Sunday’s sermon: A Change is Gonna Come

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Texts used – Psalm 30; Acts 9:1-20

I’m definitely new to this audio recording this, folks … and this week, I forgot to hit record. Hopefully I’ll have audio back next week. My apologies.

  • All right, y’all, you have a yellow insert in your bulletins this morning. I’m going to ask you to take out that handout, and we’re going to take a little poll. We’re going to play a little game of “What do you see?”
    • 1st image: What do you see?
      • High contrast image of a woman’s face (a la Katherine Hepburn)
      • Silhouette of a man playing a saxophone on a windy day
    • 2nd image: What do you see?
      • Young woman wearing a flowing veil and turning her head away
      • Profile of an old woman with a large nose and a head scarf
    • 3rd image: What do you see?
      • Duck
      • Bunny rabbit
    • Final image: What do you see?
      • Line of men passing under an arch, one carrying a heavy book
      • Skull
    • What you see in these images depends on your perspective, doesn’t it? It depends on your point of view, on the particular attitude or way you perceive it. Perspective can be a funny thing, can’t it?
      • Convincing – How many of you only saw the opposite image after it was described to you? (Only saw the saxophone man when I told you about him? Only saw the old woman in the headscarf after I described her?) → Since our perspective is based on our own point of view, our own experiences, our own research, our own understanding, our own base of knowledge, it’s pretty easy to convince ourselves that our perspective is “the right way,” isn’t it? “Of course it’s the right way … it’s the way I’ve been doing it! And I’m certainly not about to go around doing things the wrong way on purpose, right?” My perspective is right precisely because it’s mine.
        • Dangers of this: our own perspective often doesn’t leave wiggle room for growth or expansion, new ideas or new experiences or new data → perspective can be a pretty limiting box sometimes
          • Can sometimes act like the blinders on a horse of falcon à limit the flow of information to our brains to keep up from seeing the whole picture
      • AT THE SAME TIME, perspective = fluid → If we do actually let that new information in, sometimes our perspectives can change. They can grow. They can even do a complete 180°, causing us to reorient ourselves to a whole new way of thinking … doing … believing … being.
        • Ill. images → now that you’re aware of both possibilities for the images, sometimes you see one, sometimes you see the other, right? Even crazier: sometimes you see both at once!
    • Now, with the shifting of which image you see, perspective is a silly thing, right? Something fun and funny to share with your friends. And admitting you see one thing and not the other isn’t a big deal. It doesn’t say anything about your character. People won’t judge you for it (hopefully!). Changing your perspective and saying that you see the other image instead – or even that you see both images equally – isn’t going to cause some fundamental shift in your life. But there are plenty of other places in our lives where we cling desperately to our perspectives and what they say about us, about our family, about our culture, about our convictions, about our faith. These perspectives are the pillars on which we build our sense of self. They are foundational in discovering and rediscovering who we are, how we interact with the world around us, and what we believe. So what happens when those perspectives start to shift?
  • Paul’s story in Acts = dramatic example of a perspective shift
    • Begins life as a Pharisee → learns under Gamaliel, one of the most respected and also one of the most religiously strict Pharisees serving on the Sanhedrin (Jewish council) at the time
      • Clearly had an “up and comer” reputation among Jews and non-Jews alike
        • Present at the stoning of Stephen (1st Christian martyr, 1st person killed for his faith after Christ death and resurrection) – Acts 7: Then they dragged [Stephen] out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. … And Saul approved of their killing him.[1]
        • Today’s text: The Lord instructed [Ananias], “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.” Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.[2] → So Saul’s reputation most certainly preceded him.
    • Crucial to exercise caution in this moment
      • Caution not to villainize Saul
      • Caution not to villainize Judaism in the process
      • Amy Oden, Visiting Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality at St. Paul School of Theology in OKC: It’s important to remember that Saul sees himself as the good guy trying to protect the faith. Saul loves God and wants to stamp out anything that, in his view, dishonors God. In this case, that means the Jews in the movement around Jesus. … He sees Jesus’ followers as those within his own faith needing rescue from their error. … As far as he is concerned, this is not a matter of going after people just to persecute them, but rather a correction of “Jews gone bad.” Saul is the classic example of the devout person who is so determined to do good that they are blinded (literally!) to the destructive consequences of their purity campaign. He does much harm as he is trying to do good.[3] → Saul didn’t do what he did because he was evil. He wasn’t some religious sociopath bent on destruction for destruction’s sake alone. Before his experience on the road to Damascus, he was doing what he thought he needed to do to protect his faith and his culture.
        • Not so different than the Crusades undertaken by the Church during the medieval period
        • Not so different from the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century
