Pastor Patty Ebner
October 27, 2019
Acts 9: 1-6
The Conversion of Saul
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.’
Prayer of Thanksgiving
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.
You may be surprised to see me at the pulpit again after Lisa’s return. But it is always my pleasure to talk with you.
Before I start on my message, I want to say that a call to ministry is a special thing but it is not limited to those of us wearing robes and stoles and headsets today. So I want just to put that myth to sleep before I ever get started; otherwise, Lisa and I would just go back into our offices and we would talk about our calls to ministry. But there is a reason I am standing in front of you, talking about Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus and how it relates to us so many years later. You hear me talk about that often when I preach because one of the things that impresses me the most about the Christian tradition is how long it has lasted, that it has stood the test of time through many different movements, and those movements happening at the very same time. And what we are called to, as a progressive Christian congregation, is to continue to find ways to make the text relatable to us, to greet a message that resonates with us and most importantly to hear a message to which we can respond to make a difference in today’s world.
I don’t remember when I began using the word “call.” I clearly remember my own call to ministry as a vocation and I clearly remember the time when I went to Pacific School of Religion to “Come and See Weekend” and I began to hear the stories of other peoples’ call to ministry. It was a moment of great unity for me, to be in the presence of other people who had shared the same experience I had shared and that I was currently holding.
When I entered seminary as an MDiv student, two years after that weekend, I noticed that people would often begin their sentences with, “Oh, well, I feel called to do ‘X, Y and Z,’” and it caused me a little bit of pause because I thought, “You’re just kind of using it like, “I’ve decided to have a Big Mac for lunch.” So it raises the question of, “What is the difference between hearing a call, discerning a call or just choosing something you want to do;” and there is a difference.
Paul’s road trip to Damascus today is very enlightening in many ways and it is challenging in some ways. So the first thing that causes us pause when we read today’s story is this flashing light that came on to Paul as he travelled. The second thing that causes us pause is that he heard the voice of God; he heard the voice of Jesus identifying himself, holding Paul accountable for the actions and the behaviors he had been displaying. The third thing we notice in this story is that Paul was really not a goody two-shoes: he was a persecutor of Christians. Christians in this day and time were people who belonged to a movement called “The Way.” They were Jewish people who were following the ways of Jesus.
So in the time where we often feel we have to be so saintly to respond to a call of God, when we decide that others are better, or that we are better, or that others are inferior to us or that we are inferior to others, we see in this message where God calls one of the least of these to ministry: God changes Paul on that road trip to Damascus.
So I first want to talk a little bit about the meaning of flashing lights. Normally, we don’t hear, in our modern lives, about bright lights like what Paul may or may not have experienced on that road to Damascus. Flashing lights hold different meanings for us: some of them are warnings, like the flashing light on top of a police car. I don’t know if you have ever had that experience; I’ll give you a moment to relate and laugh and reflect upon that time, if you have. We also see flashing lights on the top of ambulances and fire trucks as they respond to an emergency in the community. We witness, as we did the other night, lightning coming from the sky, powerful enough to start a fire as we see happening in California right now. There are other flashing lights which hold promise for us and these would be indicative of the light that swam right over Paul as he travelled that day. Seeing light at the end of a tunnel could mark a new beginning in someone’s life. Light coming from a flashlight we are using in our houses when we lose power illuminates safe passage for us through a dark space. A flashing red light at an intersection requires us to stop, to take notice of our surroundings on what would otherwise be a very busy road. Commentary on today’s scripture talks about that maybe the light that overcame Paul was the presence of an angel. Even others suggest that perhaps he experienced a seizure and that is what brought him to his knees.
Next we come to the matter of Paul hearing God’s voice. Just as Jesus identified himself to Moses, Jesus identified himself to Paul. And as I said earlier, he held him accountable for his behavior. He said, “I am the one whom you persecute.”
Today’s story reminds me a little bit of an episode: I don’t know if you’re ever seen the T.V. show, “The Amazing Race,” where the contestants are given instructions and they go from place to place and they draw different cards. They will get “detour” or “instructions will be provided to you at the next stop.” That’s kind of how the story of Paul winds up today. Jesus said to him, “Go into the city and when you enter the city you will be told what to do.”
God speaks to us in a variety of ways. Sometimes God speaks to us in the confines of our own minds, sometimes through the voices of others in our families or in our communities, sometimes God speaks to us through the opening and closing of doors.
