Seventh Sunday in Easter – Memorial Day Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
I chose our scripture text today, before the tragic events of this week. It is a healing story from the gospel of John. Healing of people, of communities, of institutions and governments require change….sometimes revolutionary change….and established institutions rarely receive the invitation to change with open arms. The Spirit of God invites us into healing change as we hear this story of Jesus healing a man long ill.
1… there was a Jewish festival, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2In Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate in the north city wall is a pool with the Aramaic name Bethsaida [which has become the name “Bethesda” in our times.] It had five covered porches, 3and a crowd of people who were sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed sat there. [The tradition around the pool was that an angel of God would come and stir up the water from time to time. If a person could be the first into the pool while the water was stirred up then the person would be healed.]
5A certain man was there who had been sick for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there, knowing that he had already been there a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?” 7The sick man answered him, "Sir, I don't have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I'm trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me." 8Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk."9Immediately the man was well, and he picked up his mat and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 41438-41446).
For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God within us, Thanks be to God.
“Do you want to get well, to be healed?” What a question to ask someone who is has been lying by this healing pool, probably always a beggar, begging for his living, for thirty-eight years? It almost seems cruel, doesn’t it? Well, of course, he would want to be healed. But then the man’s answer is tentative….it almost seems to be an excuse for why he is not well, rather than a statement of longing to be well. Hmmmm….”Does he really want to be well? Why hasn’t he been able to rally the help to get into the healing pool?” There could be answers to that question. He’s too physically weak; he doesn’t have friends to help; he is used to how he is living and might not really believe in the healing of the pool after all this time; he doesn’t see a way out of his poverty other than begging. And of course, then we, in our 21st century cynicism ask….and if he did get into the pool, would it really heal him? Many questions arise about illness and wellness, about healing and help and wholeness from this at first seemingly simple ” Jesus does another miracle” story.
A few anthropological facts about the first century Mediterranean understanding of illness and wellness. Quoting from the Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, “the main problem with sickness [in the time of Jesus] is the experience of the sick person being dislodged from his/her social moorings and social standing. Social interaction with family members, friends, neighbors, and village mates comes to a halt. To be healed is to be restored to one's social network. In the ancient Mediterranean world, one's state of being was more important than one's ability to act or function. Thus, the healers of that world focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than to an ability to function.”
The healing miracle went beyond the physical ailment in this story. Jesus brought the man out of a state of isolation, living as an unhealed beggar at the edge of a healing pool, and gave him a chance to re-enter community. Jesus gives him the opportunity be healed from separateness, which is the New Testament definition of sin, the state of being separated or separating ourselves from the Holy within us and within the community of God? Jesus asks the man in this story, “Do you want to be get well, to be healed?” He answers much like we might out of a sense of guilt …”its not my fault, I’m not healed….this stopped me and then this.” Yet implicit in the evasive answers is hopefully a tentative yes…as well as the fear of what change healing might bring.
Do you want to be healed? Do I want to be healed? Do we want to be healed as a faith community, as a local community, as a nation? I know that sometimes we hear these gospel healing stories and they are seem like a fairy tale. It seems like Jesus says, ”Poof! You are well! Everything is sunshine and lollipops now!” But Jesus never says that because Jesus knows that healing involves the pain of change. Jesus says empowering things like, go your faith has made you well or take up your mat and walk or you are forgiven. When we have an “owee,” a cut on our hand, scrape on our shin, a sprained muscle, an arthritic joint, a cancer diagnosis, we probably all say, “yes, I want to be healed!” We want to function fully in the world again, but the journey is never without some pain.
Healing always hurts in some way. But not healing, staying ill or wounded, hurts worse! The man by the pool of Bethsaida was given new life in the healing words of Jesus. And as part of being healed, he had take responsibility for himself, pick up his own mat, and set off on the daunting journey of re-entering community. He had to stretch new muscles, emotionally, intellectually, as well as physically along the way. He had to face religious authorities and be proclaimed ritually clean, if he wanted to re-enter worship life in the temple. And in doing so he had to explain who healed him and face a scolding for carrying his mat on the Sabbath. Our establishment institutions never make healing easy. The man had to find his family, if they were still around, learn how to work and make a living, find somewhere to live. It’s a wonderful miracle that Jesus restored his physical wholeness giving him an entry back into community. Yet there was a journey with some discomfort ahead. And he was not a young man.
