Tragedy comes in all shapes and sizes. This past week, tragedy came unexpectedly to St. James School when, on Wednesdays morning it was discovered that the six egg-laying hens that live on the property had all been murdered. Feathers were strewn about the henhouse, and mangled remains of some of the hens were found around the schoolyard. To those familiar with these sorts of things the deed bore all the signs of the work of a fox, such as are occasionally seen slinking around the churchyard and the school grounds. It’s not as though we need much more evidence that we live in a dangerous and violent world.
The students who I talked to that day were saddened but not distraught. By the standards of too many of these children, the slaughter of six chickens is an unremarkable incident and a fairly insignificant spilling of blood. As an act of injustice, I guess it ranked low on any scale, especially during the week the school remembered the work and sacrifice of Martin Luther King, and the long struggle for justice for black people in this nation.
But for me the loss of the hens and the eggs they’d given was poignant because of the awful symbolism of it. The fox, you see, had not gained entry in the little fenced in yard built for the hens – the wire fencing is buried two feet deep in order to prevent just such an incursion. But the fox found a weakness in the henhouse itself, the back of which is unprotected by the fence.
Our school, as many of you know, is surrounded by high 19th century walls of Wissahickon schist. It is a protected oasis of learning, gracefulness, and hope, in a part of the city that is too often associated with violence, bloodshed, and murder. The hens, when they arrived, seemed to me to be another hopeful sign of the peaceable kingdom being realized behind those walls on Clearfield Street. And the fox’s awful assault was a reminder to me that every day, we and our students are sent out as sheep into the midst of wolves – to mix the mammalian metaphor.
It is this very warning we heard this morning on the lips of Jesus as he charged his Twelve Apostles with their mission: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
But our purpose here today is not sing the praises of those Twelve, nor to dissect our Lord’s instructions to them. Our purpose is to consider the one Apostle who was not there at the time, for he had not yet been called by Jesus: St. Paul.
And the irony of this Gospel reading is that if ever there was a wolf who was called into the midst of the sheep, it was St. Paul. He was a firebrand denouncer and enthusiastic persecutor of the early followers of Jesus. We heard what he wrote about himself, “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” Paul was a wolf! He was vicious, and cunning, and proud of it. He’d have been the Wolf of Straight Street if he had gotten to Damascus before he was knocked to the ground beneath rays of shining light, and had he not asked his momentous question, “Who are you, Lord?”
Here is a question for the ages. And here is a question for the wolves, if only they would ask it. “Who are you, Lord?”
Here is a question for the foxes to ask as they circle closer to the henhouse, if only a light would knock them off their paws – Who are you, Lord?
Here is a question for the truants, and the drug dealers, and the letches who follow seventh grade girls on their way home from school and call out suggestions to them, to ask – Who are you, Lord?
Here is a question for those who regard the gift of this beautiful earth with such contempt that they clear-cut it, drill it, burn it, and spill all over and in it with reckless abandon, to ask – Who are you, Lord?
Here is a question for small-minded Anglicans who farcically seek out “untainted” bishops to avoid any suggestion that a woman could share in the priesthood of Christ, to ask – Who are you, Lord?
Here is a question for the bigots who still can’t imagine that there’s room in this nation not only for white people, but for black people and brown people, for Jewish people and Muslim people, and for people we don’t even know how to describe yet, to ask – Who are you, Lord?
Here is a question for the workers of darkness who carry out genocide and ethnic cleansings, to ask – Who are you, Lord?
Here is a question for those wreaking havoc in the streets of Paris, slaughtering innocents in the villages of Nigeria, or murdering Christians in Iraq, to ask – Who are you, Lord?
Here is a question for every American to ask before we send our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters to take up warfare again any place at all – Who are you, Lord?
Here is a question for every one of us to ask, when we are caught up in our own self-centeredness, more concerned about things than people, or indifferent to those who suffer – Who are you, Lord?
