(I wrote this sermon the day Rachel Held Evans passed away and delivered it the next day, Sunday, May 11, 2019):
When I was in junior high, my friend’s mom worked at the elementary school just down the street. Since they passed by my house on the way in every day, they picked me up. We’d get to the Elementary School early and then walk down to our Middle School. My friend, her big brothers, and me.
One of my favorite memories from these walks to school is one that my friend and her brothers probably don’t remember. I’ve talked before about how my father listened to oldies and my mom to country music and so I never really was introduced to pop until I was in middle school. My friend’s mom always listened to the local pop station, and, several times a week, Annie Lennox’s Walking on Broken Glass would play on that radio.
One day, on our walk, there happened to be a broken glass bottle in the middle of the sidewalk. We stepped over the glass and kept going. But then something funny happened, suddenly my friend stopped and turned around. She walked back to the glass, stopped on the other side of it, stuck her foot out, and tapped it on the glass singing, “Walking on, walking on broken glass.”
I’ve talked about my fondness for Annie Lennox’s music now, but I promise you, at the age of 12, I’m sure I had no idea who she was. And yet this song and this moment have always been happy memories for me.
It’s funny the things we remember. If you had told me in Middle School that I’d be using this song and story in a sermon roughly 25 years later, I would have laughed you out of the room.
But that’s the thing about memory and about life, isn’t it? It’s not always the big moments that stick with us. Often, it’s the small ones that impact us most. Rarely do we know, on waking in the morning, if anything consequential at all will happen that day. I’m certain that when Saul woke up that morning and got ready to head to Damascus, he didn’t think anything special would happen. He woke with the thought that he would go on doing the work of persecuting those who followed Jesus.
Like many zealots, Saul thought his tradition held an exclusive claim to truth and righteousness.
Like many zealots, Saul thought he was commissioned by God to go out and stop these disciples of Jesus of Nazareth who blasphemed against the Lord and who, they believed, had come to, in the words of the elders and scribes, “destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.”
Their way of life and worship was threatened, they thought, by the presence and the preaching of the disciples, so they set out to stop them. These actions were formed out of fear which transformed into hate and spurned them on to murderous acts. Just two chapters before Saul’s conversion, he supports the stoning of Stephen. Chapter eight verse one says, “and Saul approved of their killing of him.”
But then Saul, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” asks to go to Damascus, to the synagogues so that these blasphemers can be stopped once and for all. Saul, who, as you know, will later become the Apostle Paul, feels certain he’s right. He’s filled with holy zeal. These Jesus people, they threaten the way things have always been! They must be stopped!
Grace Hopper says that “the most damaging phrase in the language is: “It’s always been done that way.” If we look back at history, we can see what happens when people cling too long to what’s been, for fear of not knowing what’s to come. We’re afraid of change. We’re afraid of the unknown. This fear has been the impetus for a great many atrocities throughout history. It has been the attitude that has bolstered some of the most heinous evils in this world. Jesus came and did things differently, after all, and we killed him for it.
In her song, Annie Lennox sings:
“Everyone of us was made to suffer
Every one of us was made to weep
We’ve been hurting one another
Now the pain has cut too deep
So take me from the wreckage
Save me from the blast
Lift me up and take me back
Don’t let me keep on walking
I can’t keep on walking on broken glass.”
In the wake of more mass shootings in the last two weeks, these words strike me as especially poignant. We have been hurting one another. There has been far too much weeping. Last week at Grace UCC where I intern, Pastor Rob preached a hard sermon. Sometimes ministers are called to do this. It’s not all inspiring words and uplifting messages. Preachers of the gospel are called, like Jesus taught, to deliver hard truths sometimes—even and especially when times are hardest.
In the words of Pastor Rob, we don’t have a Trump problem or a Pelosi problem. We have a sin/evil problem. As Americans, as Christians, as humans, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and at the world around us. We need to force our eyes open and ask ourselves really hard questions. We live in a society that takes pride in hurting others.
Our nation’s leaders take more pleasure in heaping insults at their political foes than reaching out to solve problems constructively.
We’ve bent the gospel to shape our biases and hate rather than bending our own behavior to the shape of the gospel.
We’re more bothered by even the suggestion of any limits on the right to own weapons designed to kill multitudes than we are by the actual killing, itself.
We despise those we don’t understand, unethically and harmfully seeking to convert LGBTQ persons to be “normal,” because loving them as they are makes us uncomfortable.
We zealously and proudly cling to our prejudices under the auspices of religious freedom, because trying to understand and see the other as a sacred bearer of the divine image is too hard.
Yesterday, Christian author Rachel Held Evans passed away. Like me, she was 37. Like me, she had two young children. And like me, she found a way out of harmful “bible-based” theology and into the embrace of a loving God. I saw her speak in Little Rock years ago when she was promoting her book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. In it, she wrote the following:
We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed him to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up.
I read over those words yesterday while I was writing this sermon. I had just finished it, in fact, and was re-reading when the news of her death flashed across my computer screen. As I read those words, I knew they had a place in today’s discussion. Rachel had plenty of eloquent words to say about the gospel of our current politics and how little so many of us seem to care about love, justice, and humility. But these are our calls, my friends. To love kindness, to do justice, and walk humbly with our God.
Yet humility is one of those things so missing from our world. Saul was not a humble man and, I think it can even be argued that his conversion to Paul did not always guarantee he would be, even as he strived to walk closely the path of Jesus, to help build up those communities of faith struggling in the early days of the church.
Today, when I think of humble servants of God, I think of writers like Rachel, people who have used their platform to advance justice and mercy, people who did so knowing that it was not their message that they were called to preach, but rather what they thought was that of a loving God who came to earth to show us a better way to live. A better way to love.
It used to be popular to ask ourselves: What Would Jesus Do? If we look at the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, we have our answer. Jesus taught us that the three most important commandments were to love God, ourselves, and others. Everything he did in life and death and resurrection has been to serve those commands.
So, the question for us today is this: are we willing to engage with the world as followers of Jesus Christ or will we stay mired in the sin/evil that violates these commands? Will we pick ourselves up and go back to honoring our shared humanity or, will we, in the words of the great Annie Lennox, keep walking on broken glass?