Blindsided: April 17th 2016
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
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?”
Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 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.
Acts 9 10-20:
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord called to him, in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the house of Judas, look for a man named Saul. At this moment Saul is praying, and he has seen in a vision, that a man named Ananias will come in and will 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 up 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.”
So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid 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.
Blindsided Prayer: (based on Acts 9:1-20)
God of Love,
When we need you most
When our hearts are hard
Our heads our held too high
When our feet are heading for trouble
When we are blocked from each other
Oh God, keep showing up
And help us to see You
Help us to orient ourselves around your love
Help us to see how love and justice
Are not filled with division, fear, or hatred
Help us to see how love & justice are always filled
With grace, humility & courage
Open our hearts to your blindsiding Spirit, this day we pray,
“What does it mean to be blindsided?” I emailed Tim Freeman, Christ Church member, college football athlete, and football coach – to get his perspective and according to Tim,
When you are “’blindsided” in football, “you do not see a hit coming.” He continues, “As a Quarterback, you prepare your mind & body. You work hard in the offseason, you study film, you recognize the defense, and you give all of your effort every single play. You drop back into the pocket, prepare to throw, and then (BAM) you wake up on the ground with a 300 pound lineman on your back wondering what your name is and what day it is. That hit from nowhere can physically and mentally break you. It can cause you to blame others and perform poorly going forward. Mike Tyson had a saying that I think about many times, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”’ (pause)
Sometimes we are blindsided by the goodness of life. We are bowled over by love, a second chance, or a new opportunity. We are given exactly what we need, in exactly the right moment, when we least expect it. We are healed or freed from the burden that has weighed us down for too long. According to Anne Lamott, a progressive Christian author, an appropriate prayerful response in these moments is: “WOW!” And eventually, when we step back and really let these moments sink in, “Thank you, thank you God.”
Other times we are blindsided by the brokenness of our human condition and our wider world. We are laid low by the loss of a loved one, by cancer, or the loss of a job. We experience an “anti-miracle” - we are in exact wrong place, at the exact wrong time. We also suffer under the weight of systems and social constructs that perpetuate so much inequality and suffering for the marginalized and for all of us, we are divided from each other. And again according to Anne Lamott, it is an appropriate response in these moments to cry out to God, and to each other, with a simple prayer, “HELP!”
Either way, when we are blindsided, we gain a new perspective, we see our communities, our own self, and even God in a new way. New things are brought into our line of vision which were on the periphery before. Some details come into sharper focus, and others, that used to seem important before, they fade away. (PAUSE)
And today we remember the origin story of Paul or should I say Saul (who for better or worse, second to Jesus is probably the most influential person in the Christian tradition). Almost 1/3 of New Testament books are attributed to the tradition of the Apostle Paul. We mostly know “Saul” as “Paul” because he used his Roman Name in the second half of life on his mission to the wider Greco-Roman Gentile community. But for today, Paul is still rooted in his Hebrew tradition and so he is “Saul.”
So, Saul and a few friends are walking down the road to Damascus. I imagine that Saul is one of those people who are very certain about directions. Saul’s friends turn to him, looking for his leadership. In their bags they carry papers from the high priests. These papers give them authority execute the honorable task at hand - to drive out the followers of Jesus, to place fear their hearts and to imprison the stubborn among, to make examples of them. Saul sees a great threat to the way of life he loves dearly. He will protect his faith – and indeed protect his God. Surely this is a good and righteous task.
And let’s just say on the Road to Damascus that day that Saul is blindsided. Saul and his crew are hyper focused on their mission. Nothing will get in Saul’s way, he has done his prep work & the way forward is clear. And then (BAM!) the “defensive end of the Holy Spirit” knocks Saul to his knees, a great light envelopes him, blinds him, and a voice cries out, “Saul why do you persecute me?”
