Easter 3 – April 10, 2015
Transformation: Becoming Instruments of Love
A sermon preached by Sue Cook at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
“…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
Who was this man Saul who was blinded while travelling on a country road? He was short in stature, scruffy in appearance, and bowlegged to boot. He would not have made it into People Magazine’s 10 Best Looking Men issue that’s for sure. Some I read scholar noted that he cursed a lot and never made much money. Probably not that guy you would think about going to the prom with or bringing home to meet your folks. So, if he wasn’t that guy, just what was God’s thinking when he chose Saul to become a world-changing Apostle? Jesus had died and then risen on that first Easter Sunday some 3 years before. They never even met.
As a young girl I was a voracious reader. There were some books I read over and over. The Diary of Anne Frank was one of my top two. The idea that someone on the very brink of adulthood, like myself, might be killed for simply being Jewish brought me to tears every time I read the passages building up to her capture and imprisonment by the Nazis. In distress I turned to my mother once and asked if we, as Roman Catholics, might face being jailed and sent to our deaths for our religious beliefs. She was quick to reply that the chances of that occurring in 1950’s Palo Alto, CA were very remote.
Anne was a most unlikely soul to one day touch the hearts of so many throughout the world with her diary filled with her thoughts and ending in the belief, that:
“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
Given the description of Paul, he certainly wasn’t someone who would have gotten past the first round in an interview for the job of Pastor in most churches in these parts.
I confess, the description of his experience on the Road to Damascus once reminded me of a scene from the Wizard of Oz. When I read a blind Saul being led into the city of Damascus by his traveling companions’, my inner kid imagined the Lion, the Tin-Man, and the Scarecrow, walking hand-in-hand with him while he did his best not to stumble and fall. Not a very auspicious beginning.
Once there he is dropped off and left alone – totally alone, no food or water and completely blind – no distractions. This is a serious version of, “Time Out, kid!” He had three days in a dark inner-grave to consider what Jesus meant when he spoke those words, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Remember he was a hardened man by then, rounding up the early Followers of Jesus’s Way as though he were a hired gun getting rid of some dangerous wolves threatening a flock of sheep. He had become a dedicated certified killer of Christ’s own flock.
In just three days’ time a complete healing happens; he himself writes that the scales fell from his eyes and he could see again! He would never see nor act in the same ways as before, not ever again. In a flash he experienced God’s transformative forgiveness and unconditional love.
Once, after leaving an evening wedding in NYC, I caught a late night bus down to Washington DC. Normally I’d have been on a train or an airplane, but I had missed those two options. I was stuck with a 4 hour bus ride in order to keep my promise to help my mother move the next day. Armed with a massive Russian novel to read I was ready for what I thought was just another block of time to get through.
Just as the driver leaned over to pull the door closed and get us on the road, two guys hollered out, “Wait! Wait for us!” They hurried onto the bus and soon headed down the aisle to where there were a couple of seats still open. As the younger of the two men drew near to my seat I looked up and we shared the briefest glance. That was all. As my head dropped back down I heard a voice, as clear and distinct as any I had ever heard: ”This is the father of your children”, it announced. I silently retorted with an, “Excuse me, what did you say?” I turned my head around to sneak a look and heard again, “This is the father of your children”. Well what was I to do? I had to make eye contact. The rest is history…
I went from being a single young woman in the New York to a married lady in the suburbs of Northern Virginia pretty much in the blink of an eye. We both wanted children and soon enough I found myself crowing to one and all, “I’m pregnant! I’m pregnant!”
But sadly, it was not to be. I suffered 4 miscarriages over the next few years. Multiple surgeries to fix mysterious problems that refused to be fixed plus too many trips to ER’s left me devastated. Too often alone, as my Oceanographer husband was out to sea for weeks at a time, I cried and felt increasingly angry and confused. Really confused with God’s plan for me. What was going on? I had known since I was a little girl, with every fiber of my being, that my destiny was centered in being a mother.
At one of my appointments following the 4th miscarriage the Dr. told me that I should prepare myself to never have children of my own. His words caused a blinding pain to strike my heart. I was cold and felt truly broken.
“Would you and your husband ever consider adoption”, he then asked?
I looked up as the scales fell away and I saw as clearly as I believe St. Paul had, the truth of God’s Way for me. I don’t really think it was so very different. On the day each of our sight was returned, the grace of unconditional love was showered on us. Both Paul and I were transformed.
“Oh that’s how I am supposed to become a mom” I thought! Oh God! Now I get it!! One month later that same Dr. who told me I would have no children of my own called early in the morning to announce the birth of our newborn son. We christened him David, ‘God’s beloved’; 11 months to the day later I successfully gave birth to Jennifer and then 2 years later came Ben.
But why that way, why did I get tossed around like that? Years after this all occurred, I was a partner in creating a unique adoption program for mothers who needed to make critical life decisions for themselves and their infant children in a safe and supportive environment. My life was a course of study that taught me a great deal more than I could have learned in a classroom. By answering that first call I found meaningful work and I believe God’s purpose for my suffering.
As for Paul, as a young Jewish man he had been well schooled in theological and philosophical studies with a highly respected Rabbi at the Synagogue in his home city, Tarsus. Because he was born in Tarsus, he was granted the status of Citizen of Rome. This was no small deal. He spoke and wrote in 3 languages and knew how to navigate the Roman system of business and law. This special citizenship status would come to protect him from some of the more lawless treatment that came to so many Jews throughout the Roman Empire. While he was only a tent-maker by trade, as a missionary he took his craft with him and managed to spend a good amount of time converting non-Jews, establishing Christian communities and writing to these Followers of the Way after he left to work elsewhere.
Many years later, with my daughter reading Anne Frank and my sons in tow, we climbed the steep narrow stairs in that very house in Amsterdam that led to the attic room that was the hiding place for Anne and her family. It truly was a most inspired pilgrimage for me to stand in the actual place brought to life 40 years before by the young martyred author.
And so it was and is – that this imperfect man, Paul, continues to reach out through the centuries, to impart to each of us who would read or listen to his words, the strength and beauty found within the heart of the teachings of Jesus.
Paul had a broad outlook and was perhaps endowed as the most brilliant person to carry Christianity to varied lands, such as Cyprus, Turkey, mainland Greece, Crete and Rome. As a significant author of the New Testament, Paul elevated the status of the church to the body of Christ and the Christian community as a human body with its different limbs and organs, while the spirit is regarded as the Spirit of Christ. Paul likened God as our Father and we all as the fellow heirs of Christ.
I guess the Lord went to such lengths with me so that I might never forget what it was to have faith and to know that grace did exist in my life and that have I had received the gift of motherhood through adoption, I then might serve others who were on this path. I didn’t know, truly I did not have a clue, that I was on a path that was to lead me to an experience of such a love and service. Those 3 children and now each of my grandchildren and all the families I worked with continue on as my beloved teachers.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes in “Learning to Walk in the Dark”, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”