Friday, January 25, 2013

Sermon: Conversion of Paul

Feast Day of Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, Jan. 25
St. Philips In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki Hesse, January 24, 2013
For readings, click here
I speak to you in the name of One God. Amen

Driving to and from work, I like to listen to podcasts
of my favorite interviewer, Krista Tippett. 
“spacious conversation” about,
“…the big questions at the center of human life, …” 
The idea of the program is to hold conversations about
shared life and problem-solving within & across religions.
I find these fresh insights soften my heart.

Today’s Collect reminds us about our Christian
shared life and the problem-solving – one that
Paul experienced and about which he wrote. 
As we remember Paul’s conversion, the prayer asks,
help us, God to show our gratitude for Paul’s life
by following Paul’s holy teachings. 

What if Tippett did a program on Paul?
She might open by musing…

“How did Paul, a fervent Jew and persecutor of Christians
come to develop a healthy skepticism
that led to his ideological differences
with the powers and principalities of his time? 

How did Paul come to question the normalcy of civilization itself?
Today in our program we explore the person
who confronted the Roman Empire-centered
approach of peace through victory
by offering a Jesus-centered vision of peace through justice.

I imagine that Tippett would interview both Paul and Luke (author of Acts of the Apostles).

Through this interview, we may be able to hear fresh insights
about Paul’s holy teaching,
what is important about Paul, and
why this is relevant to us today. 

I imagine the interview might sound a bit like this:

T: Paul, did you have a religious background to your life?

P: Well, yes, Krista, I did.  I was a fervent Jew –
as you read in my letters[1]. And,
I was a zealous persecutor of the early church, as
I described specifically in Galatians and Philippians.

T: Luke, did you add anything?

L: Well, yes, Krista, I did.  I am a literary guy, you know, and
in Acts,  I felt it was important for the story
to capture the interest of the hearers. 
While it may not be exactly historically correct,
I wanted to tell folks how Paul was born in Tarsus,
trained in Jerusalem with Rabbi Gamaliel and
gained a sterling education in the law as a Pharisee. 

I felt it important to upgrade Paul’s status
as an educated and religious fellow. 
That way, his conversion would be dramatic.

T: Well, regardless of the perspective, do you both agree
that ultimately the thing which
he persecuted FOR God was exactly
that to which he was called BY God?

P+L together: Yes, that’s it exactly! 

P: In fact that was my inaugural moment –
I received a revelation directly from Jesus Christ – God –
who set me apart before I was born and
called me through grace.  I really did see Jesus! 
I became the least of the Apostles sent by God
through the revelation of the risen Lord. 

L: Well, I agree on most of that, but …
I felt it important to spice up the story and
include a compelling climax. 

So, not once but three times in Acts,
I wrote about Paul’s conversion. 
·    first in chapter 9, where Jesus asks Ananias to visit Paul,
·    second in chapter 22 where Paul is in the Jerusalem Temple and
·    third in Chapter 26 where we hear Paul’s defense to King Agrippa in the palace in Caesarea.

I felt is important to emphasize Paul was
a vitally important missionary, sent by Jerusalem,
but he was not an apostle – he never knew Jesus in the flesh. 

T: So while Paul believed he was an Apostle,
Luke understood him as an important missionary.
…Tune in after this commercial break to find out what Paul actually saw… 

What is important about Paul
What we do know is that Paul’s conversion experience
began his important mission. 

Important justice-seeking mission, because whether he was “called” by Jesus (as Paul said) or
“sent” by Jerusalem (as Luke said)),
Paul ministered to a previously invisible group of people.

Important reconciling mission, because in an ancient world
divided between Jew and Gentile,
Paul saw that this third, in-between group of pagans
were sympathetic to Judaism. 

Important serving mission, because we see him
not converting Jews, but
“unconverting” the pagan sympathizers,
toward a shared life in Christianity[2],
toward loving one’s neighbor as one’s self,
toward loving God above all other gods.

See, Paul lived and worked with several communities and
wrote about how they could live out their life in Christ.
These writings, his holy teachings, show
Paul’s deep sense of justice and equality for all people.

