Sunday, December 31, 2017

Keeping Hope Alive (a sermon from Luke 2:22-40)

In our Gospel story today Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple. Interpreters point out that Luke collapses two different Jewish rituals into one – the purification of the mother and the redemption of the first born. These were actually two separate rituals observed at different times, but in this story Luke combines them, reminding us that for the Gospel writers the proclamation of good news was always more important than getting history and the traditions right.

The offering that is presented by Jesus’ parents tells us something about the economic conditions in which Jesus was raised. The law required a lamb for the offering, but it had a poverty clause that permitted the offering of turtle doves or pigeons for those who could not afford to bring a sheep. And this is what Mary and Joseph bring. I suspect growing up poor helped to nurture within Jesus a real passion to help the poor. He knew how systemic poverty entraps and diminishes people. When Jesus sets forth his agenda in Luke’s Gospel, he defines his mission in terms of Isaiah 61. He says that the Spirit empowers him to bring good news to the poor, to open the eyes of the blind, to free the captives, and liberate the oppressed. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, for the kingdom of God belongs to them. God’s kingdom is the great equalizer where the first will be last and the last will be first, unlike the kingdoms of the world where there is huge disparity.

Luke mentions Israel’s longing for God’s future liberation through two expressions. Simon speaks of “the consolation of Israel” and the prophet Anna speaks of “the redemption of Jerusalem.” But clearly Luke does not limit this future hope to God’s covenant people. He says that the child will be a light of revelation to the Gentiles for God’s salvation is prepared for all peoples. God’s plan is all inclusive. It is universal, not exclusively limited to one group of people, even if that group of people played a special role in the unfolding of God’s salvation. God’s salvation is for all.

When the early followers of Jesus spoke about the future salvation of the world they employed a popular language or form of expression that developed in the intertestamental period called apocalyptic. To us it seems a very strange way of communicating. Apocalyptic is a highly hyperbolic or exaggerated language often employing strange and bizarre imagery and symbolism – angels blowing trumpets, beasts arising out of the sea, stars falling from the heavens, and the like. Paul, for example, is using apocalyptic language when he says to the church at Thessalonica,
“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.”

I grew up as a conservative evangelical where belief in a literal, bodily, personal second coming of Jesus was considered one of the fundamentals of the faith. I believed that the heavens would split apart and the glory of Jesus would appear in the sky as he returned to the earth to judge the world and set up his kingdom. I suspect many of you were taught this and probably still believe this, which is okay. I don’t believe in a literal second coming of Christ, which is okay too. That is the neat thing about our fellowship. We welcome diversity of belief. Being a Christian is not about believing all the right things; rather, being a Christian is aspiring to live and love like Jesus. Everything else is open for discussion. Now I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I do think I owe it to you as your pastor to explain why I don’t believe in a personal second coming of Christ. Please understand that my intent here is not to convince you to change your belief, but simply explain why I see things differently at this stage in my faith journey.

First, second coming language is apocalyptic language and I see no reason to take some things symbolically and other things literally. I interpret it all symbolically. Apocalyptic language is the language of parable and poetry. It’s metaphorical, not literal. Second, I see no reason for Christ to return, because Christ is already here. Now, I do not mean to say that the man, Jesus of Nazareth is here, who was crucified by the powers of the world, and whom God raised from the dead. Yes, Jesus is called the Christ, but it is clear in the writings of Paul that Paul understood Christ to be a broader reality than the divine/human man Jesus. Paul spoke of Christ being in us and our being in Christ. He called us the body of Christ in the world. So if Christ is here, with us, among us, in us, being incarnated through us, then the Christ does not need to return.

The third reason I am not looking for a personal return of Jesus (and this is the real clincher for me) is because I don’t expect God to engage humankind in the future in a dramatically different way than God has engaged humankind in the past. If 99.9 percent of all the scientists in the world are correct (and I believe 99 percent of the scientists), then human life evolved over a course of millions of years. I believe science and religion should support one another, that they should be complementary not contradictory. I have no reason to doubt these scientists. It doesn’t seem likely to me that God is going to change so drastically how he relates to the creation. I see God as intimately involved in this whole process. I don’t believe God is somewhere out there stirring the pot with God’s finger (that’s a metaphor by the way). I believe God is right here with, among, and in the creation moving us forward. God is such an intimate part of this whole process that God experiences both the pain and joy of the creation. Clearly, this is a slow process and all part of the great Mystery. It is interesting, I think, that when Paul speaks of the redemption of the world In his letter to the Romans he includes all creation. He says that the whole creation groans in labor pains awaiting full redemption.

