Sunday I was sick, sick, sick. Thankfully, my co-pastor was able to lead worship for me. But here's the sermon that was all ready to go...
Pentecost Aftermath: Paul
“I want to do it myself!” Any of you that have experience with young children probably know that small children reach a point in their development where they are experimenting with and pushing the boundaries of their independence. My nephew Sam just turned six – he’s a big boy now. But when he was about three or four, he went through this period when no matter what the task was, Sam would refuse help of any kind. If he was trying to get dressed, he didn’t want your help, even though it took him forever to get his clothing on the right direction the right side out. Particularly frustrating was his desire to get in and out of his car seat in the car on his own – it would take him several minutes, when you, the parent or aunt or grandma knew that you could just pick him up and put him in the seat in five seconds. Sam has grown past this particular stage now, but I can still perfectly hear his voice and tone and picture his expression, “I just want to do it myself!”
Of course, adults aren’t much better, are they? Many of you know that my mom, who is slowly becoming a bionic woman, has been through many surgeries – rotator-cuff, knee replacement, two ankle fusions. The ankle fusion, a surgery that failed the first time and had to be repeated, was particularly hard, as my mom was in a non-weight bearing cast for months, and with her previous shoulder injury, she also couldn’t use crutches. That meant she worked with a walker and a wheelchair. My mom, a nurse for 30 years, is a horrible patient, as folks who work in the medical field generally are in my experience! She wouldn’t let anyone help her up the stairs when she got home from the hospital, resulting in several of us hovering around her uselessly while she scooted up the stairs, sweating profusely with the effort. She fell in the bathroom the first morning after being home, because she was trying to do a little rearranging in one of the bathroom cupboards while balancing on one foot. And when I took her out to a craft show, and tried to push her through the crowd in a wheelchair, I realized it wasn’t working because she couldn’t stop trying to steer. Two people trying to steer one object works just about as well as it sounds. It doesn’t work. Mom, not unlike Sam, just wanted to do it herself.
Last week we heard a small mention in the scripture of our main focus for today; as we read about the stoning of Stephen, we heard that those who were putting him to death threw their cloaks at the feet of a man named Saul. Today, we turn our focus to Saul, and our passage opens telling us that Saul has been “breathing threats and murder” against the followers of the way of Jesus. Saul is not content to just strongly disagree with the disciples he encounters. No, he is specifically seeking more authority and ability to have the followers of the way arrested and brought to trial for punishment, like Stephen was. He’s on a journey to Damascus, and he wants to be able to look for Jesus-followers on his journey. Instead, his journey turns out very differently than planned. As he’s travelling, a light flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you?” Paul wonders. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice responds. Saul follows Jesus’ instructions to head to the city to wait for someone to tell him what to do. He’s been temporarily blinded by his encounter with Jesus.
Once in Damascus, he meets a man named Ananias, who was sent by Jesus to help Saul. I’m always amazed by Ananias. Jesus appeared to Ananias to send him to help Saul. But Ananias is skeptical. We read, “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 Jesus responds, “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.” And the next sentence we read starts, “So Ananias went.” He trusted that Jesus knew better than he did! So Ananias lays hands on Saul and says, Jesus, who appeared to you, has sent me “so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Saul’s sight is immediately restored, and he gets up and is baptized, and over the next several days, he spends time with the very disciples he was intent on persecuting, and begins preaching: “Jesus is the Son of God.” Eventually, this Saul is known to us as Paul. He’s the only person to whom Jesus speaks in this way in the scriptures, in this ‘appearance’ of sorts after the resurrection. Paul’s conversion from a persecutor of the Way to a follower of the Way is certainly one of the most dramatic stories of conversion in the Bible.
I worry, though, that the dramatic nature of Paul’s conversion keeps us from finding ourselves in his story. Some of us may have stories of God at work in us in this way, but many of us may not see the beginnings of our relationship with God in such a crystalizing moment. For me, though, the key in the story is how our lives bloom when God is in control. And whether we realize that God is in control in a moment or over time, that’s a core part of our journey with Christ either way! I’m always amazed that we seem to love the image of God as potter so much – you are the Potter, God, I am the clay. Mold me and make me. And so on. But have you ever seen what a potter does with a lump of clay? Have you watched how a potter starts and restarts and works and reworks a lump of clay? The end result is so beautiful – but the process – well, to transform a lump of clay into a beautiful vessel means that clay has to go through a lot! But that biblical image of the God as the potter, us as they clay is just right. That’s exactly it. We have to be molded by God. As Pastor Aaron would say, we have to remember that God is God and we are not.
Several folks from our congregation spent the last three days at Annual Conference, the regional decision-making body for our denomination. Liverpool First was well represented – besides Aaron and myself we had lay delegates Kay Phillips and Pat Cupernall, youth delegate Elliott Lawrence, and two more of our own on conference staff – Martha Miller and Pat Toukatly. During one worship service, our Bishop, Mark Webb, shared this powerful video, set to the music that was our theme song for the event. [VIDEO] All around/ Hope is springing up from this old ground/ Out of chaos life is being found in You/ You make beautiful things/ You make beautiful things out of the dust/ You make beautiful things/ You make beautiful things out of us.
We try to change our messed up lives over and over. Try to change and fail. Try to change and fail. We forget that it is God who transforms us, God who meets us on the road, God who redeems us. We try so hard to save ourselves. We’re like Sam, petulant children. We want to do it ourselves! But although by God we are nurtured and strengthened and can grow more deeply in discipleship, it is always God who redeems us, God who saves us, God who makes us new. Saul – Paul – he learned that in a dramatic way. Ananias, a disciple already, was continuing to learn that as he had to trust that Jesus knew what he was doing in calling Paul. Sometimes it takes us time to hand over control to God. Sometimes God helps us do it all at once. Sometimes we take baby-steps. But friends, with us, sometimes in spite of us, God is making beautiful things out of us, out of the dust of our lives. As it turns out, we can’t do it by ourselves. And so God gives us fellow journeyers on the way. God gives us supporters and mentors to walk beside us. God gives us people like Ananias, who trust God that we can change. And God gives us Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, to find us when we are on the wrong road, to make things right, and make something beautiful out of dusty paths. Thanks be to God. Amen.