Psalm 139: 1-12; Acts 9:1-9
Well – here we are. Here we are, at the end of another program year. It has been a pretty good one, don’t you think? We did a lot together. I think our church is stronger for all we have accomplished and we even had some fun along the way.
Now I know, as Kathy said in her great children’s time last week, that while our kids are busy getting their school grades for the year, (seeing how they are measuring up and how well they learned all that was taught,) we here in church don’t need to worry about that. Here in church, we can be assured that in God’s mind we all get an A+. This is celebrated by the psalmist in our first reading this morning. God has searched us and knows us completely, and God will never leave us. We always will measure up in God’s eyes because God’s love is steadfast. God will be with us always regardless of where we go, what we do, how we are.
That may be so, and I do believe it is. But as the psalmist also says that ‘knowledge is just too wonderful for me.” So I, for one, I could really benefit by something a bit more concrete. I would actually find it quite helpful to receive a report card marking out quite clearly how I am doing on my faith journey. It would be really helpful to get some concrete feedback from God as to whether I was learning what was being taught. I would really love to know, am I on the right track? Or more importantly, am I not?
Or wouldn’t it be great if there was some kind of measurement we could do to check the status of our faith. Something like a blood pressure cuff of sorts that we could pump it up and it would tell us the health of our faith. Am I in the healthy zone? Or is my faith too low? Or perhaps too high making me overly zealous about certain things?
I don’t mean to make light of this. It’s actually really quite serious. One of the greatest privileges I have as a Pastor is when someone asks to meet with me in order to talk about what is on their heart. It is a precious treasure to sit down with someone as they share what is keeping them up at night, what they are worried about or perhaps about that deep and persistent loneliness that they are just too scared of to really take a look at.
And in these holy conversations, one of the things that I hear the most, hands down, is that people wish they had more faith. They long for a certainty that first there is a God, and then second, to be able to trust that God. They want to believe, but they say they don’t know how to do so. They tell me quite poignantly that they want so very much to be close to God even though they are not sure know what or if God is.
And when I probe a bit and ask, why? Why do you want to have more faith? Why do you want to know if there is a God let along grow closer to God? People usually say, because they want to have a greater sense of peace and calm and trust. That they want to have a greater sense of meaning and assurance that they are living the way they are supposed to be living their lives. There is this anxiety and worry wondering what will happen if they aren’t? What if they are missing their real purpose for being alive and time is running out?
That laser question that Mary Oliver asks at the end of her poem The Summer Day, a poem that I heard her say is one of the 3 or 4, out of hundreds of her poems that over the years have most powerfully have connected with people, the question that she asks at the end of that poem haunts us doesn’t it? It haunts us when she says “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Yikes, were we supposed to have a plan? And for those of us who did manage to have a plan, can we be sure it is the right one?
We may desire clarity and certainty. We may want to have more faith and greater assurance, but what if that is actually not what the life of faith is all about. What if it turns out that what we do is not as important as how we do it? What if it is our intention not our outcomes that are a sign of faithful living?
For we see something rather remarkable in the passage from Acts this morning. Something that if we allow ourselves to see it could very well change how we see ourselves, our God and what living a life of faith looks like.
We may struggle with wanting to have more faith and worrying about if we living the way we ought to, but the same cannot be said for Saul. At least not as our Scripture from the book of Acts opens. No. Just the opposite in fact. Saul has a plan, but more than that he is certain he has the right plan, a good plan that is pleasing to God. Saul is convinced that if God were to give him a report card assessing his faith, he would have straight A’s. And if such a device did exist that could measure the health of Saul’s faith, he would certainly be smack dap in the green zone.
Saul’s plan is to round up and get rid of all those who call themselves the Way. All of those who followed that man Jesus and who claim that somehow by following Jesus they have experienced a quality and purpose in their lives that they had not known before. His plan was to shut down this nonsense that being “in Christ” as they said somehow changed their life.
And so he was on that road to Damascus in order to execute his plan when it all falls apart and he literally falls down and hits the ground. Turns out he had gotten it wrong. His plan was wrong.
But what does not happen next in this story is what I find so amazing. What is not a part of the story, what is lacking speaks volumes and brings me to my knees. And that is, nowhere in this story does God get mad at Saul. Nowhere does God scold, or punish or give Saul a big fat F for having failed God. There is no judgment here. No penance. Saul got it wrong. By all accounts he was not only not faithful but he actually was hurting God. Saul got it wrong as badly as anyone could.
But instead of giving up on Saul, God saves Saul. God sees that Saul gets safely to Damascus and then sends the very one Saul sought to capture to Saul to tend to him and bring him into the new life, into the new creation that God was working in him. Why do you suppose that is?
Why? Because I think that faith is not so much about getting it right as it is about desiring to get it right. And here is the key, it is about desiring to get it right not for our own sake to make us somehow more loveable or worthy, but solely for God’s sake, — solely out of our desire to love and please and even know God. We don’t have to orchestrate our own salvation. We cannot anyway and thinking we do puts paralyzing pressure and worry on us. Paul had gotten it wrong in thinking he was to shut down those who were walking in the Way, but what is staggering here is that the text seems to suggest that more importantly, he got something right. What he got right was that all he did, he did out of a desire to please God.
And turns out, that desire to please God, again not to gain God’s approval or favor, for we already have that, but simply a desire to please God because of a desire to love God is enough for God to work with.
The life of faith is not so much about getting it right or being right. It is not about clarity or certainty? The life of faith is simply about a longing for God. The desire to please God is the doorway to all that we will ever need. In my mind, no one has expressed this simple truth more purely than Trappist Monk Thomas Merton. He writes:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
The desire to please God does in fact please God and is the ground of our being. And can you begin to see now how our desire to have faith is, in fact, a sign of the presence of our faith? Faith is a heart that yearns for God and our work is to get to the place where we can set down our anxiety and worry and begin to trust that if we do all that we do with a desire to please God then God will put us down on right paths even if we know nothing about it. There is a freedom and joy that comes with and also the security to step out more boldly into our lives.
So let’s put away the report cards. Let’s let go of that crazy faith- blood pressure cuff idea of mine. Let’s step out of the pressure of having a plan and worrying if it is the right plan. Let us step out of all of that. And like Saul in our Scripture for today, lets us stand on the ground of our being which our desire to love and serve God is. And let us trust that if we live out of this place all that we do will in fact be pleasing to God for God will have a hand in shaping what comes next and next and next.
For the misguided, but God desiring man we read about today as Saul will go on to be Paul the Apostle. The Paul Amy spoke to us about last week who hoped against hope. The Paul, who will spend the rest of his days, traveling all around the Mediterranean basin changing lives by spreading the good news of this steadfast love of God that makes its home in an open and desiring heart.
So let our desire lead us. Let our desire open the doors and windows of our heart. Let that be first and let us trust that with that God that will be able to redeem all things and will lay out paths of healing and wholeness beyond our wildest imaginings. May such good news be made manifest in our desiring not just for our well-being but for the well-being of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.