A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay
To listen to Rev. Liz’s sermon, click on the arrow at the left below:
Our theme this month is unity and diversity, and we are thinking, singing, celebrating, this morning love and faith, qualities and expressions of love and faith that offer unity amidst diversity. When we reach for those who love, whose spirits shine like stars, among all those saints, some we’ve known and loved, many we will never know – among those is surely Paul. Paul, the self-declared apostle, a man of great heart, great vision, absolute faith, and, necessarily, enormous chutzpah. And I don’t mean that as a slam, because it takes chutzpah, audacity, fearlessness, nerve, to do what he did, and achieve what he achieved.
Paul lived around the same time as Jesus, but only himself became a follower of Jesus many years after Jesus had died. Until then, Paul was a traditional Jew- in fact a very traditional Jew, named Saul who did not appreciate the revelations and changes the Jesus movement – which began as a sect within Judaism – he did not appreciate the revelations and changes Jesus and his followers declared. He was so angry and alienated by what the Jesus movement taught that he actively persecuted followers of Jesus, wanting to end their faction and their faith. Then on the road to Damascus, he had a revelation of Jesus’ reality and message, and everything changed. He changed his name to Paul, and declared himself one of Jesus’ apostles. This, this was total chutzpah – every other apostle had been chosen and recognized by Jesus and a bunch of them were still alive. Paul nominated himself to join them and to share their calling. “Apostle” comes from the Greek word apostelo – to send, or be sent, forth. Paul sent himself forth, honoring his own lived experience and became, eventually, the most effective and impactful voice in the early church, expanding and redefining the nature of what became Christianity for all time.
This makes him complicated in a number of ways. One is that he is one of the strongest voices in the bible developing an argument for supersessionism, the doctrine that a new covenant through Jesus Christ supersedes or supplants the original covenant God made with the Jewish people. This isn’t just a declaration of faith in Jesus, it’s also an undermining of Judaism, that didn’t sit well with Jewish people then, and still doesn’t all these centuries, millennia later. This is why Jews call their scripture the Hebrew Bible and not the Old Testament – the Old Testament is a name that only exists in relationship to the New (improved) Testament.
Another is that Paul was so foundational to the evolution of the Jesus movement that his letters became an essential source of authority. Modern scholars agree that a number of his letters contain passages that are not actually original to the first letters. Instead, their content and even their different grammar and vocabulary show that these passages were later interpolations, inserted to draw on Paul’s authority for their own purposes. Some of these passages include Paul supposedly declaring that women must cover their heads and be silent, submissive members of church communities. But in fact it’s highly unlikely that he ever said any such thing. To the contrary, Paul repeatedly greets and honors women in his letters as colleagues and leaders among the congregations he founded.
I first preached about this revelation 25 years ago – that mainstream scholars believe Paul honored, rather than silenced women in his assemblies, and that his work was later perverted, really, turned inside out, by people wishing to shut down women in their communities. Especially now it resonates, as our nation struggles with issues of gender and justice. But even then, many years ago now, in that small congregation, it was like a lightning strike. In the wake of my presentation about Paul and women leaders, and a number of women came to meet with me – Unitarian Universalist women. Unitarian Universalist women who had been told, under Paul’s authority, to sit down and shut up in the churches they grew up in. Unitarian Universalist women who had left those churches for that reason. Now to learn, all these years later, a lifetime later, in another faith, that it was all a lie – they were amazed, exhilarated, appalled. Even though the bible was now for them – at most – one of many sources of wisdom, still they were emotional. These words of Paul’s had put them down, and pushed them out, and now to learn they weren’t even really Paul’s words – it mattered. It gave them, even in our not-bible-based-faith, a sense of agency, of empowerment, of possibility that had remained undermined, diminished, all that time.
So there’s no doubt, even for us religious progressives, that there is still power in the bible, which was part of our upbringing for so many of us, and remains essential in so much of our national discourse. Something that we may not realize is that Paul and us, we have a lot in common. For one thing, as we’ve learned this week, almost universally, Unitarian Universalists base our faith on our own lived experiences. For another thing, like Paul, we’re not afraid to rock the boat. This carries with it some obvious challenges, but also staggering possibility. And that staggering possibility is the point this morning.
