Galatians 1:11-17; Acts 9:1-6
The Rev. Tom Herbek
August 7, 2016
The two New Testament readings this morning are both about the dramatic turn of events that caused a person to become a part of what he was persecuting. The two stories are very different and cannot be reconciled, and the writer of Acts’ description, which is the one most of us know, cannot be taken literally at all. The account in Acts was written 40 or 50 years after Paul’s description of what happened to him. Paul goes out of his way to say that what happened to him had nothing to do with any human being, and that his calling as an apostle is on a par with the original 12 apostles. And he is not subservient to them in any way. Obviously, even 40 or 50 years later, there is a desire on the part of those in Jerusalem to doubt Paul’s dramatic change, as well as his claims that you don‘t have to be Jewish or male to be a leader of the Jesus movement. The writer of Acts contradicts what Paul says and makes it clear that Paul was under the leadership in Jerusalem and not at the same level. Nevertheless, the important point is not in these details but that Paul, who persecuted the followers of Jesus, has now become a follower of Jesus.
Sometimes – though generally not at all as dramatically – we, too, become what we have persecuted. Mark Nepo, in his new book, The One Life We’re Given, describes how it happens:
Saul fell into an opposite, though equally zealous, calling. More often, our tripping into what we condemn isn’t that exalted or extreme. A friend of mine who was highly principled, absolute in his code of ethics, once cut off a mutual friend completely, because he learned that friend had lied. It wasn’t even to him. But he couldn’t tolerate any falsehood in his relationships. Almost a decade later, my principled friend fell into hard times. His wife had died, he’d lost his job, and, desperate for work, he lied on his resume, saying he’d resigned. I learned all this because he wanted me to be a reference for him, which I was happy to do. But in the process, he confessed to me that he had become what he had condemned. It humbled him.
It made us both suspend our judgment about such things, because in real life, good people suffer and find themselves being less than their best selves. But how do we respond to this? Do we turn our backs on everyone who is less than their best? Do we stone them? Or do we love them by holding a mirror to their vulnerability, showing them who they truly are until they can heal? Just because someone lies when in pain doesn’t make him incapable of truth.
The more we separate ourselves from the heart of the living – whether by judgment or condemnation or self-isolation – the more likely we are to be thrown, with sudden impact, back to the ground of our common humanity. In time, life will break us of our differences. It is a law of inner motion. At the same time, we are accountable for the mistakes we make. But when broken of our self-centeredness, our tenderness leads us to understand each other more than condemn each other. And beautifulIy, the breaking of self-centeredness doesn’t send us into insignificance but into being an irreplaceable part in a magnificent whole.
Saul, the persecutor, became Paul the Apostle, and out of that extraordinary change came an openness to diversity that shocked even those in the new Jesus movement. Paul’s fiery eloquence as a leader of the early movement was balanced by an awareness and humility about where he had been, and that balance kept him from creating barriers to keep anyone from being fully immersed in the new movement, no matter what “the men” in Jerusalem thought and said. Unless we have experienced our limitations, it is difficult to have such openness, and it is difficult, ironically, to become all we have been created to be.
Mark Nepo tells another story about a man whose first name Nepo shared:
Everyone’s life journey eventually arrives at a precipice or fork in the road. At some point we will come to the end of a path and no longer know our way. Hard as this is, this is where the inner journey begins, when all we’ve carried has served its purpose and now we must burn our expectations to light our way. This is when we assume our full stature in order to see what’s ahead. This is when the soul shows itself, if we listen.
My group and I were discussing this when I asked them to describe a time when their hard work led to an unexpected outcome and what that experience taught them. Mark told us that, from an early age, he had an uncanny ability to hit the center of a target with a gun. His father was an avid hunter and competitive marksman. Delighted to discover his son’s gift of accuracy, he steered him and trained him to excel at target shooting. Mark was a prodigy. His young life revolved around marksman competitions and the lift of his father’s approval. For more than ten years, Mark set records in competitions. His father was pleased and had him train harder. Mark was even invited to join the Olympic team.
When twenty-eight, Mark was at a competition, waiting his turn. He was videotaping the others, when a missed shot ricocheted into his right wrist, his trigger hand. As Mark was telling this, he began to well up. I was surprised by what he shared next.
Mark said that the injury prevented him from competing anymore. And while his father was devastated and everyone felt the whole thing a tragedy, he secretly felt relieved to be free of his father’s dream. He felt liberated to have an unknown path freshly before him, and grateful that he could walk away from his life of shooting without having to disappoint his father. Quite unexpectedly, beyond all his years of work to find the center of the target, it was an errant shot that let him fly like a tiny bird through the hole in the target into the rest of his life.
Sometimes it’s the gift of limitations that returns us to the place of what we love. It’s the gift of limitations that frees us to find our own dream.
There’s nothing wrong with mastering any skill or accomplishing any task, as long as that mastery or accomplishment is born of our love, as long as we can remember it is we who are being created and shaped by our immense effort. What we often perceive as failure is an unexpected opening in our lives. Nothing is wasted. Sometimes the map we work so hard to chart and follow needs to be burned in order for us to live our own life.
Life often reminds us of our limits, sometimes very painfully.
And yet, there are times like the experience of Saul, when we realize we are called to something different and vastly better suited to who we have been created to be.
We are called to give up Saul and become Paul.
We, too, are called to become what we have persecuted, to become the person who lives our own life in a way that is different from the expectations of those around us, and perhaps our own expectations, as well.