Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
When I left the practice of law and entered seminary I remember being introduced in the first week to a group by someone in administration introduced as yet another lawyer in recovery.
I laughed along with the group. It felt familiar just another in a string of tacky lawyer jokes. It was a wisecrack, obviously delivered before in that community with great success. But true to its name I sensed there was a kind of wisdom in it, at least for me.
In recovery rang true. Perhaps I had reached some bottom and finally realized it, despite my long-term denial in the face of a Higher Power who actually had other things in mind for my life.
Not that law is any kind of lower level of professional existence, popular jokes to the contrary. But the environment in which I practiced (divorce and family law) had become, at least for me, a place mired in dysfunction, hostility run amok, constant conflict and primal emotions that tore people apart and, in my view, was destroying our foundational societal unit the family.
Although basically an optimist, I d hung in there too long. I thought I had the power to change things. I found I didn t. I had fought the good fight. Too many of them, in fact. The struggle had finally gotten to me. I realized that I was powerless in the face of it all. After almost twenty years in that legal arena I found myself facing the abyss the ultimate of bottoming out. I felt like I was constantly fighting monsters (my own and others), and the monsters were about to win me over to their likeness.
Last year I was invited to be the speaker for one of St. Stephen s Wednesday night programs. The topic was vocational transition. They specifically wanted me to share my personal story of transition from law to priesthood. It may say something about this invitation if you know that the guy who called me was an attorney (family law and criminal law) who d recently left the practice of law to become a school teacher.
In the audience that night I caught the familiar face of a former client. A lawyer himself, he had come to hear what I had to say about life beyond law practice that is. At the end of my talk he proudly announced to the group that he was sure his case was the one that had finally sent me over the edge and into a higher calling. He d been one of my favorite clients. I didn t have the heart to tell him that God hadn t used just his case to do that.
A quote from Neitzsche in one of the books I m reading seems now, in hindsight, to be applicable. It goes like this. Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he (or she) does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
Enough of that. I assume you get the point of where I was in my life when I experienced, like the Apostle Paul, a conversion, personally and professionally, as I headed towards my own Damascus.
As the beginning joke in this sermon implies, I m not the only lawyer called beyond the legal profession and into the clergy. Remember, I was yet another. Of course there were others. At least a couple in every Seminary class. And not just at Union where I was, but at other seminaries too. I met more when I went to VTS. And not just in seminary, but now out in the wider world as active clergy.
Among the lawyers turned clergy I ve discovered common threads. The pre-transition experience of a growing, gnawing dis-ease with law practice and our lives as lawyers. A growing frustration and impatience with the legal process and how it affects people s lives. A sense we can never do enough. A sense of powerlessness to make a difference, to change anything, much less our own attitudes.
But then, an emerging sense of something more drawing us towards a different path, calling us to the beat of a different drummer, to a new rhythm of life.
And then, when we reach the new territory and are living within our new vocation, a subtle but startling realization that there is something familiar about the territory. That there are environmental similarities between our old world and our new one. Here s my attempt to summarize this.
The law is about people and their relationships our relationship to property, to each other, and to community as a whole. So it is for a life oriented to God s purposes. In the Divine order, it s all about relations how we are to relate to each other. And about the interconnectedness that is the foundational reality for life lived within God s vision.
The law is about how we are to live together in community. We can t just do what we want. There are limits to behaviors that are harmful to others and, by extension, harmful to the community. You shall not steal someone else s whatever. You shall not murder. You shall not harm another and if you do they are to be made whole again. You shall not, etc., etc., etc. This isn t altogether different from Biblical mandates, is it?
The law is about our relationship with authority: authority in the form of norms of behavior codified in our statutes or set out in case law handed down through the decades. And we are subject to the authority of those who are designated to pass judgment and/or grant relief when those norms are violated. Our human system reflects our cultural and societal norms and the people designated to pass judgment or grant relief are human judges and/or a jury of our peers.
The Divine system reflects Divine norms, not limited by cultural and societal images or disfigured by worldly temptations. And it s Christ who passes judgment and grants relief. Christ whose love for us is so great that he gives his life to redeem us and by his grace works to make us whole, over and over again, when we have fallen, over and over again, into brokenness.
Doesn t this sound familiar? It has a kind of Sunday morning ring to it, doesn t it?
The Bible is about our relationships with each other. There is an authority who governs our life an ultimate authority we call God. There are established norms of behavior which, when violated, lead to brokenness and isolation until restoration is made. There are expectations of compliance and accountability for behaviors that deviate from the norms.