Paul wrote extensively because he spent all his time as a follower of Jesus founding ekklesia or assemblies, congregations, well-beyond Jesus’ original territory in Judea. He planted communities all around the Aegean basin, especially in what is now Turkey and Greece, at Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonike, Philippi – hence the names of all Paul’s writings – they were letters to the ekklesia he founded in those cities. He sustained these communities with letters, or as the bible calls them, epistles. They were his avatars; even now they convey not just Paul’s theology and his mission, but the genius and intricacy of his thought and the dynamism of his character, just as they did when freshly penned to those congregations he founded across seas, mountains and whole nations. These were the only way to manage what one of my religion professors, Allan Callahan, called ‘the ultimate long-distance relationship.’ The letters that kept him in touch with the congregations even when he was far away and years would pass before he might see them again – if he even did see them again.
Another part of his genius was that, unlike the Jerusalem leadership of the Jesus movement, Paul believed absolutely that you didn’t have to be a Jew to be a follower of Jesus. He was wholly committed to opening up Christianity to all people. The Jerusalem leadership weren’t actually pleased about this, and debate about this endured for awhile but he won their permission to pursue his controversial mission with promises of money raised to support the church and the poor from his wide-ranging ministry, and he fulfilled these promises. And his mission ended up phenomenally, transformationally, enduringly successful beyond, perhaps, even his wildest dreams.
Most of Paul’s letters follow a similar format, where he identifies himself as the author, and reminds recipients of his authority – which as we now know was significant – and also of course was self-proclaimed, the result of his own revelation on the Damascus road. After this identification, Paul would then express gratitude for the church he was writing to, and offer words of encouragement before launching into the reason he was writing – and there was always a reason – usually to answer questions sent by the congregation, questions that had come up after his departure.
This was the case in Galatians, one of the shortest, most passionate, impatient and best-known of his letters. Galatia was an inland region just south of what is now Ankara, the capital of modern Turkey. The Galatians had sent to Paul because visitors had come to challenge Paul’s teaching, saying that to be an observant follower of Jesus required conversion to Judaism, including circumcision for all males. This, not surprisingly, was a source of concern for the Galatian assembly who were many of them gentile converts from pagan religions. As the visitors’ message undercut the heart of Paul’s teaching, the Galatian’s letter was, not surprisingly, a source of more than concern for Paul. His urgency and irritation is palpable, as he moves from a curt salutation right into a frustrated rebuke of their questioning his teaching. And it’s in this short, irritated letter by this egocentric zealot, that we receive some of the most beautiful and compelling expressions ever penned on the necessity of community and relationship, the imperative of spiritual freedom and the absolute power of love.
You heard this in the reading earlier – Paul’s point is to not just deny but emphatically reject the categories that divide us, that turn us against each other, that carry with them differences in value, in personhood. Instead he declared that everyone was free of all those, touching on exactly those identities that were then most polarized and polarizing: ‘Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, all are one.’
This was absolutely revolutionary. In an ancient society where life was short and brutal for almost everyone, where suffering was everywhere, where everything about your life and your fate depended on your gender, your status and your religion, as it did – no one spoke against these realities. His is an extraordinary vision even now, when we feel a wave pushing against so many old categories, against even binary definitions themselves, because we know that for many, all kinds of identity and capacity are a spectrum rather than poles. And still it is so hard to be free, to free ourselves, of these old, imprisoning categories. We want to fling the doors open – as Paul did – but more often we have to prise them open, scratch and claw and bloody ourselves to force these doors to open so that we can breathe, so that we can move, so that we can be, ourselves and each other, free. Free to attend and respect the truths and varieties of human identity and experience, to attend and respect each other, because when we truly attend and respect each other, we are on the path to love. When we look to the lessons of our own lives and hearts, they begin to free us, and what they free us for is love.
