Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sermon: "Recalulating"—Acts 9

For First Congregational Church, Old Greenwich 

I hate to brag (well, maybe I don’t.), but I was sort of a big deal in college.

I attended a very small Bible College in the South suburbs of Chicago, affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene.

I loved this Bible College… and it loved me.
·       I was hired on-on-the-spot by the Admissions Department to be a Road Recruiter my freshman year.
·       I was elected Freshman Class Chaplain.
·       The same school year, I became a licensed minister, which means that at age 19, I was able to perform legal weddings in the Church of the Nazarene.
·       And, by my senior year, I was asked by the Dean of Students to join the university’s Judicial Council. Of course, I accepted.

I was a rising star in this small, religious world. But, unbeknownst to me, I was on my own road to Damascus.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Do not dance.”

But my tiny Bible College frowned upon dancing… as something that might lead to licentious behavior.

Dancing wasn’t the only societal ill my Bible College fought against.
·       There was also going to the movie theater, even for G-rated movies.
·       Visiting dorms that housed the opposite sex (or if we absolutely needed to, we had to sit a Bible’s width apart from each other in the common area.)
·       No drinking.
·       No gambling.
·       No playing games that involved decks of cards if they had faces on them…. Including “Old Maid.”
·       No piercings.
·       No tattoos.
·       No open-toe sandals.
·       Men were encouraged to keep their hair off their ears.
·       Women were encouraged to keep their hair and their skirts as long as possible.
·       We received discipline and fines for not attending chapel.
·       And curfew was at 10.

So basically, I went to college in the 1940’s.

All of these rules were enforced by a “lifestyle covenant” that each student signed.

And I, being a member of the university’s Judicial Council, enforced all of these rules.

·       I took part in the suspension of students who came in after curfew.
·       I took part in the suspension of students who “struggled with homosexuality.”
·       I took part in the suspension of students who drank champagne at a wedding.
·       And I took part in the suspension of students whose cars were seen parked at a movie theater.

In my mind, at that time, I was waging war against what I thought was a worldly empire… but as I reflect upon my time on the Judicial Council, I realize that I was part of another empire—equally as cruel and unjust.

As I look back at these experiences, I can’t help but think about Saul—breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. And Jesus asks me, “Why do you persecute me?”

(Defeated) When I graduated from Bible College, I also left that denomination—and searched for years outside of Christianity—until I joined this church last year.

(Matter-of-fact) After my mother died tragically in an automobile accident, my father met a wonderful companion who was also widowed.

For most people, the day was a celebration of this new marriage.

(Suspicious) But I couldn’t help but notice… there was a table of Nazarenes, located next to the bar. “This can go one of two ways,” I thought to myself.

(Background) By the time my dad got remarried, I had already been out of the Church of the Nazarene for about a decade, and I had lived another life apart from my zealotry as a member of the university’s Judicial Council.

But these were familiar faces from my childhood. I greeted them warmly and thanked them for coming to the reception.

I was thinking to myself, “Wow, this is really magnanimous of Nazarenes… to be at a reception where there is an open bar… and people are going to dance!”

I thought to myself, “If I were still on that Judicial Council, I wouldn’t be here… Well, maybe I would, and then leave when the dancing began—to show my disapproval of the dancing.”

But here they were. They came. I wondered if Nazarenes had perhaps evolved.

// // //

(Disappointed) So it shouldn’t have surprised me.
I shouldn’t have let it hurt me.

But when the music started playing, and people started dancing—even before the meal—the Nazarenes got up together and left. They left my father’s wedding reception… just because it involved dancing.

It was difficult for me to experience this boycott at a family member’s wedding reception… Because I saw myself in them.
- To my shame, I might have done the same thing 10 years earlier.
- To my shame, I saw with my own eyes… religious zealots inflicting upon my family the same spiritual trauma I must have inflicted upon others.
- And scales fell from my eyes.

