The sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on August 30, 2020. It can be viewed on our YouTube Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.
The texts were:
Acts 9: 1-19
“You’re never going to change anyone’s mind.” “No one ever changes.” Common phrases that I’ve heard and personally used over the past few years. How many of us have posted a meme or an article on social media thinking “oh if people just read this, their minds will completely change and they will understand.” I have! And it turns out, I’m wrong. There are so many conversations right now where it seems that we talk just to state our positions, doctrine, and dogma and not to expand our understanding. Just spend about 1.5 seconds on any social media platform and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about. When opinions are truths and religion is a weapon, we know that this is going to go downhill quickly. We get set in our own thought patterns and we assume, with good reason, that others are set too. So we reverberate in our own echo chambers and continue on our way. Until something happens that forces us to do, think and see differently. And it’s rarely a meme from Facebook. So what does change us? What does move us into new patterns, new thought processes, new understandings?
Saul was a man who knew what he believed, who knew what was right and knew what to do about people who were wrong. He had been raised as a devout Jew, a second generation Pharisee leader and had much invested in ensuring that nothing ever changed, that the religion remained pure and adhered to the truth. So this movement that had sprung up of John the Baptist and Jesus was a huge problem. All of the sudden people were challenging both the Roman and Temple authorities, and were gathering in groups by the thousands demanding that those whom those in power devalued, marginalized, oppressed, abused and murdered by the state and the religious authorities mattered. It was frightening indeed. Ordinary people, people who should just stay in their place in society, be quiet and be glad they are allowed to live in the Roman Empire, were hearing this message that God said they deserved equality, justice and an opportunity for an abundant life. They protested and shouted Hosanna as Jesus paraded into Jerusalem and after Jesus was crucified and allegedly came back from the dead, they grew in numbers and power. These people of The Way, who shared, cared and spoke out against injustice were dangerous, they were upsetting the status quo and they needed to be stopped at any cost, even death.
So Saul began a campaign of misinformation to rile up people who would be willing to confront The Way people. And he had pretty good success. He pushed people to stone one of these apostles who were keeping the memory of Jesus alive. He got the temple authorities in Jerusalem to give him official papers to root out followers in Damascus. Anyone Jew who was off track with this Jesus stuff needed to be silenced. Ensuring that the religion was followed correctly was more important than people’s lives. And really, it was their own fault if they were imprisoned, harmed or killed. Afterall, they were wrong. For Saul, his religion and beliefs meant that some people didn’t matter or worse yet, shouldn’t exist.
But then on the road to Damascus, there was a flash of light, a voice and darkness. “Why are you persecuting me?” It was Jesus. The Christ, the spark of God’s love who lives in us all, proclaiming that harming any person is harming Godself and that if his religion was causing him to hate someone, he needed a new religion. Saul was suddenly confronted by his own hypocrisy and previous inability to see what he was really doing. Saul’s companions escorted him the rest of the way to Damascus, where Saul sat in darkness, hunger and thirst for three days and waited for Ananias.
Ananias had heard about Saul of Tarsus, who among The Way hadn’t? Saul was hunting them down like prey and apparently had the backing, even if unofficially, of the Temple authorities. Suddenly, Ananias himself had a vision, he was to go help him to see. Ananias was appropriately afraid and voiced what he had heard about Saul. Could this man really be changed? But God tells Ananias that there is more than he knows about Saul, God is going to work through Saul, and work through Ananias. So a nervous Ananias goes to Saul, lays his hands on him and his vision is returned. Saul is baptized, eats and recovers. Saul had changed indeed.
We might say that the miracle is the flash of light, Jesus’ voice and Ananias’ vision. But I don’t think it was those experiences that changed the hearts and minds of Saul or Ananias. I don’t think it all happened in a flash. What if it was the journey? What if what changed those two men, is what can also change us? What if we need to stop looking for the miraculous flash of light when suddenly all is made clear and everyone lives in harmony singing Kum By Yah? What if the point of this story is that God indeed can change us but we have to do the hard work? God equipped Saul and Ananias with what they needed to see how a religious viewpoint that compels you to hate certain people or live in fear can be transformed. God equipped them to change and gave them everything they needed, each other. But they still had to do the hard work. They still had to give something up, their sight, food, drink, comfort, and safety, vocation, thought processes, and deeply held convictions.
We are having our Damascus Road moment my friends, Jesus is calling out to us-why are we persecuting him? This pandemic, the racial reckoning, the #blacklivesmatter movement, the destruction and death from wildfires, hurricanes and derechos from climate change is the flash of lightening and the vision and now we have to do the hard work of change-we have to go. We have to do the hard work of change so that not one more Black beloved person of God is murdered by our institutions, the hard work of caring for God’s creation, the hard work to see those who disagree with us not as an enemy to silence, the hard work of setting aside previously incorrect religious teachings regarding gender justice and our LBGTQIA siblings. This is hard work of the gospel, of truly loving our neighbor my friends. You and me, together, on this road and it will take more than three days and we may feel inadequate to see everything clearly but we keep doing the hard walk. We have to for there is no going back, and we have a new road, for we know God’s grace ourselves and that it is for all.
Saul changes his name to Paul to mark his transformation in the promises of God. Paul will suffer for the gospel it says, and what that means is that he gives up his own control over his life and turns it over to Jesus. We too, will suffer, we will give up our control, power, ego and our very lives so that the gospel of Jesus can be lived and proclaimed. We will have to change, transform, stop doing what we have done before particularly what denies life to any person, for in status quo and living in the past is only death. We go out, new people, with new hearts, renewed minds and we know that life will not, cannot ever be the same. But God is always the same with love, grace, mercy, strength, courage and plenty of ways to keep transforming us for the journey. Thanks be to God.