I Used To Live Here

This week marks the official beginning of a wonderful opportunity for me: I have been granted a period of sabbatical leave from the work I’ve been doing as the Pastor of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  From Memorial Day through Labor Day, 2019, I am not only excused from my regular duties but positively immersed in a wave of new experiences and opportunities.  All of this in the hope and expectation that time away will provide both me and the congregation with renewal and refreshment in order that the next season of ministry will be marked by vitality and joy.

If you’ve been following this blog in the hopes of reading or hearing sermons, well, you’ll want to take a break for a few months.  I hope you’ll come back in September!  However, I invite you all to come with me as I wander into some new – and familiar – places in the hopes of engaging the Holy and the Wonder in these experiences.

This sabbatical experience will be framed by a couple of long weekends in the community in which I was primarily raised: Wilmington DE.  Memorial Day and Labor Day will find us in the place where I used to live.  My folks moved here when I was 3 years old, and for the next 15 years this was the place where I learned to ride bikes, play baseball and the trombone, make friends, grow in faith and community, drive, lead, fish, and so much more.  I graduated from Concord High School in 1978, went to college in Western PA, and have not really lived here since then.

And this is a frustrating thing: I am from here.  I know – or, more precisely, I knew these roads.  And yet as I am invited to visit with and chauffeur people around this place, I am irritated and disappointed…because the roads are not as I remember them.  There are new buildings, and the landscape has changed.  I am frustrated with myself, because as I feel lost I think, “I ought to know this.  I’ve been here.  I used to live here, for crying out loud.”  And I am irked by those who have come in and changed this place that was a comfortable and predictable environment.

And if you were to speak with me rationally, you would say, “Oh, give it a break, Dave.  It’s not 1978 anymore.  The world changes.  Life happens.  Get with the times.”  And, of course, you’d be right.

And yet, as I so often do, I wonder if there is a deeper application to this feeling.

I have a friend who is very ill.  Her body – once a dear friend, comfortable and hospitable and useful – now seems to be betraying her.  It’s not doing what it used to; it’s not behaving as it should.  And so in addition to the discomfort of the symptoms she is feeling, she is disquieted at finding herself in a place where she’d prefer not to be.

We are staying with my mother-in-law, a widow of less than a year.  On a July day last year, her landscape was bulldozed in an unimaginably (to me, right now) painful way.  Her house looks the same, but her home is irrevocably changed.  And it’s frustrating in painful ways.

I know a man who was once full of rich faith in God.  He practiced this in church, and engaged in regular worship.  And then, for a number of reasons, he found himself away from the church (and, if he were truly honest, away from the faith) for a season.  And he’d like to be back now.  Except that while the congregation that he formerly attended is still standing, and still open, and even has a number of the same members – it’s not the same church.  It seems to him that maybe even God has changed.  Certainly his perspective of God has changed.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  But it’s surely a confusing thing, on some days.  He has to find his way along a path that is different from the one that he knew.

I used to live here.  But the first word of that sentence – I – is not the same as he was in 1978.  Mostly, that’s a blessing.  And there are other people who live here now.  And that’s a fine thing.

And the final word of the sentence – here – is different as well, for a million reasons.  Again, mostly good.  I live somewhere else now, and I love it there.  But it’s not here.

In between the first and last words of the sentence is the verb – live.  One of the great things about time away from my regular life is the ability to catch up with folks who are in other places.  It has been a great joy to visit places that have been formative for me and share stories with those whose lives have been intertwined with mine.

Movie Night at Cokesbury Village! “On the Basis of Sex” is a great film.

Had a great visit with my brother, Tom, and his family!

So proud of my nieces Bethany and Rachel!

Putting in the annuals…

Coaching Sharon through the gardening thing… Sabbatical is about everyone learning new things!

We are blessed to be able to do this with Mom!

Breakfast with my niece Sarah – crab benedict!

