Acts 9:1-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “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.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
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.
I begin with a note about Saul’s name. Often we think that on his travels to Damascus where he to continued persecuting Jesus’ followers, Saul’s name was changed to Paul during this conversion experience. Although a changed person in his heart and mind and spirit – his name was not changed at that moment but much later than the time of conversion. The first use of the name Paul was in Cyprus, where he was using his Roman name as he traveled farther and farther into the Gentile world.
No matter which way you look at it, this is an incredible story about Saul. It’s hard to believe that this hard-hearted tormenter and persecutor of Jesus’ early followers, known as the Way, could have a change of heart about his beliefs, prejudices and way of life. But he did.
How do we get from here to there in our own lives? If Thomas can go from doubter to believer; why can’t Saul go from tormenter to protector? What is it that can cause a change of heart in a hater? What is it that can cause a single-minded person to see another perspective?
Last week we sang several favorite hymns and I omitted one that I thought most of us knew its backstory. Amazing grace is the story of John Newton who was a slave owner who eventually woke up to the horrors of what it meant to be the owner of another human being. What was the kernel of truth or awareness that woke him to realize the way he treated another person was so sinful?
Several months ago we watched an incredible video of reconciliation between a former white supremacist and a gay man he had beaten and left for dead several years ago. What was the kernel of truth that woke him to the way he was treating another human being?
What is it that caused Ermias Joseph Asghedom, born to an African-American woman, and an Eritrean immigrant, raised in the Crenshaw neighborhood of South Los Angeles, a member of a sub-group of the larger Crips gang, give up the life to become a community activist with an entrepreneurial spirit?
Ermias, was mostly known as Nipsy Hussle, a name given by a childhood friend that stuck. Nipsy was a well-known rapper who was receiving universal acclaim for his music from critics, and who wanted to focus on ‘giving solutions and inspiration’ to young black men like him. He denounced gun violence through his music, influence and community work. He spoke openly about his experiences with gang culture. He not only funded improvements to neighborhood schools but also spent time with students and participated on panels about growing up in the area and the influence of gang culture. Hussle started a co-working environment which he named Vector 90. From his own experience he saw the Crenshaw area as being underserved and that young people would benefit from communal workspaces. He also intended young people to be able to take classes in science, technology and mathematics at the center.
In 2017 he and a few partners opened Marathon Clothing in a tough section of the Crenshaw commercial district because it was important to him to invest and provide opportunities in his neighborhood of Hyde Park. He sounded very much like a mentor to many.
In March, Hussle had contacted officials from the LAPD to arrange a meeting with him and Roc Nation about what they could do to help prevent gang violence in South Los Angeles. The meeting had been scheduled to take place on April 1, 2019. The unfortunate irony is that Hussle was murdered the day before this meeting was to take place. He was shot multiple times in the parking lot of his store around 3:25 in the afternoon. He was 33 years old. A violent ending for a life turned around, yet with it comes the awareness that a life can be turned around. According to Los Angeles Police Commissioner Steve Soboroff, the meeting will still take place at a future date, in Hussle’s honor. (source: Wikipedia)
For me, the deeper question is: what was it in Hussle’s life that turned him away from violent gang mentality, to one of helping others see a better future for themselves?
Why can’t we all experience sudden insights that lead us to change our lives dramatically? Well, maybe we do experience those amazing light-bulb moments in life and chose to say, huh – that was interesting, and do nothing more. Honestly, being given insight to our own poor behavior and beliefs is one thing – working to try to change it is totally something else. Waking up to a new reality – to a new life can certainly be threatening and challenging as we become aware of our own behavior – so we can go into denial or we can admit to ourselves our shortcomings and do something about it. It is a choice. We have to choose which path we’ll walk in our lives, and it comes with a warning: Choosing a new life can also be threatening and challenging to friends and family and others. Ask anyone working a 12 step program.
Once given another perspective – when the veil lifts or when the scales fall from our eyes we can turn our back to the new awareness. Through these gifts of awareness, however, we can become a changed person – living up to the potential of who God calls us to be. Awareness may break in on us at any time. Awareness may break in on us many times. I don’t know about you, but I do know there have been many times in my life I’ve had to wake up and move toward a new reality, and I’m sure there will be more waking up to do as my life goes on. Sometimes the awareness has been dramatic (never quite like Saul), but most times it’s just a knock on the door of my heart – a nagging awareness. We may think we’re on the right road, but like my GPS, we may need to recalibrate more than once. God steps in and without warning our life is changed – and sometimes dramatically.
Martin Seligman (Flourish) writes that “Road to Damascus experiences can seem rare. Different people have different kinds of Road to Damascus moments. Some act on the insights they gain, some don’t. People tend to develop a belief system, translate this into behavior and build on what they believe works. There is also the tendency to look for things that reinforce one’s beliefs, even if the facts point in another direction.
I’m going to tell you an intimate story – I had an epiphany a couple of years ago. I was weeding in the garden, I’m a rose gardener, and I was weeding with my daughter, Nikki, who had turned five a couple of weeks before that, and I have to tell you, that even though I write books about kids, I’m really not very good with kids. And, like most of you, I’m goal oriented and time urgent.
And I was trying to get the weeds out, and Nikki was throwing weeds in the air and running around and dancing, and I yelled at her, and she sort of looked at me and she walked away, and she came back and said, ‘Daddy, I want to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Yeah, Nikki?’
She said, ‘Year, Daddy, you may not have noticed, but do you remember that before I was five years old, before my fifth birthday, I was a whiner? I whined every day from the time I was three until the time I was five. And, you know, Daddy, on my fifth birthday, I decided I wasn’t gonna whine anymore. And that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I haven’t whined since. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being so grumpy.’
This was actually an epiphany for me. First, personally, Nikki was exactly right, for fifty years of my life, I’ve walked around being grouchy and grumpy. And even though I’m surrounded in my life by my wife and children, who are just rays of sunshine, and there’s no reason for my grumpiness.
So personally, I decided I was going to change just like Nikki, and that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, by the way. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded or not, but I’ve tried.” And trying is part of the road to Damascus journey.
Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus vividly illustrates how God finds a way to reach us, even if we have to be stopped in our tracks and knocked off our own high horse. In fact, God may have been trying to get Saul’s attention many times but Saul may not have seen, heard, or maybe just ignored the signs until that blinding moment of truth and confrontation.
So maybe it’s not so hard to believe that God will find ways to enter quietly into our lives and our hearts, turning our attention away from old angers and resentments, prejudices and loss, old convictions and conclusions written on the stone of our hearts and minds. Our hearts can be open to God’s way of seeing things. And our hearts can be open to God’s future of hope, peace, love and joy, and God’s bright shining light.
May the love of God which surpasses all understanding, give us the courage to face our own road to Damascus moments. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2019