My Spiritual (Breakdown) Awakening


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If you are looking to encounter Jesus, just look around you. There is someone who is trying to demonstrate the love of Jesus for you. In “My Spiritual Awakening” Rev. Victor, with the help of the choir and some personal recollections, explores the Conversion of Paul (Acts 9) and asks, “How have you encountered Jesus?” Don’t miss the fantastic four singing the newly converted Paul’s theme song: “Straight Street”!  And know this: God loves you, and Jesus is waiting to say hello.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Revelation 5:11-13

Then I [John] looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”  (Calvary Choir responds with “Worthy is the Lamb” from Handel’s Messiah.)

 

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Christology

Have you encountered Jesus? Perhaps you encountered something as the choir sang the words Kendra just read. Perhaps you saw an image of the ascended Jesus seated on his throne, surround by angels, up there, just out of reach. Although Jesus is “out there” he is also right here.[1] This sermon is about encountering Jesus where we are. My thanks to the three deacons, Robin, Eben and Kendra, who have helped lead worship today. Next Sunday is Deacon Sunday. Jesus is waiting to meet you in you Deacon. And your Deacon is waiting to meet Jesus in you. That’s how it works. Have you encountered Jesus?

Phoebe, Take the Wheel

Aunt Ella Ruth was a slight woman who made her own clothes. Once she made my cousin Babs a prom dress which, Ella Ruth claimed, was so complicated it left her with her heart condition. When she wasn’t sewing, she was cooking vegetables from one of my Uncle Elmer’s gardens.

Before she was my aunt, Ella Ruth used to work over in the town of Rome, Georgia at Belk’s department store. She worked alongside my grandmother who was named Annie Dell but went by Phoebe. Now, Ella Ruth and Annie Dell “Phoebe” carpooled to work in a 1958 jet black Ford with the gearshift on the side of the steering column. One December evening, arriving home after a particularly grueling day, Ella Ruth pulled the Ford into the grassy driveway of my grandmother’s house. She went to grind it into reverse, and the steering wheel came off, right into her hands.  Without missing a beat, she turned off the motor, handed the steering wheel to my grandmother, and said, “Here Phoebe, you drive awhile.”

I think of that story all the time. The wheel falls off, and she has the spiritual wit to choose laughter. My Aunt Ella Ruth refused to live her life as a string of frustrations, but, whenever possible, she chose laughter. The car broke down, and because of her life-giving choices, we’re still laughing about it.

My Aunt Ella Ruth Langley was the first adult to speak to me honestly about her faith. When I was about eight, I asked her, “Do you really believe in Jesus?” She sighed, and told me, “Well, I guess I’m afraid not to.” Her honesty opened my heart to ask questions about Jesus and to pray for the brimstone I’d heard preached at my childhood church to give way to a “love that casts out fear.”[2]Her honesty let me encounter the love of Jesus. How have you encountered Jesus?

Conversion

His full name was comprised of a Jewish name, Saul, and his Latin name, Paulus.[3]  In English, his names rhyme, like Shaquille O’Neal or Wavy Gravy.  Saul Paul, citizen of Tarsus, inherited his social standing from his father: a privileged, educated, powerful Pharisee. Saul persecuted the small splinter group of Jews who called themselves The Way, the group that followed the teachings of Jesus.

When Stephen was stoned to death[4] for his faith in Jesus, young Saul held the coats of the angry mob and looked on approvingly. This pre-conversion Saul was, in the words of Catholic theologian Jerome Murphy O’Connor, “an immature religious bigot working out his personal problems.”[5] And you think God can’t use you to bless the world? Ha! Saul persecuted Jesus—Jesus, whom Saul had never met. But isn’t that just like people! It’s easy to criticize the ones we don’t take the time to know. This is exactly what’s happening today to transgender people[6] in the rural Deep South. I’m speaking of the laws identified with the offensive euphemism “religious freedom”[7] — laws that, in my opinion, scandalize the gospel.

