Easter 3: Saul Learns About Jesus
A sermon preached by The Rev.Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 14, 2013
There’s an old joke about a man talking to his rabbi. He asks, “Why is it that rabbis always answer a question with another question?” The rabbi answers, “So what’s wrong with a question?”
Last week in worship we read a story called “Thomas Asks Questions” and I declared that God welcomes our questions because that is how we grow. As part of our worship we wrote down some of the questions we hold, and then took time to share them with one another. Some of us wrote down questions of fact that at least have potential answers. Others of us wrote down questions of meaning that might have many answers. But we also affirmed that there are some questions which are neither of fact nor meaning: they must simply be lived so that, as the poet Rilke put it, “someday far in the future, we may gradually, without even noticing it, live our way into the answer.”
I have carried your questions with me all week long, and I want you to know that I have been deeply moved each time I have read them. I even once felt that I had a sense of what God must feel when she listens to us wonder. Our most profound questions, about grief, forgiveness, and getting through each day, about finding God’s guidance and direction for our lives, and realizing God’s promises in our common life, these are the questions we live, together.
In our scripture reading last week the disciple Thomas was asking the questions, and we asked a few of our own. But in our scripture reading this week it is the risen rabbi Jesus who poses the question.
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
It is a different kind of question, isn’t it? It is not a question that seeks a truth, but one confronts the Pharisee Saul with the truth of what he is doing and to whom he is doing it– to Jesus, and to Jesus’ followers which, according to Jesus, is all the same thing.
It is a familiar story. Saul of Tarsus, an agent of the Sanhedrin and persecutor of the early followers of the Rabbi Jesus, is travelling on the road to Damascus. He is rounding up Jesus’ followers for detention, stoning, or torture. As he travels toward Damascus however, he experiences a blinding flash of light and suddenly he is in the presence of the risen Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you hurt me?” Thrown to the ground by the weight of his actions, unable to see a thing, Paul asks who is speaking, and the response comes: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Can you imagine a more powerful or painful moment? To be personally confronted by the impact of one’s actions? And through Jesus’ words, Saul is confronted by all whom he has victimized, denied, and persecuted and is asked “Why?” But before Saul can answer, he must confront his own participation in the violence, exclusion, silencing, and outright persecution of others. And when he finally answers Jesus, he will do so with his whole life.
Not many of us here this morning are “breathing threats of murder” against our opponents, but we have all been on wrong paths that have been injurious to ourselves and to other people. We have all been headstrong, stubborn, blinded to our own ambition, selfish to meet our own needs, caught in addictive behaviors, and oblivious to the true cost of our actions to others or to ourselves.
But what happens when we see the light?
What happens when we hear the voice of the one we have directly or indirectly hurt: the victim, the survivor, the resister; the one made poor, invisible, of no account; the one we never knew, but should have; the one whose story we did not want to hear, or understand? What must we do once our own actions (or inactions) are seen in this new light? I have reflected on this again and again this week in light of our national discussion on gun violence, marriage equality and immigration reform; as the names of the 3,300 persons killed by gun violence since Newtown were read aloud in front of the Capitol Building during the attempted filibuster; as gay and lesbian couples continued to tell stories of denial and exclusion in front of the Supreme Court building while legal arguments continued inside; as the immigrant voices cried out, “This is what America looks like now” on Wednesday evening in downtown White Plains and called for compassionate and just immigration reform.
What happens when Jesus calls us to hear, to see, and to respond with our very lives?
Let me tell you the story of Delle McCormick.
In 1989, Delle McCormick traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico for the first time. She went with a group from her Presbyterian church because the pastor’s description had intrigued her. He called the journey “reverse-mission” for vocational discernment and said it could be life transforming. It seemed the right time to venture outside the boundaries Delle knew. She was living in an Upper West Side apartment, married to a successful financial consultant with a teenage daughter in the finest private school. She worked as a professional actress in soap operas and television commercials. But her heart yearned for a deeper encounter with the world around her. Promoting products as an actress felt vacuous, even disingenuous. Her husband’s struggle with alcohol was worsening, and the walls of her high-rise felt confining.
Delle’s pastor challenged the delegation to not let the trip be a vacation in Christ, returning affected but unchanged; instead he invited them to allow their vocation in Christ to be shaped by what they would see and hear. With the rest of her church group, Delle arrived at the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Development (CCIDD), a retreat center that hosts visitors from all over the world. Delegations visit squatter camps and learn about the economic conditions and social history of the region, in order to hear, see, and consider issues of global injustice. Delle’s group went to the home of a woman named Gloria, who invited the Americans to take a seat and then told them the story of her Salvadoran village of El Mozote.
