Tuesday, July 7, 2020

“Blinded” - July 5, 2020

Text: Acts 9:1-19

Acts is the story of the gospel spreading throughout the Mediterranean world.  There are some key moments in that story, hinge points that dramatically affect the future of the fledgling church.  And perhaps none is bigger than the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. 

You probably know the story.   Saul was a Pharisee, scrupulous in following the law.  He was concerned about this sectarian movement within Judaism that followed a would-be messiah named Jesus.  This growing movement was seen by many as a threat to orthodox faith.  Saul’s job was to combat this movement, and he did his job very well.  A couple of weeks ago, we read the story of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and learned that a young man named Saul was there, watching everybody’s coats.  Later we read that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, committing them to prison.”

That brings us to this morning’s scripture.  Saul has gotten the OK from the high priest to go to the synagogues in Damascus, looking for followers of the Way, as followers of Jesus were called, so that he could arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem.

But Saul’s plans are suddenly turned upside down.  On the way to Damascus, he is knocked to the ground and blinded by a flash of light.  There is a voice from heaven: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Saul asks who is speaking and the answer is, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Saul is suddenly and dramatically met by Jesus on the road to Damascus, and nothing was ever the same again.  Saul went from being the great persecutor of the church to the great missionary of the church who brought the gospel to the Gentiles.  We know him better as Paul, the name he was known by in those Gentile and Greek-speaking lands.

It is an amazing, dramatic conversion.  And I’ve got to admit: my experience is light years away from Saul’s.  Faith came slowly and gradually for me, not all at once.  There was no blinding light or voice from heaven.  I had not been a persecutor of the church or lived a terrible life.  I really didn’t have a chance – I mean, I was nine years old when I made a profession of faith and was baptized. 

We may find Saul’s conversion to be fascinating, powerful, miraculous, we might find it to be a lot of things, but chances are, we have a hard time relating to it personally.  For most of us, meeting Jesus does not involve being blinded on the road to Des Moines.  However, there is another conversion taking place in this story, one that may be closer to what often happens in our lives.

Saul had been knocked to the ground by what had happened.  Jesus told him to get up and go into the city.  He rose to his feet but could not see.  His traveling companions helped him along.  He went to Damascus and for three days he did not eat or drink.  Saul might have figured that it was all over for him.

Then Ananias enters the story.  We really don’t know anything about him except that he was a disciple in Damascus.  He is only mentioned in the Bible in this passage and in Acts 22, when Paul retells the story of his conversion.  He may have been a resident of Damascus, but it is very possible that he was in Damascus as a refugee.  Perhaps he had left Jerusalem because of the persecution that Saul himself was leading.

Ananias has a vision.  God tells him to go to Saul of Tarsus and lay hands on him so that he might regain his sight.  And Ananias says to God, “Say what?  You have got to be kidding!  Saul wants to see people like me dead!”

Ananias is trying to his best to steer clear of Saul, and God wants him to go see Saul!  “But the Lord said to (Ananias), ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.’”

Maybe the biggest miracle in this story is that Ananias listens to God and goes to Saul.  He has serious doubts.   But he went in faith, and maybe the most amazing words in this passage are these: “Brother Saul.”  “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.’”

Ananias shows an incredible amount of faith and grace.  He is a model of welcome and hospitality.

Paul became the great missionary of the church, establishing and encouraging churches and spreading the faith throughout the Mediterranean world.  He wrote a good bit of the New Testament.  We all know about Paul.   But where would Paul be without Ananias? Without one to be God’s instrument of healing?  Without one to welcome him and introduce him to the Christian community?

People come to Christ in many ways.  Sometimes in dramatic fashion, like Paul.  For most of us, it is in much quieter, less flashy ways.  But we all have opportunities like Ananias – to offer God’s welcome and grace to others.

Paul had to seem like the least likely person to become a follower of Jesus.  It did not even seem in the realm of possibility.  But the core of our faith is the idea that change is possible, right? - that God can bring about new life.  We may want to give up on others, but God never gives up on anyone.  If Saul could change, anybody can change.

