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Sacred

We’re resuming our series again, called “Unsettled,” and today we’re going to talk about a man named Saul.

But very quickly: I first of all wanted to remind you all that this is good news that we’re here to share –today and always.  Being ‘unsettled’ isn’t –as we’re sometimes tempted to believe- always a bad thing.  In fact, some of the best things that can ever happen to us are also experienced as being unsettling: like getting married, having children, changing jobs, and going on an adventure. So while we might be going through what often seems like the scary kind of unsettling times, let’s remember that when God unsettles us, it’s to move us toward courage, compassion, and resilience.

And this is why we really need to hear about Saul’s story today.  Saul has something incredibly powerful to teach us about how we can move through unsettling times –whether they feel like a blessing or a curse, and come out stronger on the other side.  So far in this series, we’ve only mentioned this guy named Saul once, and what we’ve seen of him thus far hasn’t exactly been great.  If you’ll remember back to the first week of the series, he was the guy who held people’s coats while a crowd stoned a man named Stephen, to death. And after he was dead, it said ‘Saul approved of what he saw.’  So that’s all we really know about him so far –he’s the kind of guy who likes to watch another human being get killed –which I hope we can all agree is not a virtue, by itself.

And one last thing I want you all to know about Saul before we jump into the reading for today: Saul comes out of the same tradition that Abram had started, somewhere about 1,500 to 2,000 years before-hand.  We’ve been reading about Abram for the last several weeks; but we’re reading about Abram, who became Abraham, the father of all three mono-theistic traditions, so that we can recognize the common thread –the common spirit– that ran between him and Saul.  Because that same spirit is offered to us, yet today.

So we’re jumping back to the New Testament book of Acts for our reading today.  And if you’ll remember from our last series, Acts is part II of the Gospel of Luke.  It’s the story of Jesus, continued.  Our reading is found in the 9th chapter of Acts.  I’d encourage you to open your Bible, or your Bible app on your phone, to follow along with me. Then, while we’re reading, I want to encourage you to pay special attention to the questions that are asked.  Because those questions are our invitations to participate in the story.  We’re starting with the first verse.  It says this:

Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”

Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.

10 In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

He answered, “Yes, Lord.”

11 The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem.14 He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”

15 The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

17 Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. 19 After eating, he regained his strength.

He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. 20 Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared.

21 Everyone who heard him was baffled. They questioned each other, “Isn’t he the one who was wreaking havoc among those in Jerusalem who called on this name? Hadn’t he come here to take those same people as prisoners to the chief priests?”

22 But Saul grew stronger and stronger. He confused the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

 

So, here we have Saul, and at the start he’s persecuting the disciples. So since we last read about him, he’s moved from passively approving the violence he witnessed, and now he’s participating in it himself. While he was talking to the High Priest of the Jewish Temple, he even requested special permission to arrest anyone who, and I quote, “belonged to ‘The Way’ –men or women.” Now, we might be tempted here to say ‘the Way’ refers to Christians, but that would be too hasty: because there is no such thing as Christianity yet.  Again, everyone in this whole story is Jewish –if you passed a religion survey around, they’d all check that very box without hesitation.  But there are some people under this larger categorical umbrella who have something else going on. It has something to do with a teacher named Jesus, something to do with the Holy Spirit, and something to do with healing and power –but rather than putting any of those names and labels to it, they just call it ‘The Way.’

For just one second, I want you to reflect on this small, but I think incredibly significant detail: these people were doing this crazy, radical thing –sharing all they had in common, and devoting themselves to worship and service, and they’re just calling their thing ‘the Way.’  No mention of Jesus.  No description of where this ‘Way’ is headed, or what it promises.  And  for me, here’s the real kicker: no clarification of what sets them apart from everyone else.  It’s just open and mysterious –and yet it still practically shouts the invitation: ‘would you like to come along?’

But the religious leaders don’t like this thing.  Saul doesn’t like what he sees and what’s going on with these ‘people of The Way,’ so he volunteers to form a vigilante posse to go round up these scoundrels and haul them back to prison. And Saul receives the nod of approval from the big-wigs, and he sets off.

But right as he’s about to reach the destination where he’s gonna rustle-up those dirty outlaws, something happens.  The story says “suddenly a light from heaven encircled him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?’”

I’ll be honest with you: whenever I heard this story before, I always envisioned Saul riding on a donkey, and when the light came down, I always pictured him falling off the donkey –so I was really wanting to call this talk today ‘Knocked-Off Your Ass.’  But alas, no mention of a donkey was made.

