Kimberly C. Richter

Sermon to the Covenant Network Southeast Conference

April 2, 2005

Isaiah 6:1-8; Acts 9:1-20

“Just what do you think God is up to?” he had asked me that day as we sat together in my office. I have asked myself that same question on many occasions since in the church. Just what is God up to?        

It was the question I pondered a year ago this April as Grace Covenant prepared for a protest. A hate group from Topeka, Kansas was coming to Asheville on the last Sunday in April. They were targeting six churches and we were on their list. This group hates with abandon! From the protest signs they carried outside our church that day, they hate America, mainline churches, and they especially hate gay and lesbian persons. One of the members of their protest team was a beautiful little girl about five years of age with blonde hair and a sweet face. She held a sign that read: “Thank God for September 11th.” I won’t repeat what their other signs said, but they all began with the words, “God hates…”

When I first heard that Grace Covenant was listed on their web site as a targeted church, I was stunned. I thought, “Grace Covenant is going to be picketed? Whatever for? We don’t do anything around here to warrant being protested!” Well, you can see what is wrong with that statement…

The local UCC congregation and the Quakers sent a few representatives to worship with us that day as a show of solidarity. The Unitarians, with whom we do various mission projects, called the week before to say that they were offended that they were not on the hate group’s picket list. I told them to count their blessings. Grace Covenant got organized. The pastors of the six targeted churches met together. The police chief and a team of officers also met with us because this group has incited violence elsewhere. The group was scheduled to arrive at Grace Covenant during our 11:00 a.m. worship service.

We organized teams of escorts who would help people feel safe coming and going from church that day. Our youth made banners proclaiming God’s unconditional love and grace. The banners flew from our windows and stood proudly on our grounds. Children drew pictures of Jesus and these were posted on the wall of windows in our narthex. In case a protester tried to disrupt our worship service, the choir prepared a few rousing anthems they could sing if needed to drown out shouts. And, instead of leaving worship that day to encounter hateful protests, we organized a pot-luck lunch following worship.

We had an Easter-size crowd that day. We were being asked to stand for something as a church. And Grace Covenant stood. Tall. But as we drew closer to that Sunday, it seemed important not to start standing too tall…not to point fingers at sinful “them” and give ourselves a holy “thumbs up.” Just what, I wondered, was God was up to as these protesters and Presbyterians encountered each other? What might God want us to see and to learn about ourselves in this circumstance?

The passages assigned for that Sunday helped in this regard. They are the texts we read today. There is Isaiah, seeing the surpassing glory and the smoking holiness of God. He is driven to say: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”  Isaiah did not point fingers at others only, but began with his own uncleanness. Yet he knew God’s power to make clean. Trusting in God’s holiness more than our own, that Sunday a year ago offered an opportunity to examine, in light of their dirty rhetoric, our own uncleanness. To confess the ways we in our own church excuse and participate in language and laws that say God hates, judges, condemns some people more than others. 

The Acts passage is known primarily as the conversion of Saul. Saul, faithful and devout, watched over the coats of those who stoned to death Stephen. Saul walked away from the murder of Stephen and became a passionate persecutor himself, as Acts 8:1-3 graphically attests: “That day a severe persecution began against the church…Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” His hatred has not abated by chapter 9, which opens (as does chapter 8) with Paul “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”

On his way to Damascus, Saul was intent on hunting down more people of “the Way,” as the early Christians were known. Suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him and Saul fell to the ground as a voice called out to him: “Saul, Saul…why do you persecute me?” Knowing that light and a voice from heaven were likely to be divine, Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” At that, Saul lost his eyesight and his appetite. Saul had been fighting those he believed to be the enemies of God. What Saul could not have imagined was that in persecuting the people he had identified as enemies of God, he himself had become an enemy of God’s far-reaching intentions.

But there is in this text a second conversion story, for God has an eye not only on Saul but also on a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him and in the classic exchange of call and response, Ananias answered as Isaiah did, “Here I am, Lord.” God then gives Ananias very clear directions…go to Straight Street, find Judas’ house and look for a man from Tarsus. It seems that God is interested in both Saul and Ananias becoming a new creation.

Ananias must have wondered, “Just what is God up to?” This assignment seemed anything but heavenly. After all, Ananias had heard the stories about the evil things Saul had done. Lay hands on Saul? Okay God, how about around his throat?! But God is persuasive. And Ananias went in. He laid his hands on the man from Tarsus and addressed him with these amazing words: “Brother Saul…”

This is what happened the morning the member of my church sat across from me in my office. He had lived most of his life in a small town in South Carolina where he owned the local grocery store and served as the superintendent of the Sunday School in the Presbyterian Church. Now retired in Asheville, he worked part-time in the gas station down the street. It was a short walk up to the church and if, on Sunday morning, any worship leader referred to God with a feminine pronoun, I could expect a visit from him on Monday morning. He didn’t like it and kindly, graciously, he would sigh and tell me what he thought.

One Sunday as worship ended, he walked out and said, “I need to come see you tomorrow.” Mentally I raced through the worship service and couldn’t recall a “God our Mother” having been spoken. I waited for the Monday knock on my door. True to form, he appeared and sat down opposite me.

“You know I sit there in the back at the 8:30 service,” he began. “For the last year I’ve been sitting in the same pew with two women. I don’t know if they are a couple, but I think maybe they are and you know how I feel about that,” he said. Uh oh, I thought. But he was not done.

“Well, we’ve chatted every week and I’ve gotten to know them real well. Really, they are probably my best friends in the church. Yesterday they told me they had decided to join the church. And here’s the thing I’m wrestling with. They’ve asked me to be their sponsor!” There was a pause. Then he looked right at me and said, “Now just what do you think God is up to?” As I was scrambling to think of something profound to offer, he burst into deeply theological laughter. I laughed, too. When we both caught our breath, I asked, “So what are you going to do?” He sat back and put both hands on his knees and said, “I guess I’m going to sponsor them.” And with that, he was out the door. And I suspected that I had witnessed a continuing conversion…not just in his life, but in mine, too, and in the life of our church.

Isaiah must have wondered there in the temple, just what God was up to. And Saul must have asked the same question and Ananias must have wondered the same. We do well to ask in our time in our own church, “Just what is God up to?” I suspect conversion. Our continuing conversion until we become not only in our polity but also in our practice, as generous and just as God’s grace. Just what is God up to? Our continuing conversion as we eat from the one loaf and drink from the same cup, first at this table and then because of this table at our Session tables as well. Just what is God up to? Conversion. Our continuing conversion until the scales fall from our eyes enabling us to see that we are made brothers and sisters fully, freely, in the Lord Jesus Christ. May we in the Presbyterian Church find ourselves in Damascus, too.