June 28th, 2015 – The Feast of St. Paul & St. Peter – Acts 7:53-8:3
God, you have a word for us. Send your Spirit to soften our hearts and open our ears to hear that word.
If I’m honest with you, it’s been an exhausting two weeks. Just on Friday, I witnessed the utter jubilation of my friends who are gay and lesbian in being affirmed in their right to marry as God has called them to. We witnessed terror attacks across three continents to coincide with a heretical call from ISIS for terror attacks during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. And we watched as nine of our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ, victims of a domestic terror attack by a white supremacist, we’re laid to rest.
And for leaders in this church, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, it has been a trying week, a soul searching week, a week of getting honest with ourselves, now a week and a half after what happened in Charleston. You may have noticed this morning that our service has some elements that are out of season, a confession that names racism and white supremacy in our midst, and these elements are the products of a call from our presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, to a day of repentance and mourning across our church. Because this week, we learned that the shooter, Dylann Roof really is one of us, a young man who attended St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, S.C. And not just a member, from what we understand, he attended weekly worship, he went to church camp. He was no different than most of us. It is no mistake to say, he is a Lutheran.
It raises many questions, but one of the ones I have been wondering is: just what does it mean to be a church named after St. Paul when Dylann Roof’s church was named St. Paul Lutheran, and so is ours. Is it just a name? Or might that name have something to offer us? Some sort of good news? Especially this week, on the eve of the feast of Paul and Peter.
There is a lot that part of me wants to shame, to guilt, to diagnose how another Church and pastor could have allowed this to happen, but all that will do is make me feel self-righteous, somehow better, as if that couldn’t happen to this St. Paul…There has also been a lot of calls to prophetic sermons and calls to action, but when I’m really, truly honest with myself, I have no ground to stand on to do this.
I have no ground to stand on, because I am a white leader, in a 97% white church, that in it’s focus to be “Lutheran” enough, gave oxygen for Dylann Roof’s racism and white supremacy to breathe and grow in a church. I have no ground to stand on, because no amount of outrage at my church, no amount of preaching the Law to you, no amount of outrage at racism, no amount of shaming will ever be able to shed a light on the demons in my own and yours heart.
The only ground we have to stand on is God’s grace and mercy for sinners, like you and I. And that’s a place to start, a lesson that St. Paul knows better than any of us. So where we might we find this good word this morning? I think our story from Acts, and the story of Paul, our namesake, is a good place.
For Paul, the journey of faith was not one of boasting, or of being “on the right side of history,” Paul was transformed by the power of Christ crucified and risen, first by repentance of his sin and then by proclamation of faith. In many ways, in this time we find ourselves in, to be named after Paul is a gift. It means to be complicated, like all of us, to be complicit in oppression, to have a tendency to boast of ourselves, and the need to experience the grace of the only one who actually can bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice for those of us who unwittingly participate in injustice: Jesus.
And it means to hear such good news, of the one who is resurrected from the dead, that the scales fall from our eyes, and we are freed to be, as Paul says this morning, “poured out like a libation,” for the sake of this wearied world. To be named after Paul also means that we have to be honest about Paul, and truth about ourselves.
Because Paul had another name, a name that was represented his power and authority and status: Saul.
This morning in Acts, we are confronted not by Paul’s beautiful theology about the weakness of God being stronger than any human strength, or his wonderous arguments for the belonging of all under the reign of Christ, no. This morning, we are confronted with Saul, the complicit oppressor. The one who stands by while St. Stephen is being stoned to death.
Telling the whole story. The whole thing. Stephen finds himself in a crowd of Saul and the Sanhedrin, a council of Jewish religious leaders, preaching. Telling the story of all the ways that we have screwed it up. How the Israelites left slavery, and then enslaved others. How our ancestors wanted a king when God didn’t want one for them. How our ancestors persecuted the prophets who came into their midst proclaiming that God isn’t interested in worship, but justice and mercy. And finally, how when the Messiah came, bearing forgiveness and grace, we rejected him. Stephen is preaching here. He’s got a good word, a good word about how our reign of screwing everything up, and then trying to fix it, to make it all better, has come to its end in the cross of Jesus. We can no longer boast, because even our good works need to be put to death.
Instead of condemning them, Stephen invites them to turn to God’s mercy and grace.
And, boy, doesn’t this sound familiar? They plug their ears and yell and begin stoning him.
And we can imagine being there, as Stephen begs that their ears be opened, their voices silenced, and that they can hear what he says: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
And it’s easy to put ourselves in Stephen’s shoes, White American Christians are particularly enamored with the idea of being persecuted, even when our brothers and sisters are actually being persecuted, in this country and beyond. But in reality, we are like Saul, standing neatly by, not doing the stoning, but plugging our ears, yelling, and pretending that just because we don’t utter racial epithets and take down Confederate flags, that the world is changing.