This room provided some of my most meaningful encounters of the Holy… confirmation, ordination, marriage, the baptism of our daughter, funerals…

“The Burning Bush” at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Delaware

And as I near the end of my 58th year I am aware of the fact that as my dad used to say, “Nobody gets out of this place alive.”  I’m not usually a “go to the cemetery” person, but it was an honor and a privilege to visit the graves of some of the most amazing folks I’ve known.  As I mentioned, Sharon’s dad died in July 2018.  My own father died about ten years prior to that, and my mother in 1990.  We also were able to see the marker for my nephew, Ben, who died in 2017.  Taking this time to reflect on the meaning of their lives helped me to frame the expectations for my own.

My hope for the days, weeks, and months to come is that the practice of sabbatical will invite me to consider what it means to be an “I” who finds himself “here” – wherever here is.  And I am deeply grateful for the ways that I have been launched on this journey; for those who gave me advice as I was starting and along the way; and for those who are present to me as I seek to be faithful in the walk of today and share in the hope that is to come.

One most best frameworks for this hope is in a song called “Be With You”.  I invite you to wander in that now.

Who’s the New Guy?

God’s people in the community that comprises The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered for worship on May 19 to listen to stories of people who had been changed along the way.  Samuel and Peter helped us to understand that none of us is where we used to be, and nobody’s where they’re going to end up.  Rather, we are met on the way by a God who has helped us up till now.  This was a particularly meaningful worship service for me, as it marked the final opportunity for me to worship with these folks until September.  I am about to begin a season of Sabbatical – and I’m sure that the pastor who shows up at Crafton Heights in September won’t be the same guy who left.  And that’s a good thing.  Our scriptures included Acts 11:1-18 and I Samuel 7:5-13.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

The children of Israel were in a tight spot.  In a series of unfortunate, and not-unrelated events…

  • They had allowed the quality of their worship of God and their commitment to follow and serve YHWH to diminish. They had no great expectations of either their leaders or themselves.
  • They were currently under attack from their neighbors, a nation known as Philistia, which was superior militarily, economically, and politically to their own.
  • This was symbolized by the fact that the Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the Philistines and held hostage for some time, until the Philistines who were charged to secure this artifact developed tumors and illnesses that they interpreted as punishments from the God of Israel.
  • Even when the Philistines tried to return the Ark to Israel, the Israelites were scared to death; it’d been so long since they held worship that they weren’t sure they knew how to do it. So the Ark sat in someone’s garage for a while.

Meanwhile, the Philistines renewed their attacks on Israel.  Faced with the onslaught of this military invasion, the people of Israel called their leader, Samuel, and said, “Look, we’re not really great at this, but if youcry out to the Lord on our behalf, YHWH might save us.”

Samuel went one better and taught the people how to cry out to God for themselves, and lo and behold, the nation was in fact saved.  Our Old Testament reading for this morning describes the reaction to YHWH’s intervention in the lives of those people: Samuel drags a big stone into the median of the highway and names it “Ebenezer”, which can be roughly translated as “stone of help”.  He says that every time they see that stone, they should remember that so far, God has helped them. Up till now,God has been with them.  As he sets the stone in place there is a little dedication ceremony where the people are able to praise God for where they’ve already been helped and guided, and to look ahead at what’s coming down the pike.  This notion of pausing to remember that God has helped us along the way has been memorialized in the favorite hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home

An “Ebenezer” is a physical symbol reminding us – and those around us – that we’re neither in the place where we began nor in the spot that is our final destination.  An Ebenezer is a testimony to the fact that God has met us on the way.

St. Peter Preaching, Masolina da Panicale, c. 1426

Now, about a thousand years later, a middle-aged man named Peter finds himself in a bit of a pickle.  Most of his life, he’d been a fisherman.  The complexities of his daily life consisted of dilemmas like, “should I fish, or cut bait? Am I going for perch or for bass today?”  For years, he concentrated on being a regular guy, doing regular things. He was eager to worship YHWH, but he was not interested in being a fanatic.

And then one day he was tapped on the shoulder by a traveling Rabbi named Jesus.  Little did he know how much that one day would screw up – or, more charitably, “affect” the rest of his life.

With a band of friends, Peter had watched the meteoric rise of Jesus’ ministry, only to see that same Jesus crushed by an unholy alliance of religious opposition and political fear.  In a surprising twist, three days after the Worst Thing Ever, Peter was greeted by the resurrected Christ and sent into the world to preach forgiveness, healing, and restoration. Last week we saw Peter visiting Joppa, where he restored the life of a beloved woman and then accepted the hospitality of an outcast, all the while wondering what in the world might come next.

