The text for this sermon is Galatians 1:11-24.
I heard an interview of a famous writer, 53 year old, Andrew Sullivan. I was surprised to hear Sullivan passionately speak about his Roman Catholic faith. Surprised, because Sullivan is part of the intelligentsia of our nation. He writes thoughtful pieces for the New Yorker, The Atlantic and others. I read these magazines and while some of their writers admire Christianity, few think much about the church that shares Jesus with the world. Sullivan shared that he is often scorned by his writing peers, who see Catholicism as full of superstitions, documented horrors and hypocrisy. He added that the gay community, of which he is a part, disparage is loyalty to a church that condemns him and his lifestyle. The interviewer asked incredulously why he would maintain his faith with so many pressures from his community to drop it. He replied thoughtfully that when God called him in his young 20’s and he was in such deep despair God’s call gave him not just a sense of relief and acceptance as a young gay man with AIDS, it brought him from death to life providing him purpose for the rest of his life.
It would be easier for Sullivan to not be Christian, and, much, much easier to not be vocal about it. God’s call always complicates our lives, it does not make them easier. God’s call takes away the delicious luxury of hating the jerk across the street. God’s call makes us poorer not richer, demanding we empty our pockets for the church so God’s mission happens or for those in need so no one goes to bed hungry or cold. God’s call puts virtual “Kick Me” signs on our backs, by asking us to live by the selfless rules of the Kingdom of God instead of the selfish laws of the Kingdom of Man. But when God calls…what else can we do?
Paul’s life was moving along very well, thank you very much before Jesus came to him and God called. His is not a conversion story. He already believed in God. He had studied with one of the most famous rabbis of his day. He followed the laws of scripture meticulously. He had already given his entire life to the service of God. He was zealous for the Lord! And it is reasonable to think that his zealotry had been noticed by the leaders of Judaism. Surely, they thought this smart, well educated, passionate man of faith, has a future as a leader himself.
But when God called…Paul threw all that away. When God’s grace came to him, when Jesus himself appeared to him, Paul said yes! And his yes to Jesus became a no to all of the careful networking of powerful people within his faith that he had dedicated his lifetime to build. His yes to Jesus made his fancy rabbi training meaningless. His yes to Jesus put him outside the only community he had ever known. His yes to Jesus made his life much more complicated, but what else could he do?
Paul’s yes to God’s call, is even more crazy, because the tiny, weak early church, was not as quick to honor God’s call and say yes to Paul. They didn’t trust him and for good reason. Paul’s zealous love of the Lord before his call had led him to torture Christians possibly even kill them. It appears they kept Paul at arm’s length.
They also had real problems with Paul’s passion to reach out to Gentiles, non Jews, with the Good News. The early church quite logically believed that followers of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, should be Jewish before they say yes to God. Gentiles were welcome, they just had to commit to live by Jewish laws, written clearly in scripture, including male circumcision, an unappetizing prospect for any adult male convert in the first century when anesthesia before such a delicate operation was biting on a rag. Paul, though was relentless in arguing with the leaders of the church on this issue. Paul was not quibbling with the validity or goodness of the laws from scripture he likely spent his entire life following, even after he became Christian. He was simply clear that whenever we start talking about what we have to do for God to love us, our trust is in ourselves rather than God. Time and time again Paul found himself outside of the church that God had called him to embrace and come inside.
It would have been easier for Paul not to be a Christian, and much, much easier to tow the line of the Christian leaders in Jerusalem once he said yes to God’s call. When God called, Paul found himself banished from his Jewish community and not liked by the new Christian community. When God called, Paul’s life became far more complicated not less. When God called, Paul found himself in conflict with people he used to get along with. When God called, Paul didn’t make a rational decision, the best career decision, Paul made the only decision that made sense for his life, the only decision that brought him from death to life, yes.
When God called me to become a parish pastor in 1992, I was a salesman for Roadway Express on track to be promoted to terminal manager and who knows what after that? Twenty four years later I have just now matched the income I had at Roadway at 28. God’s call was not logical or rational, but it was the only decision that made sense for my life. When God called Joshua to come and be loved like you should be loved, his motorcycle club, his closest friends, told him they didn’t need no holy rollers on a bike next to them. If he couldn’t ride with them Sundays, he couldn’t ride with them at all. God’s call was not logical or rational, but it was only decision that made sense out of his life. When God called Jeff, it was after he had committed a crime that he was certain made him unlovable to not just God, but to the people next to him in the pews. It was much safer to stay home than to show up in a church with his picture in the local paper exposing his shame to the world. God’s call was not logical or rational, but it was the only decision that made sense of his life. When God called Shelly back to the church it was after she had been publicly shamed in a congregation when a painful and difficult decision she had made came to light. Her friends and family asked her why she would have anything to do with the church at all after the way she had been treated. God’s call was not logical or rational, but it was the only decision that made sense out of her life.
What about you? God is calling you from death to life. I know, you have a thousand reasons why this is not the right time to dedicate yourself to a ministry that you have real gifts for, to be more generous with the comfortable income you have been blessed to receive, to forgive the brokenness of the last congregation you had been a part, to be more vocal about God’s love for those on the margins of our society that are easy to victimize or demonize. There are always reasons to say no to God, because God’s call will always complicate our lives. But, saying yes to God’s call is the only answer that will make sense out of your life. Amen