There’ s a card that sat on my dresser for awhile. On it was a quote from St. Francis. Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.
I’ ve been searching recently for a stature of St. Francis to stand in the garden I’ m trying to coax back to life out of the devastation of a recent kitchen renovation. There’ s something so serene about St. Francis. He watches over many gardens. He just stands there, quietly in his concrete robe. I want to look at him when I leave in the morning and when I come home in the evening a constant and still reminder to live life simply, to stand in serenity amongst the noise of the world and to love all creatures, great and small. I yearn to do this quietly, like him.
I’ ve spent most of my life talking a lot. St. Francis’ s quote is a stern reminder for an extroverted talkative type like me to sometimes just shut up and be quiet. It points to a substantial truth: that we are called to live the Good News, not just talk about it.
As a lawyer I used words to persuade others, both in the courtroom and out. I’ ve been an advocate most of my life. I took the mind and the mouth God gave me, and I took words. I massaged them, manipulated them, played with them. And I used all that to meet whatever goal was in front of me at the time. I loved persuading people of things, be they judges, or other attorneys, or students, or teachers, or whatever audience was in front of me. And I got a thrill a high if you want to call it that when they bought what I was selling.
I remember speaking at a legal seminar and telling a group of new attorneys just recently out of law school with their expensive law degrees. You’ re not going to like what I have to say. I don’ t like what I’ m about to say. But guess what, we’ re just salesmen. We try to sell a potential client on our ability to handle their case, and then try to sell the client’ s story to a judge or jury. I told them, Your success will rise or fall on your ability to convince others, on your ability to produce results.
I got so I didn’ t trust words. I knew how they could be manipulated, how they could manipulate others’ minds. I wanted to stop being a salesman. I lost faith in the product. I lost faith in the economics and the vagaries of the system. So I started listening more and talking less. I preferred serving as a mediator or a commissioner in chancery in cases rather than trying them. I could listen and watch and use words very judiciously. I learned a lot from that. I watched how others used words. I saw the harm or the healing that could happen, respectively, amidst the noise or in the spaces between the talking. I came to value the spaces more highly the silent moments when I could hear, even faintly, the Spirit at work in the mess people had made of their lives.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes there’ s a familiar passage about times and seasons. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Towards the end it goes, A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
And so I came to a time when I wanted more silence in my life. After all those crazy years of talking all the time, of trying to sell myself and others, of continually trying to please and persuade, I suppose I thought the call to ministry might lead me to a quieter time. That it would lead me on a path towards peace and that my life would be centered in a holy calmness. That’ s what I thought. That was the plan. But as the saying goes: When mortals make plans, God laughs.
So, while I was searching for a serene stature of St. Francis this week, I was forced instead to face St. Paul a man of words and a true salesman for the Gospel.
In our lectionary passage today from the Book of Acts we come face to face with Paul clever, clever, convincing Paul. A man whose sole purpose in this story is to persuade a bunch of intellectuals in the city of Athens to become true believers in the Good News of Christ Jesus. Paul uses the words of the Athenian poets and twists them to his advantage. He works the Athenian’ s pagan altar to an unknown god into a foundation for his message. With his words he lures many of them into a new belief system.
What a contrast with the St. Francis I’ d been seeking. There’ s nothing quiet about Paul. He’ s a high-energy kind of guy. Nobody has him resting in their garden.
Paul was very vocal. He was continually preaching, teaching and writing letters. I bet he preferred dictating his letters more often than writing them himself. He would have wanted to hear how his words sounded; how they might roll around in the minds and hearts of listeners. He’ d want to test the strength of their logic as he arranged and rearranged them. He’ d want to assess, with his own ears, their ability to persuade.
Paul was a remarkable mouthpiece for the Gospel. He was a salesman for the Good News. And, boy, did he produce results. Or, maybe as I ought to word it, God produced results through Paul.
For Paul, for the early apostles, for a struggling, fledgling group of believers in first century Christianity, it was not a time to be silent. It was, rather, a time to speak. If they had been silent, would we even be here? In this place? Together? Today?
The apostles had been commissioned and it wasn’ t into silence. They were to go out. They were to give voice to what they had seen and heard. They were to talk about what had happened to them when Jesus had come into their lives. They were not only to live the Good News, but to speak it. Whatever the risks!
The Bible is noisy. It’ s made up of a lot of words. There’ s a lot of talking in it. At creation God spoke everything into being. The Gospel speaks of Christ as the Word. And the early church, the church in those times we call apostolic? Its foundation was not one of bricks and mortar. Its foundation was one of people and words, of stories retold and events remembers. Of words and lives gathered together and formed persuasively to give vision to resurrection Christ’ s and the world’ s.
And Paul? How did he come to be a believer? How did he make that astounding metamorphosis on the road to Damascus? How did Saul, the Christian persecutor, become Paul, an apostle of Christ? By the power of Christ’ s voice calling out to him as he crawled along the dusty road to Damascus. Saul, Saul, Why do you persecute me?
They say we are living in apostolic times again, today. That we can’ t simply stand by, serenely or silently, in the midst of the noise of our times. That the church, standing in a silent status quo is shrinking on the vine. And that people who need the Good News and live outside a faith community are withering emotionally and spiritually.
We need to bring the message of love and resurrection into the lives of people who have lost hope, into the lives of people who are looking for love in all the wrong places. We need to give voice to the Divine message that we are all called to new life new life made possible by Divine love and grace. Like Paul, Christ confronts us and calls us by name. He calls us to be apostles. Like Paul, we are called to be salesman.
We are all ministers in this community we call church. Part of my call is to climb these three steps up to this pulpit from time to time. To stand in this place and to give voice to the Good News. To open my mouth and hope for the breath of the Spirit to breathe through me so you can be strengthened by the power of God’ s word spoken through me. At first it seemed easy to climb these three steps, but the more I’ ve had to do it the harder it’ s become. These steps can feel like a mountain. The burden I carry up them is what I perceive as your expectations of me, what I perceive as God’ s expectations of me and what I know are my expectations of me. It’ s heavy.
Part of your call is to walk through those doors back there week after week. To go back out into the world to both live and give voice to the Good News out there in the real world. You’ re the ones on the front lines. And it takes a lot more courage to walk out there than to climb three steps.
Like you, I sat in the pews. For over fifty years I sat there. I walked out at the end of each service and too many times I think I simply left my baptismal promises, my commission, at the door. I felt it such a heavy task to carry into the world. Too often I forgot that there’ s Someone out there to share the burden and to lift us up when we fall. Thankfully, God is a God of grace and forgiveness. God is a God of second and third and fourth and so on chances.
In the baptismal service today, we are reminded of God’ s call to each of us when we are baptized. Within that call is the commission to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. It’ s not an either/or. It’ s both/and. But it’ s not God’ s expectation that we are alone in this endeavor or that we are solely responsible for the results. Will we proclaim by words and example the Good News. We will, not by our efforts alone, but only with God’ s help.
God gives the Great Commission, but walks with us and shoulders the burden so we can live into it. He doesn’ t expect us to produce results, but simply to be faithful so that He can work through us.
I will continue to search for a St. Francis for my garden to remind me that I am to live the Good News. But I will also search for some chimes to hang in the garden to remind me that we are also called to chime forth the Good News. Garden chimes will remind me to breathe deeply of God’ s Spirit that it may move through me like the wind. And that, moved by the Spirit, the chords that God has placed within me will resonate in the world, giving voice to his saving grace. May we all be chimes in God’ s garden.