I ask again…Do you want to be healed? Do I? Do we? Does our world? Starting with ourselves, because it is really the only true change we can ever completely affect, are there parts of your life that need healing? Are you willing to take the healing journey even knowing there is discomfort, some growing pains, ahead? Take a moment just to take that in….
The Holy, Healing Spirit of God has brought us as a church community thus far through these last two very difficult years of pandemic. We have had setbacks, but we have been blessed in many ways. We have not, thus far, lost members to death from COVID. Thanks be to God! We have maintained worship and as much programming as possible. We may have had staff leave for a variety of reasons, but we have also had wonderful interim staff come to be with us and we have hired new staff to help us rebuild in new and creative ways. (Just an aside, staff camaraderie is better than it has ever been in my almost eight years here.) Yet I still want to say to us as a faith community…
Do we want to be healed? Do we want to do the vital healing work of rebuilding our programming, particularly in Christian Formation for all ages? Do we want to get back o serving again through mission and outreach in our wider community? Do we want to learn anew the joy of giving our financial resources to build the church that God is calling us to be? Sometimes I am not sure if we do….we are all really tired and worn down by the last two years of trauma. We have experienced a lot of pain and sorrow. Perhaps it feels easier to just sit by the pool doing what we know, not taking the risk to make a move toward the healing we want because we know deep down that God’s healing will bring change and that can cause us pain and grief.
My friends, Plymouth is never going to be like it was on March 8, 2020, the last Sunday that we met before lockdown. And that hurts, I know. We need to grieve and mourn that openly. However, if we answer the call of Jesus, “Do you want to get well?” with a yes…we will bring forward so much of our wonderful heritage in new forms and we will welcome new creativity in the process. New folks will join and are joining us. Yes, some of our church members have chosen to find other faith communities. Yes, we will not have a dedicated staff Director of Adult Christian Formation. Yes, we will soon have two full-time ministers instead to two fulltime and one part-time ministers. Yes, we will need to dig deep and discover how we can give of more financial resources to support our new strategic plan vision. Yes, these seem like hard realities. And they invite healing change! We can take this journey because we will be on it together with the Holy, Healing Spirit of God. We are not alone! We can be made whole in ways that we never thought possible. Will we take up our mats and walk?
The healing begins inside each of us….we each have to say yes to the healing of God…deliver our hurts and fears into God’s hands, surrender them and trust. We each need to do this on a personal level. We can’t point fingers at the system or the staff of any institution and say, “this needs to change so that I can be more comfortable.” It is up to each of us to take on the joyous and yet uncomfortable journey of healing so that as a whole faith community we can be healed.
As people called to the love and justice of Jesus, willing to make the healing journey, we can and will be leaders in the healing of our country’s culture of fear and violence. I would like to point fingers at those who oppose the gun safety laws that I believe, and many of you believe, desperately need to be enacted to stop the killing in our country. It makes me feel better to point fingers and say, “If only THEY would change…..” But pointing fingers doesn’t help us become a safer nation. We are called to some very hard healing work that must be done in very difficult conversations, with greater compassion and understanding than we think we can ever muster, for our gun safety laws to change. We are called to a depth of prayer we never knew existed. And we know that changing the laws is the tip of the iceberg in healing the soul of our nation that is so divided. So, I must ask myself, and ask you to ask yourselves, what am I willing to change with God’s healing help inside of me? What attitudes am I willing to ask God to heal? What risks am I willing to take that I never dreamed of, to be the change for justice and love that I want to see? To bring in the realm of God here in northern Colorado. We must each ask ourselves these hard questions for the sake of the growth of our own souls, the soul and mission of our church and the soul of our country. Do we want to get well? Do we want to be healed? How will we allow the Spirit of God to change, to heal, each of us and thus the whole of us? Amen and Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
An Easter Vision for All
A sermon related to Rev. 21:1-5a
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a wedding partner adorned for the wedding. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and the Holy One will be with them; 4 God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new...’
For the Word in Scripture
For the Word among us
For the Word within us
Thanks be to God
When things are tough, how do we know it’s going to turn out?
How do we stay the course and keep hope?
When problems seem so large, how do we keep going?
When you are young and wondering how to find your place and deal with the big world, how do you keep confidence and seek direction?
When you are old and life is short, where do you look for meaning and possibility?
This year, I’ll turn 59.