I love this question. It is vulnerable. God could cry out, threatening Saul, matching Saul’s own posture. God could be angry (rightfully so) for all of the suffering that Saul has caused! Instead God is vulnerable. God identifies with the persecuted ones. God appeals to the love that God has for Saul. And God appeals to Saul’s love for God. Saul’s love is misdirected, distorted, and God is somehow able to see goodness in Saul and reorient Saul towards it. This is what God does, God is in the business, of seeing the good in of us, and drawing it out, even when we it’s distorted. Even when we are blind to the good in ourselves and in each other.
Saul, who is utterly confused, says “Who are you?!” The voice answers, “I am Jesus, go into town and wait for what to do next.” And so Saul, the fearless leader, is now blinded. He must be led into the city by his friends. He waits, in darkness, blinded for three days. He fasts from food and water. And he prays.
The man of action has to wait. Saul who was sure of himself, is now blind and utterly dependent. The man who was full of rightness and zeal is now emptied out. Saul, the one riding high on the power of the authority given him, is now laid low. And in the end this persecutor of the faith becomes one of its greatest ambassadors, indeed one of the reasons that we are sitting here today.
If I am very honest, I do not want to identify with Saul. But perhaps the ones who we want to disassociate with most, are the ones, who have the most to teach us. It is a terrible thought that I could mask my own stubbornness, yes even my own moments of hatred and judgment, with God’s seal of approval and thereby do harm in the world in God’s name. This kind of rigid, us versus them, righteousness surely cannot be reflective of a posture that I would hold!
But after deeper reflection, I wonder, don’t we all do this? Don’t we all draw a line between us v. them? Don’t we all think some days that we would be God’s great gift to those who are wrong, in order to convert them to the true way? Don’t we all at times, hold onto these perceived “righteous tasks” with white-knuckles, like it somehow earns us favor in God’s eyes? And then – thank God - all of the sudden - we have a moment of miraculous clarity and humility, when we realize that maybe we are accidentally promoting wrongness with our stubborn perceived rightness!? Maybe we were opposing the divine goodness that we thought we were trying to protect?! Maybe the people who we thought belonged with “them” over there actually belong with “us?” There are certainly times when our anger, our fear, or our need to be right causes great suffering.
Secondly, I do not want to identify with Saul’s state of broken humility. He has to start over. I hate those times. I much prefer to be marching down the road with my buddies, with a clear call, a clear path, and a righteous mission. Sitting in the dark, hungry, confused, with no clue about what will happen next – that is a vulnerable place – and nobody chooses that seat. And yet, for how many of us has that been our greatest hour of transformation, even our greatest hour of salvation – when we are saved from our own limited sight, when we are saved from ourselves.
And one of the interesting things about Saul is that his origin story is bound up with others – as all of our stories are. Ananias, a follower of Jesus, has heard that Saul of Tarsus is on the way and that news isn’t good. Saul has been known to storm into followers’ homes and take them off to prison. Some of the followers of Jesus are surely tempted to hide or leave the movement all together. And now God has called Ananias to be the agent of healing for this man, – to pray for Saul and bring him into the fold.
For me it is easier to sympathize with Ananias. I imagine that Ananias and his loved ones are bracing for the persecution that is on the way. Huddled together, they wait for God’s direction. And then one night Ananias gets a vision from God. God’s plan is for Ananias to march up to Saul and essentially turn himself in!?! I can resonate with Ananias’ question, “Wait a second God, this guy Saul, he is bad news! He has done evil things to our people!” Surely, this is a bad strategy?! God again tells Ananias to find Saul, to pray for him, and heal his blindness. For God’s plan is to use Saul as an instrument to bring the Good News of Jesus to the Gentiles, to the whole world.
In this moment, Ananias is also blindsided! His idea of “us v. them” “friend v. enemy” is also disrupted. He has been preparing to defend his people, bracing for persecution. And God gives him the mission to approach Saul, and to heal him, this one who has done so much evil in God’s name! Ananias’ new vision calls him to risk his life in order to forgive and baptize his enemy, to call Saul his “brother.” Blindsided moments draw out the good in us. They draw us closer to God, closer to each other. These moments help us to see the good in each other, even in our enemy, and even in the most broken parts of ourselves.
