Montreat Youth Conference Sermon "The Call of Paul"

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences. Six hundred kids attended the first week. 1200 the second week. The theme was "Making a Difference" with a sub-theme each day. I preached this sermon the first evening of worship. The liturgy for this evening can be found here. 

Acts 9:1-22

The Call of Paul

Theme: Making a Difference. 

Montreat Youth Conference 2016

Weeks 1 & 2

What strikes me about the Apostle Paul is how his life was so on track.

Paul seemed so sure about his life before his call to follow the way of Jesus, so sure of himself. Paul was a man on a mission as he moved his way through the ancient Middle East, and he moved through the city and desert landscape like a one-man wrecking crew.

Paul was violent. Incredibly violent.

As Paul would go into cities, he would gather up followers of Jesus, followers of The Way, and haul those people off to prison, or worse.

Paul would write about his early life later on in the Book of Acts:

I threw believers into jail, left and right, voting for their execution whenever I could. I stormed their meeting places. I bullied them into cursing Jesus. I was a one-man terror obsessed with obliterating those who believed in Jesus.

Paul was driven, violent and living life in one way and one way only.

I wonder if you have ever had an experience like this. Minus the supreme violence.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt like your was life tracked? So sure about the way your life was going. So certain that what you were doing was the way, the one way, the only way.

As I was growing-up in Upper Arlington, Ohio, I was certain I would be a doctor.Or a lawyer. I would be a professional that made a lot of money, would go to our country club, have a profession that eventually I could quit so I could stay at home with kids who I would have with my husband who would also be a doctor or lawyer or banker.

That was the dream.

And this was my community—a place full of wealth and status and nice cars and expectations that this was the way to live.

This was my track. My focus. My certainty.

This was the dream that my community, my family, my parents imparted upon me.

The image of my future was shaped at an early age giving me little room to imagine or envision anything different.

People were doctors. So I could be a doctor. People were lawyers. Maybe I’d be a lawyer.

Why would I ever want anything else?

Like a huge flash of light, certainty can be disrupted.

As the Apostle Paul was walking the road to Damascus, on his way to round up more followers of Jesus and haul them off to prison or worse, he was struck to the ground, light flashing all around him.

Paul heard this voice, “What in the name of Lord are you doing?” Paul dropped to his knees, practically unable to move until some kind strangers came along and helped him to Damascus.

I wonder what those 3 days in Damascus were like for Paul when Paul’s certainty got pulled out from under him.

I wonder if Paul was shaking or scared or gasping for breath or just in a deep bewilderment about what was happening to him, his body, his mind, his “what’s next.” What questions were rushing through Paul as he sat in Damascus, blinded and taken down by the Holy Light.

I wonder if you’ve ever been stopped in your tracks? Your certainty disrupted and turned on its head.

As if you were knocked down by a light, gasping, wondering, shaking, thinking “what is happening.”

The flash of light from the heavens that encircled me, knocked me to the ground came in the form of the religion department at Denison University where I went to college.

I didn’t really grow up in the church. I went to church but I kind of hated it. I was a shy kid in a 2,000 person church. I felt horribly uncomfortable most of the time in youth group and in worship. The thought of going to a place like Montreat? Forget it.

At Denison I stumbled upon the religion department and there the light flashed.

I discovered the stories of Jesus. I became curious about how theology is part of social transformation. I realized what I was learning about our liberating, God and Jesus was impacting how I saw the world and my place in it. I started to find that God was becoming a way for me to find my own voice, my own path, my own way.

And it wasn’t the way of a banker or a lawyer or a doctor. That image of my future was disrupted, tossed up into the air and I found myself wrestling, struggling, gasping for air as I started to realize all the change that was going on with me.

It was just that I didn’t want to be a big time professional anymore. I was struggling with who I was, feeling uprooted with belonging and connection.I had grown up thinking my life was going to be a certain way and now all those thoughts and dreams and images were all jumbled up.

My parents were appalled at the theology, the God-talk, I was learning. They were baffled at why my life was changing, why I was changing. Who wouldn’t want to be a doctor and go to a country club?

