Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, March 16, 2008 -- Palm Sunday

Conversion: From Death to Life
Matthew 21:1-11 / Romans 12

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Lion in Winter. Peter O’Toole plays King Henry II who has locked his powerful wife in a remote castle prison -- the backstabbing Eleanor of Aquitaine played by Catherine Hepburn. Henry releases Eleanor so that she can visit the royal family for Christmas. Her visit begins the unraveling of this viciously devouring family. It’s a movie that exposes our own jealousies and the lengths we will go to preserve the facades of our own reputations. Historically, Henry II’s lust for power played out between him and his friend Thomas à Beckett. In the year 1162, Henry got into a quarrel with the bishops of his realm, and in a brazen attempt to gain control of the church, Henry decided to elevate his good buddy Thomas to archbishop. Once Thomas becomes the archbishop, however, he undergoes a sudden transformation. Instead of being the king’s crony with a miter, Thomas à Beckett becomes God’s man and, ultimately, a martyr. Henry feels betrayed. So, on a cold December evening, four of Henry’s knights hunt Thomas down and kill him at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral

Full of remorse, Henry eventually does penance imposed by the pope. He walks to Canterbury Cathedral in sack cloth and ashes and allows himself to be flogged by the monks there. It seems he also transformed by the death of his friend and given an opportunity to find a new life. Towards the end of his life, Henry began building religious foundations in England

I’m wondering if you’ve ever experienced such a change –a time when Jesus Christ called you to a new place in your life – a time when you sensed God leading you to turn your life around and to do a new thing. Maybe a moment like Beckett when God unexpectedly calls you to do something new, or an experience like Henry when you are faced with the repulsiveness of your sin and commit yourself to a new life in Christ. In other words, have you ever experienced a real conversion? Some people have some hang ups around this word. It literally means, “to turn.” Conversion is a change of perspective, not of who you are, but of how you experience life. Conversion doesn’t mean that you’ve turned into another form of protoplasm. You’re still human, but you’re not quite the same, either. You experience life differently. You hear God’s voice in a new way. The presence of God feels more real.

Some people think conversion is something that happens at a revival or a Billy Graham Crusade. Sinners are invited to come forward at the altar call to repent of their past life and accept a new life in Jesus. In the world of Evangelical Christianity, people speak of being born again. They are usually referring to the moment when they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior . . . when they were, in effect, converted. There is a definite process involved in this conversion: stop sinning, express genuine faith, accept Christ, be filled with the Spirit, get baptized and join a church. A person who is a wastrel repents, gives his life to Christ, and becomes a preacher. A hell-bound teen druggie gets saved and gives up the fast and easy life for a new life of holiness. A chain-smoking, poker-playing grannie accepts Christ and begins a Christian aerobics class in the town. People get converted and begin signing their letters “yours in Christ.” This is how some people come into the church – In a crisis of faith, people hear the call of God, they leave behind their old life, and they became born again in Christ. Many people think about conversion in this manner. It is instant and identifiable.

There are others of you here today who were baptized as infants and raised in the church and you don’t have a conversion story that sounds anything like what I just described. You have never experienced a moment when decided to accept Christ and were “born again.” For many of you, there’s a sense of having always believed in God and always feeling at home in the church. The life of faith has not been defined by a moment in time, but rather by an ongoing process. An uneasy tension always arises in the church between those who have had a life-defining conversion moment with Christ and those who have enjoyed a slow and gradual relationship with God. The born-agains are seen by the traditionalists as pushy hurricanes who hammer religion down everyone’s throat. The traditionalists are seen by the born-agains as stagnant water in need of some serious stirring by God. Both sides say “My way is God’s way.” Both points of view refuse to believe that God will do anything other than what one’s personal experience dictates. Caught in the middle are those who are seriously seeking to turn, and change, and grow into Christ -- to be neither hurricane nor puddle, but filled with the life-giving water of Christ. Maybe we all need a conversion -- a turning – a change of perspective.

Here is the reality of my life. Even though I can pinpoint a conversion moment in my own experience, I don’t live a life of 24-hour peace, joy, and victory. I guess I committed my life to Christ with the expectation that Christianity would be like living in a new Eden. But, many times, my life feels like a dried up river bed. Sometimes I still get anxious. I still struggle with some bad habits and defeating attitudes. Much of my faith journey feels like wilderness time– struggling with temptation and trying to fathom the meaning of what life is throwing at me at any moment. I bet that for many of you people of faith, no matter how you got here, life may be the same. Life is lived in the neutral zone.