The third aspect of today’s story which causes us pause is Saul’s personality and his wrongdoings. As I said, he was an avid persecutor of people belonging to the group known as “The Way.” Saul made it his business not only to persecute them but to murder them. It is easy, on the surface, to realize that change was needed in Paul’s life. After all, he was killing people for the way they believed. But shouldn’t God have chosen someone with a better track record? One could easily come to that conclusion. But what I realized as I studied for today’s message is what we would be missing had Paul not been called into Christian ministry. If Paul had not seen the light, if he had not heard the voice of God that day, we might be missing a third of the New Testament of our Christian text. Some might argue that that might be a good thing if we didn’t hear some of the things Paul has to say. But these are some of the topics we learn about Paul that fuel our conversations in the Christian church: circumcision, women’s role in the Christian church and, one of my very favorites is this saying, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female for we are all one in Christ.” These are some of the gifts we get from Paul’s ministry.
I love stories which occur on a road trip. When Sue and I take a road trip there is plenty of time for conversation and playing road games: there’s no telephone, there’s no job, there’s no television set. There’s just Sue and me and sometimes our Chocolate Lab, Murphy. When we travel we make plans for our future. Some of the road games we play are, “I’m thinking about a number between 2 and 97” and you go back and forth: you say a number and the other person says, “higher” or “lower.” Sue’s very good at it so she gets to the number way more quickly than I do, no matter how clever I am in the selection of my numbers. We also play a game called “I’m thinking about an animal, a vegetable or a mineral,” and you do the same sort of thing. In less than 20 questions you, by asking: “Is the plant green,” “Does the animal have fur,” “Does it have four legs,” you are eventually to come to an answer to the question. We also play a game called “Name that crop.” I think it should be a requirement that if you are a farmer and growing all of these crops on your land that you should have a sign in the middle of your field saying, “This is what is going on here.” Often there is a vegetable stand right after you pass a farm, but they’re selling so many different things there, who knows what might be growing in the field. Suffice it to say that I love road trips. I really treasure that time with my wife. I treasure the time that is uninterrupted. I treasure that time of discovery. None of this is unlike our call to ministering.
Now we know that Paul was not travelling in an SUV with leather seats, a full tank of gas or his Chocolate Lab in the back seat. That’s the way we choose to travel. And while scripture does not tell us his exact route, Paul would likely have travelled north through the mountains of Samaria and arrived on the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley. Next he would have joined the Via Maris, which led toward the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in the Plane of Genneserast. Following the north shore of the Sea he would have passed Capernaum before heading north toward Caesarea Philippi and then on to Damascus. Many of these places are known to you and me as we study different parts of the scripture and as we follow the routes where Jesus ministered.
We know from today’s scripture that Paul’s road trip was life changing. His conversation with Jesus threw him to the ground, blinded him from sight and put him into relationship with others who would minister to him and further prepare him for Christian ministry. We know that the distance from Jerusalem to Damascus is 136 miles. Today we could get there by plane in 30 minutes. It took 2 weeks for Paul to make this trip by foot. My whole life I have been hearing this story of Paul, about the light coming upon him: that even more than hearing the voice of God. I’ve known he was a persecutor of Christians, but every time I have heard this story I have heard it in a way of this dramatic, immediate transformation, that Paul went from being a persecutor to a witness in a matter of seconds. And it may have happened exactly in that way, from this to that, a very clear path. And sometimes that is the way life happens for us: we believe one way in one moment and then we change in the next. We are friends with one person in one moment and in the next we, for whatever reason, become enemies. Life makes dramatic changes. But it could have been that Paul’s change was not that instant; it could have been that his change was gradual. We don’t know this from reading the scripture; I am definitely reading into the message.
Examples of change in our modern society are when people move from active addiction into recovery. People experiencing homelessness, after a period of time, maybe instantaneous, are given the blessing of shelter. The unemployed, after a series of interviews people become gainfully employed. The oppressed experience freedom for the first time in a long time. The incarcerated are freed from prison cells. People encountering depression encounter hope. Those with health challenges recover. These are some of the responses people experience as they travel through life. And in each of these transitions people have often been waiting. What are they waiting for? Is it possible they are waiting on a call from God? Is it possible that in each of these transformations change has come to these individuals gradually? You and I know that life has its ups and downs: we go up, we come back down; we move in, we move out. Sometimes we don’t go down as Paul did on the road that day; sometimes we do. Sometimes we stumble and then we get up and we stumble again and we get up. And sometimes we stumble and we go all the way to the ground.