Today’s reading from Acts finds Peter on trial before his friends and colleagues.  He’s been accused of being soft on the Jewish Law, of hanging around with Gentiles, of eating the wrong food, and of telling too many of “those people” about God’s love and care.  In short – Peter was on trial for acting a whole lot like Jesus acted.  And as Peter mounted his defense, he recalled how the fresh wind of God’s Spirit swept through that place so strongly that he was left with a question: “who was I to think that I could oppose God?”

Each of these narratives has become a favorite story for me – each of them describe a God who is always on the move, and always beckoning to us – or to anyone who will listen – to keep up.  These stories stand as warnings to God’s people of all times and places not to fall too deeply in love with how things are, or where things are, or the ways in which things are done, because God isn’t finished yet.

And sometimes those are hard words for us to hear.  We find it much easier to get into a place and stay there. Some of you will remember my dear friend, the late Art Parris, who said to me more than once, “Dave, I’m feeling all right.  Things are ok.  It’s like I’m in a real groove… but don’t say anything to my wife about that, because she thinks I’m in a rut…”  You know how that is – the difference between moving along in a groove and being stuck in a rut is often one of perception.  We don’t. like. change.  And if there is anywhere we really don’t like change, it’s here.  At church.

And yet, we are informed, guided, and inspired by a book that defines us as people who are on the move, worshiping and serving a God who calls, equips, and sends us out again and again and again.

I say all of this because the truth is that you are about to get a new pastor here in Crafton Heights.  Now, don’t get too excited – I’m not quitting.  But I won’t be here next week – or for the fourteen weeks after that. You’ll gather for worship on the Sundays in June, July, and August, and you’ll be mostly led by my friend Sonya-Marie Morley.  Along the way, Bill and Brian and Laura and Tony will be here.  This will be a season of new voices for you all.

I’ve got to tell you, you might not like all of it.  These folks are nice people, all right, but they’re not going to know your stories.  They won’t know who is related to whom.  I suspect that they won’t like all of the same music that you do.  On the other hand, they may have better jokes than I do.  But in the view of your Session, these are the people who are called to preach the Word of God to the people of God in this place and at this time.

And then, Lord willing, in September, you’ll get another new pastor. If things work out as planned, your new pastor be an old white guy named Dave.  If you’ll have me, I hope to be back as Pastor in a few months.

But here’s a warning: whoever shows up here in September wearing my clothes and hugging my wife… well, that won’t be the same person who’s standing up here right now.  I mean, I hope that you’ll be nice to him, and laugh at his jokes… but don’t pretend that it’s me.

Right now, I am a particular collection of strengths and weaknesses, bumps and bruises, anxieties and arrogance.  A lot of those will look familiar in three months, but some will be different.

To quote my old friend Jessalyn Gielarowski, “church is always better when Pastor Dave goes away.”  She said this about six years ago, and, to be fair, she went on to say something like, “he comes back changed, with new stories, and new perspectives, and that helps us to see ourselves and God’s world a little differently, too.”

So I’ll come back, Lord willing, in September.  And you better believe that one of the first things I’ll do when I return is to wander past all of the Ebenezers we’ve got set out in this place. I’ll look at the plaques downstairs that remember young people of great valor who started in this place.  I’ll walk down to the Open Door and feel the names of old friends etched into brick.  I’ll go up to the 3rdfloor and look at the handprints that fill the Youth Group room.  Each of these places, and a hundred more around this joint, are signs of encounters we’ve had with the living God and God’s presence in our lives.

But listen to this, beloved: no matter how deep our need and how great God’s salvation at that time and in that place, we dare not stay in any of those places too long – because God is on the move.  Again.  Still. Always.

So I have a charge for you, beloved, in the next few months.  Keep following the God who is moving in and through this place and your lives.  You’ll do this, in part, by learning new stories and new songs and maybe even new jokes. You will watch with, wait for, and be present to each other.  You will, Lord willing, keep searching for ways to include the children of this neighborhood – those who participate in our preschool and Cross Trainer programs and those who do not – in the grace and love that flows from Jesus Christ.