So, for these reasons I believe that if God is going to bring about a just world, a world of peace and righteousness, God will do it through you and me. God will do it through Christ’s body in the world. We are God’s plan for the redemption of the world. I can understand why many Christians are afraid to even entertain this idea, because it puts an awful lot of responsibility on us doesn’t it? It’s a whole lot easier to believe that Jesus is going to come back to earth and do this all for us so that we don’t have to. Whatever Paul may have believed about the second coming he emphasized our responsibility in the redemption of the world. Listen to what he says to the church at Corinth: “I have made myself a servant to all, so that I might win more of them.” That’s a heavy load to bear isn’t it? He says, “To those under the law [the law of Moses] I became as one under the law . . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law [then he says that he is under the law of Christ which he calls God’s law – that is, the law of love]. . . To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” Then he concludes by saying, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23)” I suspect what Paul means by “blessings” here is very broad, but certainly this includes the blessings of a just world, a redeemed world, a world healed and made right and whole, a world of peace and righteousness.

When we consider our spiritual and moral evolution as a species it can be discouraging. We can’t be much past adolescence can we? Our intellectual and technological evolution has obviously outpaced our religious and moral evolution. We have made great strides in extending life expectancy and fighting diseases that once cut life off prematurely. And yet, millions of people still are not able to access these resources. That’s a moral problem because of systemic injustice. We have used our technological know-how to create weapons of mass destruction, and we have amassed enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the planet several times over, and still we think we have to make more of them. And we all know how systems large and small – governments, corporations, all kinds of political, economic, social, and religious systems, global, national, and local, can become pervaded by injustice and evil. When a system becomes saturated by sexism, or racism, or nationalism, or exceptionalism, or materialism, or any other destructive or deadly “ism” that system can do great harm.   

So how do we keep hope alive? How do we sustain hope that the world can be different, that we can be different? How do we nurture hope in Life when the powers of death appear to be so prevalent and dominant? Without a whole lot of elaboration I suggest three practices we can engage in to keep hope alive.

First, we can learn how to listen to the Spirit – to the still small voice of God. Contemplative prayer is about listening rather than asking. I still ask God for things. I make requests. But I am learning to listen more than I ask. Sometimes we are the answer to our prayers, but we don’t know it, because we haven’t taken the time to listen. I think of the man who had a lakeside cabin and liked to go for a brisk swim in the mornings. One morning he took to the water earlier than usual. While he was some distance from shore, a late morning fog, thick and dense, came suddenly rolling in over the water.  He could barely see a few feet in front of him. Then he realized that he had lost his bearings; he did not know where the shore was (which, by the way, is a very apt description of where we are as a nation today). He started to panic and began thrashing about in the water, starting this way, then stopping and launching out in another direction. Then he realized how foolish this was and became very still. So still he could hear birds singing in the distance. Then he heard a car horn and next, he heard his wife calling for him, and he was able to make his way back to shore. And you know sisters and brothers, nurturing this capacity to listen is not just for own salvation. The redemption of the world may depend on enough of us developing the capacity to hear God speak and then the courage to follow God’s leading.

Second, we keep hope alive by learning how to live responsibly and lovingly within a community. Living and loving responsibly within a community enables us to focus beyond our private ego and moves us beyond our preoccupations with our personal wants and interests. A church, a faith community when it is actually being the body of Christ in the world grounds us in God’s larger story – what Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Joan Chittister tells about being a child and having polio the year that would later be described as the last of the great polio epidemic in the U.S. Polio hospitals everywhere were full. Every day brought new patients in on gurneys—men, women, children, infants, people of all ages. She tells of being in a room with sixteen others, too young for adult rehabilitation and too old for the children’s units. She felt lost, scared, angry, and very very alone. Depression hung like a morning mist over that place. They were all strangers quarantined together.

