Audio is available here. Please note that his week, the audio is very different than the manuscript.
Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost – October 28, 2018
In the New Testament, Saul or Paul (two names for the same person, Hebrew and Greek, respectively) comes on the scene in the seventh chapter of the book called The Acts of the Apostles, when he is present for the execution of the first Christian martyr, a man named Stephen. While Stephen was being stoned to death, Paul stood at some distance and watched over the coats of the murderers.
Paul apparently approved of Stephen’s death, as he quickly becomes a leader in a great persecution of Christians, even going door-to-door, dragging men and women to prison for their beliefs. Acts chapter nine describes Paul as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” and tells of his gaining permission to hunt down these fearful, dispersed disciples, starting in the city of Damascus.
Yet on the way to Damascus, Paul has a theophany, a dramatic encounter with God, in this case, with the risen Christ. As he approaches Damascus, he is blinded by a great flash of light severe enough to knock him off his feet. As he lays there, blinded by the light, he hears a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
It is Jesus, calling out to this fierce, determined persecutor of the church.
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asks.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Jesus then instructs Paul, who is still blind, to rise and continue to Damascus and await further instructions. His companions lead him into the city where he stays at the house of a man named Judas, on Straight Street, where he is without sight, and where he does not drink or eat for three days. This is where this morning’s text begins. Let us listen together for the world of God:
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’
When I was young, I enjoyed playing checkers. I was never particularly good at it, but I managed to enjoy it nonetheless. It seemed that all of my elementary school classmates played checkers.
When my friends and I would play, there was this hard and fast rule which we abided by, one that I am not certain can be found in any official rulebook of checkers. You may have played by this rule as well. The rule was this: your move did not count, it was not final, until you took your finger off the piece you were moving. In fact, there was no time limit on how long you could sit there, your piece tentatively in its new home, waiting to see if it would be returned to its original location.
This practice gave a definite strategic advantage to whoever’s move it was, as it allowed one to see what the consequences would be of the action one was taking. So I would move my checkers piece, observe the new landscape of the board, and if I saw that my move would have disastrous consequences, I would move my piece back where it was, and do something else. Keeping one’s finger on the checkers piece allowed you to quite literally to see into the future, and if that future was one you did not want to be a part of, you could return, unchanged, back to the present.
To tell you the truth, there have been times, many times, when I wished life worked this way, and I wonder if you have wished for this, too. There have been times when I was so unsure what God wanted me to do in a particular situation, where I was so unsure of my next faithful step, when I faced a particular crisis, or even wondered what God wanted me to do with my life. When I was younger and newly married, I had times in my life when I even wrestled with my ministerial vocation itself, wondered if God was indeed calling me to pastor churches at all.
I remember long conversations with Tracy when we were newly married, both of us still in our twenties, on Saturday afternoons when we had crossed the James River from Newport News to Smithfield, and sat beneath the crape myrtle trees in a picturesque alley off Main Street, which was our thinking place, trying to discern God’s plan for my life, our life together, and for our family. I remember sitting there, in conversation with my bride, saying I just wished that I could make this change or that change in my life, but keep my finger on that checkers piece, just until I could see what things would look like in the future, with the safety that came from knowing that if that future was a place where I did not want to be, I could return the piece to where it was and begin again. I wanted to take my next faithful step, but only if I could take it with absolute safety and clarity.
Twenty years later, I am not so sure that is what taking the next faithful step ever looks like.
The story of the conversion of Saint Paul is what begins the narrative of his being a hero of our faith, albeit an unlikely one. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ transforms his life in so many ways. By transforming his life, it transformed his faith; by transforming his faith, it transformed his vocation. By transforming his vocation, it enabled him, with God’s help, to transform much of the ancient Near East by establishing and sustaining congregations. By transforming the ancient Near East, it transformed the lives of countless people in his own day. By transforming those many lives, he transformed our understanding of what is scripture. By transforming our understanding of scripture, he transformed a nascent movement into what we now know as the global Christian church. By transforming the church, he transformed the Roman Empire, and by transforming the Roman Empire, he altered the course of history.
And all of this began when, in a moment of personal crisis, he peered into the heavens and asked a question that at some point each of us must ask: “Who are you, Lord?”
I find it interesting how when Paul has his theophany on the road to Damascus, it is clear that God has his full attention, and that could have been the end of the story of his conversion. God could have healed him—given him back his sight, and then given him a clear mandate to preach the gospel, and that could have been it. This still would be a powerful story of the transformative grace of God. Yet, this is not what God does, because this is not how our God operates.
Instead, God does something else entirely. God brings a wonderful, yet hesitant minor character into the story, a Christian man living in Damascus named Ananias, and he sends Ananias to the house where the still-blinded Paul is waiting and praying, waiting and praying, not eating nor drinking, having visions of a stranger named Ananias being sent to heal him. Ananias somewhat warily travels to the house, fully aware of the life Paul has very recently led and all of the danger that comes with it. And yet, Ananias calls him “brother,” touches him, heals him, baptizes him, shares a meal with him, and brings him into the community of the other disciples. All of this, before Paul preaches the first word about Jesus in any synagogue.
From the outset of Paul’s ministry, God makes it clear how ministry, and how the Christian life itself, was never meant to be a solo endeavor. It does not work that way. God did not set things up that way. Instead, in the economy of God, we live, serve, and experience the living God most authentically when we do so with each other, in community, in the church. As John Wesley describes it, “The New Testament knows no solitary religion.”
