I suspect many of you are doing what I did when I first heard that anthem.  I cried.    Crying can be good sometimes, crying puts us in touch with the heart, with what we treasure, crying allows us to acknowledge loss and crying sometimes becomes an energy point to make some important changes in life.

Right now, I am reading the poetry of rupi kaur, a young 27 year old Canadian poet who actually made her entrance on our world stage in Hoshiarpur, India before her family emigrated to Canada when she was four.  rupi was raised in the Brampton area becoming a well-known poet through Instagram and tumblr through the genre of visual poetry.

Listen to the key poem that frames were work titled the sun and her flowers

This is the recipe for life

said my mother

as she held me in her arms as i wept

think of those flowers you plant

in the garden each year

they will teach you

that people too

must wilt

fall

root

rise

in order to bloom.

 kaur's wisdom helps us feel both the depth and the hope of our scripture story today, the story of Saul’s holy confrontation on the Road to Damascus that leads to a life-change, a transformation   

As we hear the wisdom of this story, I invite us to wonder if we, as a collective society are having a “Damascus Road confrontation”.Consider that question as we remind ourselves of the story. 

Saul had aligned himself with the establishment intent on keeping the world the way it should be, that establishment intent on protecting normal, arranged for the crucifixion of Jesus.   In Saul’s eyes, the execution failed in silencing and dominating since the followers of Jesus had a renewed energy to continue to live the Spirit life and social vision nurtured by Jesus.  

In fact, thousands and thousands were joining the movement, and not just in Jerusalem but in city after city after city all around the land.  Things were getting out of control since the people were getting more and more bold in demanding changes to the religious and political institutions of the day.  They were wanting weird things like “equality” and dignity for all peoples, all races and genders as well as a rethinking of how wealth was distributed and the promotion of the dignity of workers and slaves.

Saul set his heart upon quelling this Spirit movement, to get things back to normal, and if more executions were needed, so be it.  He sought authorization to imprison and persecute the followers of The Way which was the name for the movement of Christ Jesus.

Here is the thing about Saul.  He thought he was doing the right thing.  His whole life had been dedicated to promoting the order of the world as he had been taught.    He was a Pharisee, an expert in the laws of his people, fervent and upright in its application.  His family pedigree was beyond reproach and his own code of conduct unblemished according to what he was taught.  He understood himself to be good, even his thinking he self-understood as good.

To defend this goodness, Saul set himself on the road to Damascus.  As Saul neared the city, something extraordinary happens, something Saul did not self-create, but a something which happens to him.  In this story this happening is described as a light from the heavens shining around, a happening that fells Saul.   Saul falls to the ground.  

Out of this crucible of light, Saul hears a voice, a voice that engages Saul in a difficult conversation, a difficult conversation that challenging his self-understanding about what is good.   This voice asks a question, a personal question because the voice calls his name,  Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Saul queries as to who might it be that is speaking.  The answer came, I am Jesus.  Saul hears the voice of the Crucified One, the voice who become one with all those who have been unjustly executed and who were suffering under the oppressors of the Empire.  Saul falls silent, but the voice instructs, get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do.

Saul rises to his feet except that he can no longer see.  His self-assured person forced to stumble into the city as he is led by the hand of companions.

 

Literalizing texts never do us much good, but as metaphor, I cannot help but wonder if our world in 2020 is experiencing extraordinary happenings - pandemic and healing walks and protests in the streets – happenings where voices are being heard asking why are you persecuting us, persecutions that preceded the extraordinary happenings, the structural racism and colonial legacies, the poverty wages and inequities in healthcare, the neglect in senior care and disregard for climate and you know the list.

 

Extraordinary happenings surfacing difficult conversations, not new conversations, conversations demanding an intense and lived reckoning.

 

In our sacred story, the narrator describes Saul’s refusal to eat for three days as Saul is locked away in a house on a street called Straight, his own time of intense reckoning.  We can only image the inner dialogue, imaginations we recognize because all of us have those moments of being confronted with painful truths.

 

The Holy was at work in those three days, at work within and around Saul.   One individual, a target of Saul’s persecution, is also confronted by name.  Ananias is directed to visit Saul, to become an agent who will help Saul to see in a different way.  Ananias puts aside both his fear and skepticism, The fall is rooting something in the heart. 