And so when you get blindsided – PAY ATTENTION! – Sit in the dark and listen – Don’t resist or flee– Because hidden in the dark are the moments of divine transformation – new life – hope – freedom – and healing. In these blindsided moments we discover that the people we thought belonged to someone else are indeed our kin. In these moments we are softened to reconcile with the one who has caused us great suffering. In these moments we are softened to be reconciled with God.
Because God still leans over us and says gently, “beloved, why do you persecute me?”
And we might say to each other today, “Wait, how do we persecute you God?” “We are certainly not imprisoning or stoning anyone!” And God whispers back to us, “Did you see me hungry and feed me? Did you see me naked and clothe me? Did you see me in prison and visit me? Or did you stand by and ignore the suffering of the marginalized, the least of these? Have you ignored me?”
Sometimes I am blindsided by how ignorant I am of the suffering of others. And it is painful when that suffering comes into full view. Consider the suffering of a person of color driving down the road, in a new community, who has to question if their presence is a perceived threat – I have never had negotiate this kind of question. How often do I ignore the suffering of the LGBTQ community, especially the transgender community in states like North Carolina where some are afraid when they have to use the bathroom, I have never bear this kind of fear. Or how many days am I sensitive the suffering of the extreme poor in Nicaragua OR to suffering of those who do not have enough food to feed their kids right here in our own community? Sometimes it is much easier to walk down the road with our heads held high, in comfort, and yes in, ignorance. And yet in our blindness we are less whole, we are divided from each other, and we are less connected to God.
In closing, the truth is that those moments of being blindsided by the by the brokenness of humanity, and by the goodness of life are so often woven together. We can be blindsided by cancer & hope, chemotherapy & grace all at the same time. And so when we numb ourselves to our own suffering or the suffering of each other, we can numb ourselves to the grace & love that is woven into our pain.
I emailed another Christ Church member this week to get her perspective on what it was like to be blindsided by cancer. Amanda Block is a Christ Church member, advocate for the underserved, especially the homeless community, & breast cancer survivor, Amanda writes,
“When my cancer was diagnosed it was a shock. I was rushed for a mammogram and then rushed for an ultrasound and then biopsies, and appointments and tests to ascertain the type of the cancer and then chemotherapy. I had no time to react beyond handling immediate needs and caring for my daughter who was four at the time.
And yet. The Sunday before my biopsies, at church we sang, "God Who Began a Good Work In You Will Be Careful to Complete It.” I sang it silently to myself through all my tests and scans. It held me together.
When the nurses would give me a heavy sedative before the chemo I responded as if it were truth serum. I asked everyone and anyone, “What am I to do with this? What good can I make of it?”
I prayed. I waited. I got very sick. Stuck in bed, I wondered what I was to do. And then with each passing day after chemo I'd get stronger and feel better.
On the off weeks I resumed my normal life. On one of those off weeks my family and I went to the beach. The waves shifted the sand and revealed a dazzling array of stones and shells. My cancer was like the waves: it took off all the layers that held everything but my true essence. The grace, gratitude, and joy I prayed for every night for years had been revealed to me. It was there all along.
It was that discovery that reoriented me more than the cancer. Bad things happen. We fight with the tools available to us. It turns out the tools I expected to acquire, G-d had instilled in me all along.
I went on to have a successful finish to my chemo with a "complete response". My reconstruction surgery revealed no evidence of disease. The doctors tell me it's not over, it will never be over. And so I put that grace to use, living without fear of my future as best I can, while being grateful and enjoying the good.” (pause)
And so beloved go now. Pay attention to the moments when the “Defensive End of the Holy Spirit” blindsides you with goodness and even when life blindsides you with suffering or with the suffering of others. Because these moments are bound together in their sacredness. In those moments God whispers to us, “let go, go this new way, trust me, even in the midst of your fear?” Because Amanda is right, God’s grace, has always, and will always be there. And paradoxically, sometimes we see God’s grace more clearly when we are blinded, waiting in the dark.