Might sound young to some, old to others.
But it sure makes me reflect on more than half a century of living;
highs and lows, mistakes and learning, growth and gratitude.
Yet, in all my years, I’ve never seen a couple of years like our last two. What about you?
We’ve had a new worldwide pandemic, the old pandemic of racism unveiled anew to many, the increasing effects of climate change seen in hurricanes and wildfires, armed white vigilantes in the streets and the Capitol, even in grocery stores.
But if you think the last couple of years have been tough to view, it can’t compete with the biblical vision we know as The Revelation received by the anonymous author we refer to as John. John’s vision has beasts, a sea monster, plagues, horses of multiple colors, the archangel Michael fighting a red dragon, a giant pit, a pregnant woman, and a day of God’s wrath.
Likely in a trance or non-ordinary state of consciousness, John saw and recorded this vision. It is not for the faint of heart nor is it for simple literal interpretation. And there is a lot of lousy interpretation out there that claims The Revelation of John as its verification; end of the world stuff predicting dates and events and such. It’s generally poor Bible analysis and bad theology.
The Revelation is best approached with humility and a good understanding of Hebrew symbols and Hebrew prophecy. Seen this way, Revelation can become what it was for the people of John’s time and for many Christians over the centuries;
an inspiring, encouraging vision that helped them in bad times to keep going, to faithfully resist empire and the false gods of society.
Indeed, The Revelation received by John was an underdog story that served them as they faced tough challenges and big questions of history and of their lives.
As the last book of the Bible, it is a kind of symbolic end, not necessarily in the sense of time ending, but of purpose, the telos, the end toward which we travel, the meaning of history and life. Of that which is symbolic of that time, we know that John was referring to the Roman empire as the beast and anti-Christ Presence. The Pax Romana, the dominating peace of Rome, that way of empire was not the Peace of Christ. John knew that. The early Christians knew that.
So those early followers and communities of Christ were called to live differently, to resist the way of Caesar and choose the way of Jesus. But when Rome is so big, when the system seems so pervasive, or even when life takes an unexpected and unwelcome turn, how do you do deal with that?
Many of the faithful looked to The Revelation of John as an alternative vision of what ultimate power was at play and trusted in that Divine power. Through this story, they rejected the conventional menu of what was inevitable and cultivated an alternative consciousness of what was possible. In this, they found hope.
Hebrew scholars like Walter Brueggemann and theologians like the late great James Cone will tell you that Pharoah and Caesar’s greatest power is the belief in their ultimate power and the limitation of possibility to change the status quo. There is nothing new in the empire. There is no different future, only anxiety about a different future (which might inspire something like Make Rome Great Again).
Maybe that is the genius of the Medieval Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart when he wrote: "God is the newest thing there is, the youngest thing there is. God is the beginning and, if we are united to God, we become new again."
Sound strange, God as the newest thing?
Maybe being part of a historic Protestant denomination and a congregation with institutional history and a solid brick building makes it harder for us to know the God who is always new. Maybe we relate more to God as a fixed external absolute, as the Ancient of Days. Or maybe we can attribute it to the repeated habits of heritage. (It is said that the last seven words of the church are “We have never done it that way.”)
Yet like the new births of that come to our congregation, God comes, too. Not just as the birther, as the mother, but as the new birth itself, as the new itself.
And new in Revelation means different.
Did you hear it in the Scripture passage read?
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; John said.
Both for those of the first centuries of the ancient near East and for us, the new heaven and the new earth has not come. This morning’s news from Buffalo, New York, and many mornings’ news tell us that. Pharoah, Caesar, demonic conscious and unconscious systems of domination still have power. And they take root in human souls such that violence against another person or group or country becomes a siren song, a tragic temptation, an illusion of solution: if only we or I could just get rid of or control this ‘other.’ Projecting inner tensions and fears and insecurities onto the ‘other’ and making them an enemy, a dehumanized object is as old as Cain and Abel and at the core of what keeps humanity alienated, in conflict, and out of step with Divine Love.
The Revelation of John is not without its troubling aspects, yet ultimately tells a new, alternative story where empire is not the last word nor the only possibility. Connecting with that Divine alternative vision is the beginning of liberation for us all. Through song, ritual, prayers, or art of this liberating story of reversal, where empire is not ultimate or final, we can connect to the power of the story of a new heaven and the new earth. We can anticipate its full coming by tasting and expressing and living it now. We can participate in its emergence now. We can live the new now, and in so doing allow its call to stay rooted in us and sustain us in the long arc of history.