I’m not going to be in this room, but I hope and expect that you will. Come to worship, and listen to what “Pastor Not-Dave” has to say.  Encourage her or him, and each other.  And for crying out loud, when you come, bring your wallets with you.  Don’t neglect the financial support of this congregation in a time of change.  I can tell you that Sharon and I will be making our regular financial gifts, even when we are not able to be present in person.

And, Lord willing, come September we will have a few new Ebenezers to share with each other.  I hope that you’ll have a few new friends to whom you’ll introduce me.  And my deepest, most fervent, prayer is that we will each have a new openness to following God into whatever is next for the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Say Her Name

The community that formed after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus was marked by many distinctive.  On Sunday May 12, 2019, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered the call to include those on the margins as one of those distinctives.  Our text was the story of Tabitha/Dorcas and Peter as recorded in Acts 9:36-43.  We read that after having heard the promise of God as revealed in Hosea 1:10 – 2:1

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit

As we start, I’ll confess that I don’t usually select scripture readings or plan the worship experience at Crafton Heights in such a way that it mirrors the civil calendar.  Some of you know this, because you’ve been disappointed with or irritated by me on the Fourth of July, when we don’t sing a lot of patriotic songs, or on Labor Day, or on Veterans Day.  Maybe you know this because you were here on Mother’s Day in 2017, when the scripture for the day happened to be the heartwarming and “sit in church next to Grandma-friendly” tale of David and Bathsheba.  Typically, if you come to me with such disappointment, I will say that most of those are, indeed, important days, but that we gather in worship for a different and, I would add, more important reason.

But as I read the scripture chosen for today, and then I realized that today would be Mother’s Day, I thought to myself, “Jackpot!”  This is precisely the kind of story that we love, especially on Mother’s Day.  The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings used in a number of churches that is designed to help congregations encounter the full breadth of God’s Word.  And wouldn’t you know it: the Revised Common Lectionary calls the church of Jesus Christ on this, the fourth Sunday of Easter, to consider Acts 9:36-43 – the story of Tabitha and Peter.  It’s perfect! I mean, what’s not to like here?

Saint Tabitha, Byzantine Greek Orthodox Icon

The central figure in this passage appears to be Tabitha. Some translations refer to her by her Greek name, which is Dorcas, but either way it means “gazelle” or “deer”.  She is truly remarkable in many, many ways.

You are all familiar with people who have traditions of helping others at various times of the year: someone in your family may go serve a meal at the shelter every Thanksgiving, for instance; someone else raises money to fight world hunger each spring; heck, some of our friends are not here this morning because they alwaysparticipate in “the Race for the Cure”.  We know and we love those people, and we admire their regular commitment to charitable giving and living.

But with Tabitha, it’s more than just an annual fund drive. She is all in, all the time – 24/7/365.  This is who she is.  This is what she does.

Here is one of the ways that you know that Tabitha is remarkable.  There are 33 women named in the New Testament, and another 28 who are mentioned, but not named.  There are another 16 references to groups of unnamed women. And yet Tabitha is the only woman to be described as a mathetria – the feminine form of the word “disciple” in Greek.  Nobody else in the entire Bible has that form of that word used to describe her: I’m here to suggest that indicates something about her devotion to the Lord and her willingness to listen for God’s call in her life.

Tabitha, the disciple, has spent all of who she is serving the poor and the widows.  And then, one day, she is gone.  The one person on whom the most vulnerable in society could count  – she’s died.  What are we going to do now?

The most vulnerable ones – nearly always women and children – find themselves without an advocate.  These folks don’t have time or energy to argue about theology, or try to shape policy, or sit around listening to the promises of the future… they are simply trying to figure out, “how are we going to get through this day?”  And the one who has helped them find the answer to that question on every other day has died.  They are alone.  Tabitha, who meant everything to them, is gone.  There are many of you in this room who know how it feels to lose the person that held your world together; if you don’t know that yet, I suspect that you will. It is a horrible feeling.

