Sermon preached at FBC Worcester
At some point, we just become.
A camera lens coming into focus,
we are suddenly more than the food zooming toward our mouths or the closeness of our mother.
We can zoom out even as everything has only begun to come into focus,
a drone hovering and then rising higher above the landscape,
the beginning of a lifelong discovery of a reality that is more than just ourselves.
What was the point it began to unblur?
To come into focus?
When does human consciousness really begin—
is it one moment or something more gradual?
A story like this one nudges us to believe that our spiritual consciousness flips on and off with tremendously bright lights, as if epiphanies are jolts of lightning and not dimmer switches rising brighter and brighter.
Was it morning or evening that came first?
Summer or winter?
The East or the West?
The Red Sox or the Curse?
When God breathes the breath of life into our lungs, must we first exhale before we inhale?
What comes first, faith or doubt?
For me, it was fear.
Some of my very earliest memories, as a shy boy, as a passive boy, as a very well-behaved boy, as a fundamentalist-independent-Baptist-church-going boy, all shared the same underlying experience:
So, it would come as no surprise to you, to learn that some of my earliest, most fundamental beliefs about God were rooted in piercingly terrifying versions of this Cosmic White Man. Someone so concerned with whether I lie to my mom, that I might char in a fire forever.
And I don’t know if I’d even seen much fire in Topeka, Kansas to that point in my tiny life. But it was enough to put the fear of God into me.
I never had a blinding moment of new vision, where God suddenly became benevolent and loving.
Maybe I resent that sometimes.
Because it took decades to unlearn a fear of a God who doesn’t exist.
Not that God anyway.
Because this God, right here in this story of Paul, this God wasn’t threatened by pettiness, but was aggrieved by harassment; wasn’t persecuting those with unbelief, but was being persecuted by them.
This God didn’t smite Paul in perpetuity. This God, nudged Paul to change.
Sure, maybe the story tells of a bright light, but Paul was at the feet of Stephen when he was stoned to death, and it was Stephen who spoke of seeing Jesus at the right hand of God in that moment. It was the earliest followers of the Way who spoke with both their words and their deeds, with their very lives—over and against fear—who were the ones who embodied this God who Paul encountered on the Way.
This God was nudging Paul to begin converting. To begin changing.
The 19th century New England theologian, Horace Bushnell—whose brother was actually one of the first ministers at Salem Covenant in Worcester in its earlier days—spoke of conversion not as a one-time event, but as a gradual process.
He preferred the term Christian nurture instead of conversion.
Maybe because it happened again last night, I can’t help thinking of conversion like an unfolding.
A constant unfolding and folding, like making the bed, only to come home from work to find that Zooey has unmade it in order to make the bed for herself, so that I then have to remake it, just in order to unmake it so I can get into bed myself, only to wake up in the morning and do it all over again.
Not so pointless as the mundane chore that Zooey and I have turned into sport, but conversion is the very real give-and-take of old and new,
of self and others,
of images of God we cling to and let go of,
only to take up new ones all over again.
And of course, Paul Tillich in his important work Dynamics of Faith, is generous in describing what faith is. Faith is not belief, but rather we exercise faith through beliefs and doubts. It’s all a part of expanding our horizons and pursuing that which we are concerned with. To him that was the essence of faith. Like Abraham following God across the ends of the earth, we are living faithfully when we ask and prod and doubt and believe.
And then when we do it all over again.
Because faith, conversion, nurture, it’s all a journey. It’s no accident that the language I employ about faith is “following the Way of Jesus” instead of saying Christian. It seems more descriptive of who we are to be. It’s no accident that we speak of faith journeys.
Like the seasons bringing with them longer days in summer or shorter in winter,
warmth or cold
or growth or death,
our lives are a constant process
of growth and death,
warmth and cold,
hope and fear and change and conversion.
Cycles and rhythms and
journeys and discoveries,
all of it animated by the love of God, and never the fear of God. In fact, I’d dare say that we are never truly converting if fear is our motivation.
Because we aren’t “saved” in magical moment, never to worry again about some sadistic damnation. We are continuously being saved from older ways of thinking to newer ones, those which elevate how we interact with God and one another in this world.
The Way of Jesus is one of perpetual awakening—even as it’s also gradual—
of continual imagination,
and faithful engagement in the world we’ve been given.
This God is not concerned with scaring us into submission. This God is ever-nudging us into continuous conversion within love.
Because as you’ll hear in Tim’s reflection, we don’t do this converting alone. We are converting together,
changing together in community.
We aren’t converting in the loaded sense of the word;
we aren’t converting out of fear.
We’re converting from within the depths of Love,
folding and unfolding,
over and again,
growing and changing,
and ever learning to love
these people this God has placed in our lives.
The Way of Jesus is one of perpetual becoming.
What comes first in that?
I can say for certain it isn’t fear.
And so, may it ever be for us,
that love comes first.