Ananias goes and prays with Saul, that deep prayer that Joan Chittister describes that prayer that burns off the dross of what clings to our souls like mildew… prayer that can set us free for deeper, richer, truer lives in which we become what we seek… prayers that pass our lips and change our lives.  Saul surprises Ananias because from that root of prayer, the scales fall from Saul’s eyes and Saul rises to become a spokesperson for the very justice and compassion he was just persecuting.  Change can happen, conversions do take place.  Many of us testify to our own Damascus Road experiences.  There is hope.  Hope of people as individuals, and hope for communities as well.

 

Moments of change are significant, but the depth of change happens over a lifetime.  Saul, who became the apostle Paul, was not without his faults, there is much I am willing to quibble with, but there was without question a fire in the belly, a passion for the God-way as revealed in Christ Jesus, a passion that forged many difficult conversations in the coming days and years as Saul/Paul lived his conversion.   

 

Extraordinary happenings are occurring in 2020.   It is daunting and it is hopeful.   What vision is being born as scales fall from our collective eyes.  What changes and conversions are being wrought in our collective world, changes that we are called to support and not resist.  It is overwhelming and one senses an unleashing of energy, a hope-giving energy.  

 

Remember Kaur’s words.

 

This is the recipe for life

said my mother

as she held me in her arms as i wept

think of those flowers you plant

in the garden each year

they will teach you

that people too

must wilt

fall

root

rise

in order to bloom.

The story of the Damascus Road is the story of a personal conversion where an individual blossomed, yet this story is metaphor not only for us as individuals but for us collectively.  The story demands a response, a response that entails times of intense reckoning, entails days of being locked away and days of speaking out, of proclamation, of a rallying cry.

Today I invite us as our prayers as a people, to raise our voices in a song of energy and action, not a new song to us, but a song that is renewed in the heart, that cause the heart to cry for justice, a song that embodies the Christ who is one with all who are persecuted, a song that calls us by name to join our names alongside the names of the persecuted.

The Damascus road invites us to move and go, invites us to change and to act, song titled I Need To Move written by Gord Oaks and Chris Giffen.    

I need to move, I need to go

I need to change with what I know

I need to act, I need to flow

I need to move, I need to go

 

If not me then who is going to tell the story

There’s a mission and a call I can’t deny

I have heard the voices cry beneath oppression

I will speak for justice underneath the sky

 

From the edges and the margins comes a vision

A prophetic voice for peace arising strong

We are citizens who seek to move an empire

Like a steady current change is comin on.

 

There’s a journey with a purpose I must follow

Even if the road ahead be hard and long

Like a shining light that’s placed upon a mountain

There’s a dream of light arising in my song.

In choosing love, we ground ourselves in our sacred stories.  The scripture story is one that I alluded to last week.  As the Spirit of Life took a hold of Peter, he began a journey of proclaiming the Christ way, a way of justice and inclusion.  Peter's words got heard by important people, like Cornelius a Roman centurion of the Italica cohort stationed in Ceasarea.  Cornelius asked to have an audience with Peter. 

Now Cornelius was of a different nation, a different culture, a different race. Peter agreed to go, but the sacred story tells us that on the way, God’s spirit confronted both conscious and unconscious bias in Peter.  

Just before lunch, while he was hungry, Peter went to the rooftop to be still for a moment, to be quiet, to pray.  In that moment of stillness, Peter had a vision.  A sheet filled with animals came down from the heavens, animals that Peter immediately recognized, some animals he recognized as clean and some as profane, and he had been taught.  It is a stark picture with stark language.

The voice of the spirit tells Peter to eat.  Peter refuses because woven into his very being were teachings that he was to resist visiting in the company of those who eat what was designated as profane.  The Holy voice retorted, “What God has made clean you have no right to call profane”.  The language is direct and blunt, challenging the life-long pattern woven into Peter’s being. 

Three times the message is repeated, three times embodying the Ojibway wisdom of the Old Woman in Richard Wagamese’s reflections in Embers where the Old Woman repeats important things three times.

The first time is for listening, for the head to become aware.   The second time is for hearing, for the heart to be awakened.  The third time is for feeling, for the wisdom to become a part of one’s being.