So what do they do?  Well, they hear that Peter is in Lydda.  This apostle who has been rumored to have a great connection to God is not far – he’s about twelve miles away.  For the sake of reference, I’ll tell you that’s about as far as it is to the Dependable Drive-In in Moon, or to Kennywood.  So as soon as she’s died and her body’s been laid out, a couple of the fellas walkto Lydda so they can tell Peter.  They get there, and they tell him that she’s dead, and they say, “Hurry!  You’ve got to come!”

Why? What good would it do to have Peter show up now? That’s one of the frustrating things about this passage: there’s not very much explaining that goes on here.  The story is told, not explained.

And Peter goes with the unnamed followers of Jesus, walking all the way from Kennywood to Crafton Heights.  Peter must represent some sort of hope in Jesus; he’s been acquainted with the Power of the Spirit.  They want him there, but nobody says why. Nobody seems to have much of a plan, only that they want Peter to noticeTabitha.

Raising of Tabitha, Giovanni Francesco Guernico (1591-1666)

And that’s what happens.  They bring Peter into the house, and take him upstairs, and say, “Look at this stuff! Peter, you’ve got to know who she was to us.  Peter, say her name.  Know that she mattered!”

That happens doesn’t it?  This week, social media has been flooded with news of yet another school shooting, and many of you have posted photos of a young hero who saved lives, Kendrick Castillo. You’ve said, “Tell his story. Know his name!”  Similarly, following the death of Antwon Rose, there were protestors who cried out, “Say his name!”  Because these young men – and so many others – are not just statistics, they are not just news stories – they are real people with complex lives and vibrant hopes.

So there in the house, Tabitha’s friends say, “She was everything.  You have to know her, Peter.  You have to see who she was.”

And Peter does!  He notices, and the story now begins to revolve around Peter, and we see something of what he is like.

We learn that although Tabitha is the one who is called a “disciple” in this passage, Peter proves to be a quick learner too.  The Greek word mathetes, which is often translated as “disciple”, means “one who learns” or “follower”.  Watching Peter interact with Tabitha’s community should remind us of the ways that Jesus conducted himself with Jairus’ family back in Mark chapter 5. The first thing he does is to kick people out of the room – he can’t afford any distractions or negative energy. And then he does something else he learned from Jesus – he kneels to pray.  In his culture, most of the praying was done standing, arms spread toward the heavens, and eyes looking upwards.  But here, he kneels, as did his Master Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

After he clears the room, and after he kneels to pray, then Peter says her name – and in saying that, he calls her back to life.  Tabitha is restored.  The widows and the poor have their hope restored.  God’s name is honored. And, as the scripture says, “many people believed in the Lord.”

Do you see what I mean? This is a greatMother’s Day story.  A woman’s value is noted, her presence is missed, she is honored and even knelt before by a powerful man, and life comes to a community.  It’s perfect.

At this point, Peter has to be the Most Valuable Player in Joppa.  I mean, the guy has walked here, from Kennywood, and he’s restored the community.  What happens next?  Was there a parade?  Did he get the key to the city?  We don’t know how he was honored, but we know that he must have been, right?

Well there’s one more name in the scripture – one more verse in the chapter that was omitted when we told this story first.  Acts 9:43 reads, “Peter stayed in Joppa some time with a tanner named Simon.”

Well, so what?  That seems like an afterthought.  Maybe it is.

What’s a tanner?  A person who makes leather.

Why would first-century people in the Middle East need leather?  What would it be used for in that culture? Shoes, straps, saddles, reins, tents, books, drums, wineskins, water bottles, buckets… Leather was indispensable in that place. Tanners were very, very necessary.

And yet, tanners were also problematic.  Think about it.  Where do you get leather from?  Animals. Dead animals.  To make leather, people in that culture would start with a skin, and smear one side of it with lime, and let that stand for a few days as the lime worked its magic against the flesh and hair.  Then the tanner would scrape the skin, and soak it in a concoction made from dog feces.  After it sat there for a while, the skin would be soaked in another brew made from fermented bran.  After that, the skin was washed in salt water and dried in the sun.  Later, it would be doused with boiling vinegar mixed with copper, dried again, and finally rubbed with olive oil.

