Sermon April 10, 2016
“Who Rescued Whom?”
I’m guessing most of you have seen the bumper stickers with the paw prints that ask “Who rescued who?” If you are a pet lover, you know the experience of joy that comes from interacting with your pet. Most people I know that have pets are smitten with them and convinced that their pet is special. My friend believes that her dog is one of the seven best dogs in the world…maybe the best. These wonderful creatures steal our hearts and research shows they make us healthier. They are supposed to lower our blood pressure, help us with depression, among other benefits. The thing I appreciate about the bumper sticker is the twist. We assume we are doing pets a favor when we give them a home. The bumper sticker reminds us that we too are changed by the experience.
The scripture from Acts is the story of Paul’s conversion. He is known as Saul and he is not a nice man. He does horrible things to followers of Jesus and is well known for his awful acts. Saul is on the road in the reading this morning when he is blinded and falls to the ground. He hears Jesus asking why he persecutes him. Before long he is baptized and becomes an evangelist for Jesus. It might seem like he is the one whom the story is about…Saul/Paul is the one we know. He wrote letters to the early church that are included in our Bible. He went from being known for his awful treatment of people to being Jesus’ number one evangelist. That’s a powerful witness. This Jesus we follow can change people who have the worst track records into people who perform miracles of love. We could end the story there and be awed by God’s amazing ability to transform lives of “those people.”
This is where it gets real for me. Saul/Paul wasn’t the only one changed in this story. In fact, the other one who was changed was already a follower. It may seem he doesn’t need to change or perhaps he could just be tweaked a bit. Listen to Ken Medema tell about Ananias…(play “Sittin’ by the Window Prayin’” until 3:15).
I’m guessing most of us can’t begin to identify with Saul – we aren’t the ones out there torturing people, but we aren’t the number one evangelist for Jesus either. But Ananias…he’s just a guy. He’s praying and God tells him to go to Saul and lay hands on him. Maybe we do know what it is like to feel called to go to someone we despise, fear, or can’t bear to be near. Maybe we feel like we should talk to someone we cannot stand, but to touch that person? That is asking too much.
When I was in seminary, I did the Appalachia Service Project. You may know that Appalachia is one of the most impoverished areas of the country. There are few resources available so for more than fifty years, groups of youth and young adults have gone to do home repairs for low-income families. My work team was assigned to the home of Kathy, a single mom with three children and several other relatives who stayed with her. Her house was located on a road called Poor Valley. Her yard was filled with trash, discarded furniture, and dogs—there were at least ten of them. Her house was a patchwork of various rooms—all were dark and crowded. The TV was on constantly, but the only picture on the screen was the forms made by static. There was no garbage pickup. The nearest dumpster was several miles away and she had no car. The outhouse was nearly full.
We were to put gutters on her house, then insulate and sheet rock the newest room. We got to the site, unloaded our tools, and walked around the house several times trying to figure out where to begin. None of us knew how to put up gutters. I had never heard of many of the tools we had. Kathy’s stepbrother Eddie came outside. He was covered in tattoos – this was 1988 – not a sight you saw every day. Eddie helped us put the gutters up. It would have taken us weeks to do what we did in two days with Eddie. Each morning, we would arrive and slowly work on our task for the day. An hour later, Eddie would show up and the momentum would pick up. We relied on Eddie. He quickly became the most important member of our work team. We didn’t know the other family member’s names, but Eddie became our friend.
On Thursday, Eddie ate lunch with us and he told us about life in Jonesville, Virginia. He talked about working in tobacco fields, people growing marijuana and about snake handling churches. He told us he had several high power guns and could get us some if we wanted him too. He talked about the Ku Klux Klan and how active they were in that area. I was really disturbed by this, but we went back to work.
That afternoon Eddie got hot and took off his shirt. He turned to nail the sheetrock in and we saw the tattoo. It was a picture of a KKK member carrying a cross with a tombstone that said, “R.I.P.N.” There was a banner at the bottom that said, “Love Thy Race.” I was overwhelmed with the feelings that flooded in at that moment. I was furious that this person I had trusted was filled with hate. I was terrified that he would hurt us. I felt vulnerable in this small room with him. I felt like Ananias and wanted to protest, “Jesus, we have heard how much evil this man has done to your people in Jonesville.” Really, what was I supposed to do now?
Play “Sittin’ by the Window Prayin’” until end…
We live in a time where the chasm between people seems to grow wider each day. It is easy to demonize those who think differently than us. It is easy to write off those who do horrible things. What do we do with the reality that we are ALL created by God? What do we do with Jesus who walks among us and calls us into relationship with one another? This isn’t a story about Saul and it isn’t about Ananias. It is about God’s powerful love incarnate in Jesus that changes us all and calls us into loving, forgiving relationships even with people we despise and fear. It calls us to allow God to remove the scales from our eyes and the chains from our hearts. When we learn to see with the eyes of God, we will finally be free. It may be then that we discover that we are the ones who have been rescued.