Peter was going to the house of Cornelius with both conscious and unconscious bias that Cornelius was lesser because he eats the profane.  This vision from God says no.  This vision from God challenges by first converting in the head, then the heart, then the whole being.  Three times.

As Peter prepared to finish the journey, he worries over the meaning of the vision.  The worry was less about understanding the vision, Peter had walked with Jesus who had proclaimed an inclusionary vision.  The meaning was understandable, but the worry centered around the implications of living the vision.  This vision put him on a pathway of confrontation and controversy, a pathway of criticism and conflict. 

Peter, however, let the Holy voice go through him so that he would do what is right.  Our sacred stories are not something we hold in the hand, our sacred stories transform our way of being and acting.  In the Hasidic tradition of Judaism, a disciple approaches a teacher and said, “I have gone completely through the holy text, the Torah.  What must I do now?  The teacher replied, “The question is not, have you gone through the Torah but has the Torah gone through you?  Has the Torah changed you.?

In the Christian tradition, we are taught that our lives are to be a letter from Christ that everyone can read and understand, a letter written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, a spirit that draws all people together.

Black lives matters invites, individuals like myself, White and privileged, to confront both conscious and unconscious bias in order to authentically be letters of anti-black racism, and anti-indigenous racism, and anti-Asian racism and on it goes. 

It is not hard to understand the meaning, but sometimes we worry about the implications.  So we hold back, we become silent.  This was the choice Peter faced, but Peter found a voice, challenging any teachings that define some in our world as less than. T

That is not the God way.  The vision of God is on the side of equality and dignity of all peoples.  This is the call to all of us.  May God’s spirit send us power to live love and grace, an important necessity to live justice in these critical times facing our world. 

 

In that well known hymn, Spirit of Gentleness, Spirit of Restlessness, there is a Pentecost invitation where with bold new decisions, your people arise .  These words capture the Spirit energy of our Pentecost story, and this Spirit energy grounds us in the complicated times we find ourselves living in, grounds us as we arise empowered with the spirit to walk courageously and boldly.

Today we ground ourselves in these complicated times of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests by recognizing the pivotal role Pentecost has in our faith story, a faith story about a society changing Spirit-awakening transformation that proclaims a structural inclusion. 

This pivotal story of structural inclusion is narrated by the writer of Luke-Acts.  Most Biblical scholars accept that the same author wrote Luke and acts, because of linguistic similarity and because both texts are addressed to the most excellent Theophilus.  Who Theophilus is unknown though theories abound.  Many Biblical scholars suggest the title Most Excellent signifies that this person was a representative of state power, of political institution, or legal institution, and the writer of Luke-Acts is addressing institution powers when writing about the justice and spirit ways alive in Jesus of Nazareth, was speaking truth to power by describing the justice and spirit ways alive in the Christ Way that was being birthed by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Other Biblical scholars note that the meaning of Theophilus is “lover of God” and that the writer is writing generally to everyone who loves God.

 I personally think it is both.   Luke-Acts is writing to the “lovers of God” who cry for justice and peace and healing in the world, to speak that truth to power.

 Lovers of God seek justice and peace and healing in the land, and the writer of Luke-Acts unfolds this story in three phases.

First, there is the description of the manifesto of Jesus of Nazareth, a manifesto rooted in the prophetic tradition that Jesus reads…

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, anointing me

To bring good news to the poor

To proclaim liberty to captives

To bring sight to those who are blinded

To bring freedom for the oppressed

To proclaim a year of jubilee and liberation

Everything in the gospel of Luke, the teachings, the stories, the miracles are about embodying this manifesto, it is the lens the whole gospel is read.

What becomes clear is that Jesus represented a threat to the religious and political institution and structures of his day, and they responded like they often do…they took his breath away, they killed him.  As we know, one can kill the body but one cannot kill the spirit and the love and the voices who knew what Jesus was all about.  The writer of Luke-Acts, described how the death of Jesus is not the end of the story.

After the crucifixion, the writer briefly recounts appearance stories, stories filled with references to the Rising Jesus instructing and empowering and tooling followers to continue living the prophetic manifesto.   Then in the opening paragraphs of the Acts of Apostles, the writer describes these appearances occurring for 40 days, a holy number, before repeating the story of the Rising Jesus ascending into the heavens, with a promise that the Spirit of Life, the Holy Spirit will be unleashed upon these followers and empower them, will clothe them with the ongoing spirit of justice and peace and healing.