In December 1981, El Mozote was thought to be a safe haven from the violence of El Salvador’s Civil War. It was a community of mostly Protestant Christians that had eschewed ties with the guerillas. Then members of the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army arrived at her village. Gloria told of how they went to each of the twenty houses in the village to demand that occupants come out. They forced men, woman, and children to lie face down as they were searched and interrogated. The soldiers then ordered the villagers to lock themselves in their homes for the night. The next morning, the military collected everyone and took the men to the village church and the women and children to a nearby house. Army personnel interrogated and tortured the men, pulling their heads back by the hair until they screamed and then decapitating them with machetes. After that, the women and older girls, including Gloria’s mother and sister, were taken to various areas of the village to be raped, some repeatedly. The women were then killed, some with machine guns, others with machetes or strangled with bare hands. Finally, the younger children were taken outside to be shot, impaled with bayonets, or hung by the neck from a tree. Gloria lost more than thirty members of her family in the massacre.
These things are difficult to hear. They are difficult to say. It makes us nauseous and angry and even terrified. This sanctuary is just that: a safe place where we can speak about the unspeakable before God and one another. For it is only when we are able to speak and hear about such horror, that we honor those who have experienced it and who continue to live with its repercussions. It is only when we can hear and receive this story, that we can see how we are connected. And to what God is calling us, together.
Gloria went on to share how the Salvadoran Army had receive millions of dollars that year in U.S. military aid and how the Atlactl Battalion received training from American military advisors. Delle wondered aloud how Gloria could possibly invite this group of Americans into her home when it was their taxes that had financed these atrocities. Gloria answered: “You have to tell the story in order to heal. And you have to believe there is a good ending.”
Delle found herself heartbroken and enlivened at the same time. She could no longer hold in her mind a portrait of God who sheltered people from their suffering. Instead she saw God alive and at work in the struggles of people like Gloria, suffering under oppression and violence, yet speaking truth and working for the transformation of the world. Delle resolved to maintain contact with the retreat center, and with Gloria in particular.
Delle returned to her Manhattan apartment and a lifestyle that included stretch limousines and stays at the Ritz Carlton hotel. But the disparity between that world and the poverty but authenticity she had encountered in Mexico was too painful to sustain. She dove into the subject of Christian discipleship as it related to lifestyle, economics and power . . . . She joined her church in a study of a biblical commentary on Mark’s gospel with a powerful critique of the dominant culture in North America and biblical models of faith based resistance to militarism and empire. She participated in political protest, and started looking for a new occupation.
Delle felt she needed simple, honest work that could give her the grounding to consider her life’s calling, and she found it in the city’s farmer’s market selling produce. Though her mother had sent he to charm school twice in the hope that she could avoid such a working-class fate, Delle found her new job oddly empowering. Though it paid a mere $6 an hour, it reminded her of the economic power she did have: the ability to earn a modest living with her hands. The produce stand proved fertile space in which to reflect on vocation. She recognized clients of her husband as they approached her to purchase vegetables, but they would often fail to notice or acknowledge her in return. She began to understand what it could mean to feel invisible as a laborer.
From this beginning, Delle McCormick’s story winds its way through seminary, Spanish language immersion, a period spent as a missionary in Chiapas, Mexico, her eventual ordination to serve a congregation on the Arizona-Mexico border, and a five year term as Executive Director of a border ministry providing food, water and medical assistance to migrants in the heavily trafficked Tucson Corridor, a lethal stretch of desert where temperature can reach 120 degrees and migrants passing through would often die from dehydration and hyperthermia. You will be able to read her full story online with all of its twists and turns, as an accompanying document to this sermon.
But what I want you to see this morning is that The Rev. Delle McCormick was a woman faithfully, even actively, participating in the life of her church when she heard the voice of a woman named Gloria, and her life as an innocent American came to an abrupt halt. She began to see her own life in a new light. She was confronted with the truth of her life, and she answered with her whole life; just like Saul.
As Saul learns more about Jesus, he is transformed. He stops persecuting Jesus’ followers and begins proclaiming Christ crucified as the key to salvation. Saul, who served as witness against the followers of Jesus became Paul, a witness for new life in Jesus. He would go on to preach about the love of enemy with the passion of one who had received such love, he would insist that no one should place oneself above or beyond the needs of the community but each should find their rightful place in one body of Christ, and he would be at his most eloquent describing the gifts we each have been given to serve the common good. And the greatest of these is love.
 David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. (HarperOne, 2012). p. 3.
 Rainer Marie Rile, Letters to a Young Poet.
 Ronald Allen et al., Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: Year C. (WJK, 2012).
 Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.
 The full story, as told by my colleague Matt, appears in Our God is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice, co-authored by Ched Myers and Matthew Colwell (Orbis, 2012). pp. 37-54. You can read her full story here, an excerpt from the book. I highly recommend book, and hope this will serve as an encouragement to purchase it.