I suspect that on hearing that, you are not surprised to know that most Jews thought of tanners as “unclean”.  In fact, the rabbis taught that a tannery was to be equated with a bathhouse or a public urinal.  A tanner was to be treated as one with boils, polyps, or who collects dog excrement. Many localities had specific laws and ordinances mandating that tanneries were to be built outside of city limits and downwind from the local population.

Now, work with me here: Luke, the author of Acts, tells us this amazingly great Mother’s Day story of the day that Tabitha came back to life – with no explanation as to why or how it happened – and ends it by saying that when all of this had occurred, out of all the possible places he might have stayed in the midst of a very grateful populace… Peter chose to stay at the home of a tanner named Simon.

Peter was called to Joppa so that he could notice the problem that everyone could see – Tabitha was dead!  He noticed her.  He called her by name.  He noticed the condition of the poor and bereft in Joppa and in healing her, he equipped them to face the challenges of a new day.  But then he does something even more Jesus-y than raising a much-beloved saint from the dead…

St. Simon the Tanner, 10th c. Coptic Icon

Here, Peter demonstrates his commitment to inclusivity and grace by reaching out, by showing up, by saying not only Tabitha’s but Simon’s name.  Simon – the guy whom everybody needed, but – unlike Tabitha – nobody wanted or even noticed.

Think about that… When the most important VIP to visit town in weeks decides to stay at Simon’s home – even though he is nothing more than an unclean tanner who ought to remain invisible, out of sight, and downwind… who else is going to visit Simon’s home?

Everybody.

In accepting this gift of hospitality, Peter validates Simon’s being here.  In a very visible, concrete way, Peter demonstrates the Gospel truth that when you feel most excluded, shamed, unloved, unwanted, or cast aside… that maybe at that very moment, the grace of God is moving toward you.

In this passage, the prophecy of Hosea has come true: the one who was called “not my people” is now recognized as a child of the Living God.  The one who was isolated and alone is called “My People.”  The one who was shamed and cast out is called “shown mercy”.

You know, beloved, that this is not just an old-timey Bible story, right? You know that this is what we are about right now, right here?  You have a name.  And God knows it.  You are God’s people.  You are children of the living God.

Let us say that to each other, and let us live in such a way that we validate those around us as well.  Let us say the names of those whom we see.  Let us notice who they are before God.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

Are You Sure About This, God?

Sunday May 5 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time reflecting on an ordinary person who was asked by God to do something truly extraordinary… We talked about the ways that fear can blind us and reduce our ability to trust God to work in our lives and the lives of those around us.  Our scripture was Acts 9:1-19.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

The party was going on and on – speeches were made, the band was playing, and all the passengers on the cruise were having a great time.  Because of the celebration, the ship’s captain had ordered an extra special buffet, and each of the passengers was taking advantage of it. Sitting at the head table was a man of about 70 who was looking a bit embarrassed, but trying to accept the praise that was being poured on him.

Earlier that day, a young woman had fallen overboard, and within seconds this same man was at her side in the dark, cold water.  The woman was rescued, and this fellow was an instant hero.

When the time finally came for him to speak, the room fell silent to hear the words of the brave hero.  He approached the microphone and offered what might be the briefest “acceptance speech” of all time:  “All I want to know is…” and he paused to clear his throat, “…who pushed me?”[1]

Jew at Prayer, Marc Chagall (1913)

I think that in a lot of ways, the disciple Ananias would probably deliver the same sort of speech if he were given half a chance.  As we continue to look at the development of the Christian community in the months and years that followed that first Easter – the people who lived into the reality that Mark described – we are presented with a couple of very different personalities this morning.  Ananias, who is our subject for this morning, is one of those people who is crucially necessary for the “big picture”, but not really well known.  Saul, on the other hand, is better known by his Greek name, Paul, and responsible for half of the New Testament.

My hunch is that if we were to ask Ananias and Saul the question of the day, namely, “are you sure about this, God?”, that they might offer two answers.  Is God sure? Well, friends, the Lord is right behind you, pushing you out the door.  And that same Holy Presence is out in the distance, preparing the way for you, dwelling with you in the future.

