Take Your Stand
November 16, 2015
Take Your Stand
November 15, 2015
Many of us wonder if the world is ever going to change. With the outrageous violence in Paris to the pain and problems that are closer to home…many of us wonder whether there is actually reason to hold onto hope. Vaclav Havel put it well when he said “optimism” is the belief that things are going to turn out as you would like, as opposed to “hope,” which is when you are thoroughly convinced something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences. In that sense, I’m full of hope but in no way optimistic. – Cornel West
Today’s lesson from scripture gives me hope for today–and for tomorrow. It illustrates the anatomy of hope–how transformational hope “works” if you will. The story depicts the transformation of an individual life and how that transformation radiates outward from the individual to impact the church and beyond that to the wider world. It contains a powerful movement away from rigid “givens” and a deadening status quo into a bold and bright new possibility.
The story is about Paul of Tarsus and we meet him today at a pivotal moment in his life—a time where he is undergoing an evolution. It is the moment his faith takes him far out of comfort zone. He steps out in faith and keeps on stepping. He is a man on a mission—away from his familiar surroundings and into a foreign lands with different customs and beliefs about what is good and holy. We meet a Paul who is confident in his new context for his mission. Because he experienced transformation in his own life, he believes that transformation is possible everywhere. He is unafraid to meet people where they are, to leave his comfort zone, to help bring about a more vibrant future. He meets people where they are not to become like them or to morph into someone else. But Paul holds true to who he is and what God compelled him to care about. But it is because of the hope he carries within him that he is willing to risk the encounter.
Let’s start at the beginning with Paul…this is Acts Chapter 17—let’s hit rewind to Chapter 9 and explore the moments before this moment. Do you remember anything about who Paul was before God got a fresh hold on him? Many of you remember that wasn’t even his name when we first meet him in the book of Acts…his name was Saul. He had a different name and he was a different person. That person—Saul— was not someone who suffered from the pain of possessing a lot of self-doubt if you know what I mean. Before his transformational encounter with God, Saul was pretty sure of himself and his beliefs. He was rigid. He was convinced there only one way to think, one way to be, and one way to live. It never entered his mind for a minute that there might be more yet to discover about life, about God…about anything. His motto might well have been, IT IS WHAT IT IS. In his life, Saul traded all mystery and discovery for the assurances offered by the status quo however numbing it may be. He not only settled for the status quo–he reinforced it. Saul punished everyone in his path who disagreed with him…it was his way or the highway. Saul had a spiritual affliction that needed healing but of course he was the last to know—his mind was forever made up, his heart had become hard, his heels were forever dug in and his spirit intransigent. He was always right—and he wanted to tell you all the time how right he was.
Have you ever met a person like this? Maybe you work with someone like this? Or you might be dating or married to a person like this.
And then came the transformation. Saul was on his daily commute—rocking his normal routine—getting ready for a long day of punishing those who didn’t share his worldview when Saul was stopped in his tracks. He was knocked off his horse. He was blinded by the light. The story tells us that Christ made an intervention in his life that shook him out of his rigidity and humbled him in his calcified belief systems. We learn that every aspect of his life and outlook was to undergo a transformation.
What followed was a total makeover of this man. Saul’s mind was transformed. His heart was opened…but the transformation did not stop at his heart and his mind– it went clear down to his feet. Paul from that day forward became a man on the move. He was willing to go anywhere and everywhere to meet people where they were and invite them to renew their commitment and energize their approach to life. He was on fire with an urgent message—that all things could be made new; that healing could be found and there was a deep joy to be claimed even in suffering. He knew this because it had happened to him. He traveled miles from home and miles out of his comfort zone– his intellectual, emotional and physical comfort zone—in order to pursue these new possibilities that God revealed to him. He could not stand still any longer. He was propelled into these possibilities. He even got a new name—Saul became Paul and the world was never the same.
This mobilization finds its zenith in this story. Paul first mobilized this renewed vision in the places you would expect. He moved from community to community, from congregation to congregation–churches in places like Thessolinika and Corinth–inviting those he encountered to share in his renewed zeal. He pleaded with them to not settle into comfortable habits and rigid ways of being God’s people. Paul energized the life of their communities—he invited them to allow God to shake them out of complacency and move out of rigidity. He urged them to make the priorities of love and forgiveness and justice JOB ONE over enforcing rigid doctrine and stale customs. But in today’s story Paul took a bold step further– a step away from the familiar spheres of the church and into the strange and foreign customs of Greece—in the Aeropagus .
One commenter likened the intellectual power of Athens at the time to all the Ivy League schools as well as Oxford and Cambridge universities all rolled into one. But it wasn’t just a center for learning…it was also the central marketplace of the world. When you or I think of a “marketplace,” we think of shopping and retail. But it was so much more. The place where Paul was served was also the media center—the only place to learn the news at a time before newspapers and Facebook and Twitter. It was also the financial center where investors connected with businesses. It was the performing arts center as well.. It was the place where new political and philosophical ideas were debated. And since this was Athens—which along with Rome had the most influence of all cities—it could be said to be part of the cultural center of the Greco-Roman world. The ideas forged and accepted here flowed out and shaped the way the rest of society thought and lived.
