Grace to you and peace from Jesus Christ, the one who knocks us off our horses (always a sign of war back then) and calls us back to him. AMEN.
Can you imagine a mass murderer traveling around Syria?
Can you imagine a man hunting down and killing his own people traveling on a road to the city of Damascus? It hasn’t been hard to imagine this week, with Syria dominating the headlines. Assad now and Saul way back then, both killing their own people. Brutal, fearsome, monstrous.
Interesting to hear in this text about God’s response to a murderer. We have this in-credible conversion story today of Saul, who was “still breathing threats and murder” — don’t you think an ancient version of an airstrike would have worked better on Saul? Do you believe this conversion really happened? Could a murderous monster become the greatest apostle the church has ever seen? Saul, Acts tells us, was the guy who stood and watched St. Stephen, the first martyr, die at his feet! A cold blooded killer. He was literally hunting down Christians, dragging them out, and executing them. How do you think someone like that ought to be handled?
So Saul has this incredible experience on the road to Damascus. He hears a voice, he’s blinded by the light…
But the real miracle, I believe, is what happens when he arrives in Damascus.
* Reflect this week on your own conversion experiences. On the ways you relate to Saul, the once-evil things you’ve done or said, but God helped you to see the light...
* But the real miracle, I think, is with the Christians in Damascus, starting — but not ending — with Ananias!
Ananias lays hands on this murderer...not because he wants to, but...because God has asked him to.
That’s powerful. How many of us would lay hands on our people’s murderer...because “God told us to”? Such a person in our day in age would probably get ostracized, be called a traitor or a weakling...or who knows what bully names. That person would be seen as a crazy person, hearing voices. But Ananias had a vision. He had his questions. But God says I need this man. So Ananias is faithful: “Here I am, Lord.”
But there’s more. It isn’t just about Ananias, here. It’s about the Christians in Damascus. It says that after Ananias’ prayer, Saul-who-is-renamed-Paul gets food, vision of his own, and strength. The next verse (we don’t have it in our reading), says “he stayed in Damascus for a time.”
Saul, i.e. Paul, is nurtured by the Christians there. I’ve often envisioned this story as a snap — a holy flip of a switch — and suddenly the evil Saul becomes the Apostle Paul. But it’s not! It’s a process. It’s a process that requires Christian community.
The task of the church is, and always has been...to get more money. To get more people in the pews so that we can brag at our synod assemblies to other Lutherans about how great our church is. To huddle up and take care of just the ones we like the most.
No, the task/call of the church is, and always has been...to love our enemies and nurture disciples on their journeys of faith. Caring is a central part of this, but it doesn’t stop at just those we like. We are called to care for our enemies too. And not just because of this passage: Jesus said it! “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
And we, Christian communities, are called to walk along one another in our rehabilitation processes. Nurturing each other in the faith.
This brings me to our dear Vern. And Annie, too:
Now, Vern was never an evil, cruel character like Saul. That’s become obvious to me. Vern wasn’t perfect, but I believe he always had a good heart, even while it may not have been a healthy heart. Vern always had a good heart.
But he wandered/wondered for many years. He was lost. He hurt. He struggled. Like we all do at times. And yet Annie was always praying for him, laying her hands on him. “Annie-nias”, right? Praying for him. Loving him. Taking care of him. And Annie always hoped he’d come to church, and find the good things that are here: Christ at this table, Christ in this community, Christ in the baptismal waters. And on September 23, 2012, I guess you could say Vern fell off the horse, heard a voice. We welcomed him officially into this congregation.
But that was only the beginning. For 6 years, Vern has been with us here, not only faithfully worshiping, but also lovingly serving. Vern rang the bell: calling people to worship, and telling this whole neighborhood that somewhere people are giving praise to God! He was on Church Council for a time. And whenever he spoke we listened...because he spoke from the heart. Vern’s wisdom came from his heart. (It’s ironic and so confusing that it was probably the same organ that failed him.)
Here’s what I’m trying to say: Vern was nurtured by this Christian community. And it takes that Holy Community.
“Annie-nias” couldn’t do it by herself with a fervent prayer and a laying on of hands, right? She needed her brothers and sisters in the faith to gather around and walk along through the times, as Vern too got up, remembered his baptism, took some food (as the text says) and regained his strength.
Like Saul with the Christians in Damascus, Vern stayed with us for a time. And we were made better through him, and through our leader Annie’s faithfulness.
And today we give thanks. Today we remember that God’s got Vern, and all sinner-saints in the eternal embrace. No need to worry about Vern now. His heart is just fine. Today we not only remember Vern, but we cling to the faith/words/prayers of the ages as we comfort one another in our grief. We lean into God’s grace, in Jesus’ defeat of death through the Easter resurrection. Because he lives, Vern’s gonna be just fine. And so will we.
What we can receive from all of this joy and sorrow today are some blessed reminders…
*to be kind, good-hearted to one another, like Vern was to us.
*to look for more conversions on our own roads. God’s not done with us yet!
*to continue to be about the Christian work of nurturing disciples. Whatever the future looks like, *whatever the church looks like, may our mission always be to nurture disciples.
* and finally, to trust in God’s incarnational, resurrection presence with us. We are not left here alone:
God’s Holy Spirit is not just swirling around among us,
Christ is in us,
and calling us back,
to stop it our ‘old’ ways,
to take some food [altar], get up, and follow in Jesus’ way of peace and resurrection hope.