And for those being crushed and exploited by the empire, whether the oppressive empires of history or the inner oppressions of the wounded soul, Good News comes when a new vision of possibility is made visible and, like communion, taken in, even if only in part. When this taste of inner liberation comes, hope comes, affirmation comes, and fortifies the spirit for endurance and for liberating action.
As Choctaw nation music artist Red Eagle raps in his song, “Still Here,”
Wounded Knee And we still here
Sand Creek And we still here
Cortez And we still here
Slavery And we still here
Small Pox And we still here
Boarding Schools And we still here
Damn it feels good to be a native
Damn it feels good to be a native
Good News comes to those who hear and trust the God who says ‘See, I am making all things new...’ even in the midst of empire, injustice, and violence.
It comes when you truly hear Jesus say ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.’
It comes when you know that, even if in the short term of history, it looks like the forces of death and oppression are winning, you know the story of the Resurrected One who came in a lowly stable, lived with, taught, and healed the lowly ones, and who, dying with the lowly ones, conquered even the power of death.
As we continue in the resonance of Easter, our sacred image from John’s Revelation reminds us that we arrive together in the end in a New Heaven and a New Earth. It is an Easter vision for all people and for all Creation.
In the words of Lyla June, Navajo Nation artist in her song All Nations Rise
“this time, it isn’t Indians versus Cowboys. No. This time it is all the beautiful races of humanity together on the SAME side and we are fighting to replace our fear with LOVE. This time bullets, arrows, and cannon balls won’t save us. The only weapons that are useful in this battle are the weapons of truth, faith, and compassion.”
Truth, faith, and compassion. The alternative way of Jesus.
Cultivating and living in these ways are how we participate in the coming of this Easter Vision for All, God’s Beloved Community, a New Heaven and a New Earth. This is what we do to be an Easter People amidst times such as these. This is what we do to allow God to dwell with mortals, Immanuel.
Finally, a brief word for our graduates from Sister Ilia Delio, a Sister of St. Francis and Professor at Georgetown University who says,
God is always new; life is always new. Every end is a new beginning and every arrival, a new departure. There are no dead ends in life unless we ourselves die in despair.
For you graduates, I say do not despair, but have faith in the God who says
‘See, I am making all things new...’
May 8, 2022 – Mother’s Day, 4th Sunday of Easter
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
King James Version
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
New Revised Standard Version
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely[e] goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Common English Bible
1The LORD is my shepherd. I lack nothing.
2He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters;
3he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.
4Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. Your rod and your staff-- they protect me.
5You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!
6Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD's house as long as I live.
Psalms for Praying by Nan Merrill
O my Beloved, you are my shepherd, I shall not want;
You bring me to green pastures for rest
and lead me beside still waters renewing my spirit, You restore my soul.
You lead me in the path of goodness to follow Love’s Way.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow and of death, I am not afraid:
For you are ever with me; your rod and your staff they guide me;
They give me strength and comfort.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of all my fears;
you bless me with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the heart of the Beloved forever.
Bobby McFerrin – The 23rd Psalm Lyrics
The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.... (click link above for full lyrics)
This beloved psalm, used so often in funeral and memorial service settings, has great power to speak to us in the here and now. It is not a pie-in-the-sky promise of better times, it is not wishful thinking or vain hope or just pretty words. It is rock bottom faith in poetic metaphor. It is what we need to hear this morning as we walk in the valley of life.
Last week I drove to northern NM, the Abiqui area, for my spiritual direction training. Many of you have made that journey down 285 through Fairplay to Alamosa then Antonita and on into New Mexico where you can go east to Taos and west to Abiqui. You will remember that you drive many winding roads through mountain passes and at least three times come into broad, often sunny valleys. Perhaps you have driven similar terrain in other parts of the country. I love the winding roads that climb through mountains even it they can also be a bit stressful. I always catch my breath in delight when I first glimpse a valley. The wide-open spaciousness is awe-inspiring. Often a life-giving river or stream is winding its way through fields of crops or animals grazing. It seems a moment of grace. It is also true that a valley gets dark quicker at night as the sun sets behind mountains or hills. Especially if the valley is narrow rather than several miles wide. Living in a valley is a grace and it has its shadow times. Like life.
