Open My Life, Lord

Written for Saint Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Lenten Midweek Service + February 17, 2016

Reading: Galatians 2:15-21

St. Paul would have made my English teachers proud. “Show, don’t tell,” they always used to say, meaning something like, “Don’t just say this happened, then this happened. Paint us a picture. Bring us into the experience.” Though of course when we were learning to write essays, they drilled into us the importance of telling through thesis statements: “Tell us what you’re about to say.”

In the letter to the Galatians Paul accomplishes both; he shows us and tells us how God has opened his life. He tells us: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” God has so opened Paul’s life that the barrier between Christ’s living presence and Paul’s life has been torn down.

Paul isn’t saying that he’s perfect. (He proclaims his own sinfulness too often for that to be the case.) When Paul says, “It is Christ who lives in me,” I think he means that every part of his life is open to God. Every part of his life is now a part of God’s action in the world; every part of his life is open to being part of Jesus Christ’s continuing mission.

Paul also shows us how God has opened his life. In the opening paragraphs of Galatians Paul reminds us of who he used to be. He says, “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”

Paul’s whole life had been devoted to what we might call “establishment Judaism.” The Judaism of the powerful, the Judaism supported by traditions and rules and writings. He was so devoted to it that when a new Jewish sect rose up and challenged the establishment in the name of some crucified man from Nazareth, Paul tried to squash it and protect the tradition he knew.

But then God revealed Jesus to Paul. And we can see how Paul really did die to be raised with Christ. The man who tried so hard to protect establishment Judaism was dead, and alive and running was a man whose energy and values and traditions were thrown open to Jesus Christ.

This letter to the Galatians is like a case study in how Paul’s life was opened to the mission of Christ. Once Paul would have clung tightly to the Law as something that set him and other Jews apart as a holy people; he would have refused even to eat with non-Jews. Now we see Paul subjecting the Law to Christ, saying it is Christ who makes people part of God’s holy people. And this theological point shows in his life: He calls out Peter for refusing to eat with Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-14). He tries to convince the other leaders and the people that when Gentiles wanted to join the church of Jesus Christ — still very much a Jewish group — the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to become part of the holy people of the God of Israel.

God opened Paul’s life. And this was such a radical transformation that the old Paul had to die so that the new Paul could live in Christ, and Christ could live in him. No part of Paul’s life was left untouched by God.

In Lent the Church sets aside a time for us to think about how we, too, must die so that we can live in Christ, and Christ in us. Where is there still a barrier between “my life” and the life of Christ? What part of myself and my way of living am I still clinging to, saying “This one thing, at least, I have control over — it is not God’s, it’s mine”?

There are many ways our culture encourages us to keep some things separate from God. We talk about how are faith is a “private” thing, to be kept out of our public life or our political talk. Or, we think as if the way we treat and use our bodies is not part of our life of faith. Or we defend the importance of the individual having control, taking care of himself, being her own boss.

Sometimes our surroundings help us to divide our lives into “God’s space” and “my space.” I’ve always thought it funny when people say things like, “Don’t lie in God’s house!” As if when we are in the church building we need to be especially Christian, but at all other times we kind of forget about being disciples of Jesus. It’s easier to live by the rule that when we are around other Christians, we live the Christian life, but at other times we live our own lives.

Sometimes we keep parts of our lives separate from God out of a misplaced sense of humility, or an unhealthy sense of guilt or shame. “This part of me is not good enough to be part of God’s plan,” we think. We might mean something is too ordinary for God to bother with: “My job isn’t all that important,” or “I’m not special enough to be of much use to God.” At other times we might mean that something in us is too wrong or sinful and must be kept apart from God.

But when God opens our lives, God opens our whole lives. Everything in us, everything we do, everything we are, have been, and will be is cracked open, and God invades it all. God takes up every bit of it. Some parts will suffer and die. In fact, it will be like we are being crucified with Christ. But then we will be raised to a new life, a life that Christ lives in us and that we live in Christ.

Alphonsus Rodriguez lived in Spain in the 1500s. He married and had three children, but by the time he was in his 30s his wife and his children had all died. He devoted his life to strenuous religions practice, and he tried to join the religious order called Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. They denied him entry because he did not have enough education. He tried to complete more studies, but he couldn’t get through the program. Eventually, the Society of Jesus admitted him as a lay member.