Our culture knows little of how to prepare us for the waiting involved in the neutral zone. We are eager to use medications and cure-alls, distractions and remedies, to help us avoid the pain and helplessness that the neutral zone imposes.

But, maybe our conversion comes from waiting, and reflecting, and even dying in this neutral zone. Suffering is, I am sorry to say, the most efficient means of transformation. Grief especially has unparalleled power to open our eyes and open our heart, but only over the patient long haul. After all, new beginnings come only after an ending. New life only comes after death. True conversion has to turn from something in order to turn to the life to which God is calling. If this is all true, then maybe conversion is a single moment and a process, but never just an end. Conversion is a beginning point, and a daily re-orientation to Jesus. After all, the cells of our body renew themselves every few days. Nature renews itself through the patterns of weather and seasons. Maybe God is continually renewing us and calling us to turn from death to life, and from old to new.

Maybe real conversion lies in admitting that God can work in us however, whenever, and through whatever means God chooses. Maybe conversion is not a one-size-fits-all garment. Maybe Christian conversion is worked out by each individual within the community of faith.

The Apostle Paul is a great example of what I’m proposing. Some of you may be familiar with Paul’s conversion experience in the Book of Acts. On his way to persecute Christians, he is blinded by the light, comes to faith in Christ, and makes restitution for the wrong he has done. The book of Acts makes it sound as if Paul, following his conversion experience, went right to work after an instant transformation. But, after his conversion experience Paul traveled for a time, spending at least three years in his own neutral zone, rethinking and retooling himself. His change of perspective wasn’t achieved all at once. He had work to do. And that, it seems to me, is the real nature of conversion. Once you have the idea of the change of direction to where God is pulling, then you have to embrace it . . . and that will require some discipline. It won’t be easy. It won’t be comfortable, no matter what anyone tells you.

Palm Sunday symbolizes the kind of conversion I’m talking about. Gentle Jesus, riding on a donkey to the cheering of crowds, is about to enter the neutral zone. Jesus may have been uneasy with the cheering crowds. The word “Hosanna” does not mean “Hip hip hooray.” It means “Save us!” Some of the onlookers call out for Jesus to rescue them from Roman domination. Others egg Jesus on, hoping that he will overstep the limit. As soon as Jesus enters the city, he immediately attacks the Temple. Some people in the city see him as a trigger for their revolution against Rome. Others see Jesus as a threat to the order of the city. Others may be city dwellers who don’t understand why a yokel from Nazareth is entering the City of God as a war hero on the back of a donkey. In the midst of it all, Jesus rides on to death, going where God leads him, facing the neutral zone of Holy Week. He will be tempted to turn away. He will be falsely accused. His friends will leave him. He will die as Rome’s public example of what happens to those who disrupt the peace. And on cross, his arms will stretch to embrace the world. Jesus will die, and he will lie in the neutral zone of a tomb for three days. New life will come, but not right away. Easter doesn’t come without some waiting, and some suffering, and some reflection on conversion from death to life.

For us, life in the neutral zone is a life that resembles Christ’s. In our reading from Romans 12, Paul says it like this: if we are truly converted we will love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. We will be patient in trouble, and always be prayerful. We will help each other out when in need and show genuine hospitality. We will pray for those who persecute us, and we will do our part to live in peace with everyone, as much as possible. We will feed our enemies, not letting evil get the best of us, but conquering evil by doing good.

What does it mean to be open to constant conversion by God? Kathleen Norris is a poet who has written powerfully about her return to church after a twenty-year absence -- her own gradual and painstaking conversion. She writes, “Conversion is seeing ourselves, and the ordinary people in our families, our classrooms, and on the job, in a new light.” Sometimes, God visits us with a light so dazzling that we cannot help but be changed. But often, God's light shines more dimly, in ways and places we will not see unless we're keeping our eyes open for them. Just don’t rush it. Allow God to work. Sometimes it takes a while to move from death to life. It takes time to go from seedlings that are being hardened off to the winds of the world to fruit-bearing people. We cannot create conversion in ourselves or in others. But we can keep our eyes open for the daily ways God invites us to see with new eyes.

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