Sermon for May 5th, 2019

The month of Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance for humankind, a clear evidence of guidance, the criterion of right and wrong; so whosoever of you witnesses the month, s/he shall fast therein, and whosoever is ill or on a journey s/he shall fast the same number of other days. God desires ease for you, and God does not desire hardship for you, should you complete the prescribed number of days, and that you may glorify God for guiding you, and that you may be thankful to God.
–Qur’an 2:185

Psalm 30:1-5
I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
And did not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord, my God, I cried to you for help,
And you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
Restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you God’s faithful ones,
And give thanks to God’s holy name.
For God’s anger is but for a moment;
God’s favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
But joy comes in the morning.

–John Philip Newell
Created as one soul
Made in the holy image
Our deepest desires are Your desires
Our first instincts are Your instincts.
Renew in us our sacred longings
Revive in us our first thirsts
That wars may cease
And the human soul be one
That wars may cease
And the human soul be one.

Acts 9:1-20
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’

How do you tell the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant?

Ask this question:

“When Saul before he became Paul was on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians,
was he walking or riding a horse?” Here is the text:

“Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”

Protestants have in mind Paul walking and falling to the ground and Catholics have in mind Paul falling to the ground from a horse.

Why is that?

Art.

The famous paintings like the one on the cover of our order of worship by Carvaggio in 1601,
have Saul falling from a horse.
Other paintings of this text from the 1500s also have Saul falling from a horse.
It is largely through art work that Catholics have learned biblical stories with paintings of biblical scenes all around their churches.
Iconoclastic Protestants who removed art from the church just read their texts.

For me, I never knew about Saul falling from a horse until I entered seminary
and was introduced to church history including art history.
Even now as I have seen many paintings of Saul falling from a horse,
nonetheless, in my own mind’s eye,
I picture Saul walking and falling when I think of this story as that is how I imagined it as a child.

After the Jesus Seminar stripped away the myth from the man regarding Jesus,
they went after poor old Paul,
and concluded that the Paul of Paul’s letters is not the same as the Paul of Acts.

The historical Paul is found in his letters.
The Paul of Acts or Luke/Acts cannot be trusted in regards to history.
That Saul or Paul is largely a fictional creation written well into the second century,
according to the Jesus Seminar.

There is an evolution in my thought about Paul.
Whether he fell off a horse or didn’t fall off a horse doesn’t matter that much
since the entire thing was made up.

The horse was created by artists and the story was created by the author of Luke/Acts.

But, you know what? Sometimes stories have truth in them anyway.

Here we have a story of poor Saul lying on the ground.
Why is he on the ground and why should that matter to you?

Saul is on the ground.
Why is he on the ground?

Saul had a “Road to Damascus” experience.
Have you ever heard that phrase?

The “Road to Damascus” or “The Damascus Road” is a phrase used to indicate a sudden conversion from one point of view to another.

The phrase “The Damascus Road Experience” comes from this story.

I remember being asked that by some committee person on some pastoral nominating committee or some such committee.

The question to me was about my faith journey.
“Tell us your faith story.
Was it a gradual coming to Christ or a Damascus Road Experience?”

We used to put the Damascus Road kind of people in the evangelical camp,
those who know the time and date when they were saved and prayed the sinner’s prayer. While liberals or progressives were more gradual,
so gradual you never know if they ever got the message.

Another way to divide us, I suppose. An artificial way, I think.

I didn’t know how to answer that question,
whether my experience of faith was gradual or Damascus Road,
and I still don’t really.

I tend to think that I am the same person I always have been,
and yet there are certain periods in my life in which I have been jolted,
perhaps even blinded,
by an awakening of sorts.

I talked about one such blinding light of awakening in my Easter sermon.
I talked about my own experience of getting a view of clarity about the world and my place in it.

These experiences can come at times in such a blinding fashion that you fall off your horse.
But even then,
it isn’t as though on Monday you are Saul and on Tuesday you are Paul.
It takes time, ebbing and flowing,
this journey of faith I mean,
this experience of transcendence.

We still take ourselves and all of our history with us in this journey of faith.
The seeds of our transformation may have been planted much earlier.

I expect, and hope in fact,
that there will be yet more Damascus Road experiences in my life,
more jolting and blinding
(even as that may not be particularly pleasant at the moment)
in which more of my illusions will be pierced by the Divine light of truth, justice, and love.

I hope the same for all of you as well.
I hope each of you falls off your horse again before your ride is over.

The story of Saul’s tumble to the ground doesn’t end with his blinding.
Recovering takes time and it takes help from friends. According to the text:

Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they [the men who were with him] led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Saul had to, as they say, process this experience.
Sometimes you lay low for a while and fast.
Three days it says.
“For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”

As we know from reading the Bible three days doesn’t only mean today,
tomorrow, and the next day,
it is a phrase itself filled with meaning,
not so much a period of time,
but a period of incubation,
a period of sleeping to wakefulness,
death to rising,
blindness to sight,
fasting to feasting,
silence to proclamation.
Sometimes when we get jolted,
say by a sermon or two your minister preaches over the course of Holy Week,
from Palm Sunday through Easter,
you need some time to process.

Take notice of feelings…
where is resistance?
where does that come from?
what is real for you?
what isn’t?
where is Christ?
what is Christ calling you to be and do?

Processing takes time and it takes friends,
it takes reflection,
prayer and fasting,
and perhaps an unexpected visitor like Ananias.
Saul first sees him in a dream while praying and thus trusts him when he comes in person to lay his hands on Saul and to clarify with him what is happening. According to the text:

He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’

Ananias is a good friend to have.
When the light of truth blinds you because it is so overwhelming and it shakes your world, making you vulnerable and fearful,
when all that you have been holding on to for security crumbles and wobbles,
when you are stuck in fight or flight,
you need time to breathe, to pray, to fast, to reflect,
to have someone lay hands on you and say ‘be filled with the Holy Spirit.’

At sunset tonight is the beginning of the month of Ramadan.
It is the month through the practice of fasting between sunrise and sunset to connect with God. There is nothing that needs to be done.
No other practice outside of fasting is needed.
Simply refrain from eating or drinking during the day.
That practice in itself is prayer.
This is a gift to humanity from the Qur’an believed to be given to Mohammad and thus to humanity during this holy month.

It is a practice that anyone can do.
You don’t have to be an official Muslim to fast.
It is a good thing to do to keep in solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers,
even if we don’t do it every day as they will this month.

Fasting is a good thing to do when we have been blinded by divine light.

We are often blinded by divine light.
Just as often we are not sure how to come to terms with it.

There are many ways God knocks us off of our horse in order to get our attention.

If we are wise we won’t chalk up our Damascus Road Experience as something
to avoid
or annoying
or inconvenient
or bad,

but through fasting and prayer,
a little help from our friends,
and some laying on of hands we might end up like Saul who became Paul.

We might find this Damascus Road transforming.
We might discover renewed insight.
We might find our center.
We might articulate our purpose.
We might discover our voice.
We might become more than hearers of a message,
But we might become even messengers ourselves.

According to the text:

And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’

Amen.