Rodriguez took on the humble job of a doorman at Jesuit college, and he remained a doorman for the remainder of his life — 46 years. “His duty was to receive the visitors who came to the college, search out the [priests] or students who were wanted in the parlours, deliver messages, run errands.”[1]

But God opened Rodriguez’s life, and so as “just a doorman,” Rodriguez influenced many, many lives. People who had no one else to turn to would talk to the doorman about their troubles, and word spread that this man gave good comfort and good advice. Eventually he was asked to preach during dinners, and the crowds would stay past dinner time to hear him preach.

Rodriquez “was devoted to finding God in every moment” of his life. He would pray “Lord, let me know you. And let me know myself.” It is said that each time the doorbell rang, he would look to the door and envision that it was God standing outside seeking entrance. On his way to the answer the door, he would say, “I’m coming Lord.”

Today, this doorman is a recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

St. Rodriguez gives us an example of a life opened by God. The tragedies he faced did not keep him from God; his lack of education did not keep him from ministry; the humility of his work did not keep it from being holy. He, like Paul, had been crucified with Christ and could say: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives within me.”

May the lives of St. Paul, St. Rodriguez, and all the saints who have gone before us help remind us of how God opens our lives, our whole lives, so that Jesus Christ may live in us, and we in Christ.

Let us pray. Open our lives, Lord, to reflect your glory. Lead us to the cross, to the grave, to the empty tomb, and into the world as imitators of Christ. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.[2]


 

[1] Prayer from Melissa Mole, “Midweek Lenten Series: Open My Life, Lord,” Seasonal Rites for Lent in Sundays and Seasons, Year C 2016 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2015), p. 108.

 

[2] Joseph Tylenda, S.J., Jesuit Saints and Martyrs, quoted in James Martin. S.J., The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), p. 100. Material found in that book supplemented by Wikipedia’s article “Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez.”

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God’s Call, Like Gravity

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday After Epiphany + January 18, 2015

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the ordination of my friend Scott. I met Scott during my first hours at divinity school, and if I could take you back in time to that day, to tell Scott that in four years he would be wearing a stole and presiding over communion, I think his eyes would have popped out of his head. He had come to divinity school with a deep sense of call to ministry, but also with a deep distrust of all religious institutions and with a heavy load of cynicism. And that’s still pretty true of Scott: Actually, when we had coffee a few weeks ago and he told me about his ordination process, he still seemed totally shocked about where he is today. But he also felt in the very core of his being that he was exactly where God had called him to be.  And so he titled his service of ordination: “The Miracle in Nashville: The Bet Las Vegas Lost: The Ordination of Scott Jamieson.”

Our Bible readings for today tell other stories of miracles and lost bets — of God calling surprising people to surprising work. First, we heard the story of the young child Samuel, called by God (rather than the much more experienced priest Eli) in the middle of the night to challenge the rulers of his nation. Next we heard the story of the Christians in Corinth, who were surprised to hear that God’s call on their lives included claims on their bodies as well as their souls. And finally, we heard the story of Jesus calling two of his disciples: Philip, who seems to follow Christ immediately, and Nathanael, who needs to see a little proof that this Jesus guy isn’t just another weirdo from Nazareth. Three people and one group, each called to different tasks in very different ways.

Last weekend the Companions in Christ Sunday school class shared their own call stories with one another. And just as if we could ask Samuel, Nathanael, or Scott about their experience of God’s call, and each of those people would give a different story, so each person in the class had a unique story to tell. Some people could vividly remember a single experience that changed their life and faith in an everlasting way. Many, though, could not really name a single grand moment, but rather thought of their faith-life as a series of less dramatic — though no less significant — calls from God. Some emphasized the call we all receive through our baptism.

But even though we have all these examples of call stories, I don’t think we can set down a specific formula for figuring out when a person is being called by God. Each call story we know is a little different, and a little differently miraculous. The Bible doesn’t even seem to suggest that we can get to such a formula: after all, Samuel’s story is the most-clear cut of all of these calls stories — the little boy actually hears the voice of God calling his name, and runs to a priest for help — and even the priest can’t figure out what’s going on until God’s third try at calling Samuel.

