Rev. Teri Peterson
I Am Who I Will Be
4 May 2014, Easter 3, NL4-35
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 travelling 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.
When I was in seminary, we were assigned the task of going to read scripture in unusual places, rather than just in our rooms or the library where we might normally study. They wanted us to practice what they called “Dislocation”—reading God’s word in a place where we normally wouldn’t. My classmates and I went all over the city, reading the Bible on busses and trains, in parks and stores, on street corners and in shelters. My friend Amy and I put on our yardwork clothes and went to the Ritz Carlton just in time for high tea, and we sat just at the entrance to the restaurant and read out loud to each other the story from Mark 5, of the woman who had been sick for 12 years and finally managed to sneak up and touch Jesus’ cloak. We felt awkward, and then we felt bold, and then we were asked to leave. The whole time, though, we definitely felt conspicuous, out of place, and everything we saw and heard and read seemed intensified.
It can be hard to focus when we’re disoriented. Or it can cause us to be hyper-focused, to use all our senses in a different way, to pay closer attention to what is happening.
Everyone in this story is disoriented. Saul, who will soon become Paul, is the most noticeably so, as he has literally had his perspective changed, through falling from his high horse down into the dust, going blind, and being hungry. But Ananias, who is asked to go lay hands on the very man who has been harassing people like him? He is disoriented enough to argue with Jesus. And the people to whom Paul preaches? They can hardly believe their eyes or ears, since this man who had used all the power of tradition, all his own powers of rhetoric and status…now is using that power to bring people to Jesus.
It was a very disorienting time. Maybe not quite on the level of changing pews for a day, but a dramatic shift of perspective nonetheless.
And God uses that shift, that new perspective, to offer a vision of the kingdom of God.
That vision begins with Jesus saying to Saul: “Why are you harassing me?” Notice he doesn’t say “why are you harassing my followers”…because remember that whatever we do to the least of these, to those we think deserve it, or to each other, we do to Jesus. There is no separation between Christ and those whom he loves. How we treat other beloved children of God is how we treat God. Loving God and loving our neighbor are two sides of the same thing.
Talk about a shift in perspective. What if we thought we were talking to God every time we spoke to another person? What if we thought it was God we shouted at, God we insulted, God we gossiped about, God we patronized, God we pushed until we got our way? What if we really thought that God was alive in the world, not trapped in a dusty book or a sanctuary? It would change our vision, and probably our behavior too.
And Saul looked up from the dust, unable to see with his eyes. This kind of vision comes from the heart, and it takes time to learn to see this way—time that may not be pleasant, because no transformation is easy.
And yet it is how God is building the kingdom of heaven on earth, one transformed life at a time. One meeting with Jesus—in the form of his followers, in the form of the living word proclaimed, in a song or a tv show or a beautiful moment in creation, at the dinner table downstairs on a Wednesday night—one meeting with Jesus can kick off this transformation…but that meeting is not the end, it’s just the beginning. The process of being changed into who God created us to be will take some time and even more perspective shifts. We will have to allow something new to emerge from the patterns we have built.
A few weeks ago I was catching up on podcasts, and I heard a story on a show called Radiolab, which is basically people explaining science on the radio. The story was about how caterpillars become butterflies, and what happens during that mysterious time in between. Now, I’ve always thought that basically a caterpillar builds a chrysalis, then kind of hibernates in it for a while, as its body mass shifts around to grow wings, and then it comes out as a butterfly. Turns out that is 0% true. Instead what happens is that the caterpillar’s skin becomes the chrysalis, much like molting—it sheds its outer layer and that becomes the pod. And almost as soon as that process is complete, if you open it up you’ll find nothing but goo. The whole caterpillar dissolves into a gooey collection of cells, which morph and re-form into something completely new: a butterfly. There is no caterpillar in a chrysalis, and most of the time there’s no butterfly in there either—it’s just a primordial ooze. No wonder the theologian-scientists of the middle ages used the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection: because it really is as if the caterpillar makes its own shroud and dies, and out of that decomposing goo comes something beautiful and new and yet somehow related.
And then the story went on to explain something amazing: the butterflies remembered things the caterpillars had experienced. They had the same reaction to different scents as the caterpillars had been trained to have. Somehow, some part of who the caterpillar was was still a part of who the butterfly was, even though there was this period of nothingness in between.
And THEN the most amazing part of all: the scientist explained that you can, if you cut open a caterpillar with the right tools, see the faint beginnings of the structure of a butterfly, pressed against the skin. So when the caterpillar sheds that skin that becomes the chrysalis, the skeletal structure of the butterfly is imbedded there, waiting for its moment to work with the goo to become something new and beautiful.
In other words: what the caterpillar will be is already a part of who it is. The beautiful future is a part of the present reality. But the path to that future is not easy or obvious.
Paul became a brilliant teacher and preacher and organizer. Or rather—he was already those things, and God used him in a new way. People were shocked to hear him preaching the good news of Jesus, the Son of God…but really, he had that in him all along. No one, including Paul himself, could see it because they were so set in their ways, but a little change in perspective, a little meeting with Jesus in an unexpected way, and suddenly there was room for God to do something new.
Previously, Saul had been on a mission—he was passionate about what he thought was right, and he was motivated to get everyone else on the right track. He was the kind of guy we often look up to—a self-starter, a go-getter, full of righteous indignation. God needed that kind of person…just not for Paul’s mission, but for God’s. God is the one with the mission, and we are the workers—not the other way around. God’s mission is for all people to be seen as bearing the image of Christ in the world, even the ones we think get it wrong. God’s mission is for reconciliation, and justice, and peace, even for people who don’t deserve it. God’s mission is for hope and healing. God’s mission is that all would know love, because all are loved beyond imagining. That’s the mission that Paul was turned toward, and the mission to which we are all called. It can be hard to see how to do it, but one thing is for sure: when we’re so focused on the way we think things ought to be, we have trouble hearing when God is calling. We’ll need some disorientation, some new perspective, an encounter with Christ the Living Word, in order to see the new thing God is creating—a new thing that both already exists and is not quite visible.
Remember way back in Exodus, when Moses comes to the burning bush, meets God there, and hears that God’s name is “I am who I am”? Well, that word that’s usually translated “I am who I am” is a tricky one, because it is a verb that seems to be in multiple tenses at the same time. One translation is “I am who I will be.”
And we, my friends, are created in the image of that God.
May it be so.