While I was in Vegas, I had a very serious conversation with a very gifted man who confessed that for much of his life, he felt like he could never live up to his older sister.
Do you ever feel that you are sometimes – overlooked? That people don’t recognize your gifts? That a sibling or partner, a co-worker or colleague seems to get the breaks, the recognitions, the promotions?
It is hard to be in the background sometimes, to play second fiddle. You know of Martin Luther King. You may not be as familiar with James Bevel or Dorothy Cotton. That is a difficult reality for many of us. But Jordan doesn’t win championships without Pippen. And Frodo doesn’t make it back to the Shire without Samwise Gangee. Perhaps you are not where you are without a mother working two jobs – no headlines, just hard work. And St. Paul is not St. Paul without Ananias! Sometime, we must be liberated from the slavery of self-doubt and denial and go for the glory, but sometimes you and I play the cards we are dealt, the role that is assigned to us. We all are not stars.
I was thinking of this in reading our scripture lesson for today. Everyone knows of Paul. But, what about Ananias? At least he gets his name mentioned. In fact there are two Ananias’ in Acts. Our Ananias and the one who is married to Saphira and drops dead when he lies to Peter! The course of human history changed when Saul of Tarsus started up that road to Damascus. Knocked off his horse, blinded by the light, he changed everything. But FIRST Ananias had to touch him and that took great courage.
For good reason Saul from Tarsus (known to us as Paul) gets top billing in the pantheon of heroic figures in the history of Christianity. We don’t get Christianity as we know it without St. Paul. Paul was the organizer. Paul was the pioneer. And as they say, “the pioneer gets all the arrows.” His was a particular genius, a man of zealous and endless energy, vision, imagination, drive.
Paul, among many folk of the more liberal persuasion, gets a bad name. He is quoted as the authority on the role of women, on the sinfulness of homosexuals, on the hierarchical relationship of man and wife. You can come up with a picture that is very narrow, less than – how shall we say – attractive, to many of us.
But don’t fall into that trap. Paul wasn’t writing scripture. He was writing letters. Paul wasn’t a theologian. He wasn’t a preacher. He was a community organizer. He acted and reacted and created and composed and trusted beyond everything and anything else that God had called him.
Paul appreciated the leadership roles of women earlier than just about anyone. Paul described God’s magnificent grace and taught that it wasn’t what you did or what you said that mattered – it was all about God love and mercy. It was Paul who captured the truth that Jesus didn’t come to teach a new set of rules – but rather that Christ came to set all free. That in Christ Jesus there was NO longer any distinctions between anyone: male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek. He knew that it was all about reconciliation. The great arc of human history was bending along the greater narrative of God’s creative and redemptive plan not only for people but for the cosmos; the whole creation was groaning towards redemption, trying to give birth to the new, redeemed humanity, in which everyone was included and nothing and nobody was wasted. Paul was “green” and “sustainable” before those became cool!
He was a man of his time but with a mind for eternity. In the vast market place of religious yearning as diverse as today, Paul preached Christ and Christ crucified and it changed everything.
I like Paul a lot! Can you tell?
But really my word today is not about Paul but about the other guy – Ananias who risked it all to head down Darb el-Mistakim, a street called Straight, to lay hands on this dangerous man, as far as Christians were concerned.
Ananias had his own Damascus Road experience – not, like Saul, on the high way to the city, but down an alley way in the city- moving tentatively along a side street of fear, towards a doorway of hope. If Ananias didn’t accept his role and hadn’t gone to Paul – who knows what would have happened. What if disciples like Abraham, Mary and Ananias had said no?
It is so peculiar with God – God is going to do what God is going to do: with Abraham, with Mary, with Paul – but God always seems to need a person to deliver the message, to make the move, to become the handmaid of the Lord. It is one of the great mysteries of God – God can do anything God can do and yet God chooses women and men, you and me to be the agents – famous and not so famous.
Ananias was faithful. When he heard his name called, he responded as the faithful of the past responded: “Here I am!” Abraham, Moses, Samuel had responded in exactly the same way. And, just like all the faithful before him, when he heard what he was to do and who he was to do it to he hesitated – fear almost kept him rooted. With any kind of imagination you can hear what Ananias was really thinking: “SAY WHAT? RIGHT! You have to be crazy Lord – this man Saul is a lunatic; he does evil things. God please.”
But he goes anyway. That is the mark of the faithful one. Fear and resistance is always part of life and faith – that is important to remember. Fear is not the problem. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is what you do with the fear and the doubt that matters. The faithful life is full of doubt and fear but the key to faithful living is found in trust and going anyway.
Ananias calls his enemy “brother.” He lays his hands, not around Saul’s neck, but gently upon Saul’s eyes that cannot see. Ananias chose the “road” that wouldn’t have been taken by too many. But, as Robert Frost reminds us, taking the “road less travelled” makes all the difference, amen?
What street on you on today? What alley way, or by way? What crooked street or straight street are you moving down? What role do you find yourself in?
Everyday you are called on to take the risk – maybe not to put your hands on your enemy – but to walk a path perhaps not of your choosing. How are you going to order your life – fear or hope? Fear makes you cringe. Fear causes you to stay put. Fear narrows the horizon and chokes off opportunities. Fear makes us identify the enemy. Fear keeps you limited.
But hope creates possibilities. “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change.” Ananias knew Paul’s reputation, he knew the evidence and yet he acted upon a trust that “nothing is good or bad until God gets through with it.”
Honestly, I have never heard my name called by God so that the direction seems unambiguous. I doubt many of us have discerned so clearly the way to go through the murkiness of everyday life – what protocol to follow, public or private school, what college to go to, or to go to college at all, to have “that” conversation, what job offer to take, do I stay in this relationship?
You have known the desolations and the consolations of the hearts. You have had choices to make. You have faced things that I cannot imagine.
But you act, you move, you take risks, you face what you must face – you head down the street that is before you – it may not be framed in the neon lighting of Hollywood, but rather in the glow of a table lamp during the midnight watch of a sick child, or bathed in the dull illumination of a hospital room. You role may be second fiddle, or last chair in the trombone section, you may be the worn out care giver. Your sibling may be a star. None of it matters in the least. For I am convinced that God uses you and whatever choice you take, whatever move you make.
Now that is quite a hopeful way of looking at life – We find ourselves playing many roles – and just as there are no small parts, only small actors – so too, heroism comes in many forms. Your service, your act of kindness, your life, YOUR risk is of cosmic importance.
And the call for us today is to cultivate, as Ananias cultivated, this discipline of trust, this rootedness in hope, this outlook of faith so that when you “hear your name called” you, despite the fear, go! The call is for you to look at the enemy and see someone for whom Christ died, someone that God may be using, someone that needs you. That when you have walk down a road not of your choosing, you may have the courage to walk it anyway. Take the risk in hope that might change everything… you never know.
Today you have come from all over, you have come from many situations and are facing a myriad of choices, playing many roles. As you come forward down the straight way of the aisle to receive food – may you offer yourself to what is before you in trust.
In taking the bread and the cup, just like St. Paul, may you have new sight and regain your strength for the living of these days. Just like Ananias may you take the risk and change your piece of history.