We are in a valley of shadow time in our country as we face the deep and extended polarization of conservative versus progressive political and cultural forces. It is scary, sometimes it seems very dark, and it is very uncomfortable. We experienced a deeper dive into the shadow of right verses left this week with the leak of the Supreme Court draft document regarding the next chapter on the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that gave abortion rights to all those born into female bodies. The right to choose how to live in one’s own body if one is a uterus-having person seems to be threatened once again. We are in a waiting game to know the next outcome from our Supreme Court. We know this is not just a blow in some tit for tat political struggle for power between political parties. This is a blow to the rights of very real people many of whom are already marginalized by race, economics, education opportunities and gender or sexual orientation.
Just when we were beginning to get our heads and hearts around the on-going tragedy of the war in Ukraine, just as rhetoric is heating up around the fall midterm elections, we are plunged back into the shadow of shock and outrage over this leaked information. New griefs and fears bring up past griefs and fears, don’t they? We have hardly begun to heal from the shadow of the isolation and the economic instability of the pandemic, its constantly changing healthcare scene, the inevitable loss of so many loved ones in death whether or not from Covid. We have the shadow of losses in our own church through staff changes, worship service changes and some members moving to other faith communities, the effect these changes on our church budget. All of these losses and the myriad personal events in our lives plunge us, individually and collectively, into a valley of shadow.
I list these shadow making events not to have a pity party this morning but to offer the opportunity for individual and collective holy healing. Psalm 23 speaks to us in the shadowy valley of change and loss we are in. Yet its familiarity can obscure its relevance. The psalmist opens with two solid theological statements. “One: The Holy One, the Lord, the Lover and Source of all is my Shepherd.” Two: “I will not want, I lack nothing, I have all need.” These statements and the ensuring poetry that opens them up for exploration invite us into trust of with a capital T. The first statement tells us through metaphor who is the One to trust in the ever-changing landscape of life. The second statement tells us that we can trust we have what we need because Creating and Loving God is our guide through life, our protector, our abundant host.
In Biblical tradition the image of shepherd stands for one who guides, protects, and feeds the flock. In the ancient Near East, this image also had political connotations. It was not uncommon for a king, a sovereign, to be called a shepherd of the people. We remember King David, the shepherd boy called and named by God to be the king of Israel. The famous king, Hammurabi, also claimed the title shepherd on claims on the famous stele where Mesopotamian law code was written. So, the ancient psalmist has spun out the metaphor of the Holy One, the One God of the Hebrews, as a shepherd. A shepherd is a trustworthy guide, leading us in the right paths of life. A shepherd fiercely protects the flock from predators with a rod and a staff as the flock is led through dark valleys. A shepherd provides a place of safe rest and water for the journey. As the psalmist moves from the metaphor of being part of a flock to being human follower of the Shepherding God we hear that an abundant table of feast is set even in the presence of foes. There is anointing with healing, cleansing oil and a cup that overflows.
The biggest contemporary foe that I always think of when I read this psalm is fear. I know that fear is one of my biggest enemies and I am guessing that I am not alone in this. Fear is at the bottom of anger, of hatred, of the struggles for power, even of lashing out at our loved ones. We fear we will not get the love, the agency, the power, the attention we need. We fear we will not have the resources we need to feed our families and help them thrive.
Fear in and of itself is not good or bad. It can be instructive and lifesaving prompting us to run, to move out of destructive habits and wounding relationships. However, if we do not listen to fear, acknowledge it in a healthy manner, it can drive conflict between us individually and collectively. Rampant fear turns into power-hungry arrogance and aggression when it is not acknowledged. If we try to suppress fear or push it out of sight, it becomes destructive. We can act out of fear inappropriately. Caught in the grip of fear, we are fall easily into a scarcity mentality. We will not have enough. We will not have all we need. We will not be able to provide for our families. Scarcity thinking is the enemy of God’s abundance.
But, wait, you say….what about people who really do not have enough food, shelter, financial resources? What about when people have bombs raining down on them? What about the months when I am legitimately worried about paying the bills? When I have to change jobs? When someone I love is ill? When I am ill? When gas costs $4.00 plus a gallon? When I am asked to give to support the church and I don’t know if I can spare anything? What about the collective fear of conflict here in our own Plymouth family? What about the budget we passed on faith in January that seems extravagant because we cannot see – yet – how the year is going to work out? We can’t ignore all of that! Just “pray” it away, can we?