For all of the evangelical emphasis on the importance of “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” the personal is always manifest in a life formed within community. For Paul, the next faithful step after his conversion was simply to accept the help of Ananias and live within this new Christian community he had so very recently try to destroy.
For Paul, the next faithful step was realizing he was never going to ever go it alone. As former bishop in the Methodist Church of South Africa Peter Storey says, “When we pray ‘Jesus come into my heart,’ Jesus replies, ‘Can I bring all my friends?’”
Last Sunday, Reveille United Methodist Church received twelve people into our membership along with their families, receiving members at each of our three morning services. Some joined by transferring from other congregations, others joined as new or renewing Christians. Twelve people regarded you and me and our unique way of being Ananias to one another and decided that this was the fertile soil in which they wished to be planted, to grow and bear fruit, to be holy community for one another, to allow us be holy community for them, and in some cases, for their children.
At our 9:00 Point contemporary service, as I preached the sermon, I thought I had a pretty clear idea of who was in attendance that day as I looked into the congregation. Yet as we received Amanda McCluskey into membership, as she made her vows to make Reveille her church home, her Christian community, I looked out and noticed people sitting in the congregation who I did not notice at the beginning of the service. I stood there with Amanda and her family, as she made those holy promises, to love Jesus, to stand against “evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms their present themselves,” to serve Christ “in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.”
I stood there, with one eye on Amanda and one eye on these members of our church who I knew I did not see at the beginning of the service, and then I realized what was happening: those people were not there at the beginning of the service. They were Amanda’s Sunday School class, her little community within the community of faith. They were Ananias to her Paul, people who had gathered in that sacred space for no other reason than to let her know that those deep and sometimes scary-sounding promises were not promises she was making alone, so that when she turned to face the congregation after making those promises, the first faces she saw would be theirs, reminding her in a visible way that she would never walk this journey alone.
All those centuries ago, Paul asked this question, “Who are you Lord?” and God answered by giving him a church, a community of people to forgive him, baptize him, love him, heal him, break bread with him, and enable him to claim who God was uniquely calling him to be, and it made all the difference, for Paul, for the ancient Near East, the world, and ultimately, for you and for me.
This morning, we are baptizing Mary Collins Powell, who was born here in Richmond at the end of March to Blair and Davis Powell. She is one of four children we are scheduled to baptize between now and Advent. As we baptize her, we will say thirty-nine words that in so many ways define this common life we have chosen to live together: “With God’s help, we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.”
In those thirty-nine words, you and I promise to live together, to serve together, to give together, to learn together, to grow together, to weep together, and to rejoice together, if for no other reason than for the sake of this child who is now one of us, so that in the year 2031, when she joins the other young people for whom we have said these words, and made this promise, she can stand in our chancel, look into your faces, and with words that she does not yet have, but that we will teach her, that she can stand before God in this place and proclaim “I believe.”
In her lovely book Traveling Mercies, Some Thoughts on Faith, in an essay titled “Mountain Birthday,” writer Anne Lamott tells the story of her son Sam, who desperately wanted her to allow him to paraglide in a tandem harness off an enormous mountain in Idaho for his seventh birthday. And Sam begged her, and it did not help matters that a paragliding instructor had just explained to them both that he had been paragliding with his son in tandem since he was five.
Lamott recalls her sincere stress in her apparent choice between possibly being overprotective and the stifling of her only son against the possibility of him paragliding off a mountain, especially doing so with someone she just met.
This struggle reminded her of a memory from earlier in her life, something her pastor, an African-American woman named Veronica had said once in a sermon. She said that “when she prays for direction, it is like being in the dark when one spot of illumination always appears just beyond her feet, a circle of light into which she can step. She then takes another step, into where the light has moved, two feet ahead of where the light had been. She takes another step, then another. She says “‘We in our faith work stumble along toward where we think we are supposed to go, bumbling along, and here is what’s so amazing-we end up getting exactly where we are supposed to be.’”
She applied this same practice to her current situation, and her son had a lovely birthday inner-tubing in a creek at the base of the mountain.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that “what happened on the first Easter Sunday was no more significant than the fact that it created a community of love, the likes of which the world had never seen.” God has set before us an opportunity to be that kind of community in this place in this city, in this time, and in the years to come, in an expression of our faith that is truly unique, for we know that there really is no place like Reveille, is there?
Today or in the near future, when we return our estimate of giving cards for 2019, we are taking a “next faithful step” towards the ways in which God will transform lives through the Jesus Christ. We are taking a next faithful step towards making the love and presence of God visible and real, both in this place and around this broken, suffering, wounded world. We are proclaiming to this world the words of the old hymn that say “That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” We are witnessing to the world that there is an alternative to the business-as-usual violence and apathy that surrounds us. We demonstrate for the world that in our life in community, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, the first-fruits of God’s new creation can be realized and experienced, as with courage and conviction we proclaim grace and redemption to a world groaning beneath the burden of hate.
As we make possible the life and ministry we are planning for the year to come, we are stepping into the next circle of light that God has placed in our path, as the God of life leads us to the next step of faithfulness towards the life we were meant to live, that Christ died for you and me and us to have. We are stepping into that circle of light with confidence and hope that in so doing, we are never alone.
Look around you. There are Ananaises everywhere in this place, and none of us walks the journey alone. Take that next faithful step, take your finger off the checker, entrusting to God all that is to come.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.