Romans 5: 1-5 – Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31

Usually I begin my sermons with a short introduction on a topic and then link them to the biblical readings of the day.  I won’t do that today.  Let’s go straight to the point.  This morning I am offering you a reflection on medical-assisted dying… and I choose this topic before the showdown in Parliament last Wednesday.  I can imagine that some of you said in their mind, ‘Oh no!’ and would prefer to have all your teeth pulled on the same day instead of addressing this subject this morning.  I understand.  However, since the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case Carter vs Canada which invalidated the laws forbidding assisted suicide because it is contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, the question is not if we should do something it or not.  The question now is how we should address it; how should we will talk about it?

As you can imagine, the United Church of Canada issued an initial response to the question of assisted suicide.  Our denomination began by stating that access to quality palliative care and increased capacity for pain management must accompany any movement to legalize physician-assisted dying.  Furthermore, emphasis should be on the moral agency of an individual to make this difficult decision on their own behalf, in consultation with their loved ones and their doctor.  In making these decisions, the wellness or wholeness of the individual—spirit, mind, and body—must be kept in the forefront.  The emphasis on physician-assisted dying being a decision between an individual and their doctor implies that the doctor must also be allowed the right not to participate if they believe it is inappropriate to do so.  Where an individual who qualifies for physician-assisted death under the new legislation requests their doctor’s assistance to end their life, but the doctor has objections to participating, the doctor ought to be obliged to refer the individual to another doctor.  All of these are very important points, but personally I was a little disappointed by this statement.  I do understand that our denomination cannot write a full reflection on the subject in just a few days.  It is just that those concerns could have come from any organization in the country.  Somehow I was expecting a church to provide another level or angle to feed the conversation… questions like… What is life?  What is a life worthy of living?  What does God is calling us to do today?

Many individuals and groups have expressed their opinions regarding medical-assisted death and the bill C-14 currently debated in the Canadian Parliament.  Some are concerned about a potential slippery slope.  They believe it would open the door to euthanasia and we will never be able to control it in the future if we go in this direction.  Others argue the law will corrupt the medical profession.  Patients will fear “death doctors” who could push assisted death, while doctors’ roles are to be healers and seekers of medical advances.

Various faith groups and denominations have developed positions on the topic of physician-assisted suicide.  Some goes as far as calling the idea morally wrong and unacceptable to take a human life in order to relieve the suffering caused by incurable illness.  Many wonder where these strong views could come from.  One answer is to look at biblical texts, like the letter to the Romans, in which Paul states, “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  In a nutshell, suffering seems to be a good thing for Paul.  It’s part of God’s plan.  It’s a badge of honour we can use to boast.

A surprising number of religious people affirm that suffering can be a divinely sanctioned means of dignifying the sufferer and edifying the observer.  In one of the books I consulted this week, I read, “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us – they help us to learn to be patient.  Patience develops our strength of character and helps us trust God more each day until our hope and faith are strong and steady.”  According to this line of thoughts, the suffering of a terminally ill cancer patient is directed or at least permitted by God, somehow for his or her own good or to teach something to the family and friends.  Of course, it is always easier to claim this when we are not the one who is suffering, or one of our loved ones.

I recently watch an amazing TED conference by Stella Young entitled, “I’m not your inspiration”.  Ms. Young was born with a condition that forced her to use a wheelchair all her life.  She highlighted that the fact she can get out of her bed each morning and remember her name is not a feat in itself.  She shared this powerful anecdote about a time when she was a substitute teacher.  One day she began a class and about 20 minutes later a teenager raised his hand and asked when she will give her speech on inspiration and how bad his life could be, he ought to be happy because he is not in her situation; he is not like her.  Stella Young says that she was not really angry that day because she knew it was the only experience this teenager had with people with disabilities.  The bodies of individuals like her are objectified by our societies and their conditions are used to comfort the views of others.