They were certain that Dr. Woodyard, my theology professor, was brainwashing me.

During my senior at Denison I told my parents that after I graduated I was going to do the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, JVC, a domestic peace corps type program similar to PCUSA’s young adult volunteer program.

When I shared this news, my parents flipped out.I still remember the phone call. I was anxious, excited to tell them. Hey, I’m going to do this JVC thing, live in Atlanta, Georgia, live in community, make about $75 a month, work with poor and homeless folks. It’s going to be great!

No. I heard. No, you’re not doing this. Why don’t you just be a banker they said.

With those words, I dropped to my knees in a puddle of tears. In comes Sara, one of my roommates. Sara comes in, asks what’s going on.

I tell her. Sara says,“Oh, you are going to do this alright. You’re going to Atlanta.”

I went to Atlanta.

Sara was my Ananias. She hugged me, tenderly, and said “Go. Do this JVC thing.”

Ananias gently loved Paul as Paul was on the threshold of moving forward in the ways of Jesus, leaving the life of violence and destruction behind. In that moment in Damascus, Ananias gently laid his hands on Paul and said “Brother Paul, Jesus sent me so you could see in a new way and let you know you are filled with the Holy Spirit.”

With that Paul could see.

Sara told me to go to Atlanta, go live in this new way, so I could learn to see the world through the eyes of Jesus.  Ananias said to Paul go now in the ways of love and compassion, go in the ways of the Spirit, love the poor, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothes to those without. Sara with her hug and words of affirmation, told me to do the same.

Who is your Ananias? Who is that person who has loved you when life has came to a grinding halt, when life took a new turn, a new way?

When I was doubting and scared in my puddle of tears, Sara’s words let me see and know “yes I am going to Atlanta and yes I will still be loved.”

Who is that person who has loved you when you had a plan and life got turned upside down?

Who is that person you told your parents were divorcing and that person said “your parents are divorcing and you are still my best friend.”

Who is that person when you big time messed-up, gave you a hug, a reminder you weren’t alone. Who is that person you told that you were really struggling with who you were said “thank you for telling me.”

We all need a companion like Ananias, like my friend Sara.

Ananias was a stranger to Paul and Paul was open to this strange person who became the one to confirm a new way of life for Paul.

Are you, Montreat, open to that friend, that companion, the stranger, that strange one, who might be telling you that as life comes to a thunderstruck halt, as life takes a turn, God might be calling you to get up and walk even more deeply in the compassionate ways of Jesus?

When your someone looks at you and says “actually not this way, your life is now going that way” can you trust that voice might be God claiming you?

Before Paul was called on the road to Damascus, he was conforming  to the ways of those in charge at the time.

The establishment, the empire of Rome, expected Paul to be a violent, awful person. And that’s what Paul did. He bended to the ways of Roman authority.

I grew up conforming to the ways of my childhood community. My community, with the best of intentions, groomed me to live a certain way.

As Stephen said this morning in keynote: there was a conformity issue with the tower of Babel. But the Jesus stories of justice and love and kindness that I was learning drew me in another direction.

When we try to conform. When we wear clothes we think we need to wear. When we long to fit in with a certain crowd.  When we act like a bully because we think we will feel bigger by making someone else feel smaller are we open to the one who might just be the voice calling us to be more of ourselves and less of someone else?

As the scales started to drop off my eyes and I could start seeing how I wanted to live my life, my heart started to ache more. I shed more tears. The transformation and change I was undergoing was profound and painful.

How would I explain any of this to my high school friends who knew me before Atlanta? How do I talk about this to my family? How do I tell people that instead of figuring out what law school I was going to apply to, I was now trying to figure out where the best soup kitchens were in Atlanta?

Instead of trying to one-up my friends with the next best job plan I was sitting on the streets of Atlanta listening to stories of the hungry and homeless.

Paul was blind even before he got hit by God’s holy light, blinded by the ways of the status quo that had him acting like a violent wrecking crew. After the scales fell from Paul’s eyes, when he could see, he got up and right away was baptized, the waters of new beginnings, of community, of belonging washing over him.