No, we can’t ignore all of that. However, as people of faith we can move with the psalmist in faith, putting all our fears into the loving gaze, the right guidance, the holy abundance and the transforming love of God, the Shepherd. We feel the pain of fear, ours and our siblings around the world, in the presence of God. We listen collectively and individually for guidance into paths that lead us into love and trusting the abundance providing what we need. Maybe not what we thought we needed, but what we truly need. In the Spirit, we pray and act for justice, work for the practical solutions that we are led to, not the ones in which we force things to happen purely on our own volition. We TRUST Love which is the source of creation. Even when the valley of life seems to be all shadow.
Remember, looking out over a valley from the top of mountain just before you start your descent? Sometimes you can see the shadows of the clouds moving across the terrain. You can see sun and shadow. Life is always sun and shadow. We know this in our own lives and in our life together at Plymouth. As we come back together after two years of pandemic fears and isolation, things can be unsettling. Nothing is exactly like it was before. We are doing a great deal of rebuilding in our programming, in our mission outreach, in our worship together, in our staff configurations, in our budgeting concerns. AND we celebrate with such joy seeing one another each week, hearing music sung together, sung by our ever-growing choir. Hearing the sound of children among us. Meeting and greeting new folks who discovered or re-discovered us through online streaming! Inaugurating a new climate justice ministry team. We have a world class scholar, theologian and mystic sharing wisdom with us this week as we welcome John Philip Newell to our community this coming Wednesday. There is a great deal of sun in the midst of all the shadows. Just like the sun coming out after the healing rain this morning. My friends, let us claim the faith of the psalmist. Our Shepherd God is always with us, pursuing us with goodness and loving-kindness throughout all our lives. In light and dark, and the shadows in between. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Many of us have, shall we say, “feelings” about Paul, asking ourselves whether he is an appalling or an appealing apostle. For some of us, we heard a lot of Paul growing up, assuming that all of the New Testament epistles attributed to him were actually written by Paul himself. The Letter to the Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 Thessalonians were indeed written by Paul, but others clearly were not, and some have dubious authorship. It isn’t that they were forgeries, but rather they were written by the followers of Paul, perhaps a generation or two later, and it was a common convention in the ancient world to attribute a letter to a revered leader. Interestingly, much of what we find difficult about Paul (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” “Women should be silent in the churches.”) were not written by Paul himself.
Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan write, “There is more than one Paul in the New Testament…it is essential to place his letters in their historical context…His message—his teaching, his gospel—is grounded in his life-changing and sustaining experience of the risen Christ; Paul…is best understood as a Jewish Christ mystic.” And that brings us to today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, often called the Damascus Road Story.
Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with one of our members about different ways of knowing and experiencing truth. Not everything is factual in a literal way, yet it still may be true. When we read scripture, as when we hear a parable, we know that it may not have happened exactly the way the storyteller relates it. We don’t actually know if there was a Good Samaritan or a Lost Sheep, but we know that the story is true, because we appreciate the wisdom it contains, namely that we should love our enemies and that we are loved by God. This is a “more than literal” reading of scripture. It is more than literal because it conveys a greater truth than a straightforward narrative account.
There is also experiential knowing, feeling something in your gut that you know to be true. If I were to give you a video camera and ask you to prove the depth of your love for your parent, you wouldn’t be able to film anything convincing at the heart of the matter…just the effects of your love, like running errands or giving a hug. The depth of feeling is something you experience in the depths of your being, and it is likely something you experience differently than anyone else, yet it is profoundly true.
So, what about this story of Saul/Paul’s radical experience? If there was a video camera there, do you think it would have captured what happened?
Mystics, like Paul, have a direct experience of God, not simply a knowledge or a belief in the divine. William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, written 120 years ago, details different types of mystical experiences. He describes mystical experience as: transient (the experience is temporary), ineffable (beyond words), noetic (that the person has gained knowledge and insight), and passive (can’t be controlled with an on/off switch). All four of these characteristics define Paul’s experience on road to Damascus. Paul has a vision of a bright light, which James would call an illumination. The medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, also had such visions which she called “reflections of the living light.” Mircea Eliade, a great scholar of comparative religions, called them “experiences of the golden world.” These are visual encounters with the holy that involve light.