A “call” — Christians tend to believe — is God’s doing. It has something supernatural about it. So maybe it makes sense for it to be confusing, ungraspable, outside of our ability to understand and control. Maybe it makes sense for it to be less like a memo from the boss and more like “the bet that Las Vegas lost” – an experience no one can really predict.

As I prepared this sermon, trying to figure out how exactly I can talk about this weird “call” experience that we all seem to share but which is so hard to pin down, I’ve been thinking of the feeling of a call like the feeling of gravity. As I understand it, Einstein described gravity like this: think of space as having substance and shape. Think of space as a trampoline. If you put a bowling ball on the trampoline, its weight pulls down the fabric. Then, if I roll a baseball onto the trampoline, it follows the fabric and rolls down to hang out with the bowling ball. The trampoline is space, and the bowling ball is a planet. When a smaller object, like the moon, feels that forceful pull that we call “gravity,” it is actually just following that curve made by the large object in space. (For a great video demo, click here.)

From TheConversation.com

OK, enough with the physics. But what I’m trying to say is that there are moments in life that seem to have the weight of planets. There are people, places, events, ideas that seem to so strongly shape my space that I start rolling towards them, almost as if I am being pulled towards them, or as if my life is moving towards them and I’m just following the curve. Joining the ELCA was like that for me: I had not been an official member of a church for at least a decade. I’d been going to Christ Lutheran for only a couple of months when Pastor Gordy mentioned that the congregation would soon be receiving new members. I knew I was going to tell her I wanted to join before I’d ever even thought about it. I felt a pull I could not bring myself to resist, like gravity. Maybe, I think, that pull was from God.

Tomorrow is a day set aside to remember one person who served as a planet for many people: Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a name, a voice, a message, that pulled others into his mission. His speeches moved people to action like the Earth moves us to touch the ground. But King always pointed beyond himself, to the source of his own sense of call. King always believed he had one real mission: he was called by God to preach the gospel. His civil rights campaigns for minorities and for the poor were to him one more way that he preached the gospel. And through King this gospel message moved others to join in the work of God in that time and place.

I think we all have the opportunity to be planets like Martin Luther King, Jr. — beings which shape the space around us so that people are drawn to God. After all, we are all members of the Body of Christ. We are members of the big church on earth, which is undoubtedly one of those places that God uses to call people to God. Most of us here today are members of St. Andrew or another Christian group, some specific organization that God uses to call people to God. And as individuals, too, we can be sources of that mysterious sense of call.

Now, I’m worried that some of you are thinking “Yes, there are sure are some people in this congregation who draw others to God!” Now I don’t know why you jumped to that thought: maybe you just really admire that person a few pews ahead of you. But I’m worried that you feel like your faith isn’t good enough, your gifts aren’t fit enough, your call isn’t strong enough.

So let’s take a minute to return to my friend Scott, whose ordination was “the bet that Las Vegas lost.” Or, better yet, to Martin Luther King, Jr., since you’ll be reminded of him a few times tomorrow and have to think about this. Did you know that he had serious doubts about God since he was 13 years old? And though he’d responded to an altar call at the young age of six, he later confessed that he was just a young kid following his older sister, and that he had no idea what was happening at his baptism. He spent his years in college and in seminary wrestling with his doubts about miracles and the truth of scripture and the divinity of Christ. And if he’s like all the other pastors I know, he never really stopped wrestling. But he also felt himself pulled with all the force of gravity in the direction of the gospel. And as he followed the shape the gospel made in his life, he shaped the lives of others in the gospel direction, too.

So, where are the “planets” in your life? What draws you toward itself, and through it, towards God? Some might feel that way about the bread and wine we are about to share. Or about a program you’re involved in, or an important person in your life, or a powerful moment from the past. Take just a moment now to think about those times you have felt God’s call on your life most clearly.

As we sing our next hymn together, remember that you are called – like Samuel, like the Corinthians, like Philip and Nathanael. You are called – somehow, someway – to shape the space around you as the gospel shapes you. Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.