The Bible may say, “we also boast in our sufferings”, but do we really believe that an all-loving God wants us to suffer unrelenting pain?  If life is sacred, if life is precious, if life is a gift from God, why then are we, human beings, behaving and writing rules and laws to make it, for some, a real hell.  Even if we made incredible progress in medicine in the last 100 years, some patients with brain tumours are suffering daily seizures and unrelenting pain.  We might have fun with the most famous ice bucket challenge, but those affected with ALS are dying slowly but inevitably because they cannot swallow or breathe anymore.  I do not believe there is redemption in this sort of suffering.  There must be another option.  There ought to be another way.  However, the challenge for us is to decide on where we do draw the line.   Who is entitled to make the decisions in the name of those who are suffering?

One possible answer to this very profound and challenging ethical debate is to rely on Wisdom.  The book of Proverbs presents us a most unusual character.  Wisdom is not introduced or defined.  Wisdom is not explained beyond the fact that this character is feminine and she has been at God’s side since the beginning of creation.  The shroud of mystery surrounding her led many translations of the Bible to use different names: Woman Wisdom, Lady Wisdom or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, Madame Insight.

Many of us has been told that in order to find Wisdom one must be willing to journey to temples, synagogues, ashrams or churches to hear special words that the Holy One has revealed to specific people with their own particular faith and practice.  Yet this is not where Lady Wisdom stands according to today’s text.  She can be found her right in the most public of places.   She does not hide on a lonely mountaintop, but dwell in the middle of the busiest part of town.   She does not live in some secluded locations where secret teachings are shared with a select few.  She abides at the crossroads, at the city gates, in the doorways or anywhere else people journey, ready to shout, ‘Hey you.  Yes, you.  I am talking to you, and you, and you and to all that live.  I want to share my message with you because I know you are intelligent and smart enough to hear and understand what I have to say’.

Most often the first step in our quest to find Wisdom is to shut up and to listen to those we meet in public and diversified spaces.  We ought to learn from the accumulated experience and cultures of those we encounter everywhere.  We are invited to stop being obsessed with moral life, policy codes or traditional conduct in order open ourselves to creative forces that seek coherence between values and actions.  We are called to discover God’s presence in our lives, to remember when we were inspired perspectives and insights beyond our imaginations and to aim to make all lives whole and sacred and to treat it with dignity and respect.

Medical-assisted death is a complex issue and contrarily to some might affirm, each and every one of us need to be involved in this conversation it, not to judge others, shaming them, telling them to trust God and to have more faith, or reminding them they could be an inspiration for youth.  We are called to be involved in this conversation so we can what Lady Wisdom has to say through all human beings we meet where all people gather. We are called to discover where God is leading us in this 21st century.  Amen.

 
 
 Acts 1: 1-11

 

You probably have heard the expression, “When the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger.”  Somehow I experience this reality every day with my dog.  We say, ‘Go eat your food’ or ‘Go to your bed’, and our dog does not move.  He rather follows our finger.  Do not get me wrong.  He is a great family dog… far from being the smartest, but still a great dog.  I might complain a little about my dog, still on some days most of us are not that smarter.  For example, when we first hear that a tragedy just hit our world, our initial reflex is often to turn on the television and to watch CNN, FoxNews or CBC News Network.  The tragedy might have been over for 4 or 5 hours, and we keep watching.  They may go to a reporter on site who is repeating exactly word for word what has been said 15 minutes previously; they might keep showing the same 2 minutes clip in a loop over and over again, and for some reason we are glued to our screen.  Sometimes we are not even sure why we are watching.  We know from experience that nothing else will happen anymore and most likely no significant information will come soon, and yet we are still watching.