At the early stage of my life, I was like Saul,
o  the righteous,
o  the defender of empire,
o  the slayer of Christians—before his conversion:

OK, maybe I’m not a murderer.
o  But I’m not perfect.

I have been the perpetrator of spiritual violence against other humans. And not just spiritual violence, but I have been selfish, self-righteous, malicious, rude, stubborn, hateful, unforgiving, and just plain wrong.

I wonder… if anyone here today can resonate.
·       Has anyone here ever been self-righteous, malicious, rude, stubborn, unforgiving…?

I wonder if we are able to look at this story about Saul—and not sit in judgment of him… but instead, consider how we have been just like Saul.
·       How easy it is to bad-mouth the other political party…
·       How we take for granted our own privilege…
·       How we have turned our backs on people in need…
·       How we have aligned ourselves—not with the love of God—but with the empire.


But, hear the good news:

God didn’t give up on Saul—the murderer.

God saw that Saul was going in the wrong direction, and God sent him in a new direction.

Might God not also do the same thing for me and you?

(Casual) Speaking of going the wrong direction… When I first moved to Connecticut, I wanted to see all the historic sites.
·       So I get the address, punch it into MapQuest, print out the map, and I’m on my way.

I’m driving down the streets of New Haven, and every three blocks or so, I would see a street sign, indicating where I was. And usually, by the time the next street sign was in view, I would realize that I had already passed the street I was looking for… two blocks ago.

Then I move to the Greenwich area where the residents pride themselves on concealing their street number. I even saw a segment on News 12 about a prospective city ordinance requiring that all homes display street numbers at least 4” tall.
o  Apparently, Ambulances and Police were unable to find their destinations, and people were dying because of it… but nope, the people of Greenwich don’t want house numbers on their homes… Which makes getting around difficult for Midwesterners like me.
o  So I finally cashed-in my credit card rewards and got one of those GPS devices, and I was able to get where I need to go, and in a timely manner!
o  I just punch in the destination, and it takes me there.

(calm) And it is so forgiving, too.
·       A few times, I have been unable to get into a turning lane, so I have to keep going straight. So I miss my turn.
·       The woman’s voice—I call her “Claire”—says in a very sweet sound… “Recalculating.”

(anxious) Of course, I’m flailing myself in agony because I missed a turn.
·       I’ve probably just added another three minutes to my travel time.
·       I am about to go bonkers, I’m so mad at myself.
·       (calm) But my GPS speaks understandingly to me, and with a single word, erases my anxiety: “Recalculating.”

(still calm) And my GPS takes me back around the block.
·       It never gets angry with me.
·       It never adds to my misery.
·       That voice is like salve to my bruised ego: “Recalculating.”

(Matter-of-fact) Friends, it doesn’t matter if we are headed in the wrong direction…
o  Nothing looks familiar anymore.
o  Nothing feels right.
o  We are filled with dis-ease.
o  We are unhappy.
o  We may even be so wounded that we begin wounding other people.

Because there is a God who pursues us.

God seeks after us.

And we are left on our own road to Damascus—about to do or say something we regret.
·       And we lose our senses.
·       We are paralyzed and recognize our own hunger.
·       Our lives are turned upside-down.

(Miraculous) And then grace appears.
·       Someone, like Ananias, decides he will put himself in harm’s way—for us.
·       Someone believes in us to give us another chance.
·       Some twist of fate opens doors that weren’t open before.
·       And the hate and fear and selfishness fall like scales from our eyes.

It’s as if God is whispering to us: “Recalculating.”

Some of us can relate to Saul in this story; I know I can.
But some of us might relate more to Ananias—who went out of his way to help a murderer. And to those people, I would say this:


I was reading an article in The Humanist. It talked about how religious progressives really blew it recently on social media.
·           There was a news article about a gentleman who had called 911 because he was engaged in a dangerous, private activity.
·           The gentleman calls 911 because his life is in danger.
o     I think everyone should have a right to call 911.
·           But the comments under the article indicated that some people should not have that right.