Saul’s background helped make him the great apostle of the early church.  He was learned and well-versed in the scriptures.  He moved easily in Jewish circles and in academic circles.  He had the gifts necessary to lead the church.  God called him and transformed his heart, and the skills he had used to persecute the church were now used to build up the church.

The conversion of Saul helps us to see that conversion is not simply a private matter.  It wasn’t simply between Saul and God, or even Saul and God and Ananias.  The entire community at Damascus is apparently as accepting and trusting of Saul as was Ananias.  This former enemy is immediately baptized into the family of faith and then sits down to eat a meal with them.  After being nurtured by this remarkable Damascus community for only a few days, Saul is ready to begin his ministry for Jesus. 

Like Ananias, God calls us to extend God’s welcome to the stranger, to invite into the family of faith  those who may be on the outside, realizing that in one way or another that includes all of us.  It may mean taking the initiative in going to those who are difficult to call brother or sister.

And conversion is not a one-time deal.  It is a continuing journey.  We continue to learn, to grow, to be surprised by life and surprised by God, as Ananias was.  You might even say that despite having seen the amazing work of the Spirit in the life of the church, Ananias himself was a little bit blind to the ways that God might work, and that this was a conversion of sorts for him as well.

I have actually been thinking about this idea of blindness and being able to see lately – the notion that this pandemic and all that has happened over these past months has in a sense helped us to see what we did not see before.  You migth think of this as an apocalyptic time, and in a sense it really is.  The word apocalypse literally means revealing.  Things are being revealed.

Millions of people live paycheck to paycheck, and the disparities of income are only widening.  The pandemic has shown a spotlight on that.  Have you seen on the news the lines of people in their vehicles, lined up for miles and waiting for hours for food to be distributed?  Or folks lined up outside on the sidewalk waiting 6 or 7 hours to have a chance to sign up in person for unemployment benefits?  And all of this was before the moratorium on evictions was lifted.  The need will only grow. 

Pervasive racial injustice has come into full view.  People of color have suffered far more from the pandemic, and then so many instances of brutality toward black people, including but extending far beyond the killing of George Floyd, have made the issue impossible to ignore.

I went to what I would consider good schools.  I consider myself a well-informed person.  Yet in the past few months, I have time and again realized how little I knew.  Somehow I did not know that following the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, peonage systems existed in many southern states.  Black men could be arrested for minor offenses, even things like not holding down a steady job, and sent to prison where they would be leased out to landowners to work the fields – essentially a continuation of slavery.  How did I not know that?

I had heard the term redlining, and had a general idea of what it was, but did not know how pervasive or how awful it was, destroying entire communities.  Why did I not learn these things in school?  It might be because our whole culture has been wearing blinders.  I just learned a few weeks ago that people who can’t afford bail and have to stay in jail until trial are charged jail fees, and along with court costs and fines and interest, indigent people with no ability to pay can easily rack up 15 or $20,000 in debt – sometimes even if they are innocent.  Iowa is one of the worst states for this. 

This has been an eye-opening time.  We may not have been struck down on the road to Damascus, but all of this is to say that we can be blind about a lot of things.  And we all need humility, because we don’t know what we don’t know and we cannot see what we can’t see.

Saul was blinded so that he might come to truly see.  There may be a lot that we do not see.  We can be blind to the people around us, blind to the way our actions affect others, sometimes blind to family members, blind even to the truth about ourselves.  We are imperfect people.  We have blind spots, all of us.  And we are all deeply loved by Christ, who offers us amazing grace and leads us to new life and helps us to see.  As the hymn says, “I once was blind but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

God comes to us in our blindness, in our need, perhaps sending someone like Ananias to help us.  So that we can see.  And so that we may be instruments of Christ’s hope and healing.  Amen.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

“On the Wilderness Road” - June 28, 2020

Text: Acts 8:26-39


Did you know that this is National Deacon Week?  Well, it’s not really, I just kind of made that up, but both last Sunday and this Sunday, our scripture has focused on deacons, so it may not be national, but it has sort of been Deacon Week.  Philip is one of the first deacons appointed in the scripture we read last Sunday, along with Stephen and five others.  He is a trailblazer.  As we read a few minutes ago, an angel tells Philip to go down the wilderness road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. 

