I delivered the following sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday, January 25, 2015. I believe its message applies widely to our diocese’s many congregations and even to us in our own personal lives.
Good morning, and welcome to this celebration of the Conversion of Paul and the annual meeting of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I believe that what I say here speaks also to other parishes today.
The story of Paul’s conversion has to be one of the most colorful and dramatic in the Bible.
Just listen to it! Here is Saul — Pharisee, defender of the faith, staunch supporter of the status quo, who has been out persecuting followers of Jesus and feeling pretty darned proud of himself. He locked them up, he voted the death penalty for them, he pursued them to foreign cities. Those early followers of Jesus learned pretty quickly: You can run but you can’t hide from Saul.
Except and until that day when he is headed to Damascus to persecute more Christians, and suddenly comes a blinding light, brighter than the sun, and Jesus’s voice from heaven asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
It stops Saul dead in his tracks.
As you well know, my wife Carmela and I lived in Rome, Italy for five years before we moved to Western New York. There we worked at the American Academy, and I also at the Anglican Center in Rome. In addition, I was also priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rome, just a block from the house where the Apostle was under house arrest. So you see it seems that I cannot get away from St. Paul. Every Sunday I would walk back from the church to the American Academy past the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Inside that church hangs the painter Caravaggio’s great masterpiece “The Conversion of Paul.” Hundreds of people would be lined up outside the church to go in and see the painting, and I would take my place. It is such a dramatic scene they couldn’t resist seeing it and neither could I. Looking at that great painting what you see is brilliant light streaming from a dark sky … and on the ground, Saul is writhing, covering his eyes, suffering from a major dose of shock and awe.
All around him are his traveling companions and their horses. Take a good look at the horses. They are rearing, pawing the air, their eyes are rolling, they are in sheer panic. I think Saul has a lot more to fear from the hooves of those hysterical horses than he does from Jesus. He’s at the risk of being kicked or stomped to death. Talk about being outside your comfort zone!
Notice what Jesus says to Saul: “It hurts you to kick against the goads.”
It hurts you to kick against the goads. What does that mean?
A goad was a prod or stick that herdsmen used to guide oxen in the right direction. It had a metal tip that poked the oxen when they strayed from the right path. Sometimes the oxen would resist, and they’d kick at the goad, only to discover that when they did, its jab was even more painful.
So in kicking against the goads, they hurt themselves even more.
What Jesus is saying to Saul is: When you try to resist me, you hurt yourself even more.
Relax, Saul, Jesus is saying. Don’t rebel. Accept me. Follow me. Hear my call. Work with me.
What tender, forgiving statements from Jesus to a character who has done everything to hurt Jesus and his followers!
The story behind the story here is that Jesus is telling us: I can use even the most unlikely people … the people who disagree with me, the people who are angry with me, the people who persecute my followers. All of them can have their hearts turned, their eyes opened, their thinking changed. And sometimes we have to go to unpleasant, uncomfortable places for that change to occur.
It’s a good lesson for all of us. Sometimes when I am dealing with people who disagree with me and are absolutely sure that they are right and I am wrong, I want to interrupt our conversation and sit down and read them this passage from Acts and see whether we can learn from it and consider whether both of us need to have our eyes opened, each in our own way.
So it is appropriate that St. Paul is the patron saint of this Cathedral, because cathedrals are often highly politicized places where there are strong differences of opinion, people are convinced that they know what God wants, and it can be hard for one side to acknowledge anything good about the other side’s position. Imagine what it must be like to be a member of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, or the great St. John the Divine in New York City.
It sounds like it could be a little like Congress and the White House, doesn’t it?
It has been seven months now since Father Will came to St. Paul’s as your interim dean, and although I never doubt that the Spirit keeps us moving, if anyone needs evidence, just look around you.
- At this difficult time in our national life, as we re-examine racial prejudice, we hear the voice of an African-American preacher helping us to understand what the events in Ferguson, MO, and Staten Island mean to us as Americans and as Christians.
- As we as a Diocese look for ways to align ourselves with our region as Buffalo turns around, Dean Mebane’s commitment to social justice has been a significant factor.