Anyway, the question presented by the light I believe is the key to the story.  ‘Why are you harassing me?’ In some other English translations, the question asks, ‘Saul, why do you persecute me?’  But perhaps the most literal translation of the Greek would be: ‘Saul, why do you hunt me?’  The Greek word used here, dee-o-ko, implies the sense of a fighting chase. It isn’t just that Saul is being mean to them, but he’s literally ‘going after’ them. He’s chasing them down. So the question for Saul is, ‘hey man why are you on this nasty pursuit?’  Now it is, of course, a question aimed specifically at Saul, within his own particular context.  But at the same time, it’s also a question aimed at us, the witnesses to this story.  Why do you harass… or hunt or people? The text here is asking us –why are we on our own negative way? Obviously most of us don’t go around trying to literally hunt or arrest people, but we do all see ourselves as volunteer members of the morality militia, don’t we?  I don’t care who you are, or what group you are or are not a part of, or what you believe, I know you’ve judged people and what they do as right or wrong.  I know it because I do it too, absolutely all the time, and I just don’t want to be alone in this, so I’m taking you all with me.  For me, I’ll admit that a couple of my moral triggers are tripped by people who make lists of everyone they think are going to hell, and people who chew corn-chips with their mouths open in public.  They’re all evil and they need to be stopped!  There, I said it! (And it feels so good!) Public service announcement everyone: those people ruin the things I love –Christianity and bottomless chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants, and I won’t stand for it!  Ah! I feel so strongly about this!

For others, maybe it’s hunting season on people with particular sexual habits –like cheaters, or prudes, or people who seem to have way more fun with it than we do!

For some people the hunt looks like grammatical sins, like using the wrong forms of there/their/they’re on Social media, and the dastardly misappropriation of the semi-colon.

Some people have crime as their moral trigger: like genocide,  cheating on your taxes, or incorporating two different shades of black into a single outfit.

Some people are triggered by bad driver etiquette, and spouses who fold socks the wrong way.

Some people are triggered by violence, be it in the form of mass-shootings or moral shaming.

For some people, like Donald Trump, it’s race issues –where he just really hates losing.

And for just about everyone I know, including myself, it’s religion and politics –approaching them the wrong way, with the wrong rules and values. Right?

That’s the way it was for Saul too: he saw this growing group of people who were doing religion and politics differently from the way that he knew, and for him he went: ‘Wrong!’  Which very quickly leads to ‘they’re wrong!,’ doesn’t it?  And the next necessary step from there is ‘I need to stop them!’  Whether it’s through physical arrest, or putting a public spotlight on them so everyone on Facebook can witness how gross and terrible they are, or some other form of imposed restraint –the felt need is to make sure that they can’t keep doing what they’re doing!  Can I get an amen? Let’s just bind-up and disarm the bad-guys and that will solve all of our problems, won’t it?

I want you to notice here that there’s something deeply pathological, and fundamentally human going on here that remains unspoken.  The secret motivation for the harassing hunt here comes from the assumed sense that if certain other people are out there doing their thing, then I can’t do my thing and be who I am.  The conclusion our brains invisibly jump to is that certain values and behaviors on the part of other people are somehow automatically a threat to me.

Can we see this?

Take the corn-chip example I mentioned earlier.  It bothers me when people eat corn-chips without sealing their lips. I bet you don’t have to share this annoyance to get what I’m talking about. I hate it because I don’t like to hear the sound of their crunching.  It’s distracting to me.  It reminds me of all the gross stuff that goes on when people eat that I don’t like to think about while I’m eating.  Masticating, and saliva and digestive juices.  Yuck!  I want the experience to be all about the deliciousness going on in my own mouth –and I don’t want to be aware of anything going on in yours.   Now, critical question: who’s problem is this?  No one’s obnoxious chewing ever bothers them, right?  If it did, they’d have already stopped it. So it’s my problem.  Obviously.  And when we look at it a little longer, my problem is not the sound, but it’s the lack of control I have over my own focus.  Right? If I could control my own focus, then the sound of the other person chewing would be a problem, would it?  So rather than dealing with my own self-control problem, I’m going to try to control the other person, aren’t I?  I’m going to ask them –could you please seal your lips while you chew so I don’t have to listen to what sounds like bones being snapped by a dinosaur in an echo-y cave while I’m trying to enjoy my burrito, thank you.  Thereby –watch this magic: I’m going to convince them that my problem is actually their problem.  Right? And it feels beautiful.  For me, anway.

And we have a name for this little psychological trick now, and it’s called: projection.  Or the much, much older religious term is called scapegoating –which comes from a ceremony where the ancient Israelites would ritualistically place their communal sins upon a goat, and run it off into the woods to appease the evil spirit Azazel (Leviticus 16). Both terms refer to the same phenomenon of taking my problem and placing it on someone or something else, to free myself from the responsibility of having to actually do something about it. This is a very human thing to do, isn’t it? And then usually, we ceremoniously kick the other person or thing in the butt, so it runs away, out of our lives, and we’ll hopefully never have to deal with it again.

But of course it never actually works, because it’s not actually ever their problem. It’s ours.  We’re never actually successful in the action of moving the sin from us to the scapegoat, so we just end up costing ourselves a perfectly good goat or friend.