 

The beginning of the Acts of the Apostles somehow feels that way.  You probably already know that this biblical book was written by the same author as the Gospel according to Luke.  In today’s terms, we could call it a sequel or the second instalment of a series.  We almost expect hearing a narrator saying, “Last week on the Bachelor”.  The Book of Acts opens with a short reminder that the previous book was all about what Jesus did and taught during his life, followed by an account of his passion, death and resurrection.  Now it is time for the author to address the episode when Jesus was taken up in heaven, an event also known as his ascension.

 

In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the ascension of Jesus tends to be an important festival highlighting Christ’s glory and power.  However, for most mainline Protestants these days, Jesus’ ascension is a problematic story, to say the least.  It is a hard sell, or perhaps more precisely, something that pasted its sell-by date.  It might have been believable a few centuries ago, but not today.  Come on!  Resurrection is already difficult to accept for a modern time mind, because we are told that Jesus unequivocally died and came back to life 3 days later.  This is not how biology works, and yet, since it is such a central point of our religion, we are ready to go with it.  Ascension…  Pffff!  Are we to believe that Jesus began to fly like a bird?  Was he beamed up like in Star Trek?  Did he finished his ministry on earth as a rocket rising a few hundred miles above the planet?  And where is he supposed to be now?  Is Jesus floating in space with satellites?  It does not compute.  This ascension stuff does not make sense.

 

Most likely, this whole story also did not make much sense for Jesus’ disciples.  After the resurrection of their master, after appearing to many for 40 days, after giving them numerous convincing proofs that it was really him, they surely taught this was finally the time when Jesus would restore the kingdom of Israel, when the realm of God would lastly arrive.  But no.  Once again, Jesus is leaving them.  It certainly felt like one disciple showed up and said to another, I have a good news and a bad news for you.  Well, begin with the bad news.  Jesus is gone.  He is not among us anymore.  Ok, what is the good news?  There is no good news.  He has gone over there.  He is gone.  Yes.  Over there.  Did he say something?  He said he will come back.  Did he say when?  No, we do not have a clue.   So he is gone…  over there…  like gone gone…  Maybe if we look up long enough, something will happen.  Maybe we will see him… or the kingdom or… oh… never mind, it’s just a bid…  So he is gone...  over there…  like gone gone…

 

The disciples would probably be still standing and gazing up toward heaven as I speak if two men in white robes, most likely angels, stood by them and wondered, ‘Why are you looking up?’  It’s Jesus… he is gone…  over there…  like gone gone… Ok, we are not doing this again!  The angels asked, My friends from Galilee, don’t you have something else to do?  We do not know, probably replied the disciples.  Jesus used to tell us what we should do.  Now he is gone.  Did you not pay attention to what he said just a few moments ago?  He said, ‘Go to Jerusalem and wait over there’, and you are standing at the same place.  Stop looking at the sky and just go.

 

This apparently simple moment most has been the biggest transition in the lives of the disciples, probably more important than the day of Pentecost itself.  Up to this point, everything revolved around Jesus.  He was the one who healed the sick, fed the people, forgave sins and preached about the promise of a new world based on new values and principles.  During all these years, the disciples progressively understood who Jesus was and some even discovered who they truly were.  But Christ’s ascension definitely marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the nascent church.  Jesus of Nazareth is no longer the main character of the story, because he is gone, over there.  Now it is up to the disciples to make sure their movement, the revolution they began, continues, not up there but over here.

 

Historically Christianity has spent a great amount of time and energy on topics like systematic theology, the concept of the Trinity, or describing what might be the afterlife.  This is not necessarily wrong in itself, if we do not not forget to connect this with the reality of the world surrounding us.  The promises of a beautiful heavenly and everlasting life might be more attractive than the daily realities of our ugly, imperfect, and challenging society.  Still, this is where we live.  This is where our brothers and sisters struggle.  This is where the poor who are oppressed need our help.  This is where the outcast search for compassion and acceptance.  This is where those who are afraid long for our presence.  This is where our ministries have to be done.

