Unexpected Encounters

Sermon preached for the Third Sunday of Easter for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Acts 9:1-20

Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”

Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.

In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

He answered, “Yes, Lord.”

The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”

Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”

The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. After eating, he regained his strength.

He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared.

Hatred is the path of least resistance.

That’s a depressing way to start a sermon, isn’t it? But it’s what a researcher at Facebook found back in 2019, when they created a set of fake profiles on the site. One was a man from India, Facebook’s biggest market; two others were Americans named Carol Smith and Karen Jones. They gave each fake woman some broad brush characteristics: one a southern Christian conservative, the other a northern liberal. After that, the researcher put the profiles on autopilot, liking everything that came their way, joining every recommended group, and letting the algorithms set the path. 

That path of least resistance led to some pretty violent, terrifying places for all three. After a few short weeks, Facebook’s algorithms curated for each of them a steady diet of radicalized politics, conspiracy theories, graphic images, and calls for violence against “the other side”—whether that side was Republican, Democrat, or Pakistani.

The posts on social media that generate the most engagement—that get our emotions and adrenaline pumping enough to like or share or comment or repost—are the things, the researcher wrote, that are most like to divide and depress us.[1]

I’m picking on Facebook because their study was so clear, but this isn’t Facebook’s problem alone—and I want to acknowledge that some of us are worshipping on Facebook as I preach, and that I do personally use Facebook, and have worked hard to make it a place that brings me connection and joy, especially in the groups I share with other clergy—but this study made me realize just how much real, intentional work it has been to create a social media space that lifts love to the top, not hate. When it comes to media, social or traditional, love is the path of most resistance. 

This isn’t a new problem, although the automation of the Internet exacerbates it. Two hundred years ago Northern Kentucky offered a number of newspapers, some of which were pro-slavery, some against, all promising to be the unvarnished truth, just the facts. You could be radicalized by ink and paper, too, just going along with what your neighbors told you—or sold you.

And two thousand years ago, we run into Saul, spewing out his murderous threats. 

The Bible doesn’t say how Saul got radicalized, other than that he was the coat check boy when Stephen, one of the disciples, was stoned to death, and he liked it. “Saul approved of their killing him,” is the short, terse, terrifying report. From all we know of his later career as the apostle Paul, Saul was a young man of great energy, and in the conflict between traditional Jews and the Jews who followed Jesus, all that energy was given somewhere to go—somewhere pretty violent and terrifying. 

It’s hard to know how accurate the Bible’s depiction of the conflict between these early Christians and their Jewish communities really were. It’s almost certain that Christian memory of their own persecution was slightly more dramatic than what actually happened. And, devastatingly, the Bible itself, and stories like the one we read today, became a radicalizing tool against Jewish people, leading to horrifying episodes in history like the Crusades and Holocaust. 

Hate is the path of least resistance, and it’s a path we humans find ourselves running merrily down over and over and over and over again. 

So when we turn to this story, of Saul breathing his threats and violence against the new followers of Christ, of Saul having ripped through Jerusalem dragging men and women to prison, of Saul showing up to Damascus looking for more lives to destroy—what I do not want you to hear is that the Jews were terrible, violent, regressive persecutors of the poor pitiful Christians. What I want you to hear is that humans are prone to the path of hatred. Paradoxically, it feeds our sense of goodness, to hate the wrong kind of people, and be the right kind.

And yet, with all those disclaimers out of the way, I still think this is one of the most important stories in all of scripture, and not just as origin story for the mighty Paul, writer of a solid third of our New Testament. I think this story shows us how to take a different path. 

Saul is going to Damascus, papers in hand, to root out the followers of Christ, when a bright light blinds him, and a voice from heaven halts him, and Jesus himself is there. “Who are you?” Saul asks, and Jesus responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are harassing.” 

This episode is often called the conversion of Saul—but perhaps it is more accurate to say this was the disorientation of Saul. Saul finds himself blinded, while Jesus gives him mysterious instructions to go into the city and wait. For three days he sits in darkness, and for some reason does not eat or drink. It is not that Saul is suddenly, wham-bam, a Christian. It is that Saul is suddenly vulnerable. Suddenly reliant on others. Suddenly forced to empathize with the powerless. 

And across town, another man is having another vision. Not as dramatic as Saul’s, but just as crucial. Ananias, a disciple of Jesus, hears God tell him to go to Ananias and lay hands on him and cure him of his blindness.

And Ananias’ response is something like “say what now?”

Ananias has listened to the news reports. He knows who Saul is, what Saul has been up to, the danger Saul poses. No way Jose is he going to go out himself to Saul. 

