Sermon for 02-05-12: “In Good Faith, Part 5: Fear”

Many of you remember the “helmet catch,” a remarkable one-handed grab by New York Giants’ David Tyree in the first Super Bowl between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots. Prior to that Super Bowl, Tyree was a relatively unsung special teams player. In fact, after that Super Bowl, he never made an NFL reception. But think of what he accomplished—he made the game-saving catch that led to his team’s improbably Super Bowl victory!

Ananias is a little David Tyree, an unsung Bible hero who’s never heard from again after playing this crucial role in the salvation and healing of Saul of Tarsus. Ananias was understandably afraid of meeting this famous persecutor of the early Christian movement. But he was also uniquely equipped to be successful.

We live in a world surrounded by people who, like Saul of Tarsus, need the healing, life-saving love of Jesus Christ. Each one of us is the Ananias that someone else has been waiting for! What’s stopping us from answering the call?

Sermon Text: Acts 9:10-20

The following is my original manuscript.

So today is an important day. Today is the day when hundreds of millions of people around the world tune in to watch some really, really expensive commercials—with a little bit of football in between. Informal survey: If you’re for the Patriots, clap your hands. If you’re for the Giants, clap your hands. If you’re for the commercials, clap your hands…

I always root for the NFC, so long as it’s not the Saints, so I’ll be rooting for the Giants. Plus, I want to believe that the road to the Super Bowl championship always goes through the Atlanta Falcons, so… the Giants need to win. Mostly I root for a good game. Mostly, I hope the game is as good as the last time the Giants and Patriots played in the Super Bowl. I hope there’s a moment in tonight’s game as exciting as the “helmet catch” in 2008.

Do you remember the “helmet catch”? The heavily favored Patriots were up 14-10 with 1:15 left in the game. They had the Giants third-and-5 on their own 44 yard line. So if you were Patriots fan, you were feeling pretty good about your chances. The Giants hike the ball. Two Patriot defenders actually get their hands on quarterback Eli Manning, but somehow he narrowly escapes being sacked. Then he throws the ball to receiver David Tyree 32 yards down the field. Tyree catches the ball with both hands, but a very talented Patriots defender named Rodney Harrison knocks Tyree’s left hand off the ball. Somehow Tyree is able to maintain possession by pushing the ball with his right hand against his helmet, and he falls to the ground with the ball pressed against his helmet. It was a game saving catch that kept the Giants’ drive alive. Some have been called it the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Four plays later, the Giants scored a touchdown and won the game.

Here’s the thing: The receiver, David Tyree, wasn’t really much of a receiver. He was hardly a superstar. He mostly played special teams, an unglamorous position, far from the spotlight. Going into that Super Bowl, he only had four catches all year, for 35 yards. After this Super Bowl, he never made another catch in his NFL career. He retired a couple of years later. But just think: he would have a great story to tell his children and grandchildren! This humble, mostly unknown player made the pivotal play in his team’s improbable Super Bowl victory.

David Tyree reminds me of Ananias in today’s scripture. We don’t know much about this mostly unsung Bible hero, and after today’s scripture we never hear from Ananias again. Ananias was far from the spotlight. But because he fearlessly answered God’s call, a man named Saul—who later became Paul—was able to play the leading role in taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

We know that Ananias was a Jewish Christian living in Damascus. He and his fellow Christians were suffering persecution, and they had heard all about this fire-breathing Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus, who had come to Damascus to arrest Jews who were following “the Way,” as the early Christian movement had become known. Jews living in Palestine back then didn’t enjoy “separation of church and state,” so the high priest in Jerusalem had the authority to imprison Jews who followed Jesus. And Saul, who had already participated in the death of that first Christian martyr, Stephen, was just the man to carry out his orders.

So Saul is on his way to Damascus to continue his crusade when a blinding light throws him to the ground. He hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord.” And the voice tells him, “It’s me, Jesus.” And Saul is made blind. His friends take him to a house on Straight Street in Damascus, and that’s where today’s scripture begins.

Verse 10 tells us that in Damascus “there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision…”

Have you ever had a vision from God? I have had a vision. It didn’t feel like anything all that dramatic at the time; it was like a daydream, a very strong intuition, but I think it counts. I was sitting in church. My pastor was preaching a sermon on Jacob wrestling an angel in Genesis 32, and as he preached I imagined myself, for the first time, standing in the pulpit preaching. I imagined myself saying words similar to my pastor’s words and feeling very confident that I could do this. It was powerful enough to cause me to mention it to my wife, Lisa, on the trip home from church. I said, “Maybe this means I should become a Methodist minister.” And she said, “Oh, I definitely think you should do that!” Words she’s since lived to regret! Just kidding.

