Tuesday, 02 November 2010 15:11

October 31, 2010 Sermon

“Always Reforming”
Acts 9:1-22
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 31, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Today is a big day.  It’s Reformation Sunday, the day that we celebrate the Protestant Reformation.  Of course, it’s a day that we recognize the life stories of those who have decided to walk in a new way of being, symbolized by the waters of baptism.  We also remember the conversion of Saul into Paul.  Thanks to the choir for helping us tell the story in such a creative manner.

In today’s scripture lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells the story of the conversion of Saul and his encounter with Ananias.  Saul isn’t just a traveler on the road.  He’s a persecutor of the Christians.  He’s perhaps a bit paranoid and a bit Machiavellian.  He’s looking for people who are Christians so he can prosecute and persecute them.

We know what happens.  He has an encounter with Jesus, is blinded by the light and is directed to make a change in his life.  He became one of the most prolific and effective evangelists of the early church.  Talk about a remarkable change.  Most of us don’t have that kind of dramatic change in our lives.  Although some of us do. 

Karen told of how she had not been blinded by a physical light, but a light from within had actually opened her eyes, her heart.  It manifested itself in music.  It shone so bright that she new she needed to respond to it.  And we are witnesses to it today.

How have you been blinded by the light?  How have you been changed?  What caused you to rise up and walk in a new way?  Remembering those stories of redemption and resurrection are vital as we grow as Christians.  They are vital, not because they mark a milestone in our lives, but because most of our lives will not be lived with that kind of assurance.  We will doubt, backslide and get downright bored with doing good when the rest of the world is having so much fun being bad.  That’s when we need to remember that day of our baptism.  We need to remember how we have been warmed by the love of God.  We need to remember how we have been supported by community when the chips are down.  That’s what helps us make it through the real troughs of our lives.  We don’t change just once, most of us.  We change over and over again.  Sunday after Sunday, day after day.  And we need to be constantly reforming, constantly opening ourselves to the new revelation that God puts in front of us.  For you never know what might happen.

When we think of the Protestant Reformation, we think of people uncomfortable with the same-old same-old.  We think of people who have had a conversion and want the institutions to convert as well.

We think of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the church door.

We think of Ulrich Zwingli calling for more local control of things.

We think of Henry VIII wanting to get out of a marriage.

We think of Menno Simmons telling people that they ought not conscript to the military.

We think of Thomas Helwys and Thomas Smythe rebaptizing each other and declaring that the only valid baptism was one that occurred after a confession of faith.

We think of Roger Williams who declared that Native Americans should not be slaves.

We think of his contemporary Anne Hutchison who called us all to live in the light.

We think of Dorothy Day who called us to take our faith to the streets while we give compassion.

We think of Martin Luther King who said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

These are all part of the reformation.  And each of them would say that the reformation is not an event, but a process of authenitcising relationships with God and with one another.  We ought to be always reforming ourselves, and the institutions in which we find ourselves.

Take Ananias—one of the Christian target of Saul’s pogrom.  Ananias also has an encounter with God who asks him to do something much more difficult than Jesus had Saul do.  Saul had to change his ways and become a Christian.  He was a leader and would simply change his leadership tactics.  He could use his oratory skills to convert people to his way of thinking.
Ananias, on the other hand had to befriend Saul.  He had to trust someone that had persecuted him and his family.  He had to put into practice Jesus’ words to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Ananias could no longer lump all of the Pharisees into one group—calling them all terrorists or Christ-haters, or even evil.  He now had to know one of their own.

This week, I had the chance to watch the film Invictus.  This tells the story of the transition of South Africa from apartheid to a more inclusive community where there was equality between all of the races and classes of people.  At one point, Nelson Mandela is asked in an interview how he went from cheering against the white South African rugby team to cheering for them.  Like many people of color in those days, they cheered for any team that would defeat what they saw as a symbol of apartheid.  Mandela said of his change in loyalty, “How can I expect my people to change if I do not also change?”