 

Today, we are the successors of the first disciples.  Since Christ has not come back in full glory, it is up to us to do something and to be active in our world.  The kingdom of God, the new realm Jesus came to announce is now our mission.  It is up to us to make it happen.  This means we are called to be involved, to use the numerous gifts we received, to be brave and courageous, to act even if it is scary at first, even if not sure we do it right, even if we never done it before.  We are called to stop standing and looking up for something and to go where we are needed.

 

It is far safer and far less demanding to be a spectator than someone involved in our world.  As disciples of Jesus the Christ, we are not called to stare at the same reality over and over again, but to act, to try, to undertake new projects, and to dare to be the church.  Instead of passively waiting for Jesus to come and fix everything for us, we can all actively participate in the work than need to be done.  It is up to us to make a difference not over there, but down here, right now.  Amen.

 

John 10: 22-30

 According to a recent Pew Research Center study, only a third of Americans say they talk about religion with people outside of their families at least once or twice a month.  We do not have numbers for Canada, but I believe we could fairly assume that it is somehow similar over here.  For many historical and sociological reasons, religion and faith are not necessarily the flavour of the month our daily conversations.  And yet, at the same time, it seems there is an appetite in the media for debates on controversial religious topics.  I am not just referring to Greta Vosper who was recently in the Toronto Star.  I do not know if it is just me, but I have seen on many occasions a show that would bring the craziest Christian they could find and place that individual in front of a hard-core-science Atheist, and they let them fight each other with the hope that one would knock-out the opponent and win the people to his or her cause.  Have you ever seen something like that?

 

At Kanata United Church, we are not keen for those sorts of debates.  Still, we know that out there, there are people do not believe in God or do believe in something but do not come to church.   They might have gone to Sunday School when they were young; they might know many stories of the Bible; they might be aware of the basics of Christianity, but they are still not joining us on Sunday mornings.  Like the wide majority of Christians, we tend to believe that if we could find the right words or the right arguments said at the right time, we would gain them to our cause.  We convinced that if we could be precise about our theology, beliefs, values or mission statements, we would pin them down.  They would come back home where they belong and follow Jesus.

 

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to John, Jesus is walking in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Suddenly, a group of Jews comes to him with a direct and simple question, “Are you the Messiah or not?”  Obviously, they have heard about Jesus and his elusive teachings, enigmatic sermons or mind-boggling miracles.  Hence their question, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Let’s cut the mumbo-jumbo.  No more strange parables.  No more the kingdom of God like… whatever.   No more riddles.  Stop swirling in shades of gray and say something that is black and white.  For once, give us a direct answer.  If you are the Messiah, tell us precisely and concisely.  Just tell us!

 

For most Christians these days, this is a puzzling demand.  Many of us do not understand why these Jews failed to see what is so obvious.  After all, he is Jesus THE Christ.  What is not to understand?  The answer to their question is in his name.  He is Mr. Christ…  I was speaking about crazy Christians on some debates earlier…  Seriously, we read this text and we have the feeling that there must be something else going on here.  We feel the urge to say, ‘Please be careful Jesus.  It’s a trap.  These men are baiting you.  They want to provoke you so they could start a scandal.  Regardless what you will answer, they will spread gossips that will be used against you in the future.  Just be careful Jesus.’

 

“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  This request might be seen as simple today, but in Jesus’ time it carried some heavy baggage.  ‘Messiah’ was not just a religious title among many others.  There was a full agenda associated with being the Jewish Messiah, and everyone knew about it.  The Messiah was expected to become a king, to rule with justice for the poor and weak, and to build peace with all Israel’s neighbours.  The Messiah was expected to lead and win an apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil.  The Messiah was expected to be a righteous priestly figure and to restore right and proper worship in the Temple.  Being called a Messiah was a highly loaded statement.  It was part of a revolutionary language against the establishment.  It was dangerous to raise this question in public.  Once again, ‘please just be careful Jesus about what you will answer.’