Do you think Ananias’s vision was like Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus? Was there a blinding light? Was Ananias knocked to the ground. Probably not. There’s no mention of that. Dramatic experiences like Paul’s are an exception, not the rule. It’s likely that Jesus spoke to Ananias the same way he so often speaks to us: through prayer… When we’re having a “quiet time.” When we’re reading scripture. In my case, as I said, I was in church listening to God’s word being preached; I was worshiping. But my point is that prayer, Bible study, worship, preaching… these are “means of grace,” opportunities to have an encounter with the Lord just like Ananias. I’m not saying you won’t have an encounter from God apart from these things, but you’re more likely to hear God’s voice if you practice these spiritual disciplines. We are called Methodists to begin with because these practices and others are the “methods” for living a Christian life! There’s something supernatural about these things: Reading the Bible, for example, isn’t like reading any other book. God the Holy Spirit connects with us through the words of scripture.

My point is, make yourself available to have a vision from God.

You know the Baldwin brothers? One of them is actor Stephen Baldwin. He said that about 16 years ago, he and his wife were living in Tucson, Arizona. They had a cleaning lady named Agusta. Baldwin’s wife, Kennya, noticed that as Agusta cleaned the house, she sang constantly, and everything she sang was about Jesus. This kind of bothered her. Finally, she asked Agusta, “Why do you always sing about Jesus? Don’t you know any other tunes in your repertoire?” Agusta burst out in laughter. And she spoke some words that would change the lives of Stephen and Kennya for eternity. She said, “Understand that the reason why I’m laughing is because you think the only reason I’m here is to clean house.” She explained why that wasn’t the only reason.

Later, Kennya went to her husband and said that she wanted to share something that Augusta just told her. Kennya said, “Agusta said that the real reason she’s here is to tell us that at some point in the future you and I are going to become born-again Christians, and at some point after that you and I are going to have our own Christian ministry.” Baldwin said that at that point in his life he was making more money than he could ever possibly imagine making. He had starred in some hit movies including The Usual Suspects. He was emerging as a big star. Jesus was the furthest thing from his mind. The idea of becoming a Christian was preposterous to him. But that experience, he said, was the beginning of his journey of Christian faith.

And for Baldwin it all started with a present-day Ananias named Agusta—a cleaning lady, a humble person of no account in the world’s eyes. If God had a football team, Agusta would play on special teams—third or fourth on the depth chart. But like David Tyree she was called into the game to make a big play. God gave her a vision. She believed it. And she was sent to do important work for God’s kingdom.

Is it possible that God wants us to be like her?

Can I tell you about a “God moment” that I experienced not long ago? My friend Chuck is literally my oldest friend. We shared a crib together as babies in the nursery at the Briarcliff Baptist Church in northeast Atlanta. We grew up together in church, in youth group. We were close in college. We’ve been through a lot together. But, as it happens sometimes even with close friends, we drifted apart.

A few months ago, however, Chuck got hold of me on Facebook and invited me and my friend Mike to see him and his band play at this club in Atlanta. So I went, along with Mike. But the truth is that I went reluctantly. I hate to say it, but Chuck was in a blues band, and I’m not a fan of the blues. Besides, I hadn’t seen Chuck in years… and I don’t know… I worried that I didn’t have anything in common with him anymore. Too much water under the bridge. And I probably blamed him for not being a better friend. But I went to see him anyway… mostly out of guilt, mostly to just be polite.

Anyway, when the band finished their first set, I was anxious to get out of there. I had done my duty, after all. I fulfilled my obligation. So I greeted Chuck and told him how much I enjoyed his performance, and made some small talk. Keep in mind it was very loud in the room… hard to hear because they were blaring music over the sound system. Finally I looked at my friend Mike and said to Chuck, “Well, I guess we’d better be leaving soon”—I had to shout to be heard over the loud music. But Chuck didn’t quite hear me say, “I guess we’d better be leaving soon.” Instead, he heard me say something else…

And he threw his arms around me, and his eyes welled up with tears, and he was visibly moved. And he said, “I love you, too.” Because he thought that’s what I said to him. Little did he know that those words don’t come out of my mouth very easily! I’m not that open with my emotions. Listen, I wish I had the courage to say, “I love you” to him. And I thank God that he didn’t hear what I actually said… because he was so deeply moved by what he thought I said. And in that moment when he threw his arms around me, all the time and the distance and life experience and the hard feelings that separated us collapsed. Here was Chuck… my good friend. But even more… My brother. My heart melted.

And I thought, shame on me… Shame on me for trying to play it cool all the time. Shame on me for being too cool to risk being vulnerable. Shame on me for keeping my brothers and sisters at arm’s length. Love doesn’t know from cool. Love means putting yourself out there. Love means taking risks; making yourself vulnerable; getting hurt sometimes; not playing it safe all time; not being cool all the time. I felt like some scales fell off of my eyes that day!

Ananias took a risk to love Paul. And I imagine that when he spoke those beautiful words, “Brother Saul,” Saul responded about the same way that Chuck responded when he thought I told him that I loved him. There are people we know, people in our lives, people in our circle of friends, family, and acquaintances, who are waiting for you to be their Ananias, who are waiting for a healing that the Lord has equipped you, uniquely, to give them, who are waiting to have their vision restored, who are waiting for their cold hearts to melt beside the flame of Jesus’ love.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, you possess the flame of that love already. Go out and share it with people who need it. Amen.

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