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Sunday, June 24, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.
Are You Sure?
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
There is no human explanation for any true conversion, because salvation is from the Lord, not from humans. God is able to do what we cannot imagine.
Steven J. Cole
I don’t blame Ananias. Do you? He had a tough assignment. He was to go into the lion’s den. Make no mistake about it. Saul was a lion. In Acts, before his conversion, Saul is painted as a veritable portrait of ferocity. “Still breathing threats and murder against all disciples,” Saul goes to get papers of authority by which to arrest all who call on the name of Christ. He was a lion to be feared.
But now, in Damascus, Saul is a lion temporarily caged because of blindness. God calls Ananias to enter his cage, to make his Christian faith known before this persecutor of Christians. No wonder he’s reluctant to go. Not only was he afraid, he must also have known that if word got out that he had met with the notorious Saul of Tarsus, he would be mistrusted himself.
So I don’t blame Ananias, who didn’t want to go to help an enemy of the church. To risk his life and his reputation, to respond to God’s call. I wouldn’t want to go, either.
Because I know what it feels like—and maybe you do, too—to be compelled to go where you don’t want to go, to do what you don’t want to do. Not that we don’t think it’s right. Perhaps it’s exactly the right thing to do. But still, we don’t want to do it.
All kinds of excuses come to mind: we’re fearful. We may get yelled at. We don’t think we’re up to it. We think someone else would do it better. We’re too old, or too young, or too busy. We have other things we need to do. We are lazy or withdrawn. Or there’s inertia: we just keep on doing what we’ve always been doing. We don’t want to go.
Looking back over the years, I think of a number of places I didn’t want to go. As a second grader, I didn’t want to go tell my mother that I found a shiny ring left in the windowsill of our playroom after some of my friends had been over for a birthday party. I wanted to keep it for myself.
As a new pastor, I didn’t want to go be with one of my parishioners after she gave birth to a stillborn baby. She and her husband had been so excited anticipating the blessing of this new child. I didn’t want to go to their home to share their pain. What could I possibly say or do? I didn’t want to go.
Years later I didn’t want to go to the bedside of a longtime church member whom everyone loved, but I also knew was dying. She was in hospice care, her frail body wasting away before us, her face aging, it seemed, by the hour. God called me to be with her, but I didn’t want to go.
When I was a presbytery executive in the 1990s, part of my job was to go to congregations that were torn apart in conflict, for various reasons. I knew people would express some of their anger at the larger church, which meant at me because, in my role, I represented the denomination. God called me to bring some direction and healing to the situation, but I didn’t want go.
You know the experience. We all have those experiences. Places where we don’t want to go, even though we know it’s the right thing to do. We have heard God nudging us to do this, do that. We know sometimes we need to confront one another with hard truths. We know sometimes we need to ask for forgiveness. It may be just a short trip across the living room to say, “I’m sorry,” but we don’t want to go. We realize God is prodding us. But we don’t want to go.
So we’re somewhat like Ananias, who argued with God, as if to say, “Are you sure? Are you sure I won’t get hurt? Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Listen again to the story. God speaks first: “Get up and go the street called Straight . . . look for a man named Saul . . . he is praying.” But Ananias is not impressed by Saul’s praying. Maybe Ananias has heard the story of the lion and the lamb praying together—the lamb praying for peace on earth, and the lion saying grace before his meal.
“Lord,” Ananias says, “there’s a lion in that cage. I’ve heard about that man, the evil he has done, and now he has papers to arrest all those who confess Christ as Lord. And you want me to go and stand before Saul, and take that risk?”
The answer is direct: “Go.” God says, “Go, because he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles.”
So Ananias went. He put his hands on Saul’s head—trembling hands—and said in a quivering voice, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me.” Ananias went where he did not want to go. And the miracle—the good news—is that when he got there, God was already there waiting for him.
This story echoes other stories in the Scriptures—stories over and over again, not of self-confident people triumphantly marching to victory, but of reluctant and hesitant followers.
Abraham and Sarah, afraid to proceed, but uprooting themselves nonetheless. Moses, begging off going back to Egypt, to lead his people out, yet going. Jacob, wrestling with an angel throughout the night before going to meet his brother Esau, whom he had wronged. Jonah, fleeing from God’s call and being caught by a fish. Jeremiah, protesting he was too young to be a prophet, who wanted peace, but was called to speak hard words. Mary, unwed, yet newly with child, sent to be with her older cousin Elizabeth, formerly a barren woman, so they could confirm and share God’s surprise. Jesus, on the Mount of Olives, who prayed, “Let this cup pass from me. I don’t want to go.” But he went. They all went. They followed God’s call. And what they all found was that God was already there, ahead of them, waiting for them.
Where may God be calling you that you don’t want to go? Frankly, of late I haven’t wanted to watch the news or read the papers because I become so disheartened and disgusted with some of the ways human beings are treating each other. I want to curl up in bed and stay under the covers, pretending suffering is not happening. I don’t want to go out into this broken world. But the way that God works is through us. In the words of St. Teresa of Avila,
Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.
None of us wants to hear the sobbing of immigrant children crying out for their mommies and daddies at the border, where government workers have been instructed not to touch or pick them up. But God calls us to pay attention. God moves our hearts in compassion and moral outrage. Thank God the policy of family separation has ended. Still, policies need more change: even immigrants legally seeking asylum and those who have committed only a misdemeanor are being prosecuted as criminals. Still, truths need to be told: though we are in a forty-five year low for border apprehensions, fear is being fueled by painting immigrants as animals infesting our country. Still, plans need to be made to reunite parents with children. Still, assistance needs to be given for thousands of people who have been traumatized. Still, limits need to be set to shorten the length of time families will be jailed. Still, more humane alternatives need to be pursued that allow families to remain in the community as they await court proceedings.
We wish everything was already taken care of. We don’t want to see any more pain or hear any more traumatic stories. But God calls us to share the pain, to work on behalf of our suffering neighbors to set things right. God calls us to be instruments of healing and justice.
It’s natural to argue with God—to respond, “Are you sure?”—because risk is involved. God doesn’t call us to maintain the status quo. And God doesn’t call us to do what we can do on our own, by ourselves. God calls us to do that for which we need God’s strength, courage, and guidance.
We may not want to go. But if we do go where God sends us, we will discover that, like our ancestors of faith learned, God is already there, ahead of us, waiting for us. God provides everything we need. God goes before us. God goes behind us. God goes beside us. God lives within us. God works through us. God needs us.
So let us go. Amen.