        • Not so different from the young man who decided that it would be okay to go into a synagogue in Poway, California on Wednesday and start shooting Jewish people because, according to his own words, Jewish people were guilty of everything from killing Jesus to controlling the media and deserved to die[4] → That young man was part of the Orthodox Presbyterian tradition – an ultra conservative branch of the Reformed tradition that broke off from mainline Presbyterianism in the 1930s.
        • Hear it in this short back-and-forth reading written by Rev. Roddy Hamilton, pastor at New Kilpatrick Parish Church in Scotland[5] – READ DIALOGUE: Saul-Paul Acts 9 reading
  • You see, friends, it’s all about perspective. But as we said earlier, perspectives are fluid. They’re flexible. They can change. And we know that God loves to reach down into our lives, stir them up, and bring about change, don’t we?
    • Hear it in our psalm for this morning
      • Speaks of changing situations – text: You pulled me up; you didn’t let my enemies celebrate over me. LORD, my God, I cried out to you for help, and you healed me. LORD, you brought me up from the grave, brought me back to life from among those going down to the pit.[6]
      • Speaks of growing in faith – text: You who are faithful to the LORD, sing praises to him; give thanks to his holy name! … Because it pleased you, LORD, you made me a strong mountain.[7]
      • Speaks of changing attitude – text: You changed my mourning into dancing. You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop. LORD, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.[8]
    • That’s the whole point of our NT story this morning → God reaching down into Saul’s life and changing his perspective – text: During the journey, as [Saul] approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.” Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything. … Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. After eating, he regained his strength. He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared.[9] → Talk about a 180°! God reached down into Saul’s life and brought about a drastic shift in perspective … but in doing so, God didn’t change the essence of who Saul was. He was still learned. He was still dedicated. He was still passionate. God just set Saul’s feet on a new path and said, “Go. Do. Preach. Pray. Believe.”
  • Friends, I cannot preach these words to you this morning without a heavy heart because just yesterday, we lost just such a prophet and change-maker in the life of the church – someone who took a dramatic shift in her own faith perspective and used it to open the hearts and minds of so many people who felt long-since burned by the church.
    • Rachel Held Evans
      • Began life as an evangelical Christian – struggled with a tradition that devalued her contributions and her voice simply because of her gender along with many of the other exclusionary teachings she found in that tradition
      • Tried to leave the church but just couldn’t quite leave it behind entirely
      • Ended up coming back as a voice for love and inclusion and beauty in the messiness of our faith journeys
        • Wrote a number of books
        • Engaging speaker
        • Blogger and event organizer
        • Advocates for those too-long abused by the church: LGBTQ+ folks, people of color, and most certainly women (especially those who grew up in more conservative, repressive traditions like her own)
      • After a brief and unexpected hospitalization, Rachel died yesterday. She was 37 years old. She left behind a husband and two young children. And she left behind a motley, stunningly diverse community of people who are devastated by her loss because through her perspective – and especially through the change in her perspective – she showed them God’s love in a way that was accepting and expansive and genuine even in its doubts and questions and faults. God inspired and emboldened Rachel to shift her perspective, and through that change, so, so many others found the courage to shift their perspectives as well.
        • From Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church: But the modern-day church doesn’t like to wander or wait. The modern-day church likes results. Convinced the gospel is a product we’ve got to sell to an increasingly shrinking market, we like our people to function as walking advertisements: happy, put-together, finished—proof that this Jesus stuff WORKS! … But if the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth. And the truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t off a quick fix. The church offers death and resurrection. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace.[10] → It’s all about perspective, and sometimes, perspectives have to change. But sometimes in that change – messy and painful and challenging and ugly as it might be … sometimes in that change is the truest place that we can find grace. So be on the lookout, friends, because a change is gonna come. Hallelujah. Amen.

[1] Acts 7:48, 8:1.

[2] Acts 9:11-14.

[3] Amy Oden. “Commentary on Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]” for May 5, 2019 from The Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4043. Accessed May 2, 2019.

[4] Julie Zauzmer. “The alleged synagogue shooter was a churchgoer who talked Christian theology, raising tough questions for evangelical pastors” from The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/05/01/alleged-synagogue-shooter-was-churchgoer-who-articulated-christian-theology-prompting-tough-questions-evangelical-pastors/?fbclid=IwAR2B_kRJg1px7OMOcdMw4yVkYmjuGEUqTIrBSeIffvc3pZIiDKZ686pUDtg&utm_term=.fc428baca115. Posted May 1, 2019, accessed May 2, 2019.

[5] Roddy Hamilton. “Dramatic Reading: Acts 9” from re:Worship blog. https://re-worship.blogspot.com/search/label/Easter%203%20Year%20C.

[6] Ps 30:1-3.

[7] Ps 30:4, 7a.

[8] Ps 30:11-12.

[9] Acts 9:3-9, 17-20.

[10] Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.  (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2015), XXX.

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