 

When they addressed Jesus, this group of Jews were probably expecting an honest and straightforward answer like, ‘Yes I, Jesus, am the Messiah and these are the reasons and arguments why I am making this claim.”  However, Jesus rather answers, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”  Good one Jesus!  It is a bit cocky, but straight to the point.  It is true.  You already have told them on many occasions in the Gospels and they choose not to believe you.  It’s not your fault if you are not meeting their messianic expectations or the ones of their ancestors.  Those who listened to you have recognized you as the true shepherd.  If the others do not want to follow you, maybe they do not belong to the flock after all.  You know what?  Bravo, Jesus!  You just won the day.  Yah team Jesus.

 

And then today’s passage tells us that Jesus continues to speak and we just want to say, ‘No, no, no.  Please stop there Jesus.  Don’t ruin this.  You have a good solid answer for once.  You just burned them.  Stop there.’  Did he stop there?  Of course not.  He added, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”  What?  Works?  Jesus surely wanted to say ‘words’, not works.  Words, like the words we use in our creeds, statements of faith and documents codifying our beliefs, like Article 1: God is…  Article 2: Jesus is…  Article 3: Sin is…  Words.  This is what we expect.  This is the way we have been told.  We have spent a great amount of time to develop beautiful pamphlets displayed at the entrance of our church with all the right words to explain who we are and why people should come here to worship.  Words.

 

Sometimes, we spend so much time trying to find the right words that could convince everyone that we forget to act upon them.  Sometimes, we speak at length about justice for the poor and how to be in solidarity with them, and then we enter into a store and buy what is not fair trade nor providing a decent living.  We pray for peace on earth, but we barely raise an eyebrow when our government sells guns and weapons to countries not respecting basic human rights because it will create good jobs in our country.  We claim we are good Christians, but we struggle to welcome strangers who are asking us for help outside proper channels or allotted time of the week.  On some days, I wonder…  If people took a close look at our works, would they see that we believe that Jesus is our Messiah?  Would we be able to stand on our works alone?  Would we be considered as those who cannot see what is obvious, as those who do not listen?

 

And yet, we know from experience that our actions, even our smallest ones, have the incredible power to say more about our faith than maybe all the words in the dictionary.  They are living testimonies to our relationship with God.  And Jesus’ words are our source of motivation to act in this world.  Our call to build a just society can begin with our own hands.  Loving our neighbours can start around a simple cup of coffee.  Peace on earth can find its meaning in forgiving one of our siblings who hurt us in the past.  All these actions are simple, clear, to the point.  There is no mumbo-jumbo or anything complicated.  Just facts.  Just faith incarnated every day.

 

The expression says, sometimes, less is more.  When we encounter people who ask us if Jesus is the Messiah or why they should come to our church, maybe we should follow Jesus’ example.  Maybe we should simply answer, ‘Come, see what we are doing.  Look at our works.  Who knows?  Maybe you might find the answer you are looking for.’  As Francis of Assisi said, ‘may the deeds we do be the only sermon some persons will hear today.’  Amen.

 

In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Quran, Chapter 67:

"Glorious is the One in whose hand is the Kingdom (of the whole universe), and He is powerful over every thing, (1) The One who created death and life, so that He may test you as to which of you is better in his deeds. And He is the All-Mighty, the Most-Forgiving, (2) Who has created seven heavens, one over the other. You will see nothing out of proportion in the creation of the All-Merciful God. So, cast your eye again. Do you see any flaws? (3) Then cast your eye again and again, and the eye will come back to you abased, in a state of weariness. (4)"

Good Morning Ladies & Gentlemen,It's a great pleasure to be here with you on this fine morning.

I would like to begin by thanking you, your church and the United Church of Canada for the friendship and care you have shown to members of the Muslim community over the years. Your kindness and generosity mean a lot to us, so from the bottom of our hearts, thank you.

