By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
October 5, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Saint Paul. Paul the Saint.
Paul the perfectionist. The guy in control. The Type-A personality. The overachiever.
Well, actually, when he speaks about himself in the past tense,
As he does in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians, it’s with the knowledge
That back then he was not yet Paul, but rather for a long time he was Saul, remember?
Something else had to happen first. Then the name-change.
A man with no time for slackers, Saul was tested and certified.
His DNA and his family history made him the perfect guy for the job he did.
And he had diplomas from the best schools.
His “permanent record” from preschool through his postdoctoral studies
Was a long, invariable, spotless column of A’s.
No moving violations on his record -- no points ever deducted from his driver’s license.
Never had a cavity or failed a drug test. Never forgot to call his mom.
He was impervious to criticism, too -- a bulletproof student of the law and of logic.
If you went up against him in a debate, he would slice you in half without breaking a sweat.
Because he knew it all. Inside and out. His ego made it plain.
No one touched Saul.
His sight was firmly fixed on preserving the purity of the faith.
He was a feared agent of religion -- a flawless persecutor, a rabid zealot with a badge.
Like a foxhound he sniffed out heresy and pointed it up for his masters,
And as everyone pounced on the offenders,
No matter how minor their offenses,
He held their suit jackets and whistled to himself while the boulders fell on the guilty.
Before the blood had even coagulated, he was off to the next town.
He worked a job that required precision, not conscience.
If he was sharp, or intractable, or a hard man to bear up under,
It was because he genuinely believed in his heart that he was doing the right thing,
And who else was going to stand up and protect what needed protecting?
What an incredible shock, then, to be knocked off his horse
On his way to Damascus one sunny afternoon, and a bright sudden light in his eyes,
And the voice of the one called Christ asking WHY? Saul persecuted his church.
The unlikeliest question imaginable to him, I’m sure.
Knocked off, right into the grime on the path --
Couldn’t see, could barely move, or breathe.
I wonder what that would be like.
To clutch at rocks and dust, and to squirm like a rabbit in a snare.
To have your perfect world shattered into a thousand inconvenient shards
While you writhed blindly on the ground
And heaven itself persecuted the very same choices
That you thought you were making on heaven’s behalf.
To go from the top of your game to the bottom of everything,
In less time than it takes for the light to reach from here to here.
Everything, all of it -- gone.
The credentials, the authority, the standing within society. *poof* Saul himself, gone.
And Jesus said, today, and we heard it, didn’t we? --
He said to all the mucky mucks, the high-and-mighty assembled in their ranks, he said,
“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you
And given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.
The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces;
And it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
Didn’t Saul know? Hadn’t he heard? -- that “pride comes before the fall”?
Begs the question.
Have you lost it all yet?
Have you been knocked off your horse?
Because there’s the mildest hint of a suggestion here
That the most usable people in all of God’s Kingdom
Are the ones who have already been knocked off their horses
And who regard the past as just that -- the past. (The “passed”?)
That past no longer posseses a dictating power over them.
They are instead pulled into the future by a larger vision.
So. Have you been knocked off your horse?
The Buddhists call it shakabuku --
The swift kick to the head that permanently alters reality and makes us see
That all our attachments and everything we thought was worth something
In fact is pretty much worthless.
Support-group folks call it a moment of clarity,
When a new path opens up because the old one is just too death-dealing,
And they take the new path against all odds.
At a certain moment, something that is beyond us, yet also is us --
And I want to call that something God --
Something knocks us out of our certitude and our sleepiness and our search for security.
The diplomas fall off the wall, as it were, as the ground shakes below us.
And when that happens we look at what we were before,
Just as Paul does when he considers what life was like when he was Saul,
And we come to the same conclusion Paul comes to:
All those credentials in his past, he says, are skubala.
Junk, that is. Without value. It’s a common Greek slang term meaning -- well, excrement.
You fill in the details.
He says it’s all garbage.
He says, “It counted for nothing.”
Let me read a bit of this section from the Contemporary Language version of the Bible.
Paul says, “The very credentials these [mucky mucks] are waving around as something special,
I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash --
Along with everything else I used to take credit for.
And why? Because of Christ.
Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life.
Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand,
Everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant dog dung.
I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.
I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness
That comes from keeping a list of rules
When I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ -- God’s righteousness.
I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally,
Experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering,
And go all the way with him to death itself.
If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.”
I believe this is a strong and straightforward and capable word to the church today.
A church -- ours and many others -- many times far too fixated on past models
To admit that it remains anxious about the future, and its survival.
A church -- ours and many others -- many times operating from fear rather than out of love.
A church -- ours and many, many others --
Burdened by what-all we’re trying to drag with us into the future,
When it’s too heavy; it won’t do.
If there is any forward movement to be had, any sharing in Christ, it is in traveling light,
And that means evaluating everything we’re currently holding onto
That may be hindering us in our ministry in any way;
And that means looking at them, one by one or in whole,
And sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, labeling them skubala.
“Thank you for everything you did, and now it’s time to let you go.”
What concessions are you willing to make for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be propagated?
How much of the past are you willing to disregard for the sake of the future?
Now there are probably many ways you could do this, by way of demonstration.
We made a list in Bible Study last Sunday; it was sort of fun.
You could burn a hundred-dollar bill, or you could throw your diploma into a shredder.
You could hear a story about my dad’s sudden change in heart
About the music he was listening to, and the wild purge that resulted from that.
It would all be provocative speech that lands a punch and makes a point.
But I think, instead, I want to relate this small story to you about St. Francis.
Saint Francis’ feast day on our calendar was celebrated yesterday.
We will commemorate him tonight by blessing any pets you want to bring here at 6 p.m.
We do that because the stories about him that we have received
Tell of a man who had a special connection to nature and animals.
He did and said many remarkable things in his life,
And we owe so much of our good spirituality to his influence.
But just as Saint Paul was once Saul,
Before Saint Francis was Saint Francis, he was Francesco di Bernardone, born in the year 1181.
He was the son of Pietro di Bernardone, a wealthy silk merchant.
Francesco went to school for a few years, but you didn’t really need school back then
If you were a person with his family’s money who stood to inherit the business.
So instead he mostly bummed around with a gang of friends.
They got drunk and they got into trouble, and Francesco was their leader,
As well as the person who paid for all their fun out of his family’s fortune.
In the year 1202, at about 21 years of age, Francesco went to fight in a war.
His side lost, and he ended up in prison for more than a year
Before his father could spring him.
He came home, but his friends remarked that he didn’t seem to be the same person anymore.
He wasn’t going to sports or to feasts.
The guy with a zest and a knack for getting in trouble
Just didn’t seem to have the desire for any of his previous life.
Instead, outside the walls of his town, he discovered an abandoned church,
And he started going there to pray. Pretty soon, he had even taken to sleeping there.
He became an advocate for the destitute, particularly lepers.
His father, who had been planning to give him the family business up until then,
Took Francis to court in order to effectively disown him.
He argued: how could Francis be responsible for anything important in the shape he was in?
Did Francis fight him? Not for a second.
In fact, he agreed most heartily with his father.
He immediately disowned any claims to the family.
Then, in the court, he took off all his clothes and lay them at his father’s feet,
And standing in the court wearing nothing more than what God had given him,
He said that God would be his father from now on.
He weighed a lot of things in his life and pronounced them skubala. Junk. Excrement.
As Paul wrote of himself after looking in the mirror,
Francis “consider[ed] everything a loss
Because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [as] Lord,
For whose sake [he] have lost all things.
[He] consider[ed] them garbage, that [he] may [have] gain[ed] Christ” instead.
Francis walked away from a life of “dissolute living.”
Paul walked away from being an all-star and a know-it-all.
Each of them came clean into a whole new way of seeing everything:
“[T]he surpassing worth” of Christ.
Both of them had to leave a lot of baggage behind.
And now this is a mirror to us today.
The call of God is ever forward, unhindered by the weight of the past.
That’s the direction I want to walk in, and by God’s grace I may.
And that’s the direction I invite you to join me in.
We will get knocked off our horse; that’s just how it goes.
It means we’re finally getting somewhere!
Keep with me, then, and let’s stay on that narrow, upward path --
“[T]he surpassing worth” of Christ.