Rev. Danielle K. Bartz
“Here I Am”
The conversion of Paul, the road to Damascus story we have just heard, is a staple in Eastertide. Paul, once called Saul, was a great persecutor of those who believed Jesus to be the messiah. He took great delight in seeking out Jesus’ followers and with an ardent zeal had them arrested and often killed. And then, in a flash that was literally blinding, God called out to him, the scales eventually fell from his eyes and he turned that zeal for persecution to a zeal for evangelism, becoming one of the great teachers and leaders of the earliest Christian movement. It is a great story and I was ready to talk about how conversion and a vocational call are very similar things. I was ready to preach an inspirational sermon about how we each can experience conversions to a life devoted to God and bettering God’s kingdom over and over again. I was set to compare it to the conversion of John Newton – once a notorious and brutal slave traitor who experienced his own call and conversion and became devoted to a life of simple and profound faith. John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace. I was all ready to preach on all of that, and wrote liturgy and picked hymns that would go along wonderfully – which, is why we are singing Amazing Grace soon. But, I didn’t write that sermon. Every time I sat down to do it, what was in my head wouldn’t come through on the computer screen. Turns out, God had a different idea and I had to set aside my usual stubbornness and pay attention. Because, it is not the conversion of Paul that struck me. It was Ananias – a figure in this story whom is often over-looked while we are paying more attention to Paul. It is Ananias I kept thinking about.
Ananias was already a follower of Christ from Damascus. In fact, if Saul had not experienced the call from God and converted – Ananias would have likely been a target for him. So, when the Lord appears to Ananias in a vision and tells him to go and lay hands on Saul, to provide him with mercy, grace, and comfort – Ananias was understandably taken aback. He had heard about Saul. He had developed a mistrust and perhaps even a hatred for him – though they had never met. Why does this person deserve God’s love and why does it have to be me that shows it? It was a perfectly fair question, but Ananias took his call from God very seriously and did as he was directed by Christ. He went to Saul, showed him grace, prayed with and for him. And everything changed.
I don’t know if I could have done that. I don’t know if I could have shown love, mercy, and grace to someone who had at one time considered me a great enemy. And I am not even talking about caring for someone who has persecuted me – I am a person of privilege, I have no personal context for truly understanding what it means to be persecuted for my beliefs or simply because of who I am. Because I can’t understand that I am forced to deal with the idea of showing love and grace to someone who hasn’t ever showed it to me. Don’t forget, Paul and Ananias were both acting out of religious conviction. They both believed in the same God but understood their relationship with God differently. And because of that they hated each other. And you know what, I don’t think it was just Paul who was changed forever. I believe Ananias was changed too. I believe in that act of reaching out, of experiencing God through the interaction with the other, in that moment Ananias realized, along with Paul, that God was found in that space between two people. Even two vastly different people. I don’t think it was just Paul who experienced a conversion, but I believe Ananias did as well. But, I wasn’t planning on preaching on that.
For any one of you who have come to more than one worship service here since I began and paid even the slightest bit of attention while I am preaching – you have heard me say that all we need to do is pay attention and we will notice God. As your pastor, you will hear me say, over and over again, that to be Christian today means we must pay close attention to the ways in which God is at work in our lives and world, and then point it out to others. And this week, in preparation for today’s worship service, I had to follow my own advice.
Because this week I had to go looking. I had to go looking for God. I had to go looking for inspiration. I had to get my head and my body out of my office and go pay attention to what God was trying to tell me. Because as I wrestled with today’s scripture and what it can say to us today – it was only when I let go and just tried to notice what was happening around me that I was able to make some sense of it. So, stepping away from the more traditional practice of preaching, I am going to take you along a little journey through my week.
It started on Monday. I was back from vacation and hoping that my time away had cleared enough cobwebs from my spirit. But, first I had to wade through a couple of hundred emails. As I sorted through them, I opened an invitation to attend the National Day of Prayer service in Windom Park on Thursday afternoon. The picture on the attached flyer of a red, white, and blue United States with the words God and prayer stamped across them immediately made me suspicious. And it was sent to me by the Winona ministerium, which is a collection of clergy in the Winona area from the more conservative and evangelical churches in town. My long-held biases and prejudices took over. Thanks, but no thanks – I thought, I will sit that particular event out.