Still, God does not relent. As God does to all the prophets, God urges him past his doubts towards courage. “Go!” God says. “I have plans for Saul, and they start with you.”

So Ananias, disciple of Jesus, goes to Saul, who hates disciples of Jesus. And he takes a deep breath and this is what he says: “Brother Saul.”

Brother Saul. 

Ananias starts with the recognition of their shared humanity. Their shared ancestry. Their shared God. Brother Saul, he says. Jesus sent me, to let you see again, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And so Saul opens his eyes and the first person he sees, after three long anxious days, is a person he is supposed to hate. This person who has healed him, this person who has called him brother, is someone he is supposed to hate. But this time Saul really does see him with fresh eyes.

Saul gets up. He is baptized, and all the hate washes away. 

This is the true conversion of Saul. Not just when he meets Jesus, but when he is healed by one he thought he hated.

God is a matchmaker of unexpected encounters. God delights in bringing together people who hold grudges and fears and resentments and divisions. God rejoices in toppling our walls over into bridges. God is insistent in pushing us down the path of love—despite all our resistance to the contrary. 

I was talking with a friend of mine this week about Saul and Ananias, and I shared how I’d been reading about the Facebook study, about how it is that we are so quickly and easily pulled toward division and hatred. I told her I thought it would make for an important sermon, but not a very uplifting one. 

“Oh!” she responded. “Then do I have a story for you.”

She’s preaching the same scripture today, and she had found a story for her own congregation about a pair of college boys in Florida in 2011.[2] Matthew Stevenson was one of New College’s tiny population of Orthodox Jews. Derek Black was the son of a prominent white nationalist; the godson of David Duke. They lived in the same dorm, and sometimes jammed together to country western music on guitar. 

On the weekends, Matthew kept Sabbath, while Derek went to white power rallies and argued for the preservation of the white race against multiculturalism and Jewish conspiracies. One day, a fellow student discovered Derek’s writings online and published them publically. And Matthew sent him a single text: “What are you doing this Friday night?”

Matthew and his friend Moshe had talked it over. They knew Derek wasn’t physically violent; they knew that they, as Jewish students, wouldn’t be suspected of any secret sympathy for Derek’s ideology, which gave them a kind of ironic safety that other students didn’t have. And they knew that Derek probably didn’t know the people he had been raised to despise. So they invited him. 

And he came. 

Derek was prepared to be grilled, yelled at, outraged over, and he faced that plenty in other quarters, and says now he is grateful for it. But, he says, what actually happened at those dinners was harder for him: he was welcomed as a friend. He would have been prepared to argue, he said; his whole life had trained him to argue one extreme ideological position. He was not prepared for love.

It wasn’t a miraculous, wham-bam conversion. There would be two more years when Derek managed to continue his activism in white nationalist circles while also attending these weekly dinners. It took two years of deepening friendship, and quiet conversations, and small questions, to begin to move the rock in Derek’s soul. But piece by piece, it did move. Two years later Derek found that the people he was supposed to want to be separate from were his closest friends; people he was supposed to hate were people he empathized with. He publicly broke with the white nationalist movement. 

Derek and Matthew’s story is more complicated than this bare sketch, and I don’t want to suggest that all the world’s hatreds and divisions could be solved if we’d all just sit down to dinner; but it is a place to start. 

Derek and Matthew—and the friends brave enough to join them at the Shabbat table—faced a great deal of resistance, of criticism, of justifiable outrage. It would have been easier, Matthew says, to hate Derek, and let Derek hate him back. Love was harder. Love was worth it. 

God put Saul and Ananias together, the most unexpected pair in all of Damascus. I believe God put Derek and Paul together, the most unexpected friendship at New College.  And I wonder, who is God nudging me towards, who I really, really, really don’t want to meet? Who is God nudging me towards, so that we can both see with fresh eyes?

I wish it weren’t so, but love is the path of most resistance, internally and externally. It takes courage, and energy, and intention, and attention, to stay on the path of love. On social media. At work. Around our dining room tables. It is easy to be lured towards hatred, and hard to stick to love. 

But our allegiance is not to the demagogues or warlords or spambots or algorithms that make their profit and their power off our hatred. Our allegiance is to Jesus Christ, who died that we might know love, and choose it every day. 

So let the scales fall from your eyes, and look around: who are you being called to love?


[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/facebook-algorithm-news-feed-conservatives-liberals-india/

[2] https://onbeing.org/programs/derek-black-and-matthew-stevenson-befriending-radical-disagreement/?fbclid=IwAR0HR-QpkBp9chlgOrszamcIYmDC2SxhLH8Eo1OFlFm4wp-KNclNGOtx55s

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