John Philip Newell (who will be with us at Plymouth on May 11) suggests that we all have inner divine light, which is the very essence of life. In the Celtic tradition, creation itself is a theophany, a showing of the divine light. “Our job is not to create the light,” he says, “but of releasing the light that is already there.”
Interestingly, Saul doesn’t see a person, but radiant, blinding light, which is why he asks Jesus to identify himself, and he says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” And those who were accompanying Saul don’t see the light, but they do hear a disembodied voice, so they had an auditory mystical experience.
What would we have seen if there had been a CCTV camera on the road to Damascus? Would we have seen a flash of light? Probably not, since Saul’s companions didn’t see it either. Would microphones have picked up the voice of Jesus speaking to Saul? Probably not. Does that mean it didn’t happen?
Nothing suggests that Saul ever met Jesus, the living man whom Marcus Borg describes as the pre-Easter Jesus. His sole experience is a direct encounter with the post-Easter Jesus, and it changes him forever.
Rather than rounding up followers of Jesus and carting them off to Jerusalem for punishment, Paul joins the rebel movement. Can you imagine what might cause such a radical transformation? There is ample evidence that whatever happened on the road to Damascus was a dramatic catalyst in changing Paul’s life. He shifts from becoming the hunter to the hunted, from the tool of religious establishment to a leader of the anti-imperial movement. Borg and Crossan write, “This sets up the fundamental opposition in Paul’s theology. Who is Lord, Jesus or empire? In Paul, the mystical experience of Jesus Christ as Lord led to the resistance to the imperial vision, and advocacy of a different vision of the way the world could be.” It is hard to imagine a greater transformation.
You all remember Plymouth’s mission statement, right? “It is our mission to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death, and living presence of Jesus Christ. We do this by inviting, transforming, and sending.” If you need a reminder, check out the very cool banner Anna Broskie made with a caterpillar, a chrysalis, and a butterfly to illustrate inviting, transforming, and sending.
What happens to Paul is a life-transforming chrysalis experience. A phenomenal transformation occurs in Paul’s life. It isn’t just a one-and-done experience, but rather one that shifts who Paul is, not only in name, but in the marrow of his being. That is what religious transformation is about: having our lives shift.
Not all of us see a blinding light, hear a clap of thunder, get hit by lightning. But I imagine that there are those among us who have had experiences of union with the divine or the presence of God that have shifted our directions. Have you had that kind of transformative experience? When I was in my 30s, I was sitting at the dining room table in our house in Boulder reading Dom Crossan’s book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, and I paused for a moment, had the sense that there was a hand on my shoulder, and I heard a message: “You can do this.” A year later, I was switching careers and studying theology at Iliff. How about you? Have you ever just known something in your bones? What happened when you listened to it, considered it seriously, and changed course?
When Ananias came to Paul and laid his hands upon his eyes and something like scales or flakes fell from Paul’s eyes, and he could see again. That is part of the mystical transformation: gaining new sight. We sing these words and perhaps take them too lightly: “I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” The gift of new sight is a powerful metaphor for a noetic experience that can help change our lives.
All of us can be transformed, and I would daresay that we need to be transformed. Maybe it isn’t a one-time occurrence, but rather a gradual process of realization and knowing. We can open ourselves to the presence of the holy and continue to be open. It may not be that we hear trumpets or see flashes of glaring light, but part of our human spiritual journey can involve knowing the numinous firsthand, without mediation. We can be open to letting God have her way with us and guide us. And that takes trust.
How have you experienced transformation and growth over your years? Major life events — confirmation, marriage, the birth of a child, joining a church, the loss of a loved one, illness, divorce, starting a new career, two years of pandemic — all of these can be occasions for transformation. In terms of your spiritual life, when have you felt closest to God, and when has your relationship seemed distant? One of the things about spiritual transformation is that there is no pressing it, demanding it, controlling it. It is a gift, and perhaps the best we can do is to stay open to the possibility, to delve into our faith in all the ways we can. Whether it is exploring a new spiritual practice, coming to learn about Celtic spirituality with John Philip Newell, spending time walking the labyrinth, or volunteering to help with Faith Family Hospitality.
Paul had an experience of the holy that was out on the road, not in the pew, and you may find your own mystical experience in the process of living your faith, even or especially if it is on a day other than Sunday. And may you release the divine light that is within you and help others to do the same.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul, (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2009), p. 13.
 ibid., p. 26.