She heard the woman in the corner crying every day and every night. Others lay on their sides in silence. Then one day, one of the men came rolling into the room, tilting the wheels on his chair. “Anybody wanna race?” he called out. “We’re getting ready.”
The woman who cried all the time screamed at him, “Just get out of here. I just want my privacy. Even my husband wouldn’t barge in on me like this.” The man in the wheel chair just shook his head. Chittister spoke up, “I do. I want to race. But I don’t have a wheelchair.” “Don’t worry kid,” he said, “we’ll be back as soon as you get one.” Then he spun around and rolled out of the room. Chittister writes, “Those wheelchair races saved me. I never won any of them but my arms got stronger by the week and I learned to handle the chair. And, most of all, I laughed a lot and made new friends and had a great sense of the possible that carried me for years.” She learned that it isn’t what happens to us that counts, it’s what we do with what happens to us that makes all the difference.” She became involved in that community and it gave her hope.

And lastly, we can keep hope alive by intentionally practicing the golden rule – by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. The prophet asked the question: What does God require? In response he said, “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Most of us do a fair job at being kind and expressing mercy. We are not quite as good at walking in humility. And we are even worse at doing justice. And right now at this time in our world and our nation there is nothing more important than doing justice.

Some of us just shy away from the task when we consider how daunting it is to challenge huge systems where injustice is inseparably intertwined within the system – whether it be a government system or social system or even a religious system. But here’s what we can do. We can start right where we are. I hope you are reading some of the stories that are being published about dreamers – undocumented folks who came here as children. This is their home. They were kids when they were brought here. Maybe there parents were fleeing war or poverty or just wanting a better life for there family, but they were brought here as children. They don’t have another home somewhere. Our government has failed them miserably – they are still undocumented because our representatives failed to give them a path to citizenship. And right now unless Congress acts, the present administration will deport them, just as they have already deported many undocumented. They don’t care about separating families. I hope you have read some of their stories. I read this past week that the administration is even making the argument that separating mothers from their infants and toddlers is a good thing. I hope you understand how unjust and merciless deporting these “dreamer” is. We say, “What can we do?” We can speak up and speak out and refuse to be silent. We can at least do that, can’t we? When we are silent we complicit in the injustice. Do you remember those judged in Matthew 25? They are not judge for what they did, but for what they didn’t do. They are judged for doing nothing to help downtrodden. If an acquaintance or friend says something racist or something full of contempt, speak up. Say, “As a follower of Jesus I am offended by that remark” and tell them why you are offended. We who claim to be followers of Jesus need to be followers of Jesus. .

You know sisters and brothers, there are times when it’s no easy task keeping hope alive. When Simon and Anna spoke words of promise and hope to the parents of Jesus and to the people who worshiped in the temple it was during the dark days of captivity to Rome. No matter how dark it gets there is always some light, and we can live and walk in the light if we listen to the Spirit, engage in community, and do unto others what we would have them do unto us. We think of Jesus as being the light of the world, but Jesus said that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

Our good God, help us to see that we have a responsibility for keeping hope alive. We can’t manufacture hope. We can’t magically conjure up hope. But we can create the space for your Spirit to lead us. We can maintain practices of prayer and worship and community, and give ourselves to the kind of relationships that sustain hope. Help us to be faithful to these practices and relationships that nurture hope. Help us to be good and kind and generous and compassionate, to live honestly and humbly, to pursue justice and mercy, so that by loving one another we can create an atmosphere where hope can thrive. Give us the determination and will to say “yes” to life no matter how pervasive death seems, and give us the faith to trust you to fill us with hope. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

What does an encounter with God do for us? (A sermon from Luke 1:26-38)

Not every encounter with God is as momentous as Mary’s encounter with the angel in today’s Gospel story. But Mary’s experience can be viewed as a kind of archetypal experience. What I mean is that our encounters with God can do for us what Mary’s encounter did for her. Any authentic encounter with God gives us at least two things that are foundational to a heathy religious life and a transformative moral life. First, an encounter with God gives us solid ground we can stand on.

Luke says that when the angel appeared saying, “Greetings, favored one!” she “was much perplexed . . . and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Then the angel declared, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” I find it interesting that almost every time an angel of God appears in the biblical tradition, the first thing the messenger of God says is, “Do not fear?” It would seem that fearing God (being afraid of God) has been a major problem throughout human history. In primitive cultures human sacrifice was practiced as a way of appeasing the deity and averting the anger of the deity. As culture advanced animals replaced humans, and in our biblical tradition there are echoes that would suggest that even among the Hebrews  human sacrifice predated animal sacrifice. Throughout our religious history we have had a fairly frequent propensity toward projecting our fears onto God. We have imagined a god ready to pounce upon us like a predator upon its prey unless we offer the necessary sacrifices or perform the necessary requirements to placate the deity. Thus we make God into our image. It is not insignificant that in our Gospel text today twice the messenger of God assures Mary that she has no reason to be afraid, because she is “favored’ or “graced” by God.