In prayer we plead our case, pray for relief; we ask not to be punished for what we have done wrong. We seek release and relief from the consequences of our actions. We beg and hope for leniency from our Judge and a new chance at life.
We tell stories about this on Sunday in passages from our lectionary readings for the day. We sing songs about this; we call them hymns. We share a table where we commune together over this and seek strength to live differently.
But there are significant differences between our human system of law and the Divine system. The Divine offers resources beyond our comprehension, way beyond our human capacity. The human system is naturally flawed, subject to human limitations, vulnerable to human inclinations and self serving actions that ignore others and the health of the community. Only Divine power can fully heal us, mend our brokenness and reconcile us to each other and to God.
I find myself drawn more and more to the life of the Apostle Paul and to his writings even to those letters, like Ephesians not written by Paul, but letters written in his name and continuing themes communicated earlier in letters clearly attributable to Paul, like Romans, 1 st and 2 nd Corinthians.
Paul is a remarkable advocate. I admire this his skills and his passion. A Pharisee, Paul was trained in the Jewish law. He was trained to interpret it, to advise others about it and to persuade them to live within that law. But Paul and the other authorities interpreted the law as incompatible with new teachings by anyone other than themselves. They interpreted the law as definitely incompatible with the teachings of a Jew called Jesus. Paul and those from whom he took direction came to operate as judge, jury and even executioner over what appeared to threaten the status quo. They lived in a system that fed and sustained their personal identities and professional powers. They wanted to continue that system, unaltered, even though, as Jesus had preached, it was a system that had become unhealthy and socially unjust.
Christ changed Paul s life. Christ confronted Paul on the road to Damascus. We call what happened to Paul conversion. Paul, called to Divine accountability and confronted by God s grace, hit bottom on that road. Powerless, struck to his knees, blinded by the truth of what he had become, he rose from the dust, lifted up by Christ and set on a new path. On his journey to Damascus Paul, a self-willed, immature man of great energy, passion and skill, but bound by human frailty, finally gave up the battle against that which could ultimately set him free Christ. When his eyes were opened several days later, he was on a new path, marching not to the beat of his own desires, but to the beat of the Divine heart. He had finally, by God s grace, let go and let Christ take over his life.
Paul, ever the passionate advocate, couldn t keep this to himself. He wrote. He preached. He tried to live a life that would convince others to live lives open to the immense grade and abundance he had, mid life, experienced through Christ. A grace and abundance that Christ offers to freely and graciously to all.
This grace that Christ offers? It s costly grace. It requires us to give up old familiar ways. It demands that we die bit by bit to our old controlling selves. It halts us on the road to a Damascus we believe is our destination. It blinds our human vision and then opens our eyes to a Divine one. It sets us on a journey we must travel not by sight but by faith.
Paul told us what we would look like on the Way some of this is in our Ephesians reading today. Paul challenged us to that hope which strengthens us on the journey the hope of transformation the hope of growing into a mature servanthood that is characterized by peace, joy and fruitful abundance within a loving and life-enhancing community with Christ as the head.
If only we, like Paul, would drop to our knees and let go. Let Christ bind us with his love. Let Christ take not only our hands in his but our very lives within his own. Let Christ lead us towards a place beyond any Damascus we could ever imagine or desire.
Perhaps you like me, though, need to actually reach your Damascus and face the abyss waiting for you there. Then, feeling the powerlessness over it all, let go and let Christ take the lead.
This is my struggle, over and over again letting go. Letting go of my own wants and desires. Sometimes letting go of my carefully mapped out plans so there can be room for the world of the Holy Spirit. Moving beyond my present heart held location towards one I can t see clearly right now.
Perhaps this is your struggle, too. Perhaps we re here today, you and I, to be reminded that there s something even more wonderful just ahead for each of us. To discover that we must put our hands into Christ s outstretched ones. That, risking all we think we now possess, step forward into what is yet unknown to us but which calls us towards it. We are called onto a road that dips beyond our current horizon. It s the path that Paul journeyed and which he tries so hard to describe for us. A path of discipleship that leads us towards our Lord and Savior who is calling us to share in his resurrected life.
The Christian author, Frederick Buechner, quips: How did the dog get to Dover The answer? Leg over leg.
So how do we get to that spot on the road where Christ waits for us like he did for Paul? And the answer? Like the dog one step at a time; one day at a time.