And Philip goes, no questions asked.  This was no small thing.  He was a deacon, and his calling was to care for physical needs of the people.  Getting up and leaving on a moment’s notice to travel to a faraway place at the behest of an angel was not exactly what he had signed on for.  But as is so often the case, 90% of the job was “other duties as needed,” and he went.

Philip was told to travel that wilderness road, and we do have some idea of what that is like.  In fact, it feels like we are in the wilderness just now.  I don’t know if any of you are counting, but this is our 13th Sunday of worshiping via Zoom.  We know what it is to be facing the unknown.  We know what it is to be in a new place that feels insecure and uncertain and frightening.

Stephen had been martyred for his faith.  Many of the believers had scattered.  Philip had been preaching and ministering in Samaria. And then an angel tells Philip to take the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.  Nothing like this had ever happened before.  But Philip went immediately.  He has no question that this is what he was supposed to do.

On this road, this wilderness road, he comes along an Ethiopian eunuch who had been to Jerusalem to worship.  This man works for the Candace of Ethiopia as the treasurer.

There is a lot packed into that description.  This man from Ethiopia had traveled to Jerusalem to worship.  If that sounds odd, there was in fact a Jewish community in Ethiopia, as there is to this day.  It dates from pre-exilic times, before the Jews in Jerusalem were taken to captivity in Babylon, so it is a very ancient community.  This man is reading the scroll of the book of Isaiah, but he seems unfamiliar with it.  So perhaps he was a convert to Judaism or someone known as a God-fearer, a person interested in and taking instruction in the Jewish faith.

So, he is either a Jew or at least he is Jew-ish – interested in Judaism.  We know that he is a high government official in Ethiopia.  He is the treasurer for the Candace.  Candace was a title for the queen of Ethiopia, but don’t you prefer Candace?  It sounds more exotic than a garden-variety queen.

We know that this man is very wealthy.  He is traveling in a chariot.  And he has a scroll of Isaiah, which few individuals would possess personally.  He was certainly well-educated.   His skin tone was darker than that of most people in Jerusalem.  And, he was a eunuch.
People were made eunuchs for a reason.  Eunuchs were entrusted with things – like money, like a harem, like an important position.  It wasn’t unheard of for a royal family member to be castrated – so that they could not be king, so they could be trusted not to lead a coup.  This was someone the empire had done violence to.

According to Leviticus, eunuchs were not to be allowed in the temple.  They were thought of as less than whole, almost less than fully human.  But in a big reversal, Isaiah 56 welcomes eunuchs into the temple.  And guess what this man was reading?  He was reading from Isaiah and asks specifically about a passage from Isaiah chapter 53.

In wealth, in race, in class, in sexuality, in family life, in their relation to government and power, in what many would have seen as fitness for worship in the temple, Philip and this man could not be any more different.

I love the way the Bible describes the encounter: “Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’  So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah.”  Either this chariot was in very slow gear, or Philip was one heck of a runner.  He runs alongside the chariot, carrying on a conversation.  And he asks this man, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The Ethiopian invited Philip to join him in the chariot.  In the course of their conversation, the eunuch asks three questions which we might all do well to consider.  First, “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?”

We all need an interpreter, a guide, a mentor. This Ethiopian man had the wisdom to ask for help.  Some of us are not so good at that. 

This man was motivated to acquire an Isaiah scroll at what must have been great expense.  He was seeking faith and understanding, and Philip was privileged to be his guide.  It is interesting that the man did not ask for a teacher, he asked for a guide.  A guide takes part in showing the way.  A guide says, "I will walk alongside you."

Think about this: when he got up that morning, when he sat down for his oatmeal and toast and coffee, never in his wildest dreams did Philip imagine that before the day was over, he would be sitting in a chariot next to the treasurer of the Candace of Ethiopia, having a conversation about the book of Isaiah and about Jesus.