For Mary to fulfill her role in the divine plan she needs to know in the core of her being and in the depths of her heart that she need not be afraid of God, but rather, that she is loved with an eternal love. This was not based on anything Mary did. This was not based on merit or status or any accomplishment. Mary is just an ordinary Jewish girl trying to get by in a very patriarchal culture. It would not have been anything unusual, I think, for a young Jewish girl to be made to feel inferior and to be afraid of God. So twice the messenger assures her that she is favored with God – she is graced and loved and does not need to be afraid. And this is what an authentic encounter with God does for all of us. It gives us ground to stand on. We don’t need to cower in fear, because we are loved with an eternal love.

I feel certain this is what Jesus’ vision at his baptism by John was about. Jesus saw heaven open and the Spirit descend in the form of a dove. He heard the voice of God say, “You are my Beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.” He would have another encounter with the same Voice affirming his beloved sonship on the mount that we call the mount of transfiguration. All the symbolism here, both with Mary and Jesus, points to this type of experience as a foundational experience for transformational service and ministry. It’s the kind of experience that liberates us from fear and insecurity and frees us to engage in works of mercy and justice for the cause of God in the world, not out of fear, but out of love – love for God and love for others, all of whom bear the image of God and are themselves children of God, even if they don’t know it or have yet to claim it.

Some people are afraid of such encounters with God and try to dismiss and diminish them. They will argue that the only thing we can actually hang on to is scripture, not our experience. I believe our experience and our scriptures function together as a kind of check and balance. Any time our experience makes us less loving than the Jesus of our Gospels, the Jesus of scripture, then it’s time to question our experience. Or any time our reading and interpretation of scripture calls into question our experience of God’s unconditional love, then we need to question our understanding of scripture. It’s a kind of check and balance. Our experience and scripture, scripture and our experience.

I love to tell the story about the Jewish fugitive in Nazi Germany who was fleeing for his life. He came to a small town and sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and the whole town would suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the young man who came to your door seeking refuge?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.” Not everything in the book affirms our experience of God as a God of unconditional love, which is why our experience of God needs to inform our reading of scripture. On the other hand, not every experience which we might mistakenly attribute to God is of God, so a careful reading and study of Jesus in the Gospels is necessary.  

Sometimes I am charged by biblical inerrantists of minimizing the word of God. My response is always this: On the contrary. God’s word is living and powerful; it is dynamic and constantly present. It cannot be confined and constricted to a book, no matter how sacred that book is. When we confine God’s word to a book, we minimize the word of God. God’s word, sisters and brothers, is God actively speaking, God revealing, God interacting with us right now. God may use the stories and accounts in our sacred scriptures to do that – to make known God’s will – but God is not limited to our scriptures by any means. As the poet so beautifully expresses: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.”

I suspect that the writer of 1 John was trusting his inner experience of God, which he calls an anointing, when he spoke about God being love. He wrote: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.” Obviously, the kind of “knowing” he is talking about is experiential knowing, not academic or informational knowing. It is not knowing intellectually, but rather knowing through experience. He goes on to say that love casts out all fear and that to abide in love is to abide in God, for God is love. Wherever love is present, God is present. Our authentic experience of God and our faithful reading of scripture affirm this.

Author Sue Monk Kid tells about finding an old bundle of Christmas cards while poking around in the attic looking for a picture frame. As she sifted through them she found a card that had meant a great deal to her one year when she was seven months pregnant. She was terribly tired of waiting and yearned to hold her baby in her arms. Then the card came. On the front was Mary, great with child, and inside were the words, “Let it be.”

Kidd felt a kinship with Mary; she felt as if Mary had come to show her how to wait through her pregnancy. She writes, “Don’t fret so, the card seemed to say. You can’t control the life in you. It grows and emerges in its own time. Be patient and nurture it with all your love and attentiveness. Be still and cooperate with the mystery God is unfolding in you. Let it be.” The text on the card became the means through which she encountered a living word from God.

