Second Acts

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

April 14, 2018

Acts 9:1-19

It’s hard to remember that Saul was just doing his job when Luke describes him as “breathing threats and murder” against the disciples. He’s a zealous Jew, which means his job was defending the faith well, zealously.

We don’t like the job he was doing, because we are on the other side of the situation.
The transformation of Saul in this story is remarkable.

The transformation of everyone else in this story may be even more remarkable.

Yes, because of his “road to Damascus” experience, Paul completely changes everything. He loses his job, his friends, his faith tradition, even his prestige and reputation. That we can appreciate what he gains—new life in Jesus Christ, etc—doesn’t erase what he’s giving up in order to respond to Jesus.

This is often referred to as Saul’s call story. It occurs to me that it is also “the call story of everyone else so that Saul can have a call story”.

Let’s start with Ananias. First, he’s the one, not Saul, who responds to God with “Here I am, Lord”. (Saul had asked “who are you, Lord”?) Ananias is a good, faithful Christian. And not afraid to ask God questions. “I appreciate the call, God, but lemme just tell you a bit about this Saul character. I know you’ve got a lot going on and might have missed a few of the horrible things he’s done to your faithful people”.

Ananias is a great illustration of faithful discipleship. Willing to listen for God, to respond to God, to question God, and then to follow where God leads.

God hears Ananias’ questions and gives him an answer. Don’t be afraid to question God. And be willing to respond when God gives you an answer.

“Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel…”

Ananias, at this point, could have done a few things. He could have said, “nah, thanks. I’m good. Someone else can take that message.”

He could have said, “fine, I’ll do it.” And then gone and grabbed Saul by the collar and said, “alright you murderous scum, God wants to use you for some reason, but I don’t like it and I’m not going to pretend I endorse or forgive you for killing my friends. Let’s go.

Instead, he goes to Saul and says, ‘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.’ 

Despite his initial misgivings, he greets Saul as a brother, as family.

Everything changes for Saul because a stranger greets him as family.

Everything changes for us, because a Ananias greeted Saul as family, and Saul then was God’s instrument to share the Word to the world.

As the story continues, Paul gets up, the scales come off his eyes, and he immediately goes out and begins to preach. By his own accounts in his letters, Paul is not a looker. He’s not charismatic. His zealousness is his best feature.

And yet people still flock to his sermons. They know who he was, and they give him a fair hearing, and are convicted by his preaching. “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.’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.”

What if nobody in the crowd had been willing to give him a listen? What if they decided that since they knew his first act, they knew everything they needed to know about his second act? Once a murdering jerk, always a murdering jerk?

It’s hard for us to put ourselves in that place with Paul because we know his second act. We know who he became.

Who are the people we meet today, however, whose second acts have not yet been written? Are we willing to trust that God still has a story for them? And that perhaps that story needs our participation?

One of my favorite podcasts is Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. He takes obscure moments of history and spends 30 minutes talking about them. The History major in me is a sucker for that kind of story telling. I listened to one episode this past week called “The Road to Damascus”. It was about a terrorist who walked into a CIA station and offered to become a plant in the terrorist organization in which he’d been active. He didn’t want money. He wanted to atone for his sins. He had killed people, destabilized society. He wanted a different future for his second act.

The CIA accepted his offer. And we got intel from him that led to some important arrests. Carlos the Jackal was arrested in 1994 because of the intel from this spy.

The problem for our spy, on his road to Damascus, came about because people in our government decided his first act—as a terrorist whose actions had killed American citizens—mattered more than his second act.

It’s a long, complicated story, and we don’t have time tonight to get into it all. It made me realize though how uneven we are about offering second chances to people. And how important it is that we attend to that problem. Sometimes there are good reasons we are skeptical of another person’s conversion. Sometimes, it reveals our own prejudices and preconceptions.

What if the apostle Paul had only been judged for his past, known by what they already knew about him, with no opportunity to live into the future God was creating for him?