After a long winter that was much a like a guest who arrives late and then is in no hurry to leave, we have finally had some April Showers, which means May flowers are just around the corner.

Our lawns and gardens are coming back to life - birds chirping, flowers blooming, garden centres sprouting up.

We are incredibly blessed to have to have this beautiful earth as our home. Imagine if the entire earth was dry and red like Mars or grey and rocky like the moon. Life would be so dull and boring, if it were to be possible at all.

Instead, God has blessed us with this beautiful earth, on which we find blue waters of the Caribbean, the glaciers of the Arctic, the deserts of

Africa, the towering mountains of the Himalayas and the Canadian Rockies, the thunderous falls of Niagara, just to name a few.

If we look above, we find a super high-resolution canvas on which God displays His artwork during the day, often in the early morning and late evening. He also displays jewels in the dark sky at night.As the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has told us, "God is beautiful and He loves beauty.”

God Almighty has created His creation perfectly and has made it available for our use. That too is an incredible blessing.

The earth, and the universe it resides in, are still beautiful - even after all the damage we humans have caused.

Let us go back in time for a moment. The Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) was the first human on earth. Imagine his first day on earth.

How great would it have been to walk on a pure earth, to breathe its pure air, to eat its pure and organic fruits. No cities, no factories, no cars, no pollution, no smog, no genetically modified foods, no pipelines, no landfills, no islands of trash in the oceans, no space junk.

We have come a long way since Adam's first day on earth, but sadly, it appears we've made a few wrong turns along the way. Air quality is suffering, Arctic ice is melting, temperatures are increasing, water security is becoming an issue and we're seeing more severe weather, just to name a few.

The Quran states:

“Spoilage has appeared on land and sea as a result of people’s actions and He (God) will make them taste the consequences of some of their own actions so that they may turn back.” (Qur’an 30: 41)

It is a wonderful to see concern for the well-being of our planet. One hundred seventy-one countries have come together to sign the historic UN Framework Convention on Climate Change otherwise known as the Paris climate agreement. It's also great to see the federal government and provinces come to an agreement on carbon pricing.

These are some of the ways to deal with the problem. But are these real solutions? Or is there something deeper at play here? Are the root causes being addressed?

In a June 2010 address, Prince Charles raised a very interesting point. He said:

“I would like you to consider very seriously today whether a big part of the solution to all of our worldwide “crises” does not lie simply in more and better technology, but in the recovery of the soul to the mainstream of our thinking. Our science and technology cannot do this. Only sacred traditions have the capacity to help this happen.”

What he was suggesting was that look to spirituality for solutions, not just in addressing the environmental crisis we are facing, but many of the other crises we find ourselves immersed in today.

One commonly missing trait - which is found in practically all faith traditions and is particularly emphasized in Aboriginal teachings regarding the human's relationship with nature - is humility.The Quran tells us that God despises arrogance and loves for His creation to be humble - in their relationship with Him and with other fellow creatures.

It appears the absence of humility and the presence of arrogance have led humans to believe that they are the masters of the universe, instead of the Almighty. This mistaken belief appears to have given humans a licence to be reckless and heedless - with fellow human beings, with nature and in their relationship with God Almighty Himself.

 

God has made His creation available for our use, not abuse.

The roots of arrogance can be traced back to before Adam's arrival on this beautiful earth. In the Islamic tradition, it was Iblees the Satan who first displayed arrogance.

He was a jinn — a creature made of fire who, like humans, has free will. However, he was so knowledgeable and pious that he was upgraded to the company of angels, who constantly glorify God and cannot disobey Him.

God honoured Adam and commanded the angels to prostrate to him. They all did, but Iblees the Satan refused. Despite his knowledge and piety, arrogance got the best of him. Instead of repenting, he challenged God further and promised to lead Adam and his children astray through different avenues.

Thus, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) described blameworthy arrogance as that which leads a person to deny the truth and look down upon others.