Sure Saul needed to change.  But that was the easy part.  The harder part was the transformation of Ananias.

Saul for his part could simply have written off his Jesus encounter as simply a delusion.  Except for the fact that he was blind.  He needed Ananias to help him to change his beliefs about himself and about the Christians.  The genius about God is that we need not only an encounter with God, but the befriending of God’s people in order to truly be transformed.

One of the organizations that embodies this movement of being the transformed community is the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  Most of you know that I just got back from the quarterly Board meeting of this organization in Toronto, Canada.  I love going to the meetings, seeing old friends who are as committed as I am to building a culture of peace throughout our world.

The BPFNA like any organization changes and morphs.  I think about this especially as we have welcomed board members from the International community.  I realized at the meeting that I’m the only heterosexual white male pastor on the Board.  I’m an unrepresented minority.  I think that’s pretty cool.  I was asked to lead a discussion about pacifism vs. just war theory the other night.  I invited people to support a position that was not their own.  I did this so people could try to get into the minds of the opposition and maybe uncover some of their own core beliefs.   We realized that once people began to tell their stories, it ceased to be an intellectual exercise which is so easy for us in the first world who have never experienced war.  One of our members from Angola spoke about the struggles for liberation in his country.  How he moved from being an intellectual pacifist to a just warrior to a person who embraced principles of just peacemaking and now is back embracing pacifism.  We heard a member from the Nagaland in northern India speak about how his warring Baptist sisters and brothers have been victims of war.  He encouraged us all to look at God in the midst of war, as that force that can bring us sanity.  We need not think of just war and just peacemaking without a conversation about God.  Finally, we heard from an African American twenty-something talk about the move to pacifism as a movement away from the violent inner city and how his violent gang member friends often protected him.  Pacifism, he said, saved his life.  Life is sure complex.  And I find myself reforming my own way of looking at peacemaking.  I embrace something called just peacemaking where justice creating is essential to peacemaking.  Hopefully, it is deeper and more faithful.  I know it is in response to the experiences of those around me who point out my own first-word blindspots.

My sisters and brothers, we have a great responsibility and blessing in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is a gospel that models the welcoming of the stranger and the courage to see everyone as a sister or brother in need of companions along the way.

It’s a gospel that loves enemies and prays for those who persecute us.

It is a gospel that does justice, loves mercy and walks humbly with God.

It is a gospel that restores sight to the blind, preaches good news to the poor, proclaims liberty to the captives, lets the oppressed go free and declares the year of God’s favor.

It is a gospel that unbinds, and sets us free.  And with this freedom, we can restore hearts and minds.

With this freedom we can bring about justice and peace.

With this freedom we can embrace the Gospel and have the courage and companionship to make a resurrected community of hope where there was once a pit of despair.

May God bless, keep, challenge and nudge us forward to be the blessed peacemakers this world so desperately needs.

May we continue to reform ourselves and those systems of evil that we see, so that we might be more faithful to the light that has strangely warmed our lives and points us in the right direction.

May we not simply see the Reformation as an event that occurred several hundred years ago in a far off land.  May we remember the reformation that comes when we recognize ourselves as children of God.

When we celebrate the earth and our responsibility to take care of it.

When we recognize that we are woven together with a great cloud of witnesses who want us to live the most healthy hole and holy lives.

May we give thanks for the reformation that saves us from addiction, that saves us from all of the phobias and prejudices that are so common these days.

May we give thanks for the reformation that restores sanity and honor in our world.

May we give thanks for the reformation that helps us to live lives of substance, not simply lives of consumption.

May we embrace the reformation that points the way to the reign of God which is always good.

It will not always be easy reforming ourselves and the world.  But the good news is that we don’t do it alone.

The really good news is that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who help us along the path.

And the really great news is that each time we reform ourselves, we see God a bit more clearly and we know that we are on the right path.  We even might meet Saul, Ananias, Karen, Kelley or even Jesus on the path.  And we know that we never walk that path alone.  Thank God.