Now I know some of you who came today and saw the title “Road to Damascus” and you thought I was possibly going to unveil the previously unreleased sequel to (PPT) the Bob Hope Movie Road to Morocco. No, that is not the case. Today in my ongoing sermon series on Christianity, I will talk about the character Paul of Tarsus from the Christian Scriptures and the incident that changed his life on his travels to Damascus depicted here in this 1601 painting by Italian Painter Caravaggio. The Painting is entitled “conversion”, but I think that is a misnomer.
Paul wasn’t converted in the way we think of conversion, but in this case I think it was more of a revelation, or possibly a nervous breakdown. There are at least 4 stories of Paul’s revelation in the Christian Scriptures. The first is in the Book of Acts, Chapter 9, where we first hear about his experience “Saul, (this was his name before the experience),
“Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me. He asked who are you? The reply came I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do. The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.”
Now in the Book of Acts, Chapter 22 v 9 he says “Those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me.” and in the version in Chapter 26 his travelling companions had also fallen to the ground but it doesn’t indicate that they saw a light or heard a voice. (Eyewitness accounts can be unreliable) Paul then travels to Damascus where he given the holy spirit by a disciple Ananias, and he then travels to Jerusalem to meet the Apostles.
I tell you this to compare it to the next revelation story as told in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.
“For I want you to know, brothers and sisters that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source nor was I taught it. But I received it from a revelation from Jesus. I did not confer with any human being nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem.. but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lords brother….Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.”
We must remember that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written at least 30 years earlier than Acts, possibly only 20 years after the death of Jesus. In this letter he writes he claims to have received everything directly from God, not from a disciple as it indicates in Acts, And then waited three years even to go to Jerusalem and then meets only James (who by the way is my personal favorite apostle,) but he is not even one of the original apostles listed in the gospels.
Of course in Paul’s letter written by himself to a church, he wants to show himself as an authority, and of course wants to show himself in the best light. The letter to Galatians tells of other teachers of the Gospel coming to Galatia to spread lies. So Paul needs to beef up his authenticity. But I think the two versions speak to a deeper story, the story of the split between the Jerusalem Christians and Paul. The Jerusalem Christians still went to temple, still followed the Jewish Laws, but believed that Jesus was the Messiah and would return to overthrow the Romans and install a Heavenly Kingdom on Earth. Paul had a different vision he wanted to share with others and it was his vision of Jesus that later became known as Christianity. So Paul, in my opinion was the true creator of Christianity. But This Service is called the Road to Damascus. Clearly something happened to Paul on the Way to Damascus. Let me try to put it into the context about what we know about Paul, from the Christian Scriptures, and other writings from that time.
There are some writings that indicate that Paul grew up in a Pagan family and was converted to Judaism. From the Christian Scriptures we learn that at one point earlier in his life he studied under the famous Pharisee teacher Gamaliel. Yet at the time of his revelation Paul was acting as sort of policemen persecuting the new Jewish Christians at the hands of the Jewish High Priests, which were the Sadducees. We know the Sadducees and the Pharisees were sworn enemies whose factions had been killing each other for a couple of centuries. Paul, clearly was someone struggling with his identity. Thinking about some of his writings in relation to sex, it makes me wonder whether he struggled with his sexual identity as well. But that is another sermon. Paul has gone through some tremendous changes in his life. To have studied with a famous Rabbi Gamaliel, and then to find himself a persecutor of fellow Jews must have left him with tremendous conflict. Also to have studied with Gamaliel, would have been an honor and would have indicated that Paul was an educated man and wanted to be a teacher himself.
So one has to wonder what happened in his life that led him to go from wanting to be a teacher to becoming an enforcer for the Jewish Priests who were aligned with the Romans. We might see in this what the psychologist William James called the Divided Self describing an individual whose existence
“is a series of zig zags, who wishes for incompatibles, and wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.”
James continues to speak about how our journey in life is to unify the inner self. He says
“It may come gradually, or it may occur abruptly, it may come through altered feelings, or altered powers of action; or it may come through new intellectual insights, or through experiences which we designate as mystical. However it comes, it brings a characteristic sort of relief”
And this is how I imagine Paul. Constantly arguing against a religious law he cannot keep, Caught between the confluence of a Pagan upbringing and clearly rejecting or most probably being rejected by the Pharisees, and finding himself doing something that probably in his heart he doesn’t believe in,
And so he finds a way to unify his divided self with a revelation of a new way to live his life that combines the pagan mystery religions with the Jewish Studies and the messianic cult of Christian Jews.
