Monday, April 23, 2018

We are Shepherds of the Faith

Acts 9
April 22, 2018

Saul who is also called Paul is doing what he thought was right,
putting down this new group of upstarts who were
polluting the true Jewish faith that he was sent to uphold.
He could see that the way of Jesus was a threat to his
way of life and their comfortable existence inside the Roman Empire,
The Way of Jesus could challenge people’s beliefs and practices.

Like a lot of people who see something as a threat to
their way of life, he thought the best thing to do
was to get rid of it.

The thing is, Saul, at this point in his life, 
really understands Christianity.
He knows -- maybe better than other people --
about the radical nature of Jesus’s teaching.
He understands how disruptive love, forgiveness, 
hope, equality, and liberation can be.
He knows at this point, with his head, about the finer points
of Christianity better than many Christians did later.

But then he had that vision on the road to Damascus.
Most people call it a conversion experience,
But conversion may miss the mark if you just
narrow conversion down to recruitment to a religion
or an understanding of some doctrine,
or even if it’s only turning to Jesus so that we will be saved.
If you just understand conversion as those things,
than conversion is not enough to describe
what happened to Saul, later called Paul.

In that road trip, Paul was called to
another life, another way of being in the world
another way of seeing things and behaving.
Paul was transformed.
His hate and fear was turned into love and hope.
His saw that God was not asking him to protect true doctrine
or to exclude others and get rid of the opposition,
He saw that God wanted understanding and inclusion.
God was asking him to widen the circle,
and overturn boundaries and division.

And we are called every day to the same transformation
that Paul was called to on that road.

But I don’t want to focus too much on Paul right now,
he gets plenty attention. I want to talk about Ananias.
This Ananias -- not to be confused with the
Ananias in chapter 5 who was married
to Sapphira and who came to a terrible end
after a bad real estate deal.
Or the high priest Ananias later in chapter 23
But this Ananias in Chapter 9.
Ananias was obviously a popular name.

Ananias is a believer, a follower of the way
living life with other Christians
differently from the world around them.
With people like Saul after them, they can already
see that the Roman Empire and others are
not comfortable with their existence.
They are being persecuted and killed.

And Ananias is called on by Jesus personally,
to go and meet Saul of Tarsus and take care of him,
restore his sight and welcome him into the community.

Now Ananias already knows about Saul
he knows he has done evil Saul was the main
persecutor of the followers of Jesus.
He seemed to have a personal vendetta against them.
He’d just killed one of their leaders
and he was coming to Damascus in order to kill more of them.

But still, Jesus tells Ananias to go meet him,
help him, welcome him, and accept him.
I’m sure that Ananias had a lot of fear
and apprehension in going to Saul as Jesus requested,
not to mention hatred and disgust for what Saul
had done and who he was.

Ananias’ faith was going to be stretched,
he was going to have to show if he really
could practice all of this forgiveness and grace stuff
that he was learning about.
And he does, he puts his fear and disgust aside
and he goes to meet Saul.

So if Ananias and the community of believers
is called on to welcome and help Saul,
the persecutor of Christians,
Who should we not welcome?

Church people come up with all sorts of excuses
not to help and welcome new people in their midst
and most of them are petty:
they don’t dress the right way,
act the right way, hold their head the right way,
have enough respect for whatever,
they talk at the wrong time, they smoke, they eat wrong,
they don’t sound right, have the right attitude.
They don’t have the right theology, or way of being Christian,
They’re not the right color, or culture.
Even if we’re not saying these things or thinking it outright,
we put up all kinds barriers to welcoming others.

But Saul was a murderer.
And he wasn’t just a murderer of anyone,
he was a murderer of Christians,
of their own people and friends.
It makes all of our hang-ups seem kind of petty.
Ananias goes to him, welcomes him,
They all welcome him, they baptize him,
feed him, it says he stayed with them for several days.
As a community of Christ, right from the beginning,
it has been our job is to help care for others in their faith.
No matter who they are or where they come from.
We are on the journey to overcome our own
hang ups, our preconceived notions,
and to see other people as if they have been
sent by Jesus into our lives, because they have.
Our job is to meet people where they are in their journey
and to tell them about God and Jesus in ways that they can hear.
We are called to be Shepherds. It’s simple to say, and difficult to live.

I remember all those people who helped me.
When I started going to the church
that is my home church in New York City
I was a lapsed Catholic who didn’t understand Lutheranism,
who had no words for faith,
who barely knew anything about the bible
or any of those things that are so important to me now.

The people community there helped me navigate the church,
showed me what committees did what,
who was who and where things were stored,
they helped me understand what the ELCA was,
and how it worked.

They told me stories of the church,
the history, the bad times, the good times,
the funny and tragic times,
Mural at my home church,
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of Manhattan
they told me where all the proverbial bodies were buried.

And just through normal conversation,
they showed me how their faith helped
them in their lives, how to be a believer
in a complicated world, they showed me
how to be part of a community of Christ,
they showed me acceptance and inclusion

That I could love gay and lesbian people
and support their relationships, 
and be a faithful Christian.

They taught me about the bible,
about theology, 
they gave me the thirst to learn
about Jesus and God, they taught me how
I didn’t need to shut off my brain to be a follower.

In their real practice during 
the everyday working
of the church, they showed me forgiveness, God’s grace,
they showed me that we could disagree and still love,
they taught me about justice and taking a stand,
Then they gave me leadership and trusted and honored
in that position before I really deserved it
and eventually, they sent me off to seminary to be a pastor.
They were the shepherds of my faith.

And it wasn’t just the ones who were
life-long believers, or deeply faithful,  or leaders in the church.
Even the ones who struggled, who couldn’t
decide if they were in the right place or
if they were going to stay or leave the church,
or if they believed everything or anything.
They helped me too, to deal with the questions I had.
To show that it was okay to not be sure.
They were the shepherds of my faith too.

I mean the church wasn’t that big, there were
probably about 30-40 of us on a good Sunday.
And if you asked any of them, they would probably
just say, “When did we do that?
We didn’t have any time to do anything like that.”
They were just doing what they normally did.
But more than 20 years later, I remember.
And I’m grateful for how they shaped me
and formed my faith.

Think of all those people who have done that for you.
Maybe you don’t know where they are now,
or you don’t even remember their names,
but they are the body of Christ for each of you.
And we are all still on that journey, shaping each other,
and being shaped and challenged by others too.
This is the stuff you can’t get in a book,
you can’t see on TV, you can’t get through social media,
or communing with nature, or praying on your own.
It’s not just about conversion to specific a thought,
it’s about transformation of the heart.

And this is what the community of Christ
is called to do, for everyone we encounter.
Not just those who come through the doors and worship with us
-- although we have a special call to care for those people –
but everyone in our lives.
We are called to be Jesus presence for others.
For some, we’re their only encounter of God.

Some people say that the best evangelism
these days is telling people that you’re
Christian and then not being a complete jerk.
That is true, AND we’re called to more.

I’m sure those days Paul spent in Damascus
were filled with questions and conversation,
and food, and questions, and laughter, and arguements, and prayer.

And I’m sure that Paul always held
a special place in his heart for Ananias.
The first person to trust Jesus and welcome Paul,
the first to show him God’s tolerance, forgiveness, and love.

When Paul tells of his transformation from Pharisee to
a follower of Jesus in chapter 22, he mentions Ananias by name.
Ananias was Paul’s shepherd, Paul’s body of Christ.
And we are shepherds for one another.
What a privilege to be called to do that.

It is good to be the Church,
It is a blessing to be the risen body of Christ.

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