Paul emphasized that it made no difference
whether one entered worship or the faith community
as a Christian Jew or a Christian pagan,
as a Christian man or a Christian woman,
as a Christian freeborn or a Christian slave. 

All were absolutely equal with one another before God. 
That level of hospitality was radical.

By responding to God’s call,
Paul became Rome’s most dangerous opposition. 
Not with legions but with ideas. 
Not with an alternative force, but an alternative faith. 
Not in a powerful Caesar, but in the humble Christ.
– and this challenged the Roman Empire’s normalcy.

Why this is relevant to us today
Which made me wonder, how are we modeling
Paul’s justice, reconciling, serving approach
to challenge our own culture’s “normalcy”?

How is he relevant to us today, in our life at St. Philips?

By responding to God’s call, Paul is relevant…
As a justice-seeking community through
the work we do with border and immigration ministries,
food bag offerings to hungry people, and
supporting interfaith community services.

As a reconciling community through
civil conversations in leadership and small group forums
about reducing gun violence,
offering a haven for people suffering with mental illness, inviting voices of diverse perspectives.

As a serving community through
our food pantry,
the casa maria sandwich making, and
the many worship groups, such as Altar Guild.

Sure, there is more we can do.  Paul continues to inspire us.

Perhaps what is most exciting about Paul’s for today is this:
Paul’s stance of equality rocked
the Roman normalcy of power and might
Paul’s love of Christ informed his approach to living out God’s love.

Paul’s stance of equality can rock
our own culture’s normalcy of seclusion and consumerism
and our love of Christ can inform our approach to
God’s good news –

that all people are loved by God. 
that nothing can separate us from God.
that God works to convert us
in ways known and unknown,
to know the light of liberating Love.

We give thanks today for Paul’s conversion,
and his willingness to write to his communities
so that we can hear their shared stories and

And that holy teaching is the best program
to which we can listen and share. 


[1] Philippians (3:5-6), Galatians (1:14), and 2 Cor (11:22). 
[2] John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, “In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom”, (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 2004)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Sermon: Baptism


Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, Year C
St. Philips In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki Hesse, January 13, 2013
For Readings, click here
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all hearts be acceptable to you, o Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

One of the things on the list-of-things-to-do-in-my-life is to stand in Times Square waiting for the “ball to drop.” 
This year, I was so excited to actually make it to midnight
(well, in New York) to watch the throng of people
doing just that. Some day I will be there, too. 

Everyone is filled with expectation,
everyone is questioning in their hearts what will happen next,
or what will happen this coming year. 
It’s a happy event that involves crowds, uncertainty, and a messy, shoulder-to-shoulder community where I imagine I would just feel part of something  bigger.

I wonder if that was the scene by the river from our Gospel text today. 
The people were filled with expectation and all were questioning in their hearts.
The crowd filled the banks of the river. All the people mumbled… 
“what is happening?”
“what is he saying?”
“who is that guy? Is he the one to make things better?”

Their feet slipped on the river bank,the mud squished between their toes. 
The tension rose and the throng pressed close to John,
to hear clearly what he was yelling.

John answered to all of them. 
For all people – gathered there and those yet to come. 
Not just the oppressed, not just the royalty.
Not just the Israelites, not just the Gentiles.
The message that he gave was for all.

He yelled above the din of the crowd. From a distance, they heard:
I… water…Powerful One… Holy Spirit … fire!

All that cryptic language they heard just fueled the uncertainty, the expectation …
– what? Someone more powerful?
They mumbled among themselves. What is really happening here?

Which is what we do sometimes, too, don’t we?
We are filled with expectation about
a certain event or certain leader or certain solution;
we question in our hearts, “what will happen next?”

We comment on our Facebook page, we twitter our questions, 
we stand shoulder to shoulder at rallies,
or when making casa maria sandwiches,
or when lining up at the coffee shop. 

We chatter to each other nervously,
hoping to get a glimpse of what we think will
“heal us” or “save us” or “fix us”  

And all that cryptic language we hear
where someone yells above the din,
only increases our expectation and questioning. 

