A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton MA on April 10, 2016
Acts 9:1-20 – “ . . . Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done. . .”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Everyone knows Saul who will be Paul… everyone knows by now that he’s a dangerous fanatic who seems to live to turn Jesus-followers in to the authorities — probably more because they were seen as rebels than because they were heretics.
Paul left Jerusalem for Damascus with a warrant to catch even more Jesus-followers. And on the road, his life came to a halt. One moment he was a genuine fire-breathing, Christian-hating nemesis. The next moment, he was a broken man, brought to his knees by the realization that everything he’d been doing was wrong. He was brought into Damascus, blind and helpless, newly re-born as a follower of Jesus, no longer Saul, but now Paul.
If you’ve been coming to church for more than a year, you’re almost sure to have heard about Paul. And even people who’ve never darkened our doors have heard the phrase “a road-to-Damascus change”.
But today, we’re going to listen, not to Paul, but to Ananias. Today, we’re going to look at the uncertainties of change. And, if nothing else, Paul was certain about the fact that he’d changed; he didn’t know his future, but he knew God had called him.
Ananias didn’t. Ananias didn’t know Paul at all. He knew Saul, he knew yesterday’s certainties really well. He knew that Saul had been out to get him and all his fellow believers, but he hadn’t been there when God struck Saul down and raised him back up as Paul. He didn’t see the change, and so he was stuck in yesterday.
Saul left Jerusalem on fire to catch more Jesus-followers. What if this was a ruse, to bring them out into the open? How could Ananias trust this new Paul?
God came to Ananias and called him to go and heal Saul/Paul, but Ananias balked and questioned God’s call.
Who can blame Ananias? Who, faced with a mind-blowing change, even if it’s a good change (after all, the persecutor Saul was changing into the dynamic leader Paul – that should have been good)…. Who, faced with good change, doesn’t still yearn for the stability of what we’ve known and done for forever – even if it wasn’t perfect.
My seminary, Andover Newton Theological School, is going through a Saul to Paul transformation now in many ways. We’re selling our beautiful Newton campus and moving and, while we think we’re going to move to New Haven CT to be a part of the Yale Divinity School campus, that’s not a signed & sealed certainty yet. If we go to Yale, our future will be really interesting, with lots of good opportunities for students & faculty.
But saying good-bye to what we’ve known and loved – there’s been a seminary in that spot in Newton for more than 150 years – isn’t easy, and it’s clearly much more attractive to dream that we could, if we only wanted, continue to stay on the Hill. It’s hard to trust the vision of the future that the school’s president and trustees are bringing forward.
There’s a lot more Ananias than Paul in most of us. Most of us find an enormous comfort in recreating the patterns of yesterday than in stepping out into an unmapped future. We know what yesterday was; we cannot know what tomorrow will bring.
For decades now, we’ve lived with the illusion that all we need to do to prepare for tomorrow is to replicate yesterday. And now, like Ananias, we’re finding that yesterday’s assumptions, yesterday’s truths, don’t work anymore.
Spring is coming, and maybe you, like me, have been pulling out your favorite spring gardening clothing. And, maybe, in the course of that search, you’ve discovered that a favorite shirt has made the leap over the winter from shabby to unwearable. Maybe you went outside and realized that a garden bed has been invaded by bittersweet. Somehow, some one or more assumptions you’ve always made about what you’d wear, how you’d garden, or the advisability of planting bittersweet… well, they just don’t work right anymore.
When you get right down to it, we simply can’t plan for tomorrow by repeating yesterday.
That’s true whether we’re talking about a graduate school, a local congregation, or what to wear when gardening.
Really, when this sort of change happens, whether something minor, or something life changing, we only have two choices: we can dedicate ourselves to complaining about it, or we can become part of the change.
Ananias complained. He whined, he muttered. Well, let’s face it, if you were asked to deal with life-altering change, asking you to do something that just doesn’t seem “right”, wouldn’t you want to complain? There’s nothing wrong with complaining – that’s part of what Ananias teaches us.
But that’s not the end of his lesson: he doesn’t just complain; he listens. There’s nothing wrong with naming our fears by complaining, but there’s plenty wrong with getting stuck there, or with simply refusing to entertain any alternatives to yesterday. And so, while Ananias voiced his worries to God, he also listened to what God had to say.
God speaks in many ways these days; we’re not called to resist change until we run into a blinding light on the road to Damascus. We are called to equip ourselves to deal with change. And again, Ananias shows us a path.
Yes, he complained, but then he checked things out. He did his research With God’s help, he began to see that things had begun to change and to understand how he could be a part of things. He didn’t walk away; he stayed and was part of the future.
This is not just advice for our life as a congregation; it’s about how we choose to live. In the new book, “When Breath Becomes Air”, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi writes about discovering, weeks before he graduated from residency, that he was dying from incurable metasticized lung cancer. He was 36. The future he and his wife had envisioned – work as a surgeon, on the faculty at Stanford Medical School, plenty of time, lots of money – all of it evaporated overnight, and the skills he’d aquired for yesterday weren’t going to work with this new tomorrow.
When his cancer was diagnosed, he already had lungs filled with tumors, but tumors on his spine and in his brain. He wasn’t going to have a whole lot of time. The choice was stark; spend his time looking back in regret, or look clearly into the future. In an article for Stanford Medical School, he wrote:
Time for me is double-edged: Every day brings me further from the low of my last cancer relapse, but every day also brings me closer to the next cancer recurrence — and eventually, death. Perhaps later than I think, but certainly sooner than I desire. . . .
. . . Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.
Paul Kalanithi and his wife, also a physician, explored every option available to them. They gave his future here on earth its best chance. And then they opted to live looking ahead. They had a child; she was still a toddler when her father died. They took a chance on tomorrow and, for them, it paid off. He wrote of that choice to his daughter:
When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.
Tomorrow is a chancy place. To get there we may well have to dance with our fears, fears of illness in our world, fears about unrest here there and everywhere, fears for the stability of our church community.
Like Ananias, we may try to turn our back on tomorrow; we may want to run away. We may take counsel of our fears. But our risen Lord promises that when we trust in God’s unfailing love, there is another way, one which points us toward tomorrow. It’s the way Andover Newton has chosen, stepping into an unknown future. It’s the way Paul and Lucy Kalanithi chose, having a child, writing a book. It’s the way we have chosen, holding after-church meetings, calling our next pastor.
It’s the daring way, the trusting way, the hope-filled way, the way of Christ. It is our way, and we will follow it together.
© 2016, Virginia H. Child