HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ (Acts 9:1-6, NRSV)
As we begin our new program year, I have a question, how did you get here? What path led you to this sacred place? We each have our own story to tell. On September 2, Colleen, Alina, and I returned to New York having spent two weeks visiting my parents and son in Collierville, Tennessee where I grew up, not far from Memphis. Every trip home reminds me of my roots and the improbable path that brought me to this church 24 years ago. Looking back, my life unfolded in a more or less predictable way, a straight line from my birth at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, my near perfect attendance at the Southern Baptist Sunday Schools of my childhood and Baptist youth activities of my teen years.
I graduated from a Baptist high school (mandatory chapel 3 times a week) and went to Mississippi State where I was very involved in the Baptist Student Union. I even went to church as a college student. It was great, there were no lines at the showers on Sunday mornings because I was the only person on my dorm hallway that wasn’t sleeping off a party from the night before. In May of 1986, I graduated with a psychology degree and planned to attend graduate school and become a psychologist. However, deeply religious person that I was, I decided to first get a seminary degree in pastoral care and counseling because I wasn’t going to be any old psychologist, I was going to be an overtly Christian psychologist who cared as much about people’s souls as I did their psyches. I left for Louisville, Kentucky and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in late August.
My life was a straight line where I always lived up to the expectations of my family and my church. Those first 22 years were uneventful in the sense that I did not veer off the path of a normal Southern Baptist kid, Evangelical to be sure, but not quite fundamentalist. The road ahead was smooth and straight, no detours in sight as far as the eye could see. And so I set foot on the campus of Southern Seminary with its liberal bent. I was totally unaware of this fact when I went there. After one semester, I took a sharp left turn and never looked back which is why I am standing here some 32 years later. How did you get here?
The path for the Apostle Paul was as convoluted as they come. Compared to most of the 12 disciples, Paul was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Like his father, Paul was born a Roman citizen to a devout Jewish family in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tarsus. Growing up in Tarsus, Paul was exposed to the Greek philosophy of stoicism. Also following in his father’s footsteps, Paul joined the Pharisees, a Jewish sect that followed a strict interpretation of the Torah. As a young man, Paul left Tarsus for Jerusalem, becoming a student of Gamaliel, a prominent rabbi. As a student in the Hillel school, Paul likely learned philosophy, ethics, and classical literature.
In time, Paul became an extremist, a fundamentalist if you will. Strict and strident in his beliefs, Paul joined those who persecuted a burgeoning Jewish sect later called Christianity. Paul could neither tolerate nor make peace with the followers of Christ. Instead, he chose violence and vengeance against these peaceful people.
With a heart full of hate, Paul headed for Damascus to search out, imprison, and inflict violence upon Christians. Paul’s life had been a straight line up until this point. The road ahead was smooth and straight, no detours in sight as far as the eye could see.
Little did Paul know that before he reached Damascus, he would encounter Jesus. As the story goes, while on the road Paul encountered a blinding light and heard someone call him by his Hebrew name saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came loud and clear, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” This is how Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus. This singular event was the turning point in Paul’s life, the moment when he abandoned life as a violent persecutor to become a non-violent follower of Jesus.
In time Paul became one of the most important, many would say the most important, leader of the first century church. For his time, Paul was cutting edge, which seems hard to believe two centuries later where Paul’s words have been used to oppress women with such gems as, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church,” Ephesians 5:22-23. Or this doozey, “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church,” First Corinthians 14:33-35. A product of his day and age, Paul’s view of women leaves much to be desired from a 21st century perspective—but that’s another sermon for another day.
Like all of us, Paul was a mixed bag, only more extreme. The one who told wives to submit was cutting edge in his view of Gentiles, meaning people who are not Jewish. Paul almost singlehandedly broke-open the doors of the early church to Gentiles. Before that all of the Christians were Jewish and Christianity a sect in ancient Judaism. Paul’s decision to include non-Jews in the early church earned him the moniker, Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul’s openness on this issue caused a major rift with other church leaders including Peter. For reasons of their own, the other leaders eventually came around to Paul’s point of view and the Gentile issue was settled. Paul put his life on the line again and again to spread the story of Christ. Eventually the persecutor became the persecuted. Paul died a Christian martyr in Rome around 65 AD.
How did Paul get from point A to point B, from his Jewish childhood in Tarsus to the executioner’s block in Rome? His life was a straight line from his strict religious upbringing to setting foot on the road to Damascus with arrest warrants in his pocket. He did not know what would befall him on this journey. A bolt from the blue that blinded Paul. The voice of Jesus calling Paul on the carpet for persecuting Christians. Paul’s eyes opening not only physically, but spiritually as he converted from being one of the bad guys full of fury to being one of the good guys full of love. His mission changed from wanting to silence these heretical Christians to joining their ranks and being the most zealous of them all.
So, how did you get here? How many houses of worship did it take for you to end up sitting in this church on this morning? It took six churches for me to get here. It was through Havenview Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, the First Baptist Church of Collierville, Tennessee, the First Baptist Church of Starkville, Mississippi, Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, Rutledge Baptist Church in Rutledge, Tennessee and College Ave. United Methodist Church in Somerville, Massachusetts. My church journey took me all over the map before I finally landed here, in this church, in 1994.
How about you? How many churches or other houses of worship brought you through the doors of this church? I know without asking that some of you came to us from places that were not good for you. Perhaps it was a place that told you only men could be ordained clergy. Perhaps it was a place that labeled as sinful people who happen to be LGBT. Perhaps it was a place that condemned you as a divorced person, some of those places still exist. You will find none of that condemnation here, not in this church. Why? Because when I came 1994, the people here welcomed me with open arms. When you came to this wonderful place, we welcomed you with open arms too. And now the welcome of this church is in your hands and I have every confidence that you will make welcome everyone who walks through these doors looking for a spiritual place to call home. Their paths may have been straight or may have veered this way and that. Regardless, our doors are open. Our arms are open. And our hearts are open too. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
September 9, 2018
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Lead us, God of Goodness: lead us into those places where we discover your mercy waiting to nourish and restore our famished souls. Lead us, Gentle Shepherd: lead us to those places where we have the joy of filling the emptiness of others, because your love is to be shared with all. Lead us, God of Mercy: lead us to the living waters, where we can drink deeply of your grace and love. Lead us, God of Compassion: that we might offer your living water to our sisters and brothers who are parched by pain and loss. Lead us in your way of love that we might care for those who share life’s journey with us.
Through Christ we pray. AMEN.
Adapted from Thom M. Shuman, April 21, 2007 http://www.blogger.com/profile/09267107871832458323