Bishop Lee’s Sermon: Renewal of Ministry St. Paul’s, McHenry, January 15, 2014

On Monday morning this week, as I was contemplating tonight’s sermon and not having a blessed idea about what I would say, I offered up a little prayer that God might send me an idea.  Well, while I don’t advocate thinking about God as a divine Santa Claus just waiting to grant my every wish, I have to say that no sooner had I made my little prayer, than I opened the Chicago Tribune to a half page ad for a Lutheran retirement community in Chicago.  Over the smiling face of a very pleasant looking older woman the headline read in big, bold letters:  St. Paul’s House knows.  Knows what?  The smaller, fainter type underneath the headline listed all the things that the caring staff apparently knows about the woman in the picture — her children and grandchildren, how she met her husband, that she used to sing in a big band, that she likes bacon and eggs for dinner, that she enjoys flower arranging.  In other words St. Paul’s House is a place that cares enough about its residents to know them, the details of their lives, what matters most, that every life — as the ad put it at the bottom of the piece — every life is a tapestry.

And I thought, that’s it.  That’s really what we gather here tonight to proclaim.  It’s what the story of St. Paul and his ongoing conversion to Christ shows us.  Every life is a tapestry of events, relationships, challenges, dearly held assumptions, prejudices, loves, hatreds, heartaches, joys, disappointments, memories, hopes and dreams.  And God, the creator, redeemer and sustainer of all life, God knows each and every life better than we do.  God beholds the tapestries that make up our lives, the good, the bad and the ugly, and God is at work in us to make of it all something beautiful beyond imagining.  That’s what we mean by the word conversion I believe.  Learning to trust that God sees it all, learning to trust God enough to open ourselves to God’s work of weaving the raw materials of our lives into something we cannot always see for ourselves.  That’s what this or any other church is for.  This is a place where we can be known, accepted, loved, challenged, and changed.

There’s a great line about all this I heard once and cannot for the life of me remember the source (if anyone here knows, please tell me):  Christ loves us just as we are, and Christ loves us enough not to leave us that way.  Jesus’ love is vast and improbable and foolishly lavish.  We see it all through the gospels, pouring himself out for the lost and the least in this world, refusing to retaliate when wronged, feeding and teaching and healing, forgiving even from the cross.  And that same love is on full display in the story of Paul.  Persecutor of the first friends of Jesus, to the point of sharing responsibility for their martyrdom, self-righteous (not sure that little flaw ever got fully expunged from him), a little on the sour side, and yet it is to just such a man that the Risen Jesus appears, knocks him off his horse, and turns his life around, sending him to proclaim the no-strings-attached love of God to those who were thought to be on the outside looking in, the Gentiles, the not quite ritually right, that is, to you and me.

Actually, Paul was up to far more than just telling the Gentiles, telling you and me about Jesus.  I believe Paul intended to introduce us to the Risen Christ, to invite us into a relationship with him, one that might very well knock us off our horses too, a conversion that would change lives.  Nothing less than that is the mission of our church if we’re going to be the House of Paul too.  It is an experience of God himself that’s the point of the church’s life, otherwise we’re just Rotary International with hymns.  We’re not here to be entertained, or simply cared for, or to throw a few dollars at the problems of the world, or just to gather over coffee with some like minded folks.  Rotary can do a much better job of most of those things anyway.  No, the point of all this is to invite an encounter with the living God, nothing less than to invite people into a relationship with God. Jesus promises it.  Don’t worry, he says, when they haul you before the rulers of this world, the Holy Spirit, God that is, will be with you, in you to give you what you need.  Sometimes following Jesus will get us into trouble.  It might not be comfortable or easy or even safe.  But God is with us, in us.  Our own conversion is about growing into a union with God that finally not even death will have access to.  And people all over McHenery and well beyond are longing for that in ways they may not even be able to put into words.

The great Franciscan teacher and author Richard Rohr wrote this recently:

Don’t let the word “mystic” scare you off. It simply means one who has moved from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience. All spiritual traditions agree that such a movement is possible, desirable, and available to everyone. In fact, Jesus seems to say that divine union is the whole point!

Some call this movement conversion, some call it enlightenment, some transformation, and some holiness. It is Paul’s “third heaven,” where he “heard things that must not and cannot be put into human language” (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4). Consciously or not, far too much organized religion has a vested interest in keeping you in the first or second heaven, where all can be put into proper language and deemed certain. This keeps you coming back to church, and it keeps us clergy in business.

This is not usually the result of ill will on anybody’s part; it’s just that you can lead people only as far as you yourself have gone. Transformed people transform people. When they talk so glibly about what is always Mystery, it’s clear that many clergy have never enjoyed the third heaven themselves, and they cannot teach what they do not know. Theological training without spiritual experience is deadly. As Pope Francis says, such preaching bores “the one who is doing it and also the one who has to listen to it.”

Well, dear friends, I give thanks tonight that the preaching around here isn’t likely to bore either the preacher or you (well, after the bishop finishes this long-winded sermon at least).  Tonight we celebrate the new chapter in this congregation’s life that is already in process.  Lori is a woman who knows a thing or two about conversion to Christ — her own conversion and the conversion of the church.  She is not in the habit of playing it safe and thank God for that.  I know her to be a priest who makes herself available and as transparent as any I have known to the work and power of the Holy Spirit within her.  And I know too that this parish is a place longing for that.

Let this be the House of Paul.  Let God transform us here, build us into something worth wondering over, weave the threads of our lives as a community into a tapestry of love and action and holiness of life.  Let us be the church of God.