I want to teach you a song:

“If anybody asks you who I am, who I am, who I am,
If anybody asks you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God.”[8]

My first encounter with the people and politics of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was around 1993 when I witnessed the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, discuss the call to ministry of Rev. Erin Swenson, who was first ordained as Rev. Eric Swenson. Rev. Erin was the first known transgender minister to retain her ordination, thanks to the Spirit that worked that day in the Deep South. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has already had the transgender debate, at least on paper. The remainder of the work is yours to do. Rev. Erin Swenson[9] taught me that song — “If anybody asks you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God” — and she helped me to encounter Jesus, alive and at work in the world. She transformed my thinking about transgender people.

Encountering Jesus changes people, frees us up to love one another despite our conditioning and fears — if we are willing to die and rise with Christ. Good Friday is not optional. The old must die if we are to really “get to” be the shiny, happy Easter people we want to be.  In psychological terms, research author Brene Brown[10] warns us that spiritual breakdown is often closely akin to spiritual awakening. More often than not, breakdown and breakthrough are separated only by our interpretation of them.

The High Horse of Rigid Fundamentalism

Tradition says that Saul Paul was riding his horse to Damascus, although the horse is missing from the biblical text. Jesus appears to Saul in a vision so brilliant Saul’s eyesight is destroyed, and he falls to the ground, blinded. Flannery O’Connor said, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his [high] horse.”[11]

We all have our high horses. To paraphrase Walter Brueggemann, everybody is a fundamentalist about something.[12] The story goes[13] that Brueggemann[14] would not begin his classes until every student confessed their own selective fundamentalism. To name it and own it is sometimes painful. Everyone’s a fundamentalist, an ideologue, about something. Each one of us, at one time or another, will work out our personal problems in ungodly ways.  Don’t believe me? Read the Bible! It’s full of people working out issues, and it’s full of Jesus loving every last one of them.

On page 893 in your pew Bible, I call this passage “Better Call Saul.”[15]

Acts 9:10-20a:

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment [Saul] is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias [protested], “Lord, I have heard from many about this [Saul], how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to [imprison] all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to Annanais, “Go [anyway], for [Saul] is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went [to Straight Street] and entered the house [of Judas]. [Ananias] laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from [Saul’s] eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and [Saul] was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “Jesus is the Son of God.”

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

How did Saul/Paul change?

Now Saul can see, and he sees the world quite differently. Oh, he’s still Saul the privileged citizen, the same one who will later write, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.”[16] and “Wives, submit to your husbands.”[17]  He will always wrestle with his inner rigidity, but he confesses as much in his writing “I do the very thing I hate.”[18]  Who better to convert those of us who wrestle with sin than one who is honest about his own!  Who better to convert the privileged than one who speaks privilege! Jesus was never as free as Paul. Jesus wasn’t even a citizen.

Metropolitan Community Church theologian Bob Goss wonders:

How did Saul feel when the crowd pelted Stephen with stones and the dying martyr had a vision of the Christ at the right side of God? Did Stephen’s self-confidence, faith and courage [convert] Saul? Was Saul unconsciously attracted to the freedom of the Good News—a freedom from the law that Stephen preached?[19]

Was that what melted Saul’s hard hard? Or was Saul’s conversion in Judas’ house on Straight Street, when the outcast Anannais showed up and demonstrated the healing love of Jesus to frightened Saul? Joe Harvard writes that Saul Paul’s conversion story fuels what he calls our “faith inferiority complex(es)”[20]. In other words: why doesn’t Jesus come to me a vision and tell me what to do?  Why can’t I encounter Jesus like Saul?

My Breakdown Call to Ministry

Well, after some reflection and prayer, I can identify a few people in my life that allowed me to encounter Jesus. Ella Ruth and Annie Dell were two of those people. Another was named Paul Samudio.