Because you have probably heard more about Saul, I’m going to center our discussion this morning around the guy whose name you’re not sure how to pronounce. Ananias is a normal Christian. He’s no apostle, he’s not one of the twelve, and he didn’t write a book of the Bible.  There are three men named Ananias mentioned in the book of Acts: our friend here in Damascus, an earlier follower who, along with his wife Sapphira, lied to the community in Jerusalem following the sale of some property, and the High Priest who’s mentioned at the end of Acts.  Perhaps as much as anyone in the scriptures, Ananias is just a regular guy leading a regular life trying to be faithful.  And God uses Ananias in a huge way.

When we meet him, he’s praying, and he receives a vision.  God calls his name, and, according to the author of Acts, Ananias responds by saying, “Here I am, Lord.”  What’s interesting about that is the fact that in all of Scripture, there are only three other people who happen to be wandering along, minding their own business, and they hear God’s voice calling their name.  Any ideas on who that might be?  Who might hear their name?  “Abraham, Abraham.”  “Here I am, Lord.”  “Moses, Moses.” “Here I am, Lord.”  “Samuel, Samuel.” “Here I am, Lord.”  Yet unlike these three men who became prominent in the narratives of the faith, Ananias is just an ordinary follower who comes on the scene, does his job, and then disappears.

So God calls Ananias without mincing words any words.  In his vision, Ananias is instructed to go over to Straight Street and meet someone.  Not just anyone, but Saul.  Not just any Saul, but Saul from Tarsus.  God spells it out pretty clearly.  And Ananias says, “Lord, not to be disrespectful or anything, but haven’t you seen the news?  This Saul of Tarsus is, well, problematic.  All my sources are telling me that he tries to kill people like me.  Think for a moment, God: I’m sure you must have heard from the church down in Jerusalem about this guy.”

And what is God’s response when Ananias shares his fear? “Go!”  God tells Ananias that Saul is God’s “chosen instrument”, and that whereas up to now, Saul has been one to inflict suffering upon the church, from now on, he will suffer on behalf of the church.

And Ananias stops arguing with the Lord and simply does what he is told. He is so sure that God is in this that he believes that God will protect him even against the chief persecutor of Christians.  He obeys God and marches down to the house on Straight Street and goes in to pray with Saul.

And look at how he does it!  Don’t you wish, at least a little bit, that Ananias would have an attitude?  I mean, if Saul was going around persecuting and perhaps even murdering Christians, it’s logical to assume that Ananias would know at least some of the people involved.  And when you read this story, don’t you find yourself wishing at least a little bit that Ananias would show up in the room on Straight Street and say, “Oh, well, look who’s found religion now!  What do you think, Mr. ‘I’m here to beat up the Christians’? You’re not so tough away from your goons, are you?”  After all, Saul was a bad guy.  Why is Ananias so nice to him?

Because he not only did what God told him to do, but he believed what God told him.  And when God said that Saul was God’s chosen vessel, that was good enough for Ananias. He walked over to him and greeted him tenderly.  “Brother Saul…” he said.  And then he prayed for Saul, and the scales fell away from his eyes.

Whose eyes did the scales fall from?  Saul’s, right?  But did you know that they could have been in Ananias’ eyes?  Sure they could have.  It’s possible that Ananias could have been blinded by his own fear.  I here to say that there have been times where I’ve been blinded by fear.  It may be that when God asked Ananias to go and meet with Saul, that Ananias could have been so scared that he couldn’t even see straight.    Ananias could have allowed his fear to incapacitate him, couldn’t he?  He could have been so frightened for his own safety – or perhaps that of his wife, his friends, his children –  that he’d be simply unable to do what God wanted him to do.

But it might have been more than that, too.  Ananias could have been blinded by the fact that Saul was an enemy. Saul sought to do harm to all that Ananias loved.  And it could have been that even though God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, changed Saul from an enemy into a friend, that Ananias couldn’t see that change.  I think that you’ll agree that it’s at least possible to think about the fact that Ananias could have chosen to treat Paul as a failure, a threat, or an outsider.  But he didn’t.  He simply called him “Brother Saul” and did as he had been asked to do.