This brings me to my second point, which I will not labor over as much as the first. An  authentic encounter with God not only places us on the solid ground of God’s unconditional love, it also opens up to us a vast Mystery to explore.

In 2 Samuel 7, David wants to build God a house, but God doesn’t want a house, because once a house is built then the temptation will forever be to limit and confine God to God’s house, which is what we so often do with our creeds and doctrinal statements and our particular religious traditions. I certainly did. I grew up like so many of you in a particular tradition that taught certitudes about God and discouraged serious  questions and inquiry. Now, don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with worshiping and serving God in a particular house, in a particular tradition. In fact, it is important to be able to call someplace home. But, when we start thinking that our house is the only house where God can dwell, then we severely limit God and our experience of God.

God is so much more, and when we discover solid ground in God’s unconditional love, we are set free to explore the Mystery that God is. These two outcomes of an authentic encounter with God go hand-in-hand. Once we encounter the God whose essence is Love, we no longer feel any need to cling to fearful and childish images of God, like the torturing god or the Santa Clause god, who is making a list checking it twice in order to find out who is naughty or nice.

Mary found herself grasped by love – held on to, chosen and called – by a greater Someone, and that gave her the courage to participate in a larger story. Standing firmly on that ground, held and gripped by loved, she found the courage to say “yes” to God’s call. She was willing to be led beyond her comfort zone, beyond her house of certitudes to a new place. She had to leave her safe place, but she found a better place (not as safe, but better) in God’s love and purpose. Mary found no security in her circumstances. She found her security in God – in God’s choice of her, in God’s love and acceptance, not in her status, or name, or reputation, or place in the world. Mary would be deeply wounded in her participation in the Love and Mystery of God. Her son would be crucified by the Romans as an insurrectionist. Living out her calling would not be easy. Mary shows us that when we are secure in God’s love, we can courageously participate in God’s story even though it may at times lead us into suffering.

In a sense Mary personifies the entire mystery of how salvation is received. In the Gospel of Luke Mary functions as the ideal disciple. She epitomizes trust. She finds solid ground in God’s love and calling, and she trusts God to lead her into the mystery. She surrenders to the process of incarnation. She not only gives birth to one who for many people will become the definitive expression of God’s grace and truth, but she herself becomes an incarnation of what trust looks like. She was willing to be become part of the incarnation of God, and that is your calling and mine.

As we enter into the Mystery we realize that incarnation can never be limited to one house, to one person or tradition. Incarnation was happening before Jesus, it was happening after Jesus, and it’s happening right now, hopefully in your life and mine. Paul understood this. This is why he called us the body of Christ. This is why he spoke so frequently about our being “in Christ” and Christ being in us, or our being in the Spirit and the Spirit being in us.

The great mystery is that we cannot NOT live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded by God all the time everywhere. The prayer attributed to Saint Patrick captures it well: God beneath you, God in front of you, God behind you, God above you, God within you. We do not earn this. It’s all grace. But our experience of this Mystery is largely a matter of being tuned in, being aware, being able to trust and surrender to this Greater Love at work everywhere all the time.

Mary was willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery, to allow the Christ child to be formed in her. What about us? Are we willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery? In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he put it this way: “All of us [not just some of us, but all of us], with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror [the glory resides in you and in me] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This says Paul, “comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (3:18). Are we willing to create the space and time and opportunity for the Spirit of Christ to do a good work in us and through us? Are we willing to surrender our ego and trust the Spirit to form the image of Christ in us?

Our Good God, we are so distracted, so preoccupied with other things – buying the right presents, decorating the house, entertaining, and so much more – that we hardly have time to think about the things we have talked about today. We thank you for this church, for this place and time where we can again be reminded of what is foundational, namely, your unconditional love for each of us and your presence with us and in us. I pray for each of us that we might have an encounter, an experience of your love that will open our eyes to your vastness and to your abiding and surrounding presence. May we not be afraid to have the small, little houses in which we have tried to confine you and control you come crashing down, so that we might be part of your ongoing incarnation in the world.  Amen.   

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (A sermon from John 1:6-8, 19-28)

The wilderness theme throughout the biblical tradition is multi-layered and rich in meaning. It has both negative and positive overtones. The wilderness can be a place of failure and collapse. But it can also be a place of renewal and restoration. Israel was tested and tried in the wilderness. It’s where the covenant people of God murmured and complained and forsook God. But it’s also were the people repented – turning from their injustice and sin – and experienced renewal and hope. God provided for them in the wilderness – with manna and water – and led them by the pillar of cloud and fire. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus encounters “Satan” in the wilderness, and he is ministered to by angels.