It was 1992, and I was singing a series of performances in Milwaukee. I drove up a few days early because my best buddy from music school, Paul Samudio, lived there. Paul was one of the best pianists at Indiana University in the late 80s. Paul accompanied me on my graduate recital, our theme was “music inappropriate for the tenor voice.” We defended our thesis well.

Now, Paul had tested positive for HIV, but at that time, people could live a few years with medication. So, I arrived in Milwaukee, and I called Paul. He sounded depressed and uncharacteristically quiet. He told me that he could not see me and that he intended to stay home alone with his family.  I called one of Paul’s close friends, and she told me that Paul’s priest had convinced Paul to stop taking his HIV medication, telling Paul that it was God’s will for him to die. My initial response was to turn against the church altogether. Back then, we were alone and defenseless against people like Paul’s priest.  Hear me clearly: those days are over.

Paul’s death and Paul’s priest led me to a crossroads, I could either break down and accuse the church of murder and, well, I bet you know someone who’s taken this route…but…instead, I woke up, I broke through. It wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime breakthrough. My call, my conversion happens gradually every day, like the never-finished creation, always new, always challenging.  In the words of Brene Brown:

“There is no greater threat to critics and cynics and fearmongers
Than those of us who are willing to fall
Because we have learned how to rise.
We choose owning our stories of struggle,
Over hiding [and] pretending.
We craft love from heartbreak,
Compassion from shame,
Grace from disappointment,
Courage from failure.
Showing up is our power.
We are the brave and brokenhearted.
We are rising strong.”[21]

(A quartet from the choir responds with the Chanticleer[22] spiritual “Straight Street”.)

 

[1] The first half of Calvary’s April 10, 216 liturgy was intended to model a “high” (up there) Christology, and the second half a “low” (down here) Christology.

[2] 1 John 4:18

[3] “Why did God change Saul’s name to Paul?” accessed online at <http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/why-did-god-change-sauls-name-to-paul> (April 7, 2016)

[4] Acts 7:54-60

[5] Robert E. Goss, The Queer Bible Commentary (London: SCM Press, 2006), 577.

[6] David Graham, “North Carolina Overturns LGBT-Discrimination Bans” The Atlantic, March 2, 2016, accessed online at <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/north-carolina-lgbt-discrimination-transgender-bathrooms/475125/> (April 5, 2016)

[7] Cynthia Tucker, DeKalb Daily Chronicle, April 10, 2016 <http://www.daily-chronicle.com/2016/04/08/tucker-religious-freedom-bills-legitimize-discrimination/a8hfamo/> (April 11, 2016)

[8] A spiritual made pop by Bobby Darin, 1960 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SGuEnOJFKY> (April 3, 2016)

[9] Rev. Erin’s website: http://www.erinswen.com/Writing.htm

[10] Brene Brown’s website: http://brenebrown.com

[11] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2009-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 14392-14394). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[12] I do not remember who told me of Bruegemann’s astute assertion, but he began one of his famous classes at Columbia Seminary in this way.

[13] I don’t remember who told me this story.

[14] A provocative interview with Brueggemann: http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2015/01/09/walter-brueggemann-church-gospel-bible/35739

[15] Better Call Saul, AMC series, accessible online at <http://www.amc.com/shows/better-call-saul> (April 9, 2016)

[16] Ephesians 6:5

[17] Ephesians 5:22 & 1 Peter 3:1

[18] Romans 7:15-20

[19] Goss, Queer Bible Commentary, 577. He continues: “Stephen’s death called into question Saul’s mechanism of psychological repression. It explains Saul’s over-identification with the Pharisee interpretation of the law and his obsessive aggression against a small splinter group that moved away from the normative values of the majority of Jews.”

[20] Rev. Joe Harvard in Feasting on the Word

[21] Brene Brown, Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted, accessed online at <http://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/RS_Manifesto.b_8x10.pdf> (April 9, 2016) Abridged for time.

[22] Chanticleer singing “Straight Street” accessible online at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVJTvvYJBPY> (April 10, 2016)

 

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