·           Interesting. This use of language suggests to me that the behavior was somehow less of a problem than the gentleman in question—who must be a part of a group that is targeted, somehow.
·           So, to whom was the article referring when it cited “these people”? It was a Roman Catholic priest.

So, with the whole vow of celibacy thing, I get it: perhaps he was not living into his highest values.
·           But the comments on this news article were scathing:

The point of the article was not that this priest is a great person.

No, he is probably on his own road to Damascus.

The point is that we can and should get angry when we discover hypocrisy… but anger is different from hatred.
o     These comments were hate-filled.
o     They failed to recognize how much in need we all are.
o     They turned this gentleman into an object—not a complex human being just like each of us.

This priest probably shouldn’t have been the target of the media. And this article probably shouldn’t have gone viral. But it did, and it did. And here, in religious community, we need to talk about what this means for us.

Just as I am a spiritual refugee of the Church of the Nazarene, perhaps some of you here are refugees from the Roman Catholic Church, or another denomination.

We have trod our own roads to Damascus, and each of us (I’m hoping) was greeted warmly by a smiling Ananias.
o     We are here in this Christian community because we were welcomed and shepherded and nurtured and, by the grace of God, made whole.

(Emphatic) This gentleman (who happens to be a priest) needed an Ananias.
·           He needed someone to feed him and clothe him and love him.
·           But he did not find an Ananias from Christians—from anyone—in the comments section of the news page.

Love is our responsibility.
It defines who Christians are to be.
Who else is commanded to love whomever they see?

I want to close by telling you a story about one of my hospice patients. Her name is Patty.

The first time I visited Patty, she shewed me from her room.

“I said I’m a chaplain.”
“I don’t have time for this. Well… are you coming back?”
“Only if you’d like.”

My first several visits to Patty were just like that. She was a very hardened woman who had to have a fascinating story—most people do.
·       I communicated to her by white board, since she couldn’t hear.
·       But she could talk, all right.
·       And she kept shewing me from her room but asking me to come back.
·       She was ambivalent about me, for some reason.

Then one day, after I slowly earned her trust, she began sharing with me that she is distrustful of religious professionals because she had bad experiences with religion.
·       She told me that she had children out of wedlock, and since that time has been unable to partake in Communion in her denomination.

“How long has it been?” (I’m looking at her; she’s in her 80’s.)
“It’s been decades,” she said.
“Would you like me to bring you communion?”
“Yes, but I couldn’t take it.”
“In my church you could.”

So I talk with her nurse, and they approve the sacrament can be taken orally. And the next time I saw her, I brought with me bread and wine.

And I blessed the body and the blood.
And we took the elements together.

This hardened woman in her 80’s… began to soften.
·       Her voice changed from a harsh, raspy whine… to a lighter, freer hum.
·       Her tense body began to relax.
·       Her eyes filled with gratitude.
·       And her countenance became radiant.


(Abrubt) Then she shewed me out of the room…
(Serious) … and said “thank you, Father.”

That was the last time I saw Patty awake.


Sometimes, God’s love is incomprehensible.
·       It is foolish.
·       It is counter-intuitive.
·       It is like casting our nets on the other side of the boat.

And God pursues us.

(Intense) God—who worketh through us—
·       Gives us grace.
·       And gives us peace.
·       And gives us mercy…
…to do God’s work “in earth as it is in heaven.”

All of us have been Saul at one point or another.

And all of us can be an Ananias.
·       We’re not all called to welcome murderers into our home, like Ananias…
·       But it doesn’t have to be that dramatic.
·       In fact, doing God’s work is usually very simple.
·       We can certainly break bread together—as equals—with people the church has traditionally rejected.
o  Spiritual refugees like me
§  … and all the people I wounded in my previous life
§  … and my hospice patient…
·       And we can be renewed by God, and allow the scales to fall from our eyes, and be made whole again.

That is the promise of Eastertide. May it be so.