John is a voice crying in the wilderness – outside the halls of power, beyond the jurisdiction of the gatekeepers, away from the religious establishment – calling both the gatekeepers and the common folk to repentance and renewal.

John’s Gospel emphasizes John’s role as light showing the way to the true light – made known so beautifully in Jesus – but in all of us. The true light, says John’s Gospel, enlightens everyone – not just those who had historical contact with Jesus of Nazareth or just those today who have been taught the Christian tradition and scriptures. This light was bright in the one whose coming we celebrate at Advent. God looks and loves like Jesus. But this true light that shown so brilliantly in and through Jesus is in each of us, waiting to enlighten us, to reveal to us the grace and truth of God.

And you know sisters and brothers, sometimes we have to be led into the wilderness and face the harshness and challenge of the wilderness before we are ready to open our hearts and minds to see the light of divine grace and hear the voice of truth.

Each of our wilderness experiences are unique, and paradoxically, they are also very common. Some wilderness wanderings we fall into through no real fault of our own. There are circumstances over which we have no control. The company downsizes and we lose our job. Our health takes a rather drastic turn for the worst and suddenly our health and maybe our very lives are threatened. An accident leaves a loved one physically and/or mentally challenged. And on and on it goes. It’s the hard stuff of life that’s totally unpredictable.

There are other wilderness experiences that we bear total or partial responsibility for. We get angry and lash out and relations with friends or family are disrupted and broken. We nurture a grievance that becomes a grudge, and we become eaten up with a desire for retaliation and vengeance that turns us into bitter and hateful persons. We struggle with an addiction that may cause us to sacrifice our very souls in order to feed the addiction.

So what do we do? We can be open to see what really is. We can listen to the voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the way for the grace and truth and wisdom of God to find a place in our lives.

I have had a number of online conversations with people, when they become aware of my very conservative background – that, for example, my first two degrees were from very conservative theological institutions – they inevitably want to know what turned me around, what led me to embrace a more inclusive Christian faith. I am unable to point to any one experience that did it for me. All I can do is say that at some point in my journey a crack opened enough for the light to get in. And once that happens, sisters and brothers, there is no going back. Apparently, it just takes a small opening. It just takes a little bit of humility and courage and interest in the truth. If a crack opened in my life, it can open in any one’s life.

When we read of Paul’s conversion and calling as told by Luke in the book of Acts in the way Luke tells the story it seems that Luke may have believed that some of Paul’s experiences prior to that encounter may have prepared the way. Up until a crack opened in his heart, I doubt Paul felt even a tinge of guilt for his murderous hate and actions against Jesus’ disciples. He was convinced that he was doing the will of God in ridding the world of followers of Jesus. What he did to disciples of Jesus he did in the name of God, in the name of truth. It shouldn’t be hard for us to understand that. Just think of all the mean stuff and racist stuff and sexist stuff and just plain crazy stuff that is done today in the name of Jesus.

In Luke’s telling of the story Paul’s dramatic turn-around occurs in chapter 9. But in chapter 7 Luke tells the story of the martyrdom of Stephen, where Paul was present. The Jewish leaders were enraged when Stephen charged them and their followers of being a stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, and constantly resisting the Holy Spirit. He called them lawbreakers and betrayers of the truth. If someone said that to us we wouldn’t like it very much either would we? Luke says that when they heard this, “they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (7:24). According to Luke Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” He then said to the crowd, “I see the heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Then Luke says they covered their ears and rushed at him, dragging him outside the city they began to pelt him with stones. Luke says that those who engaged in this violence “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (that Paul’s Jewish name). Then Luke says that Stephen knelt down and cried out just before he died, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” In Luke’s version of the crucifixion Jesus cries out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke ends the story by saying, “And Saul approved of their killing him.” And then one chapter later, in chapter 9 Luke says that Saul, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” acquires permission from the High Priest to seek out any who belonged to the Way, men and women, (that’s how disciples of Jesus were known, followers of the Way) and to bring them bound to Jerusalem. Then, as Paul pursued this objective traveling toward Damascus he had an encounter with the cosmic Christ that changed the direction of his life. He became what he hated and persecuted – a follower of the Way.