Paul loved the church; but he knew that God didn’t only reveal Good news within the walls of the church. Paul knew that God’s concern is for all of society and for all the world—so Paul extended his mission to include Athens. Paul knew that as there had been rigidity in the churches—stale ways of thinking and unfair practices that were threatening the church’s health and so he worked on those—but he knew that the wider world was in need of fresh approaches as well. Paul built upon what he did among the churches in Athens because he felt a sense of urgency about the wider world. Paul moved out of his comfort zone because he was filled with the belief that things must change and the faith that things could change in the wider world as they had in the church. He was emboldened because even as his feet took him to Athens he knew his soul would remain rooted in the transformation he had experienced in Christ. As the old hymn goes—in the midst of the madness of this new foreign land, he woke up (as the hymn goes)—with his mind stayed on Jesus.
This is often where God is most real in my experience…when we choose to move out of our comfort zone. The adventure of faith entails risk—by definition. Which brings me to you and your life this morning. Where are you complacent—what part of your life needs transformation? Where might God help you to leave your comfort zone to bring transformation into a relationship, a work situation, an issue you are passionate about? How might this community help you shake you out of your patterns and open you to new possibilities where your life could make a big difference in the church and beyond the church?
I want to tell you how this story is affecting my life. I have long been troubled by the problems facing our society—but these days I am equally troubled by the spirit with which we are approaching them. Our state’s budget in locked in a stalemate and has been for weeks—that is a crisis for sure! But the rancorous way elected officials talk about each other is at least as troubling. Flinging blame—avoiding responsibility. Whatever issue we are dealing with….violence in the streets, schools that are failing our families…it remains the same…there is no transformational leadership—no inspiration—only bickering and blame. We have always faced formidable problems but never has the discourse about how we resolve these challenges been more polarized. Partisanship has a vice grip on our processes. It is easy for me to imagine Saul—before he became Paul—being right in his element in our current partisan pain. He would love it–but remember he was suffering from a spiritual sickness. I believe that is what is going on underneath the surface of our bitter partisanship disguised as principled stances–a spiritual affliction in our society.
There is so much that we have done here together to see our diverse viewpoints as a source of strength and unity rather than something that fills us with rancor and division. We have disagreed but sought to live faithfully into something brave, something bold, something important. We pushed past the disagreement to claim a new possibility. I can’t help wonder whether the transformation we have seen here—with all of the diversity of opinion that led to such new life—whether there might not be broader application for our troubled society.
But our polarized discourse is not even the biggest threat we face. A week ago we had our city’s mayoral election. The turnout rate for eligible voters was under 25%. Why is this? Some blame the weather. Others say that there isn’t enough information or voter engagement with the issues. I find this to be deeply distressing and even dangerous for our society. I think the cause of this trend of diminished participation goes much deeper than surface explanations. I think there is something beneath the presenting symptom of sitting out on the opportunity to participate. I believe this is a spiritual issue. It is an affliction of the spirit.
Many of you know I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church; I treasure what I was taught about what happens to us when we miss the mark with our actions/intentions toward God and our neighbor (that is what sin is). In that tradition, there is a categorization of different kinds of sin. Lightweight, welterweight and heavy weight sins. And then there are the BIG 7. Remember those? The 7 Deadly Sins….pride, lust (zow!) but the one that gets forgotten the most is: Sloth. Sloth gets confused with being lazy–lying in the bathtub too long or binge watching shows on Netflix. But sloth is more serious than being a couch potato. It is a condition of the spirit that robs us of a chance to live fully–to participate. The condition of sloth in the Greek language is acadia—or apathy. Which means that those whose spirit is gripped by apathy tend to respond to everything without passion. They say to almost everything, “I don’t care.” And friends, I need you to know, when you stop caring—you are dead.
We have big challenges ahead of us as a society and if we believe this is the best we can ever do we are in trouble. If we become resigned to the way things are—if we give ourselves over to a perpetual state of disgust—vulnerable people will be hurt. We must do better. We can do better because we are people who know that anything is possible. We have seen it firsthand. We have been gripped—as Paul was before us—by the sure and certain hope that things can be different. Our story is grounded in the sure and certain hope that with God there are no lost causes…even when there is a stone sealing up a tomb, all is not lost…when Moses hits the wall of the Red Sea, it is parted and safe passage is forged. We are not people who are resigned to settle for the discouraging present reality. Like Paul—we can boldly leave our comfort zones and try to make things better because we know it is possible. We know that this is not all there is—that conventional wisdom is not the final word—that transformation of our current reality is possible.
That is why…After a considerable amount of prayer, and conversation with my family, and discernment with the leaders of this community, I have decided to seek a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Tomorrow, I will announce my candidacy and I wanted you to know first.
I am doing so for a lot of reasons but at my core I believe it is time to take a page out of Paul’s playbook. Because I have seen such transformation here in this community– where I have seen that we can have different opinions—and we can even fight—but then push through and do something amazing—I know we need not be doomed to the current spiritual sickness of bitter partisanship. We can work for transformation because we have seen transformation here.
And it doesn’t stop there—this spirit of resignation, of bitter disappointment with the state of things—that doesn’t need to be a place we stay. We can push through the spiritual condition of apathy that has settled onto our society. We can do better. We must do better. But we first have to give ourselves over to faith and not despair—we have to work for transformation—we have to insist that God is still at work in this broken world. I believe that—and that is why I am running…out of my comfort zone and into this new adventure. I hope you will pray for me, and you will flee your comfort zone in pursuit of a holy adventure too!
 This is paraphrased from the commentary of Rev. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.