“Take this job and …” well, you know the rest. We’ve all got days like that in our jobs. Yep, even us clergy. Work—whether we’re paid to do it or not—has the ability to sometimes bring us amazing joy and sometimes some bleak despair. I was thinking about our skills and passions and work when I wrote this sermon.
Proper 5C— 2013
Based on Galatians 1:11-24
In the section of his letter to the Galatians we read this morning, Paul describes his life before he became a follower of Jesus by highlighting his zeal for the traditions. Paul craved knowledge and understanding of the Torah, so much so that he excelled beyond others his age. He became a protégé of faithful Judaism found in the sect of the Pharisees, and he became exceptionally legalistic. He saw those following the way of Jesus as detrimental to true Judaism and needing to be uprooted so he persecuted them.
But God, Paul writes, had other ideas. Paul had his own way of understanding his life, his own way to make meaning, but God had something else in mind for Paul. God set Paul aside before his birth and called him through grace. God chose Paul. God found Paul. God showered this gift of grace on Paul in order to bring him into a deep relationship with God and so he could share the good news with the Gentiles. Grace transformed Paul from a persecutor of Christians to become one of Christianity’s most vocal devotees.
Grace. It’s one of those words that can be used so frequently, especially in Christian circles, that we lose a sense of its meaning. It becomes too familiar, too—dare I say it—cliché, especially when described as amazing. Frederick Buechner, my favorite author, unpacks it in his book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. He writes:
“Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
“A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?
“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.
“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
“There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace is yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.
“Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
Grace is pure gift.
I sit alone most mornings in my study before Melissa, Olivia, Noah or even Buster stir. I look out my window and pray and read and sometimes think about what’s on my plate. As an introvert, I love the time by myself to center, to think, to give thanks for the gift of a new day.
Sometimes it lasts only a few minutes before I hear footsteps running down the hall to mark the beginning of new morning. Sometimes I hear laughter and giggling and muffled words. It isn’t too long before I hear steps coming down the stairs and a little person climbs into my lap for a morning snuggle. If it isn’t raining, Buster’s jingling collar can be heard as he wakes up and is looking for attention and someone to take him out for his morning ramble.
I’ve come to learn that each day is gift. The ones that are cold and snowy, and the ones that are sunny. The ones too humid and the ones where I can see the leaves budding on the tree. The ones filled with crisp air and rustling leaves and the ones where the moistness of nighttime pools on the grass. All of them, gifts.
It’s a matter of perspective, of course. I could see the mornings full of rain as less than the others, or the ones with a glorious sunrise as so much better. The humid days might better be classified as a punishment rather than a gift, but then I’d be missing something.
What I’d be missing is grace.
What strikes me in Paul’s retelling of his conversion experience is that it is God who finds him, not the other way round. God takes the initiative, God reaches out, God called Paul through God’s grace. Too often we as Christians describe it going in the other direction. We’re the ones who have found God, as if we stumbled upon God one day as we did our errands on Route 9. But it’s not what we’ve done. It’s all about God reaching out to us.
And the way Paul talks about his own interactions with God, God had a plan right from the beginning, even before Paul was born. (By the way, this should say something to us about the sanctity of human life even while we are in the womb.) Paul spent time learning about the intricacies of Judaism, and developed a deep zeal for the traditions of his faith. He lived earnestly and with immense passion. And then God interrupted his life with this gift of grace, and instantly Paul experienced deep change.
Put another way, grace transforms us. When God comes in to our lives — when God interrupts our lives—we too are invited to deep change.
I find it fascinating that Paul describes his dedication to Judaism prior to the Damascus Road event. Paul is earnest and full of fervor. Once Jesus comes in and grace abounds, Paul is still full of earnest and fervor, it’s just now for the way of Jesus. Notice that Paul is used to traveling around. He knows the Torah better than anyone his age. Those things continue in his life for Christ. He travels even further afield to share the Gospel. His knowledge allows him to speak to his critics who want to make following Jesus all about following the Jewish law. God doesn’t declare those skills in Paul as useless. Rather, God takes what we do — our work and calling and passion— and uses it, transforms it to his good.
There are days when all of us hate our work; a truth highlighted way back in the beginning of Genesis. Days when we are mentally or physically drained or when we feel under-appreciated or wish we could land that job of our fantasies (that won’t ever exist by the way but will always call to us as siren songs). Work is like that—whether it’s something we are paid for or not—stay at home parents and retirees are in this boat as well—all of us have things given to us each day that need to be done. But if we allow those days when we are bogged down to lead us to cynicism and performing what is given to us half-heartedly, then we possibly lose sight of the grace in our lives. I think that God takes our experiences, our work, our passions and uses them for God’s redeeming work either in the present or in the future, and, possibly, both.
While I thought I would be a priest from an early age, I lost sight of that in college due in part to trying to find a home in a denomination. Because of that struggle, I ended up getting not one but two degrees in rhetoric and composition. While pursuing my masters, I worked in the high-tech industry doing marketing communications and website design and development. Once I figured out that I really wanted to be a clergy person, I could have decided that my experience in the business world was a mistake, a waste of many years of my life.
But that would not be seeing God’s grace. I learned how to string words together to make meaning—not a bad thing for someone who makes their living by the sweat of their lips, as my seminary professor put it. And my time working in the 128 Corridor means that when I meet with someone to talk about their work I can relate. I know the intense pressure of a start up environment and the challenge of life working in a cube.
God doesn’t waste our life experiences. God takes what we are doing now, our passions, our previous jobs, God takes all of it and transforms it to further the work of the kingdom. Maybe you’re at a transition point in life wondering what is next. Maybe your job is getting you down. Maybe you wish you could find a vocation—a place where you are using your gifts. Maybe you feel great uncertainty wondering if the disjointed experiences you’ve had to this point in your life will ever be meaningful.
That’s where grace comes pouring in. God takes all of our lives and making something new. It’s a matter of perspective. Will we see God’s grace in the midst of life, in the moments early in the morning, or as we’re driving on the MassPike or in running to yet another after school event? Will we trust that our passions and desires and strengths won’t be wasted but be used by God even if we can’t see the meaning and grace today?
God took Paul, this fanatical Christian-persecuting zealot and transformed him. Others said this, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” That’s grace. Pure gift. And what God did for Paul, he wants to do for us as well. Will we be open to seeing and experiencing God’s grace?
 Frederick Buechner. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. New York: Harper Collins, 1993. 38-9.