We mumble among ourselves, What is really happening here?

What was really happening that day at The River
was something that even John could not explain.
A kind of religious experience took place in front of them
that was beyond their control. 

It arose from God and could not be channeled or
made to fit their preconceived notions. It defied explanation.
What was really happening at the river that day was a mystery.

See, once all the people were baptized, and
when Jesus had been baptized – and was praying,
the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit
descended upon him in bodily form like a dove and
a voice came down from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

At that moment, all the people hushed. 
The sound of the river hummed. 
The stench of the crowd waifed.
Time stopped.
There was this feeling of being part of something big!

The opening of heaven! The voice of heaven!

What was really happening was that God revealed God’s self,
in Jesus, and taught the people about
God’s true character, which is Love. 

Through the opening of heaven, God blessed Jesus.

Through the voice from heaven, 
God affirmed how much he loved that One,
that particular one, identified as Jesus.

What was really happening was that one individual
from the crowd – Jesus – submitted to God’s grace. 

And everyone who witnessed that One who submitted to God
realized their participation in that sacred moment; that “something bigger.”
They realized that the heavens opened and
the voice of God spoke not just for Jesus
but for them, too. For all people:

Not just the oppressed, not just the royalty.
Not just the Israelites, not just the Gentiles.
What was really happening that day was for all humanity. 

Today we witness the sacrament of baptism in another one,
a particular one, CC.  In this sacrament,
we see the heavens open and the voice of God claiming CC as his son, with whom God is well-pleased. 
As Christians, we believe that Baptism as a sacrament. 
What is a sacrament? It is,
“…an outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,
given by Christ as sure and certain means
by which we receive that grace.”

In the sacraments, God uses
ordinary things to become holy things. 
In the sacraments, we touch the mysterious
inner world of our soul.
In the sacraments, we will see the outer, ordinary signs and
we will feel the inner, sacred effect. 
While we may only see the outward signs and symbols,
the important work of God is taking place
without our doing, inside of us.
The outer signs that God uses are our senses
we see, we hear, we taste, we touch and feel.

We see the water in the font, fire in the paschal candle, 
baby in the arms of the priest, and
we hear the sounds of the splashing water, words of the liturgy, 
tunes of baptismal hymns, and
we smell the wax of burning candles, the scent of community near us, 
the oil of the chrism, and
we taste that single drop of water as it runs from the forehead, 
down the cheek to the lips of the baptized. 
We feel the cool water as its deep wetness soaks into every pore of our being.[1] 

Even though it is only CC baptized today,
the rest of us are never mere observers –
the sacrament totally absorbs us and God surrounds us
and dances in every dimension. 
Something Bigger is happening here!

The inward and spiritual grace revealed in this sacrament is
a.      Our union with Christ in his death and Resurrection. 
b.     Our own birth into God’s family, the church.
c.      Forgiveness of sin (which is our own self-imposed sentence of separation from God)
d.     AND the beginning of a new life in the Holy Spirit

With CC’s baptism, we announce that he is adopted as one of God’s children
and is claimed as Christ’s own.

The sacrament of Baptism is a pure gift from a pure God.

When we open our eyes, our ears, our hearts,
when we experience or witness a baptism,
we are standing on the holy ground
of sacramental moment, a sacred encounter, something bigger.
It is a moment when the fully human meets the fully divine.

So today, while we sing,
“We know that Christ is raised,” hymn 296, and
CC approaches the baptismal font,
I invite you to take off your shoes and
stand in stocking- or barefeet.  PAUSE
Use your bodily form to participate…
For we are all standing on holy ground
of the sacramental moment of Baptism

Baptism – it is indissoluble.  It cannot be undone. 
Permanent. Unbreakable.. Binding.
Enduring. Everlasting. Eternal

Can you see it? Can you hear it? 
The heavens are opening today! The voice of God is speaking!

Today, we hear, CC! 
WITH YOU I AM WELL PLEASED!                       Amen

[1] This section inspired by The Rev. Jeanne Finan’s fine book Remember Your Baptism: Ten Meditations  (Cowley Publications, Cambridge MA, 2004)