Sermon preached April 18, 2010
Text: Acts 9:1-20
I had great dinner companions on Wednesday night. I was seated at a table with Libby and her son Tommy, with Josh and Josie, and with Bob. At one point in Tommy began looking through a hole in his cracker and I said something about “looking at the world through a hole in the cracker.” Josh said that he thought this might be a good sermon title, and I agreed, though Bob said I seemed to prefer titles that had some connection to a 60s or 70s pop song. I guess there is a pattern here, so I jumped in with an idea – “Crackerbox Palace.” No one at the table remembered that George Harrison song. Some Sunday there may be a sermon with “cracker” in the title!
Well, the reference to a past song is the basis for the sermon title this morning – “Sing a Song” - - - anyone know the group – Earth, Wind and Fire! (play song) When you feel down and out, sing a song it’ll make your day. Here’s a time to shout, sing a song it’ll make a way.
Well we all have stories to tell. We all have songs to sing. We have stories to tell and songs to sing about our journeys of life and faith, about the twists and turns and discoveries and surprises of our relationship with the God of Jesus Christ. We have stories to tell and songs to sing about how God has touched our lives, about how faith has made us different even as we are still works in progress.
Acts 9 is a story, a song, as it were, about a man’s life. It is a dramatic story about a man named Saul who had seen his mission in life to be the stamping out of a small, suspect movement within his own faith. He was a person who breathed threats against these disciples of Jesus, these “Christians.” He was a person so convinced of the rightness of his position, he thought it appropriate to forcefully oppose those who disagreed. But something convinced him otherwise – a dramatic experience, a spiritual jolt. His story is unlike most of our own, I might guess, though perhaps there are elements of the dramatic in our own faith journeys. The novelist Flannery O’Connor once said of this story, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” (Feasting on the Word) Saul’s life change was so complete and dramatic, that he changed his name from Saul to Paul. Either that, or his previous life had so many negatives attached to it that he changed his name.
Paul’s story is so dramatic, it often leaves us sheepish about sharing our stories of faith. We, perhaps, have not changed so dramatically so quickly. We, perhaps, have little in our lives which would cause us to change our names. The notes of Paul’s song are so overwhelming that it makes us less willing to share our song. But there is another story here, another song – the story of Ananias. We don’t know much about him. There are no other references to him in the Bible. He seems to have possessed a quiet faith. “Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias.” This quiet faith was an open and courageous one. He paid attention to God’s Spirit, listened for God in his life. He was willing to reach out in the name of Jesus Christ even when he was afraid. Yet without the quiet faith of Ananias, Saul’s story would be different.
Reading these stories of faith encourages us to listen to stories of faith, to tell stories of faith, to sing our songs. In listening we learn. In telling we strengthen our commitment.
My own story of faith is more like an Ananias story, but with a little of Paul. I grew up in a family where church was not a strong priority. My dad did not go to church. My mom liked to go some, but could not drive, so going to church meant walking eight blocks. We traveled out of town a fair amount. I participated in religious release classes, and still have the Gideon New Testament from that class (January 30, 1968). In eighth grade I made a distinct commitment to Jesus Christ, and in some ways it turned my life upside down. It’s not that I went from something terrible to something wonderful, but my life has never been the same. Since that time I have wrestled with questions of faith and life. I have prayed and read the Bible and worshipped as a part of the discipline of living. I have sought to trace the social implications of the gospel as I think about the wider world. Who would ever have imagined that I would someday be up in front of people discussing same-sex marriage, and that I would be doing that as a clergy person?
My call to ministry was much more Ananias like. My journey of faith in college became a journey of questions and explorations, of seeking to incorporate into my faith things like psychology and philosophy and politics and history and literature. When I finished college, majoring in philosophy and psychology, seminary seemed a good next step – not to become a clergy person necessarily, but to explore more deeply my faith. But in the midst of that exploration, God whispered, God’s Spirit brushed my heart as a slight breeze brushes a cheek, and in that was an invitation to ordained ministry. It just seemed what my gifts, graces and experiences led me too. It made sense – no lightening bolts, or thunderous voices. Maybe God will, or even is calling some of you that way. And I followed – not always easily, but I followed.
Telling my story helps me continue to live it.
Listen. Tell. Sing.
Many of us have had the privilege over the past few months of reading Mel White’s book Stranger at the Gate. It is the story of one man’s struggle to understand himself and his relationship to God. It is the story of a person who finds that he feels attraction to and affection for other men – affectional orientation is more accurate, I think, than the term sexual orientation. How could this be, he wondered. He was a deeply committed Christian and understood this affectional orientation to be wrong, immoral, evil, perverted, but try as he might for forty years – including therapy, exorcism and electro-shock treatments, that orientation wouldn’t change. Maybe it did not need to. Maybe God loved him and affirmed him just as he was. As he was coming to that realization, he was also hearing stories of others who struggled, and he shares those in his book – stories including this one.
A young man comes to an Evangelicals Concerned meeting. This is difficult for me. I have never told anyone why I was sent to the hospital last year. And I’m ashamed to tell it now. When I told my parents that I was gay, they told me that I was no longer welcome in their home. I went to the garage got a bottle of paint thinner, and drank it. They had taught me about sharing Jesus’ love since I was a child and then when I needed a little love of my own, they sent me away. (235-236)
And many of us had the joy of hearing Mel speak over the weekend at the Opening Our Doors conference. Hearing such stories is what makes most difference for people who have questions about those with a different affectional orientation. Hearing how God works in their lives changes minds. And in his remarks over the weekend, Mel spoke of the vital importance of friendship. “No issue is as important as friendship.” Friendships sustain us on the journey. I have been thinking since I heard this that I would like us to be a church that fosters friendships – a place where friendships might flourish and/or where we can learn the gifts and skills of friendship. Among those skills are the skills of listening to the stories of others and telling our own stories. Sing your song.
This is also Earth Sunday, and stories are vitally important here, too. There is a place for statistics and abstract moral arguments when it comes to making the case that the human community needs to take better care of the earth. We need to debate policy options and the human contribution to climate change. But stories also have a vital place. When I hear how it is that the natural world inspires awe, how it draws a person into the sacred and holy, my own sense of care for the earth is increased. I am reminded of my own experiences with a wildly brilliant sunset coming down out of dark clouds or stopping in the woods on a snowy night to listen only to the wind and silence. Hearing those stories, I know that as we damage creation, we cut-off an important source of communication with the God of creation.
Poems often tell stories of encountering creation most powerfully, so I would like to share a Mary Oliver poem this Earth Sunday (Evidence, 47)
I am standing
on the dunes
in the heat of summer
and I am listening
to mockingbird again
who is tonguing
and, in the distance,
weed loving sparrow
who has but one
which he sings
again and again
my own unmusical self
thanks for the beauty of the world.
Thanks for my life.
We have stories to tell about God’s love and grace, about faith that sustains and our own journeys, about questions answered and new questions posed, about discovering the Spirit in surprising places, about the gifts of friendship, about how caring for the earth is caring for our own soul.
Sing your song, it’ll make a way.
When you don’t sing your song, the symphony of First United Methodist Church is not as rich a song as it could be. Amen.