The United Churches – October 1, 2017
In 1990 I was ordained. I had long sense answered the call to ministry. I did it in sort of a timid way initially. I remember telling my pastor that I had this experience during a time of prayer where I felt called to ministry. At that time, I didn’t have any models of women pastors so I didn’t really know what I meant when I said that I felt called. My stuttering story to my pastor was received with grace and encouragement. Four years later I was ordained in that church. There was a song that we had been singing at chapel in Seminary written by a Catholic . The song had just been published in the Presbyterian hymnal that was released in 1990. “I The Lord of Sea and Sky…Here I Am Lord, Is it I Lord, I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.” I remember singing that song with gusto and feeling it with all of my heart at my ordination. Here I am Lord. When I watch you all sing the song, I notice that it touches you as well. You sing it with gusto and some of you with tears, or eyes closed. There is some deep need inside us to answer God’s call upon our lives, to live lives of meaning and purpose, to make a difference, to dig deeper.
“Here I am Lord” are the same words out of the mouth of this once obscure disciple when God calls to him in the night. What a powerful response. God calls his name and Ananias’ immediate response is “Here I Am Lord.” It sounds lovely and touching and warm until the actual instructions are given: “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. Saul is praying and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.” We CANNOT possibly imagine the fear that must have struck the heart of Ananias. I tried to imagine it all week.
Ananias knew who Saul was. Ananias was a member of the group that followed the teachings of Jesus. At that point, they were called the people of “The Way” (Hodos in Greek.) Earlier in chapter nine of Acts, we learn that Saul went to the chief priests asking for letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found people who belonged to “The Way,” whether men or women, the letters would authorize Saul to take the people as prisoners to Jerusalem. Saul is the same zealous Jew that held everyone’s coats in Acts Chapter 7 while they were stoning Stephen, another member of The Way, to death. He held their coats as he watched this gruesome murder unfold. Early in Acts chapter 8 it says that “Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison.” (Acts 8:3)
This very Saul, who had been breathing murderous threats against the followers of Jesus, had just undergone his own encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus when he was struck by a bright light. Then a voice boomed out so that even his travelling companions could also hear: “Saul, why are you harassing me?” Saul was blinded in this encounter and then followed the instructions to “get up and go into the city,” and that he would be “told what to do.” Saul was led by his hand to Damascus where for three days he neither ate or drank anything.
Ananias doesn’t seem to have gotten the briefing that Saul was blinded by a encounter with Jesus, and was perhaps weak from the lack of food and water. When God calls him, he can only imagine the powerful, murderous, frightening man. Ananias was also told to “get up and go.” He received instructions to lay his hands on Saul and pray for him, because God had chosen Saul to do God’s work in the world. Ananias reminded God what incredibly awful things that Saul had been doing to his fellow followers on The Way, but he went anyway.
“Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.” That is so beautiful and touching. But WHAT PEOPLE? Saul? The frightening murderer? It is astounding to me that Ananias went, and that he went to the house, and that he laid his hands on Saul, and he prayed with him. He prayed and called upon the Spirit and then the scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again! And then Ananias baptized Saul, welcoming him into the family of faith, welcoming him to the people of “The Way!” Then Ananias stayed with him and taught him about the faith. And then Saul began to preach about Jesus in Damascus.
Two very different people answer the call of God in this story from Acts chapter 9. There is the profound conversion and transformation of Saul who starts with murderous threats against the people of God and ends by preaching about Jesus in the Synagogues in Damascus. Ananias also answers God’s call by being profoundly brave, meeting his enemy, entering his room and his personal space with the intimacy of laying on of hands, prayer and baptism…welcoming this enemy into the family of faith.
When you look at your own life, when you look at your world, how are you invited by God to turn your “no way” into a yes…into a “here I am Lord…I will go?” God changed Saul’s vision of things, God changed Ananias’ vision of things. They both saw the world in a completely different way. How has God rearranged your way of seeing, of being of acting? What do you imagine that God is doing?
I think the biggest question for us is how do we know that we are called by God to do something? I think sometimes God strikes us with an insight as clearly as God struck Saul, blinding him with light on the road to Damascus. I feel lucky to have had my own call to ministry be that clear, because you have to explain your call to people and tell and retell the story again and again. It has to sound credible to the denominations Committee’s On Ministry. It has to sound credible to your family and to those you wish to serve. I imagine Saul in his preaching telling his road to Damascus story over and over again until the well worn phrases took on a life of their own. For him to be credible with his new audience, the one that he had been persecuting the week before, he needed an AMAZING AND FANTASTIC, other worldly call story.
Sometimes we are called like Ananias. We are asked to do the thing that we absolutely do not want to do. We are nudged to go where we do not want to go and meet people that we do not wish to see. This past week I spent many hours at the hospital with Karen Eitreim and her friend that was her medical Power of Attorney. I’m sure that this friend, who really loved Karen, agreed to be her medical power of attorney without a lot of deep thought. You know how it is, when we are all getting our papers in order when we are healthy and good? (Though I don’t know for sure what she thought.) But then Karen who was young and working like a crazy person a mere two weeks ago, got very sick very fast. This friend had to come to the hospital and sit there every day and watch her beloved friend decline dramatically and then had to make a daily series of incredibly difficult decisions that she probably thought that she would never have to make. Every single day this friend did incredibly hard things because she answered the call to love.
I observed another one of our members do this very same thing last week, when one of her closest friends came home from a conference to find that her husband had died. This member went over to the friends home immediately and started notifying people and helping to make arrangements. Even though she herself was grieving, she went along to the funeral home, wrote an obituary, did a myriad of tasks while providing comfort and care. She did these incredibly hard things because she answered the call to love.
Sometimes our call is dramatic and sometimes it is to do things that are hard. The important message here is that God uses each and every one of us. You never hear of this character Ananias again in the book of Acts, and you never hear of him before this moment. He seems like an obscure guy who comes along and changes Christianity, by answering the call to pray with and baptize Saul who later becomes the apostle Paul who gives his life for the church. Even if you FEEL like an obscure character, or someone that isn’t very brave, or your old, sick or tired, or an overwhelmed parent or someone working too hard…God will call YOU. God will use YOU.
Will you let God use you? Will you answer the call? Will you listen, be brave, and go? Will you hold God’s people (especially the ones that you don’t like) in your heart?
May it be so. Amen.