March 15, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Like It’s No Big Deal, When It Really Is
Years ago, I spent a summer as a camp counselor. One afternoon, during counselor training, we got to learn about canoe safety —how to help someone get in and out of a canoe, what to do if it flips over, that sort of thing. As I discovered later on, I did not learn how to actually canoe. I still need a lot of help with that! On this day, I paired was up with another counselor, Megan. She is much smaller and lighter than me, so I’ll leave you to imagine the series of hilarious challenges that ensued.
At the end of the day, we went to put the canoes away. Which meant we needed to carry them upside down on our shoulders, walking on a path by the water that led up a hill to the shed where the canoes were stored. All the counselors did this, you could see a line of upside down canoes bobbing along up the hill to the shed. But for Megan and me, shoot I tell you. We were getting nowhere. Maybe we were not positioned correctly underneath the canoe, or maybe it was too heavy and we were too weak, but here we were staggering and laughing and not at all able to get this canoe up the hill. This went on for what seemed like forever.
Suddenly, I felt the weight lift off in a whoosh, and I heard somebody say, “I got this.” Another counselor, Joel, had noticed our flailing. He came over and ducked under the middle of the canoe. He was taller than both of us, so he took most of the weight. In just a few minutes, we got the canoe up that hill and put away. Now I realize this story is no great feminist victory, but that’s okay, it’s better than that.
As I was thanking Joel, he said something like: “You guys needed another person. It was no big deal.” And he walked away. With all due respect to him, I think he is exactly right about the first point. We did need another person. But he’s dead wrong on the second point. It is a big deal. Seeing somebody struggle, then stepping into the middle to help out for a few minutes, that’s a very big deal.
Sisters and brothers, you know we live in a culture which places a supreme value on being independent and self-sufficient. Being able to make it on your own is a top goal for young adults and college students, for people transitioning from being homeless to having a home, for folks coming out of prison and jail, for people in recovery from addiction and disease, for those learning to adapt to different abilities and disabilities, for immigrants and refugees trying to begin a new life, for older adults who want to stay in their own homes. The medical community has identified eight activities as criteria to determine whether someone can live safely by themselves. (Things like making a phone call and preparing a meal.)
Whether it means having the financial resources or having the physical or cognitive abilities, as twenty-first century Americans, we strive fiercely to live on our own, to pay our own bills, and drive our own cars. As though we could save ourselves. As though needing help is some kind of failure, when we have to know by now, it is not. It is how we are human.
The good news is that when it comes to being Christian, there is no such thing as self-sufficiency. Our journey involves helping each other, even when this comes with great risk. Our journey involves being helped by others, even when this comes with great risk. We are always saving each other’s lives, thank God.
This morning our scripture comes from the book of Acts. It falls just on the heels of Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. You see, Saul used to hold the coats of the people who killed the early Christians. He used to breathe threats and murder against the disciples. Here Saul had just received authorization to hunt for Christian men and women, bind and capture them, and take them to Jerusalem to be killed.
What happens next is the part we remember. As he is traveling on the road, a light flashes around him and knocks Saul to the ground. Jesus speaks to him: “Saul, why do you persecute me?” And Jesus directs him to enter the city. Saul gets up, but he cannot see. So the people traveling with Saul take him to the house of Judas.
Now we remember the flash of light and the surprising encounter with Christ our Lord. We remember that Saul goes blind. In the events to come, he regains his sight, he becomes a Christian, and his name changes from Saul to Paul. The way we remember it, it could seem like one day this man is out killing Christians, the next day he’s out establishing churches. But actually, there’s more to it. Somebody comes along, and steps into the middle, and makes all the difference.
Ananias was a disciple in Damascus. And he didn’t mean for this to happen. The Lord came to him in a vision and called him by name. Then Ananias said the most terrifying, world-changing prayer a person can say. “Here I am, Lord.” God calls Ananias to go to Saul, the one who murders Christians. “Go, lay your hands on him so he may regain his sight. He is expecting you to come.” Great.
Ananias makes an appeal. “Lord, not him. Anyone but him” [my paraphrasing, not a real quote]. But God says to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen…” So Ananias got up and went. No further protest, no running away and hiding in the bottom of a ship, no resigned sigh and affirmation that “With God all things are possible.” Ananias just goes, like that. Like it’s no big deal.
When he walks into the house, he finds the blind man praying, and what happens next is subtle and extraordinary. Ananias sees this man. He goes over and touches him, then he calls him by name. Not Saul. Not Paul, that comes later. In the middle, Ananias calls him “Brother Saul.”
Before the fish scales fall out of his eyes, before he goes out preaching the gospel and establishing churches. Before prison, before all those letters of instruction and encouragement. He’s here, sitting on a chair, in the dark, in this house. It’s Ananias who comes and calls him brother, he baptizes him and gives him some food. Like it’s no big deal, when it really is.
See you can’t baptize yourself. Somebody else has to do that for you. You don’t call yourself Brother or Sister. Somebody else has to do that. Thank God for somebody else. Thank God for Ananias and for all the people who step in the middle and save our lives.
This year, the theme for our Lenten journey is forgiveness. Forgiving the ones whose hurt turns into hate, people we’ve never met who are just following orders of a terrible system. Forgiving our own children, our parents, ourselves. In some ways, forgiveness is profoundly personal. It is work that happens in the fusion between the grace of God and your own will, how we want to want to forgive. This means it doesn’t matter whether the person ever apologizes. Maybe they’re not even sorry. Maybe they’re not even alive. Forgiveness happens deep in our hearts, between you and God. Nobody can make you forgive. And nobody can stop you.
But what if our decision to forgive disappoints the people we love? Or worse. What if it seems like you’re betraying your sisters or your brothers by forgiving the person who hurt them? I wonder whether Ananias had this problem. What kind of risk is he taking to go help this murderer?
If you ever talk to someone who cannot or will not forgive, you will hear, that is not a choice made in hate. Hate doesn’t care enough. People who swear up and down, “I will never forgive you for what you did to him!” These are not words of hate. These words come from grief, which means they really come from love. Struggling to forgive is the work of those who grieve; it is the work of those who love. Please help me understand, why do we think we can do this on our own.
Friends, there’s a good chance you know someone who is thick in the wilderness of forgiveness. Maybe it’s someone you love who hasn’t even told you. Maybe it’s someone you can’t stand to be around for very long. Maybe it’s you. Whoever it may be, please do not leave them alone in their struggle. Do not leave them sitting in a room somewhere, unable to see, or eat or drink, all bound up in fear, not even sure who they are any more.
As the church, we can take our cue from Ananias and from Jesus. We can be the ones who show up and step into the middle. We go over, and touch them with our own hands, say their name in our own voice. Here, will you pour them some water and cut the sandwich in half? Clear the clutter off the table, impossible forgiveness is being shared.
You see this happening here. We follow in the way of Jesus who comes into this world to go with us. We embody the love of Jesus by showing up, going right over to the people who are struggling. Even though the fish scales might get all over our clothes. See it’s no big deal. Except that it is. I’m not sure there could be a bigger deal.
We are always saving each other’s lives. Thank God. Amen.