My Monday morning concluded with my now regular Bible study with my pal who goes by the name of Misty. He is an older gentleman who comes each and every week to Souper Thursday who I have gotten to know. His gruff exterior stands in stark contrast the beautiful crocheted doilies he makes and gives to me. He, as he tells me and anyone willing to listen, knows the keys to Biblical prophecy. He is only really comfortable talking about the Bible, so people are often a bit wary of him. But I tend to immediately like outsiders, so I got to know him, even though his faith and beliefs are remarkably different than my own. So, when he showed me the list he and his social worker had worked on together seeking to find ways to combat his pervasive loneliness and isolation, and on that list was Bible study with Pastor Danielle – my heart grew three times its size. We now sit together for an hour each Monday, reading – word for word the books of the Bible he is most familiar with. Initially my time with him was simply a form of pastoral care, seeking to ease one community member’s loneliness. Now – it is an hour I look forward to and miss when we are unable to meet. Even though I am not converted to any of his beliefs, I have learned more in those one-hour meetings than I did in seminary about the Bible, found scripture that I hadn’t noticed before, and have a deeper understanding of my own faith.
That was Monday. Then Tuesday I was handed a new book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled Holy Envy and two of my Lutheran clergy pals said I had to read it. Taylor, the author of the book we read for our Lenten book study is an Episcopal priest who has left congregational ministry to teach undergraduate students at Piedmont college the basics of the world’s great religions. There were many quotes from that book that stood out to me as I began reading, but none more than this: “So, yes,” Taylor writes early in the book, “I looked down on Christians who were not like me, including the student who sat in front of me returning the same look. Our standoff reminded me of so many other encounters since my college days: the steely confrontation between true believers, each needing the other to be wrong in order to be right. In this regard, it was difficult to discern what made the confrontations between Christians any different from the confrontations between Christians and people of other faiths.”
Wednesday went like most Wednesdays – me banging around trying to figure out a sermon and poor Ganga getting her day constantly interrupted as I wandered in and out of her office trying to do anything but write a sermon. Then Wednesday night arrived and I sat in the kitchen with the Fischers and Betty Monroe talking about Rahab, the first person of my May Bible study series on lesser known people in the Bible who were actually vitally important. In our discussion I asked this question – what does it mean that God uses unlikely people – in this case Rahab who was a prostitute, a Canaanite – or a person who was considered to be of a lower class, and a traitor to her nation’s interests – why did God choose that person to deliver God’s people to the promised land and what does that say to the church today? Who do we assume God will not use and therefore exclude? Kathi, who gave me permission to share this bit of wisdom from her, said that we tend, especially in progressive mainline Christianity, to exclude other Christians who don’t quite line up with our way to doing things and living out our faith. We are really good about welcoming in the stranger, as long as they are willing to learn everything about Christianity from us and not the other way around. Well, that stuck. So, on Thursday when it came time for the National Day of Prayer event in Windom Park, I put on my big girl pants, worked hard to set aside my assumptions about what I would hear, and headed down.
I stood with a group of evangelical Christians who do not pray like I do. And we prayed, and we prayed, and we prayed. They didn’t know me and I didn’t know them – though the clerical collar I was wearing told them a lot about who I am. As they prayed and I listened, I caught myself listening not with an open spirit towards God, but ears trying to catch them out. I listened with bias and exclusion. I listened for ways that I am different than they and therefore clearly superior. And then I caught myself. I made the choice to go to a prayer event and all I was doing was judging. Then I remembered how wonderful it is to hear prayer and not always lead prayer. I listened to their petitions and their honesty and their fears and their hopes and realized mine were the same. And by the end of the gathering, I felt just a little bit blessed by my neighbors.
So, it turns out I was for once able to follow my own advice and pay attention to what God was trying to tell me. In a week where I could not get out of my head the interaction between Saul and Ananias, two religious men coming from very different perspectives, I was confronted over and over again by similar experiences. We all are. Each and every day we encounter our friends and neighbors who approach the world differently than we do. We are sometimes struck down by those encounters. But, I tend to think, we are more often blessed by them. We are blessed when we are able to set aside our assumptions, and prejudices, and simply open ourselves up to the experience of God between two people. As my friend Misty reminded me just this week, Jesus taught us that wherever two or three people are gathered, there he is also.
Ananias had to set aside his fear and prejudice to tend to Paul. That is what Jesus commanded him to do. That is what Jesus commands us to do, over and over again in the scriptures.
Barbara Brown Taylor puts it like this in her book: “No one owns God. God alone knows what is good. For reasons that will never be entirely clear, God has a soft spot for religious strangers, both as agents of divine blessing and recipients of divine grace – to the point that God sometimes chooses one of them over people who believe they should by all rights come first. This is a great mystery, but it does nothing to obscure the great commandment. In every circumstance, regardless of the outcomes, the main thing Jesus has asked me to do is to love God and my neighbor as religiously as I love myself. The minute I have that handled, I will ask for my next assignment. For now, my hands are full.”
think both Paul and Ananias were both forever changed by their
interaction. I know I have been – this
week, if I am honest, was the rule not the exception. I encourage you to seek out similar encounters
and see how you will be changed. Amen.
 Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. HarberCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2019. Page 20.
 Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. HarberCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2019. Page 120.