If only God would throw us to the ground, flood our vision with light, and call out to us by name to get our attention, to make us listen, to prompt us to ask the question! This was the question that St. Paul asked, when he – the great wolf – was knocked off his feet and onto his tuchus, and he heard a voice speaking to him, and calling him by name, “Saul, Saul. Why are you persecuting me?”
Paul, wolf that he was, answered the question with a question, unable to provide a proper answer. But the question was all that was needed, “Who are you, Lord?”
Who am I? I’ll tell you who I am, came the answer: I am Jesus!
Now, this was not the answer that Paul wanted. Don’t you know that Paul hated Jesus? Paul was the wolf to Jesus’ sheep, and happy to have the honor. But here is the first important thing to see in St. Paul’s quite amazing story: that Jesus does not give up on the wolves. Jesus has work to do with the wolves, and he knows them by name.
Why Jesus so often allows the wolves to roam so freely, I cannot say. It is the same old question of why a loving God allows pain, suffering, and evil to exist in his creation, and I just don’t know! But remember, that Jesus is not done with the wolves, metaphorically speaking, and St. Paul is proof of that, because he was a wolf to be reckoned with.
And here is the second important thing to see in this story of Paul’s conversion; remember what Jesus charges Paul to do: he tells him to testify. He does not tell Paul to redirect his tactics of persecution and wage a religious guerilla war. He does not tell him to start blowing things up, cutting people’s heads off, or burning things down. No, he tells him to speak, to preach, to teach, and to guide. He tells him to stop being such a wolf, and learn to be a sheep. And then, Jesus sends Paul out, just like the other Twelve, as a sheep into the midst of wolves.
As far as we know, Paul never again turned back to his old, wolfish ways. Rather, he stood among wolves like a lamb and he bleated and bleated about the love of God, and how it is made known to anyone who cares to listen, by the person of God’s Son Jesus. And sheepishly he changed the world. Having once refused to answer a question with anything but another question (Who are you, Lord), Paul now relentlessly repeats the answer: And the answer is Jesus!
It is Jesus who calls to stop kicking against the power of God and to listen.
It is Jesus who calls to repentance and forgiveness.
It is Jesus who calls to give up being a wolf, and to go out and testify like a sheep!
The idea of being sheep who are sent into the midst of wolves is not necessarily appealing to the sheep. It takes bravery, trust, and faith to be a peaceful creature amidst a world of predators. But this is God’s consistent call.
At this moment in history Christians need to hear again Christ’s call to go out like sheep into the midst of wolves. Too often we have tried to beat the wolves at their own game, as though by adopting wolfish tactics we could somehow accomplish the will of the Great Shepherd. Sheep are poor and defenseless and peaceful. Paul was none of those things until he heard the voice of Jesus. Like us, he strongly suspected there was virtue to be found in wealth and power and cunning. But in his sheepishness he discovered both wisdom and innocence – gifts from the Lord who called him by name.
We need to borrow, again and again, Paul’s question – Who are you, Lord?
And we need to listen, again and again, to the answer:
I am Jesus; I have been who I have been since before the beginning of time.
I am Jesus; I was there when you were made.
I am Jesus; and all wisdom cometh from me.
I am Jesus; and I am the voice of love incarnate.
I am Jesus; and all forgiveness comes from me.
I am Jesus; and I have given you bravery, trust, faith, and peace.
I am Jesus; and I desire not the death of sinners, but rather that they should turn from their wickedness and live.
I am Jesus; and in your baptism I have clothed you in the fairest, whitest wool to keep you warm and protect you.
I am Jesus; and I send you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, because it is only by establishing a peaceable kingdom that my will can be done, and that my law of love can hold sway on the earth.
I am Jesus! So now, get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and to testify to the things in which you have seen me and those in which I will appear to you; to rescue you from all that leads you astray; that you may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of evil to God; so that you may receive forgiveness of sins, and a place among the sanctified!
I am Jesus; and I send you out like sheep in the midst of wolves. You will need bravery, trust, and faith; and you will need to remember to act peaceably in my name, for you are the people of my pasture, and the sheep of my hand. Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia