Would you believe I happened to be assigned to preach here at St. Paul’s four years ago this very Sunday? Inaugurations provided a through line for my sermon, while walking gave it metaphorical legs. It was January 22, 2017, two days after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States and the day after the worldwide women’s march with all those pink hats. At St. Paul’s that Sunday, we inaugurated one of Mother Sara Fischer’s initiatives – a community hour between the 9:00 and 11:15 morning masses – even though Sara was not with us, but recuperating from the broken hip she suffered in Nazareth on pilgrimage.
The liturgical occasion, however, was different four years ago. The Third Sunday after the Epiphany (Lectionary Year A). Because the gospel reading for that Sunday gives Matthew’s account of the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry of teaching, proclaiming good news, and healing, a ministry that begins with a long walk from Capernaum through all the cities and towns of Galilee – I found it easy to make connections with the inaugurations at the parish and in the nation (Matthew 4:12-23). Easier than today on the occasion of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. Some of the challenges lie with Paul himself – not exactly the softest and most cuddly patron saint out there. Ask women and members of the LGBTQ community about some of the things Paul has to say in his letters. Listen to Black Church folk – otherwise so attached to scripture – express their deeply mixed feelings about Paul.
But I need a word from Paul our patron today. We need a word. The power of his example, rather than the example of his power – to borrow a line from President Biden’s inaugural address. For this is a day of history and hope – Joe Biden again – a winter of peril and significant possibilities. We suffer the trauma of the last few weeks in Washington, DC, after a year of living and dying with COVID-19. The trauma of the history of the past four years and the past four hundred years since the first enslaved African was brought to these shores. At the same time, we also take gulps of hope and feel shivers and shed tears of joy. We begin to exhale after holding our breath for so long; at least a little. As a nation this week and as a parish next Sunday with our annual meeting, we ask: Who are we becoming? In this sermon, I ask you to join me in asking: What is the peril and what are the possibilities of having Paul’s conversion in remembrance? Without any peril, I’m not likely to turn away from the comfort and complacency of privilege. And turn away we must, for as poet Amanda Gorman said on Wednesday: …what just is / isn’t always just-ice. But without possibilities, new possibilities, possibilities of the new, who could possibly endure to the end and be saved (Matthew 10:22)? Paul’s conversion; and mine, and yours.
What if Paul’s conversion was more than an inner change of mind, trading one intellectual worldview for another? What if, instead, it was a directly visible, outward reversal of Paul’s social location? People and community belonging, not doctrine or religious practice. Today’s reading from Acts describes Paul as he sets out on the Damascus road: so furiously enraged at the community gathered around the name of Jesus of Nazareth that he pursued them to foreign cities, punished them often in the synagogues trying to force them to abandon Jesus, locked them up in prison, and cast his vote against them when they were being condemned to death. All with the authority and commission of the nation’s religious leaders (Acts 26:9 12).
But the Damascus road leads Paul to a vision of Jesus, and he takes his place alongside the very followers of Jesus he had been violently persecuting. He becomes one of them and they become his people, his new community. Paul sheds the armor of authority. Paul turns away from the exclusion and supremacy of religious nationalism. Amanda Gorman said it this way: We lay down our arms / so we can reach out our arms / to one another.
As a result of his conversion, Paul can expect everything Jesus says in today’s gospel reading from Matthew: “See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. They will hand you over to councils and flog you;…and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me….Brother will betray brother…and children will rise against parents” (10:16-18, 21). Paul: a wolf become one of the sheep and sent back out among wolves.
Can you imagine one of those bronze statues of a Confederate general climbing down off his pedestal; leaving his horse and flag, that flag with the stars and bars, behind; casting aside sword and uniform; walking all the way to Washington, DC in morder to take his place at the back of the crowd with other white allies, following the larger than death or life monument to Martin Luther King, Jr.? His truth is marching on!
What if Paul’s talk in our reading from Galatians (1:11-12) about the good news he proclaimed not being of human origin because he didn’t receive from a human source, has something to do with truth? So, too, Jesus’ encouragement not to worry about how to speak or what we are to say because the Spirit of God will speak through us (Matthew 10:19-20)? We don’t manufacture the truth. We shouldn’t manipulate it to our own self interest. The truth offers to shape us as community, as God’s people. For at his conversion, Paul did not find Jesus, Jesus found him. The truth is powerful. But the truth cannot be used as a club. Amanda Gorman again: For there is always light, / if only we’re brave enough to see it / if only we’re brave enough to be it.
When South Africa began to emerge from its history of white supremacy, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and others chose to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Not reconciliation in advance of the truth or without truth-telling. Truth and reconciliation.
And what if like us today, this winter, Paul stood between history and hope? The voice of Jesus on the Damascus road appoints Paul “to serve and testify” both “to thethings in which you have seen me” – already – “and to those in which I will appear to you” – later (Acts 26:10). Who is Paul becoming? We catch a glimpse in chapters 9 through 11 of his letter to the Romans. Not part of our scripture readings this Sunday, but containing some of Paul’s most self-aware and self-disclosive words. “I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (9:1-3). Furious anger replaced by heartbroken empathy. Paul agonizes over the division between Jews and Gentiles; Abraham and Moses, and Jesus; his ancestors, his people by birth and his people by choice, his new community in Christ. Paul works with the image of an olive tree: cultivated branches broken off and wild shoots grafted in, but both supported by a common rootstock. Here’s where Paul ends up: “now if their stumbling,” the stumbling of his Jewish people, “means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for the Gentiles,” Paul’s found people, “how much more will their full inclusion mean,” the full inclusion of his people by birth (Romans 11:12). “If their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead!” (11:15) Amanda Gorman one last time: [I]t’s the past we step into / and how we repair it.
Like Paul, I have ancestors. Family and community. People by birth and new found people. You do too. I’ve been obsessed since this past summer with the idea of trying to draw something, or paint it, or make a collage depicting an imaginary family tree, one that would reconcile – in myself, at least, and for the sake of who I hope I’m becoming – my great-great-grandfather Bushrod Washington Taylor’s Confederate States of America gravestone in Joyce, Louisiana (he was no general, just a lowly corporal) and the billboards demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, the African American woman killed in her own apartment by Louisville, Kentucky police. I’m still working on it. Maybe I can incorporate the image into remarks for a future shared homily at St. Paul’s Sunday evening mass when our building is fully reopened. In the meantime, I close this sermon with words from the song Seattle rock band the Foo Fighters performed at Wednesday’s inaugural celebration.
It’s times like these you learn to live again,
…you give and give again.
It’s times like these you learn to love again,
…time and time again.
The text of President Biden’s inaugural address can be found at:
For the amazing poem the amazing Amanda Gorman, national youth poet laureate, read at the inauguration, “The Hill We Climb,” see: https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/20/politics/amanda-gorman-inaugural-poem-transcript/index.html
The song by the Foo Fighters is called “Times Like These”; just Google it, and you can find a YouTube video performance and/or complete lyrics.
And here are the images involving Bushrod Washington Taylor and Breonna Taylor: