Now, as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Acts 9: 3-4
Recently, I asked us all what it is that we are afraid of. What is this fear response that we do frequently live in, and what does it do to us? We talked about our willingness to do great violence – physical, and emotional, and spiritual – from that place of fear that we all so frequently inhabit. Today, we see it laid out before us, illustrated so neatly: this week, we see Saul – he’ll become Paul, he’ll eventually write just about half of our New Testament, but he hasn’t gotten there yet. He’s still out there, not only preaching hellfire and brimstone, but actually rounding up the followers of this early Jesus movement – not Christians, yet, we haven’t gotten that far yet, they’re not quite that organized. They’re still Jews, in their synagogues, talking about Messiah and Resurrection. We see Saul rounding these people up, bringing them, bound, back to Jerusalem to stand trial before the authorities for this horrible thing that they’ve been doing: preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. What we see here, if we look closely, is Saul in a position of fearfulness, very much as we saw the Sadducees just recently.
From both Saul and the Sadducees, we see how deeply they felt that this Jesus movement was a threat to their own faith – a threat to Judaism. They feared Roman repercussions of what could easily appear to be a schism within the Jewish community, unrest within Judea that might bring the ire of the occupiers down upon them; might take away whatever autonomy they had left. They feared their own loss of power: the Jesus movement looked, on the surface, like Saul’s own group, like a group of Pharisees, of Rabbis, talking in synagogues. To an outsider, it might be easy to lump the two together. Saul was terrified, as were many of the Pharisees, that they would get caught up in a broad net of those who were trying to round up the disciples; that they would be tarred with the same brush, and found guilty by association.
And we find, in this moment, a growing fear, that we only saw a glimmer of before, in one Sadducee. We see it loud and clear where Saul is concerned: the beginnings of a real fear of God. A fear that this whole time, in all of these persecutions, maybe they’re the ones getting it wrong. Because the real persecution of the Jesus movement began not long before; the authorities had been harassing the disciples, but they hadn’t killed anyone. Until Stephen came along, and preached Jesus as the Son of God, and preached the resurrection, and got arrested for it (as happened), and gave an impassioned defense – which we didn’t read, because it’s a good two chapters long, and my sermons are long enough without reading two chapters of the Bible first. Stephen got up in front of the authorities, called to account for this radical preaching, and he said, “You know you always get it wrong, don’t you? Had that occurred to you yet? That any time a prophet comes along who speaks the word of God, you arrest him and torture him and persecute him and possibly kill him, only to find out that you, yourselves, screwed up in God’s eyes, and that the tortures and persecutions are going to be way worse for you. Think about this for a moment, you guys, do you really want this to happen again? Is history doomed to repeat itself? Because we can make that happen, if you want to…”
Now, if this were a novel – which it isn’t – this passionate defense would evoke all sorts of soul-searching on the part of the authorities. They would ask themselves if Stephen might possibly be right, if they were really working against God. Stephen would get off scot-free and everyone’s hearts would be turned, and there would be a happy ending. Just goes to show that this is not a novel. It’s a much more realistic book, a much more human book. Because in order to have that moment of soul-searching and questioning, then those in authority – those in the religious establishment, would have to be willing to do some real, in-depth self-reflection. They would have to be willing to acknowledge that they are wrong, and take responsibility for being wrong, which is not something that we do very well. They would have to be willing to relinquish their power for the sake of what is right.
Because this is the Bible, because this is a true story – truth in the sense that this is how we would all react in that moment and with that much fear, they took Stephen out and killed him. It was the easier thing for them to do.
On Good Friday of this year, ironically, there was an oil spill. It was in Mayflower, Arkansas. A pipeline burst, and five thousand barrels of oil came running down the street. Twenty two homes were evacuated. And ExxonMobil came running in, they were there within hours. The coverage of this has been fascinating. Because regardless of the news outlet, this is being treated as a PR disaster – not as an environmental disaster. And it is – don’t get me wrong, this is a PR disaster for ExxonMobil, and so they’re treating it that way, because to them, that’s the important factor here.
I spent a lot of time this week reading reports from across the media spectrum, and what I hear from all of them is that ExxonMobil is dishing out hundreds of thousands of dollars to the residents of Mayflower – a very small town. For all of those who have been displaced, they’re paying for hotels, and food, and gas for their cars. If someone asks for $140, they give $200. There aren’t that many residents, and there are only twenty-two families directly affected. So they’ve given out approximately – the last report I heard – about $200,000, which sounds like a lot of money. And I’m sure that it is in Mayflower. Or here, for that matter. The problem, of course, is that ExxonMobil is valued at $400 billion dollars. So for them to give out $200,000 is the equivalent of someone who makes $100,000 giving one nickel.
The oil spill flowed right past the elementary school, and the children, understandably, complained of headaches and nausea – several of them had to receive medical attention. ExxonMobil responded by funding an end-of-the-year party for the children, and promising to fund a new science program – because the state of Arkansas had so far neglected to fund a science program in that town. So I don’t doubt they needed it, but I wonder if it was really that big a priority, in that moment.
But you know, I can kind of see this all from ExxonMobil’s perspective. It is easier to treat symptoms, rather that root causes. And often, simply treating the symptoms keep people happy – if you give a painkiller, you stop caring quite as much about why you’re having pain and where it’s coming from. All you really care is that it has gone away. And that’s what they’re doing. They’re taking away the discomfort, they’re keeping the voices of discontent at a low level, and who can blame them? Because it’s working out fairly well for them, actually. At least, on a human level, ti’s working.
In one report, out of all of the articles I read, there was mention of a larger impact, beyond the human cost of this 5000-barrel oil spill. One article. It said that they had managed to contain the spill within the swamp; it’s not going to damage the pristine lake that so many people come to for the fishing – because we wouldn’t want to lose the income. And really, we haven’t lost a lot of animals, most of the damage has been confined to venomous snakes. The implication, of course, is that no one really cares about venomous snakes.
I don’t like snakes. I admit this. Part of the reason that I love New England is the distinct lack of venomous snakes. So we lost a few venomous snakes from a swamp in Arkansas – that’s just kind of awesome, right? It makes the swamp safer! Who really cares about a whole bunch of venomous snakes? And a couple of ducks. And a water-rat.
Want to know who cares? Their eco-system cares. I can guarantee you that. Doesn’t matter how much we like venomous snakes, or how much we like water rats, doesn’t matter how much we like all of the stuff that gets damaged – or even whether or not we notice how much stuff gets damaged. Would we honestly care if a whole bunch of Spanish Moss died? It lacks the cute-value of a kitten, for instance. But I’m pretty sure that everything that eats those snakes – and some things do eat venomous snakes and their eggs – I bet they care. And all of the things that get eaten by things that the snakes eat – the ones who suddenly have more predators because those predators aren’t being eaten by snakes? I bet those things care.
And there’s this funny thing, as you look at this eco-system that has been so badly damaged, and you look at the human response to it: the funny thing is that I’m pretty sure that God cares.
Because back in Eden, when God got really mad at the snake, and condemned it to slither about on its belly for the rest of time, it’s worth noting that God didn’t kill off snakes. It’s worth noting that there were snakes on Noah’s Ark – wonder how Noah felt about that? God saved the snakes. God cared about the snakes. I bet God cared about these, too.
I’m pretty sure God cares about the oil that is just below the surface of the swamp, just below the surface of the earth – the stuff that sinks in and doesn’t get cleaned up. The stuff that doesn’t get taken away from the pipeline that’s still buried below the town. I’m pretty sure God cares about the chemicals that are mixed into this oil to make this tarry, sticky substance flow at 18,000 barrels per day. That’s not a normal rate of flow for tar. I’m pretty sure God cares.
I’m pretty sure that God cares that this is all going to continue to damage the eco-system, that this is going to show up in longitudinal studies that biologists will do in twenty years, that will find their way into the pages of scientific journals that not a one of us is ever going to read.
I think God cares that this is going to affect the reproduction of all of the animals in that eco-system. It’s going to affect vegetation growth, and that it’s going to affect the vernal pools with all those little, delicate amphibians living in them. And it’s going to affect this swamp that no one seems to care about it because there was a lake, with yummy fish in it, right downstream. And I’m pretty sure that God is going to care that eventually, that lake will also be contaminated, because what’s in the swamp will end up in the lake.
And I’m pretty sure that God will continue to care, even after we’ve moved on to the next big news story, if we even heard about this one at all. Because I’m pretty sure that God still cares about the Gulf Coast, where tar balls still wash up on the beach every day, and the decimated vegetation in the dunes and barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico cannot grow. Where habitats have been destroyed, and they’re not going to come back without a lot of help – there has been a chain reaction, and these islands are going to be washed away because without vegetation, these islands cannot exist. And we’re not going to care until the next major hurricane comes churning up through the Gulf, and we wonder how cities get washed away in the process.
And I’m pretty sure that God still cares about Prince William Sound, up there in Alaska. That’s been back in the news recently, because the Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill was also caused by Exxon. They’ve finally seen fit to mention that if you dig down, just a few inches, on the beaches on the Alaskan coast, you still hit oil.
I’m pretty sure God still cares about the Kalamazoo River. Remember that? That was an oil spill about six months ago – a burst pipeline, a lot like Mayflower.
I’m pretty sure that God still cares about the Yellowstone River – they just had an oil spill, didn’t you hear about it? I certainly didn’t.
And I’m pretty sure that God cares about the thirty oil spills that happened in this country since Good Friday. Thirty oil spills in sixteen days. Most of them not at the rate of 5000 barrels, but how does that make them somehow “not wrong”? And we don’t hear about those, because it isn’t 5000 barrels, and because it doesn’t affect human property. These are in wilderness areas, most of them. A couple of barrels here, a couple of barrels there, and what’s a venomous snake or two?
The only ones affected, by thirty oil spills in sixteen days, are those without the voice to complain about it. But I’m pretty sure God still cares.
And I’m pretty sure God will continue to care, even as we delight in gas prices, and home heating oil prices, that remain under $4 per gallon. Don’t get me wrong – my house is heated with oil, too. And all of those little things, that are a lot more convenient, especially when we don’t feel the cost ourselves.
The analogy here, between the oil spill and Saul – which is maybe not as obvious as it might be – is a fun analogy, isn’t it? It’s a fairly easy analogy, once you have it laid out before you: ExxonMobil, $400 billion, huge corporation, international power. Saul: power of the Temple priests, legion of soldiers behind him, both of them in it to wreck the little guy. It’s a great analogy, right? It’s a great story – it’s an underdog story, and we love underdog stories, especially when we really feel like the underdog in it all – the ones who don’t have power. It’s a nice story because this analogy doesn’t demand a lot from us – sure, we’ll pray for the people in Arkansas, we’ll even pray for a few venomous snakes today.
But analogies are never that easy. And it’s a funny thing: all those stories about the great big powerful players bullying the underdog: power never exists in a vacuum. Where would Saul have been without the authority of the High Priest in Jerusalem behind him, backing him up? Where would he have been without the legion of soldiers with their swords and their ropes and their big cart, ready to haul the believers back to Jerusalem? Do you really think that Saul could have walked alone into Damascus and said to the disciples, “Oh, you believe in Jesus? Come with me, I’m going to bind you and take you to Jerusalem.” And that the disciples would have said, “Oh, okay.”
I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have worked very well for Saul.
But that’s the other think you really need, in order to have power, and Saul had it in spades: he had the consent of the people to be threatened by him. He had the consent not only of the disciples, who saw him coming and were terrified and hid, and granted him that power. But he had the consent as well of their neighbors. Of their friends in the synagogue where they all still worshiped together, Jews and Jesus-movement together. He had the consent of all those who weren’t directly involved and were willing to turn a blind eye to what he was doing. Who were not willing to hide their neighbors, to save them; who were more willing to act out of their own fear, of their own self-interest, than out of any love for others. Saul wouldn’t have had one ounce of power if others hadn’t relinquished some of their own power to him, somewhere along the way.
And I’m pretty sure that ought to make us a little less comfortable in this analogy.
It is a lot easier to go with the flow* than to do the self-examination that is often required when a situation like this arises. It is easier to just allow yourselves to be moved on the tide of public opinion than to question what is right, versus what is convenient. It is easier to go with the flow than to take responsibility for things that, right now, might seem like they are someone else’s problem, and to not see how they affect each and every one of us personally. To recognize our own responsibility when things like this happen, our own collusion in the problem. It is easier fro us not to recognize that not acting, that closing our eyes and putting our fingers in our ears and singing “La la la la I can’t see you”, is an action in its own right, with profound and real repercussions, and that to do that is to relinquish our own power to whomever will reach out and grab it. Do you want to leave that one up to chance?
To recognize that ExxonMobil – just one of many examples that I could have chosen, I don’t mean to single them out as the one-and-only bad guy this day – but to realize that they would not be a $400 billion company without some of our money in their coffers. To realize that they could not spin this whole thing as a PR disaster rather than an environmental disaster without our assent, and without our willingness to be silent. To recognize that there are ways for us to break that silence, to revoke our consent, to assert our power: to divest from fossil fuels, as the UCC is talking about doing at General Synod in June. We are called to recognize, every single day, that we are to speak for the voiceless. You’ve heard me say this before, you’ll hear it again: we are called to house the homeless and feed the hungry and visit the sick and imprisoned. It’s a great passage, if you haven’t read it: Matthew 25, one of my favorites. That call does not end, however, with humanity. It doesn’t end with the Body of Christ as we like to envision it, as looking like any one of us. We are called to care for the image of God, and that is bigger than us. We are called to care as God cares, for all of Creation, to love Creation as God has loved Creation in all its complexity and beauty; to see in it the reflection of the complex beauty that is, in fact, the image of God. We are called to take a hold of the power that we have so long relinquished, power that we have been given by God to be stewards of this creation. To do any less is to ignore God’s call, and our own discipleship.
So are we willing? Are we willing to stand, for once, on the side of what is right rather than what is known, or comfortable, or convenient? Are we willing to hear Creation itself crying out, “Why are you persecuting me?” Why do you serve your own self-interest instead of God? Are we willing to hear this call to discipleship anew, to hear it with new ears and to see it with new eyes, that go beyond an image of God that looks like us, to an image of God that looks like… God?
Are we willing to let the scales fall from our eyes, to be blinded by the power that we are being offered? Are we willing to stand up and say, “Here I am, Lord”, and to follow wherever that leads?
*I know. “Go with the flow” in a sermon about oil spills. Sorry.