Scripture passage: Acts 9
Our scripture reading this morning is about the beginning of the transformation of Saul into Paul. Saul was a sort of Fred Phelps of his day; a man fervent in his faith, yet so twisted as to think that what God wanted of him was to harrass, pursue and arrest believers in Jesus so that they could officially and legally be killed by the state. Some have referred to him as a bounty hunter of Christians.
Saul had received a very thorough religious education. He believed followrs of Jesus were a terrible threat to the traditions of his faith. He sought to round them up and remove them from society, so that they would stop contaminating others. He pursued this mission agressively — until the day he was struck by lightening.
In a flash, Saul has been reduced to a state of extreme vulnerability. He is blind, stunned, and scared. He is presumably wrestling with God in prayer and will not stop to eat or drink anything. He has heard a powerful and mysterious voice, and done the one thing it instructed (he got up from where he had been knocked to the ground, and allowed himself to be led into the city) but he has no idea what will happen next.
God, however, has a plan. God’s plan is for Saul to be ministered to by one of the people he has been pursuing with such vehement hatred. This minister’s name is Ananias. Needless to say, Ananias is not at all thrilled about the prospect of coming face to face with every Christian’s worst nightmare. But because Jesus wants him to, he summons his courage.
The difference between Saul before his baptism, and Saul after his baptism, was hardly to be believed.
It was confusing for everyone. Saul’s former allies were astounded to find him now arguing against them. And the disciples of Jesus had a hard time trusting this new advocate for their cause. Things got very intense, first in Damascas, and then in Jerusalem. Both times, it was Jesus’ disciples who helped Saul to escape with his life.
Saul went into hiding for awhile. But eventually, the church in Antioch commissioned him, along with Barnabas, to become a traveling preacher (a witness to Jesus) so that more and more people could have the opportunity to hear God’s good news. Saul had left behind his violent ways and his mistaken thinking forever. In his new role, he put himself entirely at his Lord Jesus’ disposal, and he became known as Paul.
Paul actually turned out to be the one who helped the first century church understand that God’s grace was not limited to only to one ethnic, or racial, or geographic group of people. It is thanks to Paul that people of all backgrounds, including people of all religious backgrounds, were understood to be welcome to follow Jesus in company with other believers. Paul is actually the writer of a large portion of the New Testament, originally created as letters to communities of the faithful located in the various places that Paul had traveled or planned to travel.
Paul, always a believer in a Creator God who calls forth a holy people, underwent a complete transformation of thought and behavior. He turned from despising and rejecting Jesus, to embracing and serving him. If such a dramatic change of direction was possible for Paul, maybe there is hope for us as well.
Our problem (of course) is NOT that we don’t believe in Jesus. We’re gathered here today in Jesus’ name. What we have in common with Saul is that too often we are participating in the destruction of God’s people and God’s creation, rather than their advancement and nurture.
Consider, for example, the environment. This week the United States Commission on Ocean Policy issued a report that was summarized by the Union Tribune as saying that the ocean waters adjacent to our nation’s coastlines “are exploited by overfishing, fouled by chronic pollution, invaded by exotic species and victimized by government beaurocracies that fail to protect them.” This conclusion should have been a surprise to no one, since a major privately funded scientific study published last year said essentially the same thing. Because of human impacts, the health of the oceans is in serious jeopardy, and therefore so is our own health, both economic and physical.
Because of a multitude of air-born emissions also generated by human beings, the earth’s climate is changing drastically. Global warming creates heat waves in some places, such as the one that cause 25,000 deaths in Europe last summer, and massive floods and severe winter storms in others. It is no longer just the scientists who worry about the melting of every major glaciel system on earth; insurance companies and businesses are now sounding the alram.
“What will it take to open people’s eyes?” asks scholar Bill McKibben. “What level of hurt will it require? — because people are already hurting.” Through disease, drought, and storm, people are already suffering the consequences of environmental degradation.
