Preached May 22, 2016
Acts 9:1-9 ; Acts 9:17-19a
You might be wondering why I chose to split up the scripture readings like this today. I will tell you. I wanted you to pause in the uncomfortable reality of Saul’s blindness. This is the story of Saul (more often known as Paul, his second name, a name he used when connecting with Gentiles). This conversion story of Paul has been the sort of prototype, the supreme example of a conversion story after which countless Christians have patterned their own conversion stories.
And I have a confession to make. I love conversion stories. And I own a gigantic book, The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion to prove it. And this is not just some leftover book from seminary that I was forced to read for a required class. No, it was a book for an independent study I took – and I chose the reading list myself.
Now I can see some of you are a little concerned about this. I suspect most of us here have a healthy suspicion of conversion stories. As much as I am fascinated by them, I am also suspicious when I hear them. And the biggest problem I see with our prototypical conversion narrative is that we kind of skip the ugly reality of conversion, or a word we Methodists like to use: transformation. We don’t acknowledge that transformation always involves suffering.
But we don’t like to dwell on that part. We talk about how Paul was bad and persecuting Christians, and he got saved and then he is good and spreading the gospel. Pretty simple. But in the actual biblical story, it is not so simple. God speaks to Paul and there is bright light, but Paul’s transformation is not immediate. For three days, he experiences blindness, vulnerability, and hunger.
I used to imagine that the worst part of Paul’s story was when he was knocked to the ground. But as I prayed and reflected this week, I realized that wasn’t the worst part at all. It was those three days of blindness. See, the trouble with transformation is that it is always a process, and it always involves suffering. Any kind of change involves loss, even if the change is ultimately for the better. But when we experience a change so big that we describe it as transformation – well, that involves a lot of loss and a lot of suffering.
When we talk about transformation, we rarely talk about the depth of struggle involved. We like to talk about and hear about the miraculous transformation, the overnight conversion. But we rarely talk about the dark night of realizing your failure and confronting your fears. We don’t talk about those day after day when you wake up and for the briefest moment are happy to be in your comfortable bed before the grim reality of your current situation shrouds the day. We often skip that part of the story, the blindness to what life will be like when you do change, the vulnerability as you let go of your old habits or old relationships, and a hunger for comfort so deep that sometimes you feel like you would die of starvation before you are filled up again.
We usually skip that part of the story. But I want us to talk about it today, and maybe we have to imagine it a bit. Recently, I have been thinking of Paul Ryan, Speaker of the US House of Representatives. About two years ago, Ryan stopped using categories of “makers” and “takers” to describe people who contributed to the tax base and those who didn’t. He explained his decision to stop using this language, like this:
“‘Takers’ wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family…And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.”
Now he doesn’t say it here, but I imagine his realization that he had been dismissively labeling real human beings who are struggling to take care of their families as “takers,” probably was difficult. I don’t know, but I suspect he had to confront the pain and the shame, and the unsureness of what it would be like to go through the world acknowledging the full humanity of those he had previously discounted. And while there are many who say that his kindler, gentler language is not matched by political action, he is still being targeted by some others who wish to keep the discourse at a de-humanizing level. In other words, I believe that Ryan likely suffered when he realized his sin of dehumanizing the poor, and that he continues to suffer because of his commitment to affirming their humanity.
This is the trouble with transformation when you are a person confronting your privilege for the first time. For Ryan, I think he is confronting his white, male, upper middle class privilege. And it is uncomfortable to sit with your privilege, and it is equally uncomfortable to begin to act in solidarity with the oppressed.
This week, I’ve been sitting in my privilege. Mine is the privilege of being married to someone of a different gender, when those married to someone of the same gender are not allowed to openly serve as clergy in most of The United Methodist Church.
For those of you who don’t know, the General Conference of the UMC, our global denominational body, has been meeting in Portland this week, something they do every four years. One of the most contentious areas of debate at this meeting was around human sexuality. Currently, our Book of Discipline does not allow UMC clergy to preside at same-gender weddings, or to be clergy if they are in a relationship with someone of the same gender. And because you all know my husband Matt and my daughter Ruby, you know that I have the privilege of not having to worry about being defrocked because of my sexuality.
But even though I am not in immediate personal peril, I am 100% committed to the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people in our United Methodist Church. And so I sat in a high degree of discomfort this week when the church decided to address this issue by creating a commission to develop a way forward that would somehow solve the impasse between those for full inclusion, those staunchly against full inclusion.
Our big solution was to create a commission to study and talk about the issue. Something that has been done before. And I have a confession to make. When I first heard this suggestion, I was livid. I was frustrated. I thought, that’s it. I’ve had it with the UMC. And then I realized this was because like Paul, I can handle getting knocked to the ground once in a while. But these 2-4 years of blindness that we will have to endure while this commission does its work, not knowing what will happen at the end of it--that is a place of vulnerability and discomfort that I do not want to be in.
To quote a UMC pastor who must have responded similarly to me, Rev. Dalton Rushing from North Georgia: “By way of confession, there was a point in which I lost hope.. This is a sin. But God is bigger than my own penchant to despair. God is bigger than our divisions. And God is bigger than the United Methodist Church.”
God is bigger.
Process theologian John Cobb describes Christ as “creative transformation.” As I confessed my sin of despair and began to move past it, I started to imagine that this 2-4 years in the dark will make space for the Creative Transformation of Christ to work in a new way.
And I believe something must happen. We are in a different place from past commissions because of the courageous 125 LGBTQ clergy who came out, putting pressure on the trial system, and by the pressure of the 2,300 clergy like me and Debra who publicly signed a statement supporting them.
But more suffering is bound to happen because we are still in this process of transformation. We are not there yet. We are blind like Paul. We are hungry and we are vulnerable and we are stumbling. And we are waiting for the Spirit's intervention to let the scales fall from our eyes and see what this new future is going to look like.
It is frustrating. And it is scary, and sometimes we feel like God Herself has abandoned us and left us to our own devices. And yet, the Christ that is creative transformation, that makes a new way out of no way, is in ALL.
Christ is in the process that will go forward in The United Methodist Church, and if The United Methodist Church decides to divide, Christ will be in that too. We believe that. Because we are the people who chase after a promise. We chase after a promise of a new day. We chase after a promise of a new world. Where there is no more mourning and tears. Where there is no more oppression, where there is no more poverty, where there is no more war. And we can't see how that will come about. Or exactly what that will look like yet.
But we step forward in faith, and trusting that as it's made clear to us, God is in it. And that the end is not exclusion, but the end is inclusion. And the end is not injustice, but the end is justice. And the end is not is not violence, but the end is peace. And God is with us every step of the way.
Thanks be to God.