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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on January 29, 2006

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Conversion of St. Paul

Sermon preached by
Bishop Michael Garrison

January 29, 2006

One of my favorite icons was written by the 15th century Russian iconographer,
Andrei Rublev, entitle "The HolyTrinity." The icon depicts a scene of three angelic beings sitting serenely on three sides of a table. Between them on the table is food and drink. The three are so relaxed in each others presence that it is evident that there is no tension between them. They seem to be in enjoyment of one another's presence.

The nature of an icon is that we are meant to pass into it and through it into a deeper reality. An icon is meant to be a window into another dimension. Just as a myth uses language to invite that passage, so an icon uses a two dimensional picture to invite those who see it to pass into another reality.

In Rublev's icon I believe that we are invited to know that the fourth side of the table is for us. Our God invites us to conversation with and participation in God's own life. The angels are not representatives of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; rather they represent the communion that exists between the persons of the Blessed Trinity and our invitation to know we belong at that table with the Trinity.

It is always amazing to me that our God so freely chooses to bond with human persons. Now there is no doubt about you and me being in relationship with God, but sometimes don't God's choices for relationship cause us to scratch our heads?

God's least likely choices will always amaze us. Remember Jacob the trickster,
Moses the murderer, Saul the persecutor, and the witless original disciples called by Jesus to follow him and become fishers of people. However, you and I are blessed that our God has chosen to draw everyone into relationship, and, thus, into having a role in God's plan for the salvation of this world, a role that will go unfulfilled, if you or I choose not to do our part.

In Saint Matthew's Gospel we hear that Jesus has compassion on the crowds. With that affirmation Matthew does not lead us to learn about the feeding of the multitudes as in Saint Mark's Gospel. Rather the response to Jesus' compassion for Matthew is the sending forth of the disciples in mission. They are charged with replicating Jesus' own mission of proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. God's relationship to humankind is revealed in Jesus' healing and teaching and his compassion is extended to humanity through his disciples.

God's relationship with the least likely is at the heart of Gospel--lepers, the sick, demoniacs, tax collectors, even Jesus' betrayers. The Gospel for this festival of our patron, Saint Paul, continues Jesus' instruction to those whom he sends out in mission. He wants them to be realistic about what is happening. He warns that the work is difficult.

The kingdom of heaven will always be opposed by the empire of this world. That empire will always strike back, whether that empire is represented by the religious leadership of Jesus' own people or by the empire of the Roman authorities.

The disciples are assured of God's presence with them, even to supplying them with what to say and what to do in difficult situations in family and civic disputes. The disciples are challenged to be as innocent as doves and wise as serpents, going forth in mission with the assurance that "the spirt of your Father (is) speaking through you."

Each of us who have been signed with cross in Holy Baptism and thus "sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever" are called to continue Jesus' work in living now in the Reign of God. Such living is not easy in the every day lives we lead; however, it is to just such living that we are called. I think that there are at least three aspects of living this life that are important to us: a leap of faith, attentive listening, and taking risks.

The first of these is a leap of faith, a trust that God is there for us just as God promises to be. This was at the heart of Paul's proclamation of life lived in grace. Once he realized that relationship was at the center of that life of grace, he used all his innate talent and the aspects of his own personality to serve the risen Savior he had encountered on the road to Damascus. He always remained aware that God has created us to be in eternal relationship with that divine love which invites us to know that we have a place in company of the Blessed Trinity.

There is a wonderful old chestnut of a story that illustrates the leap of faith. A man has a well that has gone dry. He knows that he needs to go down into it to repair the bottom. He has no way of measuring the well's depth, so he gets a length of rope and climbs down. It is so dark down in the well that he cannot see the bottom. He reaches the end of the rope before the bottom of the well. He finds himself afraid to let go but too tired to climb back up the rope. Finally unable to hang on any longer, he says a prayer and let's go and drops. However, he only drops a few inches before hitting the bottom. Sometimes that is all that is required of us in our leap of faith. Our work is to climb down the rope and then let go. God's work is to make sure that the drop is only a few inches.

Paul's own trust in God during the hardships of his missionary journeys is a wonderful example of God's faithfulness to promises. His treks, his activities, his interactions with others were rarely easy, but God was with him through it all-even to his imprisonment and death at Rome.

The second aspect of the Christian life is attentive listening. In Paul's life after his experience of the risen Lord there on the way to Damascus, Paul realizes that he needs to go off to the desert of Arabia for some time to listen and reflect on what God was saying through the revelation that he had received. All of us know that listening is hard work. Our lives are so full of busyness and noise that it is sometimes hard for God to get into the conversation. We need to be attentive to God to understand what God is revealing to each of us. We may not be able to go off to the desert or to a monastery for a retreat, but each of us must find ways to be attentive to what God is saying to us through our own experiences and through life in general.

There is another wonderful old story that illustrates this. During World War II a young woman had studied morse code and applied for a job as a telegraph operator. She arrived at the telegraph office and found it filled with applicants. Many young people were sitting in the waiting room chatting nervously in anticipation of getting the job being offered. The young woman took a seat and waited. Then all of a sudden she jumped up and ran through the door into the inner office. The others looked up but went on chatting. Soon the manager appeared at the door to tell the others that the job had been filled. He told them that he had been tapping on his window in morse code:

"If you can understand this, come inside. You're hired!"

We need to be attentive to be able to hear God's call. After taking the leap of faith and listening attentively, we are called upon to take action. From the Scripture we learn that Paul's action was a transformation of his own life and relationships. Those whom he had persecuted now were his brothers and sisters, members of the very Body of Christ. The way of following the law of Moses was now supplanted by living the life of grace.

Our call to live as Christians always leads us to some action. It might be as simple as sitting still and gazing in adoration. Most likely our action will involve us in serving God and neighbor, doing some ministry in our family, church, and community.
This may just mean that we concentrate on the tasks that life demands of us as parents, husbands or wives, workers, or friends. However we may be challenged to act, we need to be ready to take some risks to respond to God's call. What must have been the reluctance of Paul to face the other followers of Jesus? There is no doubt that he risked much in his transformation so that it could be reported, as he records in the letter to the Galatians, "the one who was formerly persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy"

Another old story illustrates taking such a risk. A young woman had just about run out of money on which to live. She went to the post office and there found a letter from her parents. Tucked into the letter was fifty dollars. She rejoiced to herself for she really needed the money, but, as she walked down the steps of the post office,
she noticed a shabbily dressed stranger, a man who obviously needed help. She passed him once and then realized that she had to do something. On the back of the envelope from which she had taken the letter from her parents she scribbled "don't despair." She put the fifty dollars in it and handed it to the stranger, thinking he needed it more than she did.

The next day there was a knock at her door. There on her front steps was the stranger she had helped the day before. He handed her $300 in cash, saying
"Here's your money, lady, 'don't despair' paid five to one in the fifth race at Hialeah."

We may not have five to one odds but when we know that our God calls each of us to a unique and wonderful relationship, when we make a leap of faith, when we actively listen for God's direction, and then act on God's call to us, the pays off will be beyond our wildest expectation.

Thanks be to God!

 

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�2006 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York