For ten days after the 40, they are instructed to wait in the city.  They gather for conversation and for prayer and for singing.  They gather behind closed doors, shuttered away for a time, shuttered primarily for their safety.  The 40 plus the 10 is the second phase.

Then on the 50th day, the third phase begins.  Again, through evocative storytelling, the writer uses symbols of wind and fire, symbols of the Spirit of Life that have been present in the stories of the ancestors; however, the writer adds a unique twist is the inclusion of empowered speech.  The Spirit enables the gathered community to not only break their silence after being shuttered away in the post-trauma of crucifixion, but their break their silence by speaking in every language of the world. 

The many languages is structural and systematic inclusion. 

The many languages is the anti-Babel story, a precursor to the anti-black racism story and anti-indigenous racism story, and the anti-Asian racism story, and the series of other anti-ism stories.  Structural and systematic racism is challenged by structural and systematic inclusion.

 This multi-linguistic speech confuses and bewilders the whole city, confuses and bewilders the whole known world…and it is supposed to.

 The story finishes with Peter becoming a spokesperson for a collective breaking of silence, where on behalf of the whole community Peter articulates a vision of unity by quoting the prophets…

 

            I shall pour out my Spirit upon all humanity

            Your daughters and sons shall prophesy

            Your young people shall see visions

            Your old people dream dreams

            Even on those enslaved, women and men and every gender,

shall I pour out my Spirit.

Peter was such a convincing spokesperson, 3,000 people joined the 120 who had been gathering, and the next phase of seeking justice and peace and healing was on, the story for every follower of Christ to be “lovers of God seeking justice and peace and healing in the land”

I have taken the time to tell the story because our stories of faith ground us in times of confusion and complicated living, ground us in times when we have to make bold new decisions in these moment when the people of the Spirit must arise.

 I close with three quick comments.  

First, In the genius of the storytelling by the writer of Luke-acts, Peter, the spokesperson, is soon embroiled in controversies because Peter needs to be confronted with his own prejudice and racist attitudes.   Peter, by being clothed with the Holy Spirit, began to be changed by discoveries on how he had been conditioned and had woven into his very being, prejudice and racist attitudes.  Peter underwent conversion.  

 I won’t speak for others, but I know that change to structural racism and injustice begins within and then moves outward, and for me, as one privileged because of my whiteness that brings benefit, I constantly have to learn of my unconscious and preconditioned racism, and rout it out,  rout it out by doing a lot of listening and suspending judgement about experiences I do not understand, rout it out by hearing other languages,  that lexicon beyond of my experience.  This is what happens to Peter in the story of the acts of the Apostle.

Second, the followers of the Way of Christ were bold in confronting injustice, many were imprisoned, some lost their lives.  Different circumstances required different actions, but the goal of justice and peace and healing remained the focus, and the writers continually drew followers away from distractions. Fundamentally, as the great justice spokespersons who have understood the Christ Way, spokespersons like Martin Luther King Junior and Mahatma Gandhi, though not a Christian was inspired by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, they were bold in their confrontations and deep in their commitments to non-violence.   Today, I am particularly grateful for the Communities of Faith who are carrying brooms to clean and restore. We remain rooted in what is essential in the Christian faith The work of being a loving, liberating and life giving presence in the world that heals.

Thirdly, the storyteller rooted the energy of Pentecost in a time of prayer and waiting, of being shuttered behind closed doors, which became the cradle for the unleashing of spirit.  This waiting happened in the wake and midst of crisis, happened following crucifixion. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was not chosen by the followers of Jesus, it happened to them.  The time of crisis demanded soul-searching  and soul-deepening that allowed for growing understandings of injustice that led to a renewal of commitment and vision for justice.

This is why it is so important that we pause to take deep breaths in our times of crisis when, for some, their breath is being taken away.  We breathe so that we can discern and then arise in ways that are constructive, that are just and peaceable and healing.

We ground ourselves in our sacred stories to be renewed by the Spirit of life enabling us to see the beauty and wonder of life that we long to be shared equitably and peaceably by all peoples.  This is our prayer as we invite the Holy to renew and empower our spirits.