- He has given a clearer identity to the three services here at the Cathedral, turning the 9 a.m. into a contemporary music service that is very different from the spoken service at 8 a.m. and the choral service at 11:15.
All of these are the appropriate roles of an interim in helping you, the congregation, to disengage from the previous era, which was a good era but a different era … to learn that you can, indeed, try new things, worship differently, listen to different voices, see the world in a different way. Sometimes all this has felt uncomfortable and unpleasant, but we walk through the hard times with hope for what lies on the other side.
That’s exactly with Saul learned when that blinding flash of light and the voice of Jesus overcame him. Saul was transformed into Paul — evangelist, spreader of the Good News, the one who took the faith in Jesus Christ beyond the Holy Land and into the wider Mediterranean and into all the world.
So you all have been having your own “road to Damascus” moments over the last seven months — in slow motion, perhaps, a little less dramatically than Saul did — no panic-stricken stallions here — but nevertheless, you have been opening yourselves to new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things, new approaches.
That is what an interim is all about.
But you are not alone.
All around our diocese, congregations are in the same situation you are. They are confronting change and transformation. Some of them are seeking new clergy leadership. Some of them are facing the fact that they can no longer afford full-time clergy leadership and need to consider new ways of doing church, partnering with other congregations. Our other large congregations — Trinity, Buffalo and Calvary, Williamsville — are wrestling with their own challenges, doing the hard uncomfortable work that is necessary for growth and health.
It is a time of change and transformation for everyone in this diocese and across the Episcopal Church. So if you begin to think you’re alone, let me assure you: You’re not. It is an anxious time, just as it was for Paul, who had to figure out what to do and how to do it once he had literally “seen the light” and was inspired to follow Jesus. Being in transition is the new normal.
Here are some things you might consider doing in the new normal:
- First, you can pray for the health of this congregation. When Paul was recovering from his blinding experience, a disciple named Ananias came and laid hands on him to help him regain his sight. I invite you to pray for yourselves as a congregation that your vision be clear and your thinking straight.
- God called Paul “an instrument of mine to carry my name to the Gentiles and the kings and sons of Israel.” It wasn’t about Paul, about what he needed or what he wanted. It was about Paul’s role as an instrument of God. And so is your transition. It is not about what each of us needs as an individual. You are here to be instruments of God, to do what is best for the whole cathedral and its role in Buffalo and in the diocese. Let Paul be an inspiration to you.
- Let your patron saint be an inspiration to you in another way. Paul spent a lot of his time mediating quarrels among the churches he established in Greece and Turkey. He would feel right at home here at St. Paul’s, which remains anxious. People blame the unhappiness on the leader — “If we just get the right person, everything will be better” — but leaders come and leaders go and unhappiness lingers. There is still work to be done here as you develop constructive ways to sort out differences, and focus on what is best for the whole congregation.
- Be proud but humble. I love this cathedral. I am pleased with the strides this congregation has made. I am grateful to the clergy and the leadership and so many of you are my friends. You are a strong and smart cathedral family, and you are accepting of different ways of worshiping, of doing ministry, of serving the wider community. You have added 18 new pledging units. You have demonstrated to yourselves that you can disconnect from one style of clergy leadership and reconnect with another … which should give you confidence that you can do it again when your permanent dean is called. That’s the proud part.
- Now here’s the humble part: We need to be uncomfortable sometimes as we discover together what it means to love and serve our Lord in new circumstances.
Uncomfortable? Uncertain? Of course. And those are exactly the circumstances in which Paul found himself after he regained his sight and began to follow our Lord. He was shipwrecked, he was imprisoned, he was beaten, he was reviled, he was threatened with death, he was chronically ill — and he changed the world. Some say that after Jesus, Paul is the most significant figure in the Bible. He turned a small Mideastern religious sect into a faith that transformed the world.
Two years from now we will celebrate the Cathedral’s 200th anniversary. I can think of no better way to mark that historic event than with a vibrant vision for this Cathedral, and a new commitment to the world around us.
Paul was joyful, we read in today’s Epistle, that new believers glorified God because they were in this Kingdom work together. Let that be your charge as we move forward with our work: together. That new people come to Christ because of you, what you do here, and the leadership you raise up. Just as it did in the work of Paul, may the light of the Gospel shine through our work here.