In another report, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also told us that a person with even an iota of this type of arrogance cannot enter paradise.

Iblees's incident also teaches us that it is just as important to follow God's commands as it is to have a pure heart that is free from diseases such as arrogance.

Ignoring God's guidance while possessing a good heart can still land one in trouble.

Every single one of us is on a journey that began somewhere, long before we were born, and is taking us elsewhere. Our time on earth is but a short stopover that will decide our destination.

There is much to learn during this stopover, physically, mentally and spiritually. God has created lots for us to discover and appreciate on earth, which we do through travel, study and research.

There is also another dimension - the world of the unseen, that has to do with our soul and our spiritual heart. This dimension is lesser known but also has much to offer - perhaps even more than the physical dimension of the world.

In order to be found, this spiritual dimension requires a deep and truly sincere yearning for the truth. It often comes after much seeking and pleading.

Our life, our relationships, the Earth that we live in and everything it contains are great blessings of God.

Let us cherish life, and explore and appreciate the blessings of God with humility and sincerity.

Thank you for this opportunity - it has been a great pleasure and privilege. Thank you for all the good that you do.

May God bless our journey and may He grant us all that which is best.

 

 
Acts 9: 1-6

A few months ago we introduced our son to the Star Wars franchise…  and when I am saying we, I really mean my wife…  We began with the first trilogy, episodes 4, 5 and 6.   That was so complicated to explain why we ought to begin with episode 4 and not 1.  My son understood quite rapidly that Darth Vader was the bad guy of the story.  However, he struggled a little more with the end of “The Return of the Jedi” when Darth Vader turned back to the light side of the Force to save Luke Skywalker and kill the Emperor.  My son was puzzled about the reasons leading someone very bad to become one of the good guys.  I could have tried to tell him that Vader’s redemption was an essential part of the story George Lucas was trying to tell.  Instead I told him that it is what every good father does for his son.  I do not know if he bought that.

For many different reasons, we usually really enjoy a good redemption story.  We love when a wicked or evil character has an epiphany, understand one’s mistakes and commit to follow a righteous path.  There is little surprise in the fact that the story of Paul, the persecutor of the early church, who was knocked to the ground, blinded by a bright light, addressed by the risen Christ himself and eventually became one of the greatest apostles of Christianity, has such an important place in our religion.  No other conversion stories are as spectacular as his.  If Paul could turn to Christ, everyone can.

From his initial appearance at the end of the seventh chapter of Acts, Saul, the name by which he is known at that point, is the ultimate villain of the New Testament.  The first thing we learn is that he stood by and even supported the stoning of Stephen… a story I personally never liked.  As resistance and even persecution of Jesus’ followers heated up, Saul participated enthusiastically by “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison”.  At the beginning of today’s passage, he goes further by asking for authorizations to hunt down the followers of the Way (the early name of the Jesus movement) as they spread their message up the road to Damascus.  He wanted to bind them and drag them back to Jerusalem.

Saul’s zeal and vigilantism could be understood in the context of a religious conflict to determine which Jewish sect would have the upper hand in the area.   Yes, I said Jewish sect.  Despite what many like to believe, on the road to Damascus, Saul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity.  He did not move from one religion to another.  Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe Saul’s conversion as within his own tradition, from one way of being Jewish to another way of being Jewish, from being a Pharisaic Jew to being a Christian Jew who saw his Judaism anew in the light of Jesus.  In today’s term, we could compare Saul’s conversion to moving from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism or the United Church.  Yes, it is different, but the basics remain the same.

One of the main reasons behind Saul’s actions against Jesus’ followers is the rise of the Pharisee party in the first part of the 1st century.  As these men increasingly assumed the leadership in the Jewish community and progressively became the establishment and the religious authority, they understood themselves as those better suited to maintaining Jewish identity and orthodoxy.  The Pharisees were in a position to determine what was acceptable or not.  No wonder they did not appreciate the emergence of a new sect within Judaism proclaiming a different reading of the scripture or promoting new religious practices.  People like Saul were surely very motivated to get rid of this new movement, this heresy, like Christianity had eliminated countless heretics throughout the centuries, like current major religions fighting to maintain their orthodoxy.  Like the expression says, there is nothing new under the sun.