I think that is similar to what we as Unitarians Universalist strive for. To find a unity amidst the diversity, to come together and join in mutuality just as our new members have today, adding their experiences to our community joining themselves to something greater than just themselves. As we heard to journey together with us, sharing in the joys and the responsibilities. And we as a Congregation committing to welcome them incorporating their uniqueness into the whole, and committing to walk with them on that ongoing journey as well.
Just as with our new members so it was with Paul important to have good companions on the journey. As we heard one of Paul’s companions was Titus who was a constant traveler with Paul. Titus is a very interesting character. I remember in seminary I almost gave my Scripture teacher a heart attack (I did that often) stating that Titus seemed to be character right out of the HBO Series the Sopranos. He was basically Paul’s enforcer. I am not making this up. In Paul’s letter to Titus Paul gives Titus explicit directions “to silence the rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers and to put things in order.” In Corinthians he was sent to collect funds to bring back to Jerusalem. And so I do not want you to equate our ushers and liaisons with Titus, but I hope you will be as generous as the Corinthians were to Jerusalem as we take our collection today. 50% of our collection this week goes to support and expand our Giving Garden which supplies healthy food to the homeless in our community. It is a vision of new way of living in the world, the way of eating healthy, locally grown organic foods. Please be as generous as you can be. After you have made your donation, we invite you come up and light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your personal lives. Let this sacred time begin.
Just like Paul, many of us struggle to find our way in the world until we find our purpose if we ever find our purpose. Now Paul had a cataclysmic psychic event but as William James indicated it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as that. Sometimes it can be a process. Or sometimes the transformation is forced upon us by circumstances. People become passionate about issues maybe because their lives are affected by it, sometimes by violence, or natural disasters. But if we are lucky, we don’t have to wait for outside forces. Something wakes up inside of us and we hear that still small voice say, yes this is right.
And if we have the courage to listen to that voice, it can change our life immeasurably for the better. Sometimes to get to the mountaintop you have to go through a valley. So if you are in a metaphorical valley, keep seeking. Because once you’ve been to the mountaintop, once you have felt what it is like to have a moment of clarity, a moment of pure understanding, a moment of connection to the interdependent web of existence, and you realize your purpose, you have no choice but to pursue it. And there are things we can consciously do to help that along. We have to take the time to stop and listen to that internal voice, But we also have to make sure we are asking the ourselves the right questions. There are four basic questions you have to stop and ask yourself. (PPT)
First What is it that I love? For to have purpose you must love what you do. To wake up each morning, with all the distractions of life, with all the demands of life, you must have a passion for where you spend your time.
Second, What is it that I am good at, or could be good at. I think this can be the most daunting part of the journey. The uncertainty as to whether you are good enough, or whether you are too old, or too young, or too whatever your objection might be as to what calls you.
If I have found one thing to be true in my life, there is always someone who is better than you and someone who is not as good as you. You only have recognize your strengths and to be as good as you can be
Third, What can you be paid for? For you need to survive to pursue your purpose, but even if someone is independently wealthy, you need to be valued by others to achieve your purpose.
And lastly and I think most importantly What does the world need. Because if you purpose is not what the world needs, making the world a better place, then what you do can become just self serving narcissism.
When you combine the answers to these questions you will find your purpose. If you can even get three out of four you are doing well. Now we think our purpose has to be some major thing like creating world peace. If it is our purpose it is a major thing. Even if that is being a parent or a poet, or machine operator or a server at a restaurant or a volunteer at the Congregation. As Martin Luther King Jr. said
“If a person is called to be a street sweeper, they should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. They should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did their who did their job well.”
But also don’t sell yourself short. You can be more than one thing, or different things at different times of your life. What is it that calls you
(Is it ______list various social justice initiatives)
Get Involved, Join others…….
And don’t ignore the unknown, the transformational vision, such as Paul had. That vision came because he needed to see it. We often can find what we need. We just have to have the courage to look for it and accept it. Paul could have just walked away from his vision and lived the rest of his life in quiet solitude, taken a pension (from the rabbi’s retirement fund) but he followed the vision for better and worse. So I encourage you to think about what needs transforming in your life, in the life of the Congregation and in the world today. Transform yourself and you will transform the world. Transform the world and you will transform yourself. May you find relief and wholeness in your life. May it be so.