From “Do People Really Change?” May 5 sermon on Acts 9:1-6, by Rev. Nate Klug.
Listen to this week’s sermon by clicking here.
After his conversion on the road today…
Saul ends up traveling the world to spread the message of Jesus’ love.
He organizes new churches.
He writes passionate, proud, poetic letters about what faith in Christ means.
He ends up in Rome, and dies a martyr himself. Just like Stephen.
And two thousand years later, when we look back on the Jewish movement that became Christianity, that spread all over the world…
there is no doubt who is the most important figure in its development.
It’s this same, complicated man. It’s Saul.
Do people really change?
(Sometimes when I title my sermons, I have some idea of where I’m going to land beforehand. It’s probably a good idea in general.)
But this time, I didn’t have clue where I was going!
I chose my title, because I wanted to figure out what I thought about this question.
And any of us who work closely with others in our jobs…
or have a complicated person in our family…
or are in a relationship, or have friends…
does that cover all of us?
You have probably wondered about this question, too...
Do people really change?
And I don’t know if you can tell by my title, but I approached this question with a fair amount of skepticism this week.
Now, I know I’m supposed to say, “Of course, people change! Saul does.
The Bible is full of stories of transformation.”
But I need to preach what I feel.
And I realized my skepticism, these days, comes from two places.
First, I think our culture too easily accepts stories of transformation, from its celebrities and politicians and powerful people.
We scarf these stories down like fast food!
(This is one legacy of our Puritan roots, maybe…
Where you had to testify about your conversion in front of the church, to get welcomed into the elect.)
And whether it’s a comedian like Louis CK, or an athlete like Kobe Bryant, or a company like Facebook…
I have seen too many people in power use these narratives to their advantage.
A person in power messes up.
You get caught. You apologize. Maybe tear up a little.
And then after a little while, you are back in the spotlight. Behaving more or less as before.
We have saved your seat for you!
And secondly, on a more personal level…
I have known quite a few people who have been hurt, because they were in relationships where the other person needed to change.
Some dangerous or painful behavior was happening.
And the other person promised they’d do better.
And they believed them, or wanted to believe them.
And then the dangerous or painful behavior happened again.
And the cycle began all over.
Both these situations are examples of what the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer brilliantly calls, “cheap grace.”
Cheap grace is forgiveness announced and received, when it isn’t really earned.
It’s mercy, without the hard work of repentance.
It’s the twelfth step of AA or Al Anon, without the fifth step of saying sorry.
It’s “transformation,” without change.
“God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,”
the famous Serenity Prayer begins.
All the things we can’t change… about the world.
Help us be OK with who we see in the mirror, tomorrow.
A mentor once told me a story about Zusha, a great medieval Rabbi.
Zusha was at the end of his life. And he was troubled about something.
And his students all said, “Rabbi, don’t worry!
After all the good deeds you have done, God will certainly welcome you with a great reward in heaven!”
And the rabbi said, “No…When I get to heaven, I think God’s going to ask me one question.
And God’s not going to say, 'Why weren't you more like Moses?' or 'Why weren't you more like Sarah?'
No, God will ask, ‘Zusha, why weren't you more like Zusha?'
For Zusha, and for Saul…
true change, real change, actually meant becoming themselves.
After all, when Saul started following Jesus…
it’s not like this intense man suddenly became a tie-dye-wearing hippie!
He wasn’t suddenly going out to hug trees, and release doves into the sky.
No, his letters still show that he was a fiery person.
But now, he was who he was…for God’s love.
All his energy and passion was focused in God.
So when we pray for transformation, for ourselves and others…
maybe this is what we should ask for.
If I’m an extrovert… let me be loud and proud, and the life of your party, God!
If I’m an introvert…let me use my listening skills to tune in to your still small Voice.
And if we’re praying for someone else…someone who is depressed…
Someone who isn’t on the right track…
Let’s ask that they might first find God’s presence in that place.
And learn to love themselves, right now.
Change me, God. But don’t replace all the parts of my car, all at once.
Just point my humble, beat-up VW Bug in your direction. Amen.