So why do we do this?  Why do we hunt, and persecute, and harass?  I would encourage all of you, as we’ll do after the service in our small group, to spend some time with this text and try to discover what might have been the motivation for Saul to do this –because I think it will reveal a lot of truth about our own motivations for trying to stop other people from doing what they’re doing.  And I also believe it will help us make sense of a lot of what’s going on in Christianity here today, with our fixation on particular lists of sins.

That, however, is besides the bigger point.  Because the real surprise in the question is not the secret motivation for harassing and hunting, but it’s the unexpected revelation that hits Saul right in the face when he discovers the true identity of the one he’s persecuting.

The voice asks: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?

And Saul wants to know, ‘who are you Lord?’  This is also a great, and very loaded, question!  But alas, one we don’t have time to unpack now.

In any case, the voice responds and in Greek this response is truly beautiful –it says something like ‘I am Jesus, the one whom you are hunting for (notice the subtle word-play here)… Now get up and enter the city.  You will be told what you must do.’

After that, Saul gets up, opens his eyes, and discovers –get this- he can’t see!  Which is a cue that a revelation has happened, right?  God doesn’t make Saul blind, but he makes him aware of the blindness that had afflicted him all along! It wasn’t just that Saul was hunting violently and blindly, but instead it was that he couldn’t even recognize his own blindness!  Which is what makes prejudices so dangerous right? –the fact that we don’t even know we have them!  So all along, while Saul was hunting what he saw as threats to his religion, it comes to light that God was there in the very people he was hunting!  The thing he needed –which was the blessing of God- was with the very people he was trying to silence and drive away.  And in the light, God completely inverts his chase!

In one sense, Saul is absolutely right about needing to chase those people down –but surprise, surprise: guess who’s the one who actually needs to stop what they’re doing and change their lives and behavior…  It’s you, Saul! You’ve judged these people without knowing the blessing they have. By the very virtue of trying to defend your own position, and your own beliefs, you blinded yourself to the crucial factor that God is the one moving and inspiring them!  So his assault isn’t just against these people, but it’s against the power he self-deludedly tried to convince himself he was defending, which was God. And then, as the story closes, we find that Saul himself was on a journey to belong to ‘The Way’ all along.

Now, there’s a whole lot more that’s inspiring and great about this passage, especially considering our own circumstance of division and omni-harassment, where everyone seems to be harassing everyone else about a whole lot of things.  But this morning I just want you all to notice how peace was made, and how the blindness of Saul’s prejudice was healed. Ultimately, healing for Saul came from being blessed by one he had seen as his enemy.

Brother Saul, the Lord sent me –Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here.  He sent me to you so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Which, in case you missed it, let me translate: hey buddy –you’re one of us.  You belong.  You’re a part of the Way. So be blessed.  See and be filled with God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.

Then, instantly, the flakes fell from his eyes –call them hate flakes or flakes of prejudice.  Whatever it was that distorted his vision of others was cleared away and he could see more clearly than he had ever been able to before.  And he was baptized, and he ate –perhaps sharing a holy meal with those of the Way- and he started preaching.  A very simple message: Jesus is God’s Son.  Which for the people back then, would have been about the equivalent of saying ‘God is with the heretics too!’ It was a message that unsettled everyone.  The people of ‘The Way’ too.  ‘What?  We have to bless the guy who’s tried to kill us?’  Yet all those who were able to disarm their own defense mechanisms, and be vulnerable in their uneasy togetherness, were blessed.  They were empowered.  They became stronger.  Together. Saul.  Those of the way.  The only ones who weren’t empowered were the ones who resisted the togetherness.  And this blessing is open to us too, if we’re to be so bold.  It’s the gift we’re offered and called to share.

Brothers and sisters, we’re gathered here today because we’re scared people living in a scary world. We’re scared for our lives.  We’re scared for our children.  We’re all scared for values we hold to be holy.  And way to often those fears and anxieties inspire us to harass and scapegoat other people.  But they’re not responsible for our fears. If we’re scared and anxious, it’s our problem.  And the way of Jesus is clear: keep going!  If you feel compelled to go after some people –by all means, go after them.

But go forward aware of your own blindness and prejudice.  Instead of trying to change them, how about you let them change you? Instead of going trying to stop someone else, how about you pursue your own healing?  Open your eyes to see if maybe God isn’t there too, with them, blessing and doing something good.

This is the salvation that Jesus offers: that we might be saved from our fear of one another. It didn’t hit me until I was typing this message, and when I tried typing the word ‘sacred’ I accidentally typed the word ‘scared.’  And it hit me: isn’t being scared just a way of screwing up being sacred?  Because when we’re living as sacred people, and not scared people, no one can take away or damage our sacredness.  It’s ours because it was given to us by God.  So whether we live or we die –whether we’re right or we’re wrong- whether we win or we lose, the love of God will endure and sustain us.

Find a way to share that with someone else this week, and grow in the blessing.

Let’s pray.

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