Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘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 the Lord said to him, ‘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.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
There is a beautiful song called “Ring of Keys” in a Broadway show called Fun Home that I thought of when I reread today’s scripture. The show is based on the graphic novel of the same name, written and illustrated by Alison Bechdel. In the song, she recounts a transformational moment from her childhood. She was eating in a diner with her dad. This would have been in the mid- to late 1960’s in Pennsylvania. And, this woman walked in, delivering something. What she was delivering wasn’t as important as how she looked while she did it. She looked strong.
In the song, young Alison sings:
Your swagger and your bearing
And the just right clothes you're wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots
And your keys, oh
Your ring of keys
Alison isn’t simply enamored by the keys. She is amazed to see a woman presenting a different idea of how to move through the world than Alison has ever seen before. This woman takes up space. She does a sweaty job where she has to carry heavy things. She has a short haircut... not a pixie cut, but a haircut that looks more like the haircuts the men that Alison knew would wear. Even her clothes were a revelation. She wore practical things, work pants and boots, but this was more than her uniform. It was also intentional, chosen to tell people who were paying attention something about who she was. And, Alison was paying attention. In that moment, when she saw this adult she didn’t know, she saw something true that she recognized in herself and also something to aspire to. She sings, “I think we’re alike in a certain way” and “why am I the only one who sees you’re beautiful/ no, I mean/ handsome.” The last lines of the song are “I know you./I know you./I know you.” I read somewhere that this revelatory moment in the diner, where she said “that’s who I am and want to be” is one of Alison Bechdel’s earliest memories. She lived her life a little differently from that moment on.
I must admit, it can be a little tricky to compare Alison’s revelation to Paul’s revelation. Alison’s revelation seems like a relief. A transformation, to be sure, but also a relief. She sees a vision of an adult version of her that bring her hope. If you haven’t read the book or seen the show, Bechdel's home life was difficult. Seeing this woman and her dungarees and boots was a bright spot in a life that could be hard. Paul, well, Saul, who would become Paul, he was pretty happy with his life. He was doing just what he thought he needed to be doing. His transformative moment was terrifying. I’m going to argue, though, that, once he got past the fear, this revelation also made his life more hope-filled. Because, before that flash of light on the road, Saul of Tarsus was going down a path ruled by fear and destruction. By the look of things, he would need something like an act of God to change him. The story tells us that God’s action did.
Saul appears to be one of those people who is very sure that God needs defending by the faithful. He is introduced in chapter 9 as one so zealous in his faith that he is willing to participate in violence to protect it. When you are brought up in the violence of the Empire, it can be tempting to replicate that violence. It’s like last week, when we were reading in Exodus, and Moses, who was raised by the Pharaoh, lost his temper and killed an Egyptian man whom he saw abusing an Israelite. Saul, likely fearful of the fate of his own faith under Roman domination, turned that fear into violence against those whom he saw as threatening his faith, particularly, the followers of the radical teacher, Jesus. Jesus, who had been killed by the state. Jesus, whose followers, like Stephen, were willing to face death even as they shared the good news of his message. Saul had no patience for those who defamed God and drew unnecessary and dangerous attention to their people.
Dr. Mitzi Smith, when writing about this passage, says “God reveals God’s self to whomever God chooses and when God chooses.” And, Saul, who had already believed in God fiercely, was the recipient of this revelation. Saul, who was well-educated and well-connected, a Pharisee who was a son of Pharisee, a Roman citizen when many weren’t, could not use all his political or social connections to work his way out of the startling encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus. A light from heaven flashed and he fell to the ground, the world that he thought he saw so clearly, becoming nothing before his eyes. Jesus, long gone from this world, but moving through the Holy Spirit, speaks to him and sets him on the journey to a new life and a new mission.
First, Saul will have to rely on his friends to lead him safely into the city. You see, following Christ is rarely done alone. Then, a disciple named Ananias will come and lay hands on him, preparing him for the work of the Gospel, and offering him the chance to make amends for all he had done wrong in the world. When Saul, whom we know as Paul, accepts this blessing and is baptized, we know, from this vantage point in history, that we are seeing a world changing ministry begin. Whatever had been preventing him from seeing a hopeful future fell away, and he was able to begin anew.
Now I don’t know if your transformation story is more like that little girl who sees herself in an adult for the first time or more like Saul, who had his hurt turned from fear and anger into hope and love. But, I bet you have a transformation story. Maybe you’re having a transformation story right now, moved by the protests and testimonies offered up to us over the last two weeks about what it is to be black and live in this country. However you come to see the thing that changes you, I hope are able to get up and go do whatever Christ is calling you to do. Your life and this world can change. This stories reminds us that great transformation is possible. I pray that you have found your part of it.
Resources consulted in this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.