Before Paul could say “I have been an awful person. I’m a murderer. I’ve destroyed lives and relationships, I am not worthy of this call, this way of living with God” Paul received the waters of baptism.

History doesn’t tell us who baptized Paul and for the sake of the story let’s imagine Ananias.

With the muddy, dirty waters of an ancient world’s river, Paul received the water of baptism from Ananias, covering Paul and his heart seeking to be made new, baptismal waters claiming that  Paul wanted to begin again.

Paul’s baptism symbolized that even a violent guy was made in the image of God, that even Paul bore God’s name in his very being. Baptism didn’t make Paul perfect. He was still kind of a mess. Paul was still insecure, he didn’t work up enough miracles for those around him, he was getting in trouble, getting beat up, in and out of jail, rubbing people the wrong way.

And God still trusted Paul. Pauls’ baptism was a marking point, a disruptive shift in identity, when Paul could let go of his violent life, and embrace love.

Holy baptismal waters let Paul feel belonging—a belonging to community, Followers of the Way. Paul needed to feel that belonging because his work ahead was going to be rough—he had to convince people he was the real deal. He had to stay focused on the ways of Jesus in order not to fall back into the horrific ways of the Roman establishment. Baptism was to be Paul’s reminder as he went forward that he could not do the work of building community with Gentiles, Israelites, and Kings alone.

I was baptized as a one-year-old with my twin brother, John, at the First Presbyterian Church in Washington Court House Ohio. Twenty-years later the waters of baptism were coming alive in my life, the waters re-affirming in how Jesus was jostling me around and mashing up my life with the homeless in Atlanta.

The waters of life were pulling me to a life of peace, justice and mercy; the waters of life were turning me upside down to find truth and healing, laughter and joy in my relationships with the poor and homeless, sick and broken of Atlanta.

The Jesus community, the Church, welcomed one whose past was full of horrific events; it welcomed one whose bourgeois life got yanked apart in order to share a meal with a homeless woman on an Atlanta street corner.

And that Montreat is how God calls us to be different.  The church isn’t a country club with a membership fee and other social status type criteria.

We’re not a gym that wants you to have a perfect body.We’re not a school that wants you to stress out about grades and projects and prove how smart you are.

We are the church.

No matter what you belong to Church. You belong to God. You belong to Jesus.

If you have failed Algebra 3 times and now you are in summer school, you belong here. If you’ve been kicked out of school, you belong here.If your body has curves, lumps, and bumps you belong here.If you belong to a country club you belong here.

If you have been bullied you belong here. If you are straight or lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender,

If you have the loudest laugh; the most purpleish of hair, if you are questioning everything that has to do with the faith; if you are questioning everything that has to do with you, if Montreat is the first time you’ve ever been to anything that has to do with Church, you belong here.

That part of you that doesn’t conform, that is unique, that part of you that looks different, sounds different, and we all have something that is different, is the part of you the church needs the most.

Church needs our differences the most because as shocking as this might sound…..Sometimes the church has a one-track mind.

The church conforms. The church becomes the face of the status quo, tempted to follow the crowd.

That’s not the way of our God. We are to open our blind eyes, unclog our ears.

Let God startle us, surprise us, disturb us, call us, set us on a path to follow the one who flips life upside down, Jesus Christ.

In a minute or so, we will have an Affirmation at the Water as part of our worship.

As Paul baptism reminds us, water is a way we encounter the sacredness of God and are reminded of God’s love and acceptance.

For many of us, this water may remind us of our baptism.

For all of us, this water points us to a God who created, called, delivered, and blesses us with water.

It’s a reminder that we can begin again, we can be made new, we can the resist the ways that push us to conform and silence that what makes us unique and different.

Like the Apostle Paul, those who thirst for God’s love will be invited to come forward during the Affirmation at the Water to receive a blessing, a reminder of your belovedness.

Like Ananias did with Paul, you will be marked with water, a gentle touch with the waters of life, the waters of creation.

Montreat:

We follow a God who turns our lives upside down for the sake of justice and freedom, to create a Church that is full of a bunch of upside down people. May we see our upside-down-ness, our difference, as our belovedness.

May it be so.