And, let me tell you, I wish I could plug my ears. I wish I could plug my ears to the racism I grew up with in my family, a grandmother who I loved dearly, a devout Lutheran, who believed that black people were inferior. I wish I could plug my ears when my family of origin would make jokes about Somali cab drivers in Minneapolis. I wish I could have plugged my ears four years ago when I could feel my own racism, standing with a group of my high schoolers in the house where our brother Medgar Evers was assassinated fifty years ago with his wife standing in the kitchen by a veteran of World War II. And I really wish I could have drowned out that voice when I was working as a Chaplain, and I treated the family of an 18-year old African-American boy, who had been in a car accident, terribly, because I believed he was letting down his family, assuming that he was up to no good, when he was simply late for school, and was t-boned by another driver on his cell phone.
To say I resonate with Saul is an understatement. Because the kind of sin that I have been convicted of isn’t overt, but subtle kind, a standing around like Saul, found in gentrifying neighborhoods or the reluctance to confront a parent who makes a racist joke.
And just like Saul, as our brothers and sisters are martyred, as their families attend to the work of justice, as we can hear them crying out at our plugged ears: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” it started getting to me, piercing my heart. This grace that we hear this morning, this grace that we have been hearing this week is not a simple call to be exonerated, or to ignore our complicity, but of repentance: that Grace is more powerful than the sin, shame, guilt and good works that keep us from the truth about ourselves and the world we live in. This power, this grace is Jesus, the Messiah, crucified for our sin, and raised from the dead for our salvation.
It’s easy to be distracted from that power, that free gift of grace, that empowers up to look into the depths of our soul, our own churches, and our own nation. And on our own, we don’t have that courage, that kind of power, to enter the depths of our selves. And our brother Saul doesn’t either. He doesn’t just magically become Paul. No, he is confronted by Jesus on the Damascus Road in just a few pages in Acts. In fact, this is what it says: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.”
And I suspect we might be hearing that question too.
And, by the help of the Holy Spirit, and the work of Annanias, another disciple, and most of all, the undeserved grace of God, Saul is brought to repentance, and then, a new profession of faith. And is baptized. And becomes Paul. The Paul that our church is named after. And to take the name of Paul is to take a gentile name, and to give up the name that represented his power and his privilege, and his sin. Paul experiences a grace that is unearned, undeserved, and is the free gift of God for a sinner, for an oppressor. And in fear and trembling, Paul is transformed, set free of his sin.
And we too, in the midst of our sin, are promised this grace, this power that sets the world on its head, this grace that takes the greatest persecutor of the church in his day, a Jew amongst Jews, and turns him into one of the greatest preachers of the grace of God found in Jesus, the world has ever known.
And this Paul, and maybe our church too as well, becomes defined by this singular encounter with God’s law and grace, the wrath of the painful truth of who he is and the grace that shows him who Jesus is, what God’s grace is like, and what his mission is now. A mission to the nations, bearing grace and justice, being poured out like a libation.
To be a church named after Saul, who becomes Paul, is to believe that we all come as Saul, sinner and oppressor, boasting of our own selves, and by the power of God, we leave transformed as a Paul, humbled, with a complicated history, and filled with an undying passion for this Jesus who transforms this world. This is the power of Christ crucified and risen that we preach. Not merely a free ticket to heaven, but a Christ who transforms lives and kingdoms here and now, allowing us to look into the abyss of racism and white supremacy, preparing us for the kingdom that is yet to come.
And if we can unplug our ears for just a moment, we, like Paul, might just stumble into the crucified and risen Jesus on our road to Damascus.
We, God willing, might be converted. Converted to a Jesus who can show us the depth of our church’s and our nation’s and our own demons. Being converted by the grace of the God who has the power to exorcise demons this powerful in our world. A God that silences our yells and opens our ears to our brothers and sisters who are crying out. The only one who can turn oppressors into brothers and sisters, who can show us the way, even when we think we are might already be on the right path.
In the end, I suspect that’s what it means to be a church named after Paul, to celebrate this complicated saint, to believe that Jesus is where we encounter this kind of power, this kind of Grace, which can show us the whole story. That speaks like Stephen to the Sanhedrin, reminding us of our own brokenness, a power that allows us not to boast of ourselves, but of Christ. The power of grace to set free sinners to change the world, to live for our neighbors, and to do better.
So, Brothers and Sisters, lets remember who we are named after: let’s be transformed by the power of Jesus that Paul said made him poured out like a libation. And let’s all be poured out like a libation, a good stiff drink of grace and justice and freedom for the sake of this world bound to racism and violence, because it, and we, could use that kind of a drink after these last few weeks.
So come to the table at this St. Paul, drink, eat, and be converted by the Grace that can change the world.