Beloved, I see at least two things in this passage that teach my heart today.  First, I see an affirmation of the truth that there is not really anywhere in the Bible where the problem of evil is spelled out for us and solved.  Ananias heard God talking about Saul and asked God if it was really safe.  And God didn’t tell Ananias all about how Saul had seen the light and heard voices and had met Jesus.  God didn’t tell Ananias about the possibility of real healing in the inner psyche, about regeneration, about a transformative experience.  No, instead, he essentially told Ananias, “Look, friend, you leave Saul to me.  I’ll take care of him.”

The promise that comes through Scripture is not that we’ll understand the nature of evil or be able to solve it.  The promise is not that we’ll avoid the pain associated with sin, or be free from suffering.  The promise is simple, and if I had another bible verse to throw at you this morning it would be one of my favorites: Psalm 34:4.  “I sought the Lord, and he answered me.  He delivered me from all my fears.”  The promise is that with God’s help, we can somehow get through the pain and the evil and the sin that surrounds us – in spite of our fears.

What are you afraid of?  What is it that hangs like scales in front of your eyes, blinding you to the things that God is doing in the world?  Are you afraid that you don’t really have any value or worth apart from your children, and so you are living your life through them, instead of seeing what God is calling you to do?  Are you wishing you could leave your job and try something new, but not sure how you could ever explain yourself?  Do you have ideas about what could make things better for someone else, but you’re hesitant to share them because you’re afraid that no one will listen anyway? Are you afraid to really care about someone else because you’ve been alone for too long?

There is no fear that is greater than God’s ability to meet your needs. The Psalmist says that “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him.”  In other words, as you draw close to God through obedience and love, God will equip you to deal with whatever gets in your way.  Look, it’s not wrong for you to ask, “God, are you sure about this?” But when you do, be prepared to accept the fact that God moves and acts in and through people like you all the time.  Ananias could go and meet Saul not because Saul wasn’t scary, but because God was powerfully present to an ordinary Christian like Ananias.

The Baptism of St. Paul, mosaic from the Palatine Chapel (Sicily), c. 1140

The second truth that this passage teaches can be a hard one for us to accept.  God’s power turns enemies into family.  When God first approaches Ananias about Saul, Ananias calls him “that man”. “I’ve heard about HIM, Lord. I know all about HIM.”  Yet when God equips Ananias to meet Saul, he is called “brother Saul.”  The stranger, the alien, the enemy – in a heartbeat becomes the brother.

Beloved, you do not know on whom it is that God will pour out his favor. But how many times do you hear yourself saying, “Oh, that one.  Don’t talk to me about that one, Pastor.  I know that one.”  One of the incredible strengths of a faith community like this one is that many of you have known each other for years – ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years. You went to school together.  You married each other, or your sister married her brother, or something like that.  And you formed impressions of each other in 1966 or in 1988 or in 2001.  And sometimes, you treat each other as if you were the same people now as you were in 1966 or 1988 or 2001.  You hold a grudge against him because of something he said to your child ten years ago.  You are bitter because of the ways that she treated you in days gone by. Oh, you won’t say anything about it. You’ll be polite, and hand each other the pew pads when we ask you to.  But in your heart of hearts, you maybe find it a little hard to believe that God would work with someone like that.

OK, let’s just start with this: there is no one in this room, including the one who is standing up and talking to you now, who is worthy of the grace of the Lord that is poured out.  When we remember that, we can know that if God can take someone like me and do something with me, and God can take someone like you, and do something with you, then surely God has the freedom to take that one that you think you know so well and work a miracle in that one as well.  So be challenged, brothers and sisters, to keep thinking the best about each other.  And be encouraged, brothers and sisters, to keep praying for the ones that God hasn’t touched yet.  And be willing, brothers and sisters, to look for those changes and to bless God when you see them – and to join in with one another in fulfilling the ministries to which God has called you.

After these few verses in Acts 9, we never meet Ananias again.  He went back to First Church of Damascus and probably told a few people about what had happened to him.  And then he disappears from our view.  But do you think that Saul ever forgot how beautiful Ananias looked the instant that those scales fell from his eyes?  You know that he didn’t.  Who will remember you?  And why?

[1]  Told in The Tale of The Tardy Oxcartby Charles Swindoll, p. 119