This can take great dramatic form; remember I’ve shared with you before about the Philadelphia poet laureate Sonia Sanchez? She was coming home, around 1am, from work to the underprivileged neighborhood in Philadelphia where she lived. Sonia Sanchez is a very small woman, and she was in her 70’s at the time. She had with her a briefcase and her bulky purse. Suddenly, at the end of dimly-lit block she saw a young man, a teenager, walking in her direction. She saw him notice her from the other end of the block, and she saw him stop, and check both ways up and down the empty street, and then start up again, coming towards her. Do you remember what she did? She ran to him and threw her arms around him and said: “Oh my brother, my brother, I’m so glad you’re here. Now you can see me safely home.” And he did. And she sat on her stairs with him when they got her home, and she asked him why he was out so late and he said “Got no job, out looking for stuff to do.” She said “There is no life for you out here, late at night. Out here, this late, you will find no work, no life, only death.” They grew into friendship that night; eventually she found him a job where she worked at Temple University.
That is the kind of freedom and faith Paul is talking about – deep, human, spiritual, brilliance and transformation, taking a stranger, even perhaps someone we fear, and changing a moment, and lives, by declaring kinship. She ran to a strange youth and called him her brother, she talked with him, she got to know him, and the connection they both made together was lasting. All are one.
Not every instance of freedom and faith looks like this – most don’t. The far more frequent opportunities don’t make for a dramatic or inspiring vignette – they look like small acts of respect and care and love for someone who doesn’t feel seen, or someone who has hurt us and may not even know it – the opportunities to do this, to live in a way that doesn’t diminish others are daily, even hourly in their regularity. What if we took on the challenge of never diminishing any one ever – not with a glance, not with a word – it would be a huge undertaking of mostly small acts requiring great energy and constant mindfulness.
Paul’s vision of a peace and freedom grounded in faith working through love has more than one formula, more than one form. In fact it’s so powerful that we can take the formula out of his Pauline context and it still works, like gravity or light. Wherever it occurs, faith working through love necessarily supports peace and freedom with it. That’s a precious thing to remember right now, when our struggle is to be free of those prisons of classification and judgment that falsely, evilly, infect us, confine us, divide us and demean us – demean us all.
Against all that, we are determined to uphold the essential worth and dignity of every human being, to embody our faith working through love and its harvest of peace and freedom. We know the gift of community, of being with each other through thick and thin, of claiming our neighbors as our friends, and strangers as our friends, we bring light and gravity with our faith and love and declare this is sacred, this is human, this is just, this is essential, and we will have it redefine our world – as Paul did 2000 years ago.
Because his vision was that radical, that challenging and challenged when he worked for it – one man! so long ago – it was just as radical and challenged, maybe even more so, than our vision of openness and compassion and justice is now. We are determined to bring these into life. So we know we will need to circle back again and again, and redeclare our vision, and defend it against attacks, and grow it, and preserve it as strongly and passionately and unwaveringly as Paul did. Against all the powers that were, Paul created and spread a vision, a way, that ultimately redefined an entire faith so thoroughly that when we are reminded now of the issues he was fighting at the time, we are amazed. But he did it. It can be done. And if it can be done, then we can do it. And – this is the best part – we want to do it. We want to nurture our vision, and band together with others until love and faith have won the freedom and compassion and justice and peace that must be. We want it for our world and we want it for ourselves, because we all long, every single one of us, you and me, we long for deep community, deep connection, deep spirit and deep faith, all these which are in the end manifestations of love.
Let us lean harder into all the values and promise of this church, calling all people to those selfsame virtues Paul proclaimed for all time, for all people: freedom, joy, peace, patience, self-control, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and love. Claim your own chutzpah. Lean into your own revelations and lessons, all that you know and all that you are still learning, open your heart and use its power, free your hearts’ longing and power into the world, apostles of peace and freedom, grounded in faith, working through love in our time. Because that is exactly what is needed right now. And this is our time. And we are here. Amen.