a sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter
Saul, a man who lived his life on the road, traveling from village to village, town to city, prosecuting followers of Jesus, was the exact antithesis of everything The Way stood for. Then one day, something happened.
Once upon a time, a farmer wanted to buy a mule from his neighbor. He asked the neighbor if the mule had any problems.
“Not a problem,” the neighbor said. “This mule will do anything you ask. All you have to do is ask him nicely.” The neighbor added, “Just make sure you never mistreat my mule.”
The price was fair, so the farmer bought the mule. The very next day the farmer wanted to plow his field. He hitched the mule to the plow, but the mule had no intention of pulling that plow.
“Git up!” The farmer said. But the mule paid no attention. The farmer tried talking nicely until his face almost turned blue. It still did no good. So, he called his neighbor over.
The neighbor came right away. When he heard the problem, he walked over and picked up a two-by-four. He hit the mule right in the head. Then he whispered in the mule’s ear. That mule started plowing back and forth the field, turning the soil over without anyone standing behind the plow.
“I thought you said never to mistreat your mule,” stated the farmer. “You said all that I had to do was to talk nicely to him.”
“Well,” answered the neighbor. “First you have to get his attention.”
In today’s first reading, we heard about how Saul became Paul, the greatest teacher of the Church. But first God had to get his attention.
In the book of Acts, Saul is a very faithful Jew – he was a Roman citizen, he went to the best schools, he spoke both Greek and Hebrew, he studied Jewish law under the best teachers, he took his faith very seriously, so seriously that be became an enforcer of the Law, something like a prosecuting attorney. He was very good at what he did. He would round up people who were followers of Jesus, also called followers of “The Way.” He’d arrest them and take them back to the temple in Jerusalem where they were put on trial for deviating from Jewish law.
Now, “The Way” is a powerful metaphor for Christian identity. Instead of being identified by a set of beliefs, early Christians were known by their character in the world. Our Christian faith was understood to be way of life, not a set of dogma or beliefs. “The Way” encouraged individuals and communities to leave the safe confines of home and church to walk on the path God had set out. “The Way” described a faith is a living, active way of life.
This brings us back to Saul, a man who lived his life on the road, traveling from village to village, town to city, prosecuting followers of Jesus for what they believed, not what they did. He was the exact antithesis of everything The Way stood for. Then one day, something happened. As he was traveling to Damascus, carrying arrest warrants, he is struck down and blinded by flash of light. And he hears the voice of Jesus. Get up and go to a street called Straight… then you will be told what to do.
You might say that God was trying to get Saul’s attention. One minute, he’s on top of his game, sure that he knows what his life is all about. He’s an up and coming Jewish scholar and enforcer of the Law. The next, he is struck blind and forced to become totally dependent strangers. He had no idea what to expect next.
At this point, I think it’s important for me to say that I don’t really believe that God causes bad things to happen to us just to get our attention. Good and bad things do happen, of course, but not necessarily for a reason. God is not up there in the sky somewhere, manipulating us to do God’s will by giving us a blessings or curses. That isn’t God at all.
But it seems that when we’re hit by misfortune is when we’re most likely to listen for to the voice of God.
One minute, things are going well. We are confident of who we are and sure of our place in the world. We are a father or mother, a business person, a manager, a mechanic. We are able to provide for our families. We are living lives that we believe mean something. The next minute, something happens, and we learn that our employers can get along without us or we wake up in a hospital bed. These are the times when we find ourselves in like Saul, lost in a strange place, with no idea what to expect next. We toss and turn at night, we walk from place to place looking for work. We think, and then we pray.
This is when we are most open to God’s call to us. This is when we listen for what God might have been saying all along: “Pssst. You’re on the wrong path. I need you to get up and go. Go and find a new way.”
How many times have we heard of someone who was laid off, but found a different way of making a living where they had more time for their family? Or about someone who has transformed their own illness into a ministry of comfort for others?
Many years ago, I was sitting in a class here at St. Simon & St. Jude, listening to other people tell their conversion stories. I was always most impressed by people who seemed to have these dramatic conversion stories, like Saul’s. They could always point to the exact moment of conversion, their “road to Damascus” experience. But I couldn’t do that.I’ve never felt that thunderbolt or seen that flash of light. My faith walk began when I was a small child and simply grew slowly. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered. “Is my faith somehow inferior to these people?”
But the fact is that there is no one religious experience that fits everyone. What happened to Saul on the Damascus Road was dramatic and certainly had a significant impact on the church, but it’s not the only way God calls to us. Sometimes God speaks to us through a crisis in our lives. Other times, God speaks to us through a persistent yearning for something different. In either case, God is always calling us, always speaking to us. Our task is to remain open to what God is doing in and around us.
Flashes of light on the road to Damascus make for an interesting conversion stories. But the point of the story is not what Saul did, but what God did. God led to Saul in his blindness. God sent Ananias to comfort him and baptize him. God showed Saul how to use his former stills as a prosecutor to build up the early church.
No matter how boldly or quietly God calls to us, God is always the initiator in every person’s conversion story. God initiates the conversation, and shows us the path to follow along The Way. God is calling to us all the time – all we need to do is pay attention. He calls us to a new way of life, not a rigid set of beliefs, a way in which our love for God is the motivation for our action in the world.
Thanks be to God.