On his way to Damascus, Saul’s life takes a dramatic turn.  Everything was under control until, out of nowhere, a light from heaven flashed around him.  He felt to the ground.  By the way, the horse associated to this story only appeared several centuries later in arts and folklore.  It is not biblically based.  He felt and then Jesus spoke to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”   I mean you are a smart man.  You were born in the great city of Tarsus.  You are a Roman citizen.  You speak many languages.  You are a respected religious man who studied under the famous Gamaliel.  You want to protect God and everything God does for your people.  So tell me, why are you resorting to such violence?  Is persecution of fellow human beings the best you can do?  Do you really think you are following your God given call?

Needless to say, this experience had been a real life changer for Saul.  All his prejudices, hatred and zeal made Saul blind to the presence and work of God surrounding him.  However, through the light of the words of Christ and the work of the Spirit his eyes opened and he found a new identity, a new community and a new way of being.  He changed his name to Paul not to erase his past or who he has been, but to mark a new beginning and a new understanding of the world.  Following that moment, the one who worked so hard to exclude those who were different than him, devoted the rest of his life to include people.  Like no one else before him, Paul pushed to extend the limits of Christianity.  Men, women, children, slaves, free, Greek, Jews…  It does not matter anymore.  All can come in.  All can join.  He radically opened the doors to the most unlikely people.  Paul did not try to converted people one by one, but instead we created communities where all could meet and be together, where all could be one in Christ.

Paul’s radical transformation is an inspirational story that still speaks to all of us today.  I am aware that probably none here this morning had turned away from religious violence in order to build churches around the world.  I will also grant you that most of us, ordinary Christians, go through our lives without ever being literally knocked off the ground and blinded by Christ’s light.  We rarely experience dramatic revelations that change the course of our lives, let alone the life of the whole church.  We mostly go from day to day, searching, learning and discerning the best we can follow God’s call.  However, I deeply convinced that each of us experience moments in our lives when we stand at a crossroads, facing a choice.  We have to decide if our words and actions would be inclusive or would they exclude people.  We have to choose if we want everyone to follow exactly the same rules or draw the circle wider and accept more than one truth, way of believing and living our faith and spirituality.  We have to establish if we are ready to open our minds or if we keep clinging to our old assumptions. 

At those specific moments we face a real challenge.  The answers usually do not come easily for most of us because it requires to put everything on the table, to accept we might have been completely wrong all those years, and sometimes even to walk away from what feel normal and natural, what we have been taught by our parents, our church and our society.  It could be really difficult.  Yet, the outcome of this whole process is usually amazing.  We are transformed.  We learn to open our eyes to new realities.  We gain new insights.  We meet new people who can teach us new wisdom.  We begin to see the world, God’s world, from a different perspective.  We become more aware about surrounding racism, sexism, homo and transphobia, pervasive discrimination against Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs…  We cannot say anymore that those people are all like that.  They need to adopt our values and customs.  They ought to believe in Christ like we do.  We begin to wonder how we can create new inclusive communities.  We want to invest our time and being in places where in our diversity we can become one.  We look for new ways of being.

Yes, on the road to Damascus, Saul went through a profound conversion event, but not necessarily the way people usually assume.  Beyond the change of name, beyond the move from one Jewish sect to another one, beyond leaving the dark side of the Force to becoming one of the good guys, his conversion led him from a restrictive understanding of God to an inclusive one.  Paul made the choice to transform what we know today as Christianity by including all.  Now it is our turn to stand up, to open our eyes and to transform this world, God’s world, one choice at the time.  Amen.