Laura Everett says that to really share the gospel, we need to sit down next to people who are wildly different than us.  We may not end up sitting in a chariot next to an Ethiopian eunuch before the day is over.  But in a world in which it is easy to exist in a bubble with people just like we are, we would do well to develop relationships with folks who are different than us.

The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty held its annual luncheon on Friday.  The BJC has a singular focus on protecting religious liberty and defending the separation of church and state, which are two sides of the same coin.  I had not attended this luncheon before, but since it was online this year, I was there, as I know a couple of you were.  The main part of the luncheon was very interesting, a helpful interview with Robert Jones about American religion and white supremacy.  But then afterwards, they made a financial appeal.  For me, the appeal was just gripping.

A young woman, Sofi Herscher, told her story.  She is a board member but she is not Baptist.  She is not even a Christian.  She is Jewish.  When she was nine years old, she watched her synagogue go up in flames in a fire set by right-wind Christian nationalists.  She thought that all Christians hated her.  But it was an interfaith group of Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Sikhs that came to that community’s aid in that terrible summer and stood by them. 

Years later she became the first non-Christian BJC Fellow, a program for young professionals.  She was drawn by the organization’s dogged pursuit of religious liberty for all people.  She could see supporting that vision as a member of a minority faith but could not understand it from the majority perspective.  Why did they think freedom for all was so important?  She learned a lot.  She learned it was about faith, not power, and she learned, in her words, that Baptists were “super, super complicated.”

She had a moving testimony, and it was a reminder that it is important to walk alongside folks who are different than we are. 

Second question: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”  The Ethiopian had been reading from the Suffering Servant passages.  Who was this suffering servant?  Was it the writer himself, or someone else?  The basic question was, “Who is this all about?”

It’s another good question.  “What is the center of our faith?” Luke, the author of Acts, says that Philip began to speak, and starting with this Scripture, he shared with this man the good news about Jesus.

Who is this all about?  What we do here every week – who is this about?  In the end, it is not about us, it is not about our church, it is not about our denomination, it is not about great music or awesome programs.  It is clearly not about our leading edge technology.  There is a place for all of these things, but we are to point to Jesus, who is at the center of our faith.

We all need a guide, and Jesus is the best guide we have.  He guides us with a simple directive: love one another.  It’s that simple, and it’s that difficult.  His command to “love one another” means listen to one another, consider the needs of others, sacrifice for the sake of others.  Be servants and friends, not rulers and enemies.

And then the third question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Most of us probably don’t being inquiries by asking, “What would prevent me?”  But this man has a history of being prevented from all kinds of things.  He has been prevented from having children, from having a family.  He has been prevented from holding power in his own right.  And by tradition, he had been prevented from worship in the temple.

What was to prevent him from being baptized, from becoming a part of the community of faith?  Well, we could make a list:  he was a person of complicated sexuality.  He was a foreigner who served a foreign ruler.  Despite being Secretary of the Treasury, in that culture’s way of thinking, he was in the end a nobody, a man without family, without heirs, without descendants.  He had reason to think that he might be prevented.

But the answer to his question is obvious.  What was to prevent him?  Nothing.  Nothing at all. 

What is there to keep us from being baptized?  What is to keep us from living the new life in Christ?  What is to keep us from making Jesus the center of our lives?  Nothing.  Nothing at all.

This story is sometimes called the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.  By tradition he is credited with bringing the gospel to Ethiopia and beginning the church there.  But we might also think of this as a turning point, a point of conversion, for Philip.

Philip is not a first-generation disciple, not one of the original disciples.  He is kind of a second-round draft choice, not a star but more of a role player.  But he suits up, he does his job, he is faithful, and the next thing you know he is ministering to the treasurer of the Candace of Ethiopia.  Philip is the one the Spirit chooses for this barrier-breaking assignment.  The Spirit leads him to this place, and it becomes clear to Philip that the Good News of Jesus is for everybody.

Like Philip, like this man from Ethiopia, we are all welcome in God’s family.  There is nothing at all to prevent us from following Jesus.  Nothing at all.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.