I cannot help but think that when Saul or Paul witnessed the death of Stephen, and the grace and courage he displayed, a crack opened. I cannot help but think that after Paul witnessed the true light as it shown through Stephen and the true voice as it spoke through Stephen, that Paul began to doubt. The text doesn’t say that, but I cannot help but think that he was less sure of himself. Maybe he allowed himself to start questioning his motives and his biases. I cannot help but believe that a crack opened up just large enough for the light to shine through. And when it did it knocked him for a loop. At first it was a blinding light. It was blinding because it called into question almost everything Paul stood for and lived for. Paul had to learn how to see all over again. By the way, he didn’t switch Bibles, he just learned how to interpret it differently, which is what many of us have learned haven’t we?

When the crack opened and the light began to shine into my mind and heart it was far less dramatic. As I said, I can’t pinpoint any single experience or encounter. But it was no less consequential. To draw from the title of a book that was a part of this turn-around in my life, I began to see Jesus again for the first time. Teachers and authors like Marcus Borg and Richard Rohr became lights in the darkness, voices in the wilderness, setting me on a new path, a new journey. I suspect Stephen was a light, a voice in the wilderness, that the grace and confidence and fearlessness he exhibited in his death had a profound, though unconscious impact on Saul, opening up a crack for the light to get in.

For you it doesn’t need to be someone like Stephen, or John the Baptist, or Richard Rohr or Marcus Borg, it could be someone else or something else, that helps to jar open a crack, and a crack is all that is needed. God just needs a little bit of humility, a little bit of honesty, a little bit of uncertainty, a little bit of vulnerability, a little bit of courage and trust, that’s all God needs to shine the light of grace and truth into our minds and hearts and to set us on a new course and direction.

Actually the light shines from within, not from without. It may take a light from without to activate the light that is within, but the light of truth and grace already resides in our minds and hearts. We are already children of God. We are already loved and chosen. We just need to claim and become who we already are. We just need to allow the light that is already in us break through the shell of dogmatism and pride and prejudice and certitude that has encased it – that has hardened our hearts and blinded our minds.

And once the light penetrates the darkness, once the truth takes hold, there’s no going back. We begin a new journey. We realize that we, too, are called to be light in the darkness. We, too, are called to be a voice in the wilderness. We are called to be to someone else, what someone else was to us – a light and a voice.

Mother Teresa tells about a young French girl who came to Calcutta to work in their home for dying destitutes. After ten days she came to see Mother Teresa. She hugged Mother Teresa and told her that she had found Jesus. When Mother Teresa asked where she had found Jesus, the girl said, “In the home for dying destitutes.” Mother Teresa then asked her what she did after she found him. The girl said that she went to confession and Holy Communion for the first time in fifteen years. Mother Teresa asked, “Then what else did you do?” She said, “I sent my parents a telegram telling them that I had found Jesus.” Mother Teresa then gave her this advice. She said to the girl: “Now, pack up and go home. Go home and give joy, love, and peace to your parents.” She went home radiating the Spirit of Christ. Once she saw the light she became a light. Once she heart the voice she became a voice.

When we do an act of kindness for someone we are being a light in the darkness. When we give of our time and resources to help someone in need we are being light. When we affirm the worthiness of someone who is feeling unworthy we are being a voice. When we stand up for and speak on behalf of someone marginalized we are a voice crying in the wilderness. (We have had to do this a lot in the wilderness our democracy is in today). We will be light in the darkness and we will be a voice in the wilderness when we allow the Spirit of Christ to radiate God’s love through us. When we speak and act in the spirit of compassion and mercy, in the spirit of forgiveness and grace, in the spirit of fairness and equality, in the spirit of acceptance and affirmation, in the spirit of generosity and goodness, and in the spirit of inclusiveness and unconditional love, then we are letting our light shine in the darkness and our voice ring out in the wilderness. Once we see the light and hear the voice, we cannot but then become the light and the voice so that others might see and hear.

Out good God, some of us may need to see the light and hear the voice, so help us to have enough humility and honesty and uncertainty and faith, that a crack might open just enough so that your light might shine in and that your voice might be heard. And help us, Lord, to realize that the more we see the light of your grace and hear the voice of your truth, we must live and speak and share and bear witness so that others may have a chance to see and hear too.