnest prayer than for people all over this diocese to encounter the risen Christ and to have all their narratives shattered and to begin to engage in missionary endeavor in the shadow of and in the spirit of St Paul. I have no more earnest prayer than for this very cathedral congregation to discover the courage to realize that your best days are ahead of you, not behind you. But this can only happen if we are willing to stand beside Paul the Apostle, our patron saint, and lay our cherished narratives at the feet of the risen Christ, to be shattered by the encounter, and to lay hold of a new narrative that expresses truly who we are in Christ Jesus.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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