Sunday, May 17, 2020
Sixth Sunday of Easter
"The Longest Road"
Rev. Dr. Scott Landis
I included the two readings from the book of Acts and the gospel of John for our reflection today for two reasons: first, it is likely that they were both written at about the same time, and second, even though their authors are different, they both reflect a similar theology and share an important assumption of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. While their focus is on two different characters, they end up offering a similar message – one that is equally important for us today.
In Acts, the writer chronicles one who, up to this point, had been an ardent persecutor of what was known as “The Way,” that is those who followed The Way of Jesus. Paul was incensed with this movement. Adamant about right beliefs and the proper way to worship, he did everything in his power to stamp out any expression of allegiance to Jesus. Totally invested in the Judaism of his time and its complicitous union with the Roman establishment, it’s difficult to tell whether Paul was a defender out of principle or the convenience of consolidated power – a power from which he benefitted tremendously. In either event, he saw Jesus as a threat to his lifestyle – a threat he would not tolerate and one he was determined to destroy no matter what.
That is until his moment of reckoning – when God a different idea. As the story goes, Paul/then known as Saul, was on his way to Damascus “Breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus.” (v.9:1) While he traveled a blinding light struck him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?”
A couple of his aids led him to Damascus where he stayed for three days neither eating nor drinking until his sight was restored by Ananias, a disciple of Jesus. Saul – now renamed Paul – realized the source of all that had happened to him – was immediately converted, baptized, and began preaching to those in Damascus that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God. Saul had a profound experience with God – a conversion experience – and it changed his life – forever. [Pause]
You’ll soon discover that I often pepper my sermons with witticisms from my mom – who probably shaped my theology more than any other. Jackie Landis was quite a lady – she had a ribald sense of humor, and rarely had a filtered thought. While I think I may have a bit more diplomacy than she, I did pick up her sense of personal self-confidence – and, unfortunately, the belief that I, too, am always right – even when I know I’m wrong (just ask Randy). That’s where the self-confidence comes in.
In the theology according to Jackie – I would glean things that eventually got seared into my brain. One being, “beware of converts – they are always worst.” And so, she would roll her eyes upon hearing the testimony of x-smokers (especially while she was still smoking) or vegetarians who were once meat eaters as they expounded their self-righteous beliefs about saving the animals. Fortunately, she did not live long enough to see her son become one – a vegetarian that is, not an animal. But, the worst, she would say, are religious converts. And so, she had little time for televangelists, Jesus freaks, or generally anyone who espoused religious beliefs different from her own.
My mom was very certain about her faith – having been reared in the Evangelical and Reformed Church – which along with the Congregational Church became a parent body of our United Church of Christ. So, when I was a kid, church was just something you did – and we were there a lot. Church was keeping the commandments, showing up, helping whenever needed, attendance on Sundays, and giving enough money to keep things going. So, I never sensed any obligation or devotion – it was just our way of life. It was what we did without question.
In the church where I grew up we all looked pretty much the same, believed the same things, loved the same hymns, and worshipped the way we thought everyone “should” – reciting creeds, listening to boring sermons, and waiting until we were confirmed to be welcomed at the Holy Table to finally receive that little cube of gummy white bread and a swig of grape juice. Church was not emotional – that “was for the Holy Rollers” Jackie used to say. No, church was just what you did.
Somehow with that as background, God still was able to break through and called me to go to seminary. I still marvel at that, actually. And, I took to seminary like a pig to slop. I loved it! I read countless theologians, studied Greek and Hebrew, translated original texts, studied church history, counseling, church administration. It was great. My head was full of facts and I excelled – in fact, I ended up valedictorian of my graduating class. Those were heady days – when I often found myself arguing with mom debating important theological concepts – sometimes while baking chocolate chip cookies – you remember.
But along the way, I noticed something had shifted in her. The debates – which were of utmost importance to me – were not nearly as lively or as fun as the once where. She developed an openness, a tolerance, a broader view of things and she began talking about Jesus as in “having a personal relationship.” Had my mom become a “holy roller?” It was clear, Jesus, for mom was no longer someone who had lived in the bible. It was as if Jesus was present to her now and in a way that was making a big difference in her life. This didn’t seem like my mom.
She would sometimes say to me, “Scott, when did you get to be so liberal.” A comment I would receive with a certain amount of smug pride, but I knew she was noticing something deeper – and perhaps alluding to the fact that I was missing something in my life that she had discovered and was very real in hers.
That’s where we find Paul in today’s story. A shift had occurred in his life. No longer ready to accuse the Athenians of the error of their ways, Paul was, instead, greatly distressed. They were stuck, he thought – debating ideas – “pondering the imponderables,” as a seminary professor of mine would often say. Living in their heads, the Athenians had no idea what they were talking about, nor did they have any relationship with the God whom they believed inhabited their statues. Like mom noticed in me, Paul was deeply aware of that which was missing in the Athenians’ lives – because she – and he – were both there not long ago. Living in their heads – not their hearts – which ultimately doesn’t work in the life of faith. [Pause]
There is an old Native American proverb that says, “The longest journey you will ever take is the one from your head to your heart.” Most of us LOVE to stay in our heads (point to head). Living from there gives us the illusion that we are in control. Everything is manageable. And then something comes along and knocks us off our horse, maybe even blinds us temporarily and we realize we are helpless (or restless as Augustine said) “until we find our rest in Thee.” Or as Paul said, until we realize that “it is in God that we live and move and have our being.”
It took a while, but like Jackie, a shift also occurred in my life. Without going into all the details, it was then I realized I wasn’t so smart after all. It became clear, what I learned in seminary was important – but that would not be enough. A conversion of sorts was necessary, and instead of my insistence on right belief, I think I began to believe rightly – at least for me. [Pause]
I had never read this section from John with those eyes or with my heart before this revelation – this softening in my life. Yet, the words were right there all along. “I will not leave you orphaned. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” [Pause]
One of my favorite homiletics professors, Karoline Lewis, has written extensively about this relationship emphasizing the importance of Jesus abiding among us as the one who comes alongside – “the advocate”, AND within us in the form of the Holy Spirit. It’s an idea that cannot exist solely in our heads. NO. It’s an understanding, a knowing, an experience of the God who dwells in me and that makes all the difference in the world in how I live and how I treat others who also manifest the Holy One living in them. It’s the “namaste” that Dennis and Laurie sang about – “Namaste, namaste, namaste. The Divine in me blesses and honors the Divine in you.”
I’m not trying to suggest you need a religious conversion. I would never do that – for many reasons. I can only tell you what I know – what I have experienced. My education was critical – but ultimately, we don’t fall in love with our heads. Falling in love requires opening our heart. Just like that old hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross concludes, “Love so amazing, so divine – demands my soul, my life, my all.”
My prayer for you (if you have never experienced this before) – is to find that love – that relationship – that experience with the Divine (by whatever name you call it – or by whatever means you are called to relate). To take that long journey from your head to your heart and there find your maluhia – your peace. Doing so will change your life – forever.