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Ananias: Prophet of Radical Hospitality

April 11, 2016

ananias

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

 Acts 9:1-20

The story that we have read this morning in two parts is often referred to as “The Conversion of Paul.” It is one of the better-known stories in our Bible, its drama and psychological power encouraging preacher, artist and believer alike to make it their own. The idiom “and scales fell from my eyes,” referring to sudden insight or understanding of the truth, comes from this story. Michelangelo, Bruegel and Caravaggio have all famously painted it. “I once was blind, but now I see,” wrote John Newton in Amazing Grace, describing the spiritual conversion that led him away from the Atlantic slave trade. This hope that even the most hardened soul can be reached and redeemed by God’s grace has spurred the prayers of countless generations. One of our own members told me just this week that she prays every day for the Sauls of this world to become Pauls.

But I want to linger this morning on the second half of this story, that part that describes “The Call of the Prophet Ananias.” Yes, I know the text calls Ananias simply a disciple, but this story includes all the elements of a prophetic call: the vision, the voice, the uncomfortable task, the resistance of the would-be prophet, and the divine push. Like Samuel and Isaiah, Ananias responds to his vision with the words, “Here I Am, Lord.” And like the prophets before him, no matter how difficult the task, the prophet Ananias acts according to God’s desire. Ananias appears only once in scripture, right here.  But the role he plays in salvation history is pivotal, and one we should ponder for ourselves. His act of radical hospitality is one we are called to embrace right here.

I call this radical hospitality because Ananias extends God’s welcome to Saul even though he is afraid. God appeared to Ananias in a vision and sent him to a house on Straight Street where he is told he will find a man called Saul of Tarsus at prayer. Ananias was told to lay hands on this man and heal him. But Ananias has every reason to be afraid. ‘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.’ Indeed, Saul has detained, tortured and stoned followers of Jesus throughout Judea, and is now pursuing them in Damascus. Of course Ananias is afraid. But Ananias must overcome this fear if he is to be a part of the transformation God is working both in individual lives, like Saul’s, and in the world. For it is through Saul that the good news about Jesus will be shared with the gentile, or non-Jewish, world. For this reason, the Roman Catholic Church to this day celebrates the Martyrdom of Ananias on the same day as the Conversion of Paul.  It is fitting to look at Ananias the prophet of radical hospitality, as we consider what it would mean for our congregation’s life today.

Let’s think concretely about what Ananias does.  He listens to God.  He acknowledges his own fear.  He follows God’s command to welcome, despite his fear.  He goes to Saul.  He lays his hands upon him.  He welcomes Saul into the community of Christ followers in Damascus.

If we are to embody radical hospitality in this congregation, it means that we too must listen to God, acknowledge our own fear but not let it control us, concretely and personally reach out to the one we fear, and welcome that person into this congregation.

Many of you know that during the season of Lent a good number of our congregation gathered each week to discuss Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  We ended our four weeks of study with a new commitment to work for the abolition of the mass incarceration system itself – not simply because it has become too expensive to maintain, or a political albatross, but for the purpose of ending the racial caste system upon which it has been built.

There are a number of us here who have family members or friends who are (or have been) in prison. Some of us have, been in prison ourselves.  I want to pause to simply acknowledge this.  When we talk, therefore, about people who are incarcerated, we are not talking about some distant “them out there.”  We are talking about people we know and love, people we worship with; we are talking about us.

Now having said that, for some of you, it may come as a surprise to learn that some of us are connected so intimately to the prison system and have felt in our own lives the pain, the isolation, and the stigmatization that comes from being incarcerated or being connected to someone who is incarcerated.  After all, Michelle Alexander reminds us, the most important thing to understand about the criminal justice system today is that it is not the prison time but the prison label that matters:

“Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. They are entitled to no respect and little moral concern.”[1]

And so many of those who have been labeled a criminal or the spouse or the daughter or the father of a criminal, are reluctant to speak openly about it – even in church, even in this place of love and healing.  That reluctance is understandable.  What would happen, after all, if people knew?

In our conversations about Alexander’s book, we were all quick to say we wanted to be a church where people released from prison or families of prisoners or even the men and women who were incarcerated but to whom we write and for whose children we help buy gifts for at Christmas – we wanted them all to feel comfortable here.  And that’s commendable.  But it’s not that easy.

Alice Pala, in fact, stopped us all in our tracks from this kind of easy affirmation. “Oh – well,” she said, “when a person who we know has been in prison sits down next to me, next to us, we immediately hold our pocketbook close and move away down the pew.  But before that happens, before that awful physical pulling away happens, we move away first in our minds, in our hearts.  We pull away first, invisibly,” she said.

What might it mean for us all to imagine ourselves as Ananias?  Not that those of us who haven’t directly experienced the prison system are Ananias and people who have been incarcerated or their loved ones are Saul, but rather, that we are all Ananiases.  We are all called to listen to God.  We are all called to acknowledge our fears.  We are all called to reach out in love toward one another, to create bonds of healing.  We are all called to touch one another – to lay our hands in Christ’s peace upon one another.  And to welcome each other, welcome each other, as sisters and brothers in this community of disciples, in this Damascus we call White Plains.

My friends, today we all are called to be disciples of the Lord.  We are called to reach out beyond our fear, to embrace one another in love.  And in so doing, become a witness to the radical hospitality that God has already extended to each one of us.  May we all be Ananiases. In our words and in our deeds, may we show forth such love.  Amen.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

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