We, as individuals, cannot claim that we are not responsible. We drive cars. We use chemical cleaning products, weedkillers, and fertilizers. We purchase the products created for our convenience, entertainment, and reassurance. (I’m as guilty as everybody else.) We enjoy the standard of living made possible by our country’s massive consumption of natural resources. We elect the leaders who make tremendously signficant policy decisions, and who fund or fail to fund, enforce or fail to enforce the guidelines that have been democratically decided upon.
If our leaders don’t act, says McKibben, it’s because they think we don’t want them to act. “No politician seriously believes that Americans are willing to do the things that dealing with global warming will require,” he writes
It’s depressing. Or it would be depressing, if we did not know that God can transfrom us from being participants in systematic destruction to being agents of change, hope, and renewal. That’s what God did for Paul. “I chose him to bring my name before all people,” the Lord explains to Ananais. In other words, “it’s safe for you to go talk to him now because he’s going to be different than he was before.” God can transform us. It happend to Paul. It happens to people in our own time as well.
Susan Hamill has publically shared her story of how she became an advocate for tax reform in the state of Alabama. Her journey is instructive with regard to the possibilities for transformation in all of our lives. Susan is a law school professor with a specialty in federal corporate tax law.
“I had lived in Alabama seven years,” she reports, “which has more taxes than you can shake a stick at, and I had never focused on the state and local inequity. However, I did notice that my first property tax bill for our house was so low I thought it was for the month and not the year. I read the grocery sales slips and though it’s not right to tax groceries at such a high rate, it means that food is even less affordable for people on limited incomes. Meanwhile, my kids are attending a poorly funded school and every year the teachers are begging for donations to cover things. But I didn’t put all the signs together because did not view it as my problem.” “That’s not my area of specialty I would say to myself and besides, I’m too busy.”
Then came Hamill’s sabatical year from teaching. She decided to use the months away to attend a theology school to learn more about her faith. It also happened right at that time someone released a study detailing how Alabama’s state tax system was the least fair in the entire nation. She began to do some research of her own. I could go into details about timber companies owning 71% of the land in Alabama and paying less than 2% of the property taxes, et ceteral, but the point is Hamill’s own conclusions. “We’re living in the Bible Belt here,” she exclaims. “This tax inequality is a product of our laws. Our laws are a product of our voting, which is a product of our people. So we’re talking about a bunch of voting Christians tolerating this. Something is wrong. There’s a gap between the moral imperative of our faith and the way we are allowing our society to be structured.” Susan could no longer stay un-involved.
The short version of the story is that Hamill’s extensive study of the Bible convinced her that God values even the poor and needy and enjoins us not to oppress and take advantage of those who have the least amount of resources and opportunities. Her consultations with professors at the theology school helped her to see that because of her area of professional expertise, she was uniquely qualified to make a difference. She published her interpretations and recommendations in the “Alabama Law Review” and they got an explosive amount of attention in the mainstream media. The newly elected governor (a man she has never spoken to) presented a tax reform plan based on her work.
The reform plan ultimately was voted down, but a dialogue has begun to take place throughout the state in which people are asking questions they never asked before, and looking at things with new eyes. Susan understands very well at this point that her work will have to be sustained and thorough and well-documented, that she will be criticized and attacked, but that she can no longer stay silent or ignore the connections she has seen. “All people are made in the image of God,” she says. “If we are Christians, we have to be concerned about everyone, not just about ourselves, or even about ourselves and God. Jesus says we have to attend to everyone, even those we don’t like, and that’s the minimum bar.”
God can transfrom us from being participants in systematic destruction and injustice, to being agents of change, hope, and renewal. We all have gifts, talents, or knowledge that can be used to advance God’s grace and mercy, justice and peace, in the world. If we have been mis-using those gifts (look at Paul and take heart), God can turn us around.
If we are afraid to use our gifts, perhaps because we have been intimidated, look at Ananias and take courage, God can be trusted to make our obedience bear fruit.
Our future is in the partnership between us and God. We pray that we might be receptive to God’s message and God’s call. We pray, in the words of Walter Wink, that our companions (whether friends or critics) might help heal our blindness and open us to more of Jesus’ truth than we have yet been able to comprehend.