I’m going to really make kind of a big deal about this stumbling and getting up process, because it is very important for us to know that when we feel called to ministry we are not called to perfect: we are called to this moment, this place and this time in our lives.
I was digging through some of my seminary articles, many of which I loved reading when I was at the Pacific School of Religion, and I came across an article called “Stumbling in the Silence.” It is written by professor, minister and author Renita Weems and she describes her life as a Christian minister and how she stumbles. These are her words, “The listening for God, this is the spiritual journey, learning how to live in the meantime, between the last time you heard from God and the next time you hear from God.” She goes on to say that “glimpses of the Holy that have surfaced from time to time, however faintly, briefly and above all mysteriously, will always be regarded as miracles of grace” to her. “Miracles of grace.” I can’t imagine that any one of you in this sanctuary has not experienced a time in your life where you wondered where God is. I can’t imagine that any of you have not anticipated the arrival of the miracle of grace.
I believe our calls to ministry and these miracles of grace are one in the same. And as it is in Romans I: 8-12 that our call is described. In today’s anthem the choir sang so beautifully, Carolyn Gillette says, “If we just sing of doing good and don’t walk through our neighborhood to learn its hope, to ease its pain, our talk of good is simply vain.” To avoid this we are called to live into Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving by taking each of these actions stated in Romans. We are called to show gratitude to one another. We are called to name, to verbally name our purpose in life. We are called to pray for those of us in this community and beyond. We are called to share our spiritual gifts to strengthen the body of Christ: this body of Christ and the body of Christ beyond these doors. I love that particular challenge: sharing our gifts.
People have different views of individuals who are called to specific tasks in ministry. I don’t know if Lisa gets this, but I get a lot of it. People look at me and say, “What is it like to be in ministry?” People have a tendency sometimes to put us up on these pedestals and forget that we put on our pants the same way, we have toilet paper in our bathrooms, and we go to the grocery store like anybody else. But it is an honor and a privilege to serve a Christian community and there is something very distinct in the call to serve. I remember one of my mentors asking me to describe my call, what was the most important thing for me in my call to ministry. And, being the self-centered, egotistical person I can be from time to time, I said, “Well I think it would be kind of cool for people to call me Reverend Patty Ebner.” And that gave her pause, like sitting at a red light might do, and she said, “Well Patty, maybe it could be something more spiritual like baptizing an infant or adult; perhaps it could be something more meaningful by standing at the table and offering communion to anyone who approaches the table. These are the sacraments we hold so dear in the Christian church.” But truly, in my heart of hearts, what I love the most is sharing my God-given talents with you. And when you minister to me you share those same talents and gifts.
This feeds directly into Paul’s last challenge: that we provide mutual encouragement to one another and between one another. This invokes the necessity of being in community, serving within a community, creating a broader community as we witness and minister to one another. I never dreamed that in the course of a day of my job here with this church how I would be ministered to by many of you seated right here in this sanctuary. This is what Paul was writing. It is my pleasure to come and serve you, to inspire you, to encourage you, to be ministered to by you.
I know that most of us lead very busy lives. We have demands from our families, from our jobs, our faith communities. We surely do not have time for a two-week road trip by foot to the city of Damascus. We do well to attend to the minimum of required duties, just to keep ourselves going and our families. I truly understand where you are coming from because I am coming from the same place. But how can we recognize the voice of God in these in between times that the author of today’s song refers to? How can we recognize the voice of God when it’s been a little while since we’ve checked in, and it’s going to be a little bit longer time until we have the willingness? We are called to be in conversation with God at every moment. Today’s song is one I don’t often hear sung in the Congregational Church. It is sung practically every Sunday in the Baptist Church, where I was raised. “Just As I Am,” that is how God receives us, just as we are. We come, just as we are.
So as I conclude my message to you this morning I always encourage each of you that when you read the scripture, when you struggle with some of the things are described there, when they seem so practically unreal to you, look for the areas where God is still speaking to you. Find a way to connect with the voice of our still speaking God. Amen.
© Copyright. Patty Ebner. 2019. All rights reserved.