Every time I hear a story on the news (and sadly, these stories are far too common still) of an unarmed black man being shot while not doing anything wrong, I’m aware of the way he’s lost his opportunity to live into the future God was creating for him. And in these shooting situations, the the men are not being judged on fact or merit, but on our cultural prejudice. To have been born black in this country, that has yet to reckon with the wounds of slavery, should not be a crime.

This week, a 14 year old boy missed his school bus. His mom was at work and his dad is a soldier deployed in Syria. So he decided to try to walk to his high school, thinking he could remember his bus route.

He got lost. So he rang a doorbell and asked the woman who opened the door how to get to his school She started yelling at him, asking why he wanted to rob her house. Her husband came downstairs with a gun, so the boy turned and ran. The man shot at him but missed. The boy ran and hid and cried. Eventually he made it somewhere so he could call his mom. The man has been arrested for the attempt to shoot an unarmed 14 year old boy asking for directions.

In another story I heard this week, a man shot at someone who he thought had stolen his son’s truck. The problem is he shot his other son, who had taken the truck with a friend and was driving it in a field. Because the man trusted his own convictions more than he trusted the rule of law, and because he acted quickly, without ascertaining all the facts, he killed his own child. What was the future God had been dreaming for that family?

Luckily, Saul encountered Ananias and not those men with their guns, ready to shoot first and listen later.

We are more likely to give people who seem to be like us a chance at a second act. How many times have we heard “it was youthful indiscretion” or “that was locker room talk” for someone we support, while deploring the same behavior from an opponent? The response to sexual misconduct of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, while not exactly equivalent, may illustrate this tendency of ours.

How do we know when someone has had a real conversion experience to a new future, a second act? How do we tell if we should listen to their preaching or walk away from the hypocrisy?

God is ever and always calling us into new relationships, and into deeper, family relationships. Relationships where grace is seen as our business, rather than judgment and exclusion.

Ananias could have stuck with the judgment he correctly was feeling about Saul. God told Ananias that wasn’t his job, it wasn’t his responsibility in that moment. And Ananias was able to hear God’s voice, and then go greet Saul as a brother, giving him a chance to redeem himself, and to do so as family. When we are family, and not strangers, we are connected one to another by bonds of mutual responsibility, respect, and hope.

Saul was also called into different relationships in his conversion. He too, had to decide to give up the righteous judgment he was carrying against the people who were practicing their faith differently than his tradition had taught him to do. When he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus says “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

When we judge and persecute others to the extent that we do not help them toward redemption, toward their next act, we are persecuting God.

I’m not suggesting we get rid of consequences for actions that hurt people, or that violate our human compacts that strive to allow us to live together in peace. But if the consequences don’t leave room for God’s voice to speak, in the life of today’s Sauls, in the lives of those called to hear him preach—then we miss our opportunity for redemption too.

It’s always easier to see the ways other people have missed opportunities for redemption than it is to see the ways I have done it. And so I continue to listen for God’s voice. I continue to leave silence in each day, so God’s voice might have an opportunity to penetrate the busy-ness of my routine. I try to catch myself before I rush to judgment against another person, so I won’t hinder the dreams God is creating for someone else.
I work to be aware of the moments when I have deserved judgment and have instead received grace, and seek to be grateful for the opportunities to live into many second acts.

My call story to ministry is not as showy as Saul’s. I wasn’t blinded by the light. My companions on the road didn’t hear me talking to Jesus’ voice. My call story has been, instead, a series of second acts, new chances offered by other people.

How about you? How has God used other people to speak God’s mercy into your life, welcoming you as family? How has God’s voice called you to come alongside someone in need of a second act, another chance?

I’m grateful for the work the house churches have been doing this year, supporting the refugee community, and people who are in need of food assistance, people struggling with homelessness, and students working to succeed and secure their future dreams. Think of the stories that have yet to be written in those lives. May they be stories of hope, and transformation.

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