Text: Acts 9:1-31 (the conversion of Saul)
When I first came to Mill Woods United Church on Monday, September 16, 2013, I was encouraged by a plaque on the wall near the main entrance. It notes that this building was dedicated 25 years ago this past Wednesday, on May 2, 1993, by the then Moderator of the United Church of Canada, the Right Rev. Stan McKay.
I was here for a job interview. In August, I had applied for the position of minister and had had an initial interview via Skype in early September. At the time, I was living in southern Saskatchewan as the minister of three churches in a pastoral charge called Borderlands.
For this second interview, I had driven north to Regina following my three Sunday services, flown to Edmonton, and stayed the night with my sister who lives in Oliver. I arrived at the church about 30 minutes before the interview to walk around the neighbourhood and get a feel for it. When I approached the building, I saw and read the plaque.
I was heartened to see that Stan McKay had helped to dedicate this building because Stan McKay is the most inspiring leader I have ever met.
I had encountered Stan five years earlier in July 2008 in a class called “Aboriginal Spirituality.” Twenty of us spent five days and nights at the United Church’s Five Oaks Centre, which is on the Grand River outside of Brantford Ontario. There we formed a learning circle with native elders from the nearby Six Nations Reserve, and we were led in Bible Study and theological reflection by Stan, who was not only the first Indigenous Moderator of the United Church of Canada, but also a survivor of a Manitoba Indian residential school.
I loved the week. It wasn’t just an opportunity to learn about Aboriginal Spirituality and to earn a school credit. It was also a time of healing. All of us, Native and non-Native, shared our hurts and our dreams as we confronted together the blessings of our tradition and the deep wounds of colonialism in which our tradition is so deeply embedded.
Much of what I loved about that week was due to the leadership of Stan McKay. Ten years ago, Stan was already retired, although then as now he continued to serve the church in many ways, including as an elder at the Sandy Saulteaux theological school in Manitoba. His presence radiated both authority and humility. He listened intently and shared his personal story and his spiritual knowledge. Under his leadership, passages of Scripture came to life in new ways.
At the end of the week, Stan gifted me with a grandfather stone from his home reserve of Fisher Creek Manitoba; and to me that gesture had a bigger impact than ordination did three years later. After that week, I had new confidence that I might survive the rigours of ministry.
Stan McKay, I believe, exhibits the type of servant leadership we see in St. Paul. The passage we heard from Acts this morning is about the conversion of Saul, who is later known by his Greek name Paul, and who will write the letters to various churches that comprise much of the New Testament.
Saul was already a powerful leader when he was struck blind on the Road to Damascus. In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, he says the following about who he had been before his encounter with Jesus. Paul writes that he was one “of the people of Israel, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, one who persecuted the church; and as for righteousness in the law, faultless” (Philippians 3). Saul was respected by the Jewish authorities and feared by those Jews who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah.
Today, we criticize Saul’s leadership as wrong-headed, violent, and destructive. He was effective, but for the wrong cause.
His conversion involves humiliation and pain. The encounter with Jesus leaves him blind. He fasts for three days; and then, as promised, his sight is restored by Ananias who baptizes him into a path of death and resurrection.
In his encounter with Christ, Saul loses his old way of life. But as he says in Philippians, “whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ . . . I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.”
Paul goes on to suffer illness, imprisonment, and beatings. Nevertheless, he lives fearlessly and in joy because he has left the attachments of his ego behind and is living in the light of God’s eternal Love.
Here is how Paul describes the effect of his conversion in his letter to the church in Galatia. Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is not longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Paul is describing a mystical state of egolessness.
Before his conversion, Saul was a power-hungry leader of the religious elite. After his conversion, Paul is a selfless leader of the joyful bands of Jewish and Greek followers of Jesus. They own little, but they share everything. They lack political power, but they have Good News of death and resurrection. Though few in number, they are filled with joy because they have gotten out their own way to allow God’s Spirit of Love to flow through them.
In this spring’s series of five Sunday services and Monday evening discussions, we have touched on purpose, community, communication, hospitality and leadership. These five weeks have reminded me how all five facets rely on each other. For instance, a church can have effective leadership, welcoming habits, channels of communication, and a tight community; but if its vision is twisted, these positive qualities will be for naught.
Before his conversion, Saul’s purpose was guarding the Jewish hierarchy and its cozy relationship with the occupying Romans. When Saul becomes Paul, his purpose becomes proclaiming the cross and its power to free individuals and communities from their idols. It is this purpose that helps the early churches create egalitarian communities with a message of Love that transcends both tribalism and empire.
Many churches struggle to bring the five facets into alignment with Love because they have visions that are as twisted as the one of Saul. These include churches that manipulate people with the fear of hell, that preach a repressive morality, or that support militarism and nationalism. Unfortunately, many churches offer a path of fear instead of faith.
An alternative is to emulate Saul and accept Grace to use the humiliations of life to become humbler. When we do so, we get out of our own way. We are freed to rise above the idols of childhood and towards Love. We can better reach out to our neighbours with compassion. We can proclaim a vision that is ever-new and grounded in justice. We can embrace newcomers in their uniqueness because they are individuals who are as blessed and broken as ourselves.
Saul was humiliated on the Road to Damascus. Happily, he used the Grace of Christ to be baptized into a new life that was opposite of his previous one. Stan McKay found a way to rise from the ashes of the five years he suffered in a United Church-run residential school in Manitoba to pursue a ministry that resisted the church’s colonial history.
Humiliation comes to every individual and institution. Grace helps us to accept these humiliations as an opening to greater humility and to the growth of wisdom.
In 2008 when I was part of the class led by Stan McKay, I was struggling to accept the humiliation of a life that I had largely wasted. By being with Native elders who had somehow survived the pain of residential school and who had emerged with a stronger vision of Love for God and neighbour, I felt better able to accept my own humiliations and to imagine going forward despite or because of them.
Did St. Paul always get this right? Does Stan McKay. Do any of us? Of course not. None of us every fully arise from egotism and let the Spirit of Love to flow through our words and actions without distortion. But with Grace, we can pick ourselves up from our own conversion experiences, our own Road to Damascus moments, and our own crucifixions, and rise from them closer to Love.
In this new life, we can become leaders who are humbler and who try to channel Love, which is the strongest force in the cosmos. We can become leaders who have at least partly entered the kingdom of God.
My prayer for Mill Woods United Church is that it will continue to rise out of its inevitable stumbles to a humbler faith that allows its members to share their hurts and dreams, and to become leaders who carry the Risen Christ in their hearts.
With our egos at least partly out of our way and with Christ front and centre, may we continue to offer hospitality to all, reach out in care to the neighbourhood, and communicate in word and deed the justice and love that is our message as holy fools who are also children of God.
May it be so. Amen.