31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
June 13, 2021
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
New Ways of Being Church series
Three years in seminary, 90 credit hours. 400 hours of a Clinical Pastoral Education internship, another year in a local church internship, and a 30 page paper detailing my calling to ordained ministry and Christian beliefs presented before a council of church leaders for approval, all so I can be your pastor, officiate weddings and funerals and perform the sacraments of baptism and communion. All of that work and effort – only to be outdone by a five year old.
Last Sunday, I had the great honor to baptize the great-granddaughter of a much loved member of our church community. Due to not knowing what the safety guidelines would be when we began planning this baptism, the family and I chose to do it after worship.
So here I am gathered with this wonderful family, many of whom have been baptized and married in our Sanctuary. Like I always do, I am standing on one side of the baptismal font and the parents, godparents, and baby are on the other – with the baby’s two cousins, little girls about three and five skipping back and forth from being with their parents, the godparents, and sitting with relatives in the pews.
All very wonderful and ordinary – until I get to the moment in the sacrament of baptism where I move to the baptismal font to bless the water. And the five year old joins me and puts her hands over the water just like I am. Which invites little sister to come forward to see what we are up to, and the three of us, put our hands over the baptismal font and bless the water. And it didn’t end there. Every time I put water on the baby’s head and blessed her, her five year old cousin put her hand in the water and did the same.
Upstaged by a five year old who needed no practice or theological education to understand the power of blessing with water and the Holy Spirit.
Hands down, this baptism is in my top ten most memorable, a sacred moment where the Holy Spirit showed me that God has the ability to empower anyone and everyone, anytime and everywhere, to use their gifts to bless and lead.
The story of Saul’s conversion to the Apostle Paul is a prime example of how God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit like to ignore our rules, regulations, and expectations about who gets to assume the mantle of authority and leadership.
In the time leading up to this Bible story, the community of those called disciples of the Lord, believers, and sometimes followers of the Way, this new community had begun to be less an organic group of followers and more an organized community with formal leaders assuming responsibilities for different ministries.
It started with Peter proposing that the original eleven choose a man to replace Judas. Peter suggested that their “nominating requirement” should be a man who had also been with Jesus since the beginning. Two men had the right qualifications, and the eleven prayed and then casting lots, essentially flipping a coin, they chose Matthias to join the apostles, the leaders of this new community.
In the Church and in other organizations in our life, we often choose leadership the same way. Who has experience? Who looks the part? Who knows the ropes?
This new community of believers uses a similar nominating process when it comes to choosing “deacons”– those to wait on the tables and make sure everyone in the community is fed. The twelve call the community together and say, “friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, who we may appoint to this task”. (Acts 6:3) And they do.
And now we arrive at Saul. Saul is not a member of this community of believers; Saul does not meet any of the requirements set forth by this community for leadership; Saul has never even met Jesus. All he wants is to persecute Jesus’ followers, to breathe threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, as scripture says.
Which is Saul’s intention as he travels to Damascus, when in a powerful and holy moment, a light flashes all around Saul and he falls to the ground and hears a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) Even though Saul has never met Jesus, Saul is well enough educated in scripture and the Jewish faith to know that this is an experience with the Holy. “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:5-6) And Saul faithfully listens.
After three days of prayer, three days of focusing completely on God, taking no time to eat or drink, Saul in his physical blindness “sees” what he is to do. He is called to be baptized, to join Christ’s community, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with all the world, all the world.
Scripture tells us that when Ananias lays healing hands upon Saul, “immediately something like scales fell from [Saul’s] eyes, and his sight was restored.” (Acts 9:18). It is a curious word – scales. The Greek word “lepis” comes from “lepo” – to peel. Did you already guess that this is where we get our word leprosy from?
In order to embrace baptism and this new way of following Jesus, Saul had to shed all that gave him status and importance in the Jewish community. He also had to shed his fear and anger. Strange as it sounds, fear and anger can make us feel like we have power – power over our situation, power over ourselves, power over others, and it is hard to let go of power in all its forms.
After three days of prayer, three days focusing completely on God, Saul realized that what made him worthy wasn’t being the perfect rule follower; it wasn’t intimidating others to stay in line; it wasn’t having the right credentials and pedigree; it wasn’t anything that he had grown up believing was important. Saul, in his encounter with Jesus, discovered what made him important was God’s love. God’s blessing made him worthy, worthy of baptism, worthy of serving, worthy of leadership and authority within the community of believers.
Often, God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit need to open our eyes to see our own worthiness and calling, to see that we are just the right person to lead. And sometimes, God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit need to open our eyes to see other’s worthiness and calling. That was definitely the case with Ananias.
The Lord said to Ananias, go and find the man named Saul and heal and bless him. We could all wish to get such clear directions from God, and yet, Ananias says, ‘Are you sure, Lord? For obvious reasons, this isn’t the right sort of person for our community.’
And the Lord replies to Ananias, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). ‘Go, Ananias, because I have chosen Saul.’ And Ananias, in his faithfulness, goes and blesses and claims Saul for God’s ministry of sharing the good news of Christ’s love.
Sometimes, God needs to open our eyes and then give us a push to see who is being called for leadership in this community we call Christ’s Church. Sometimes, we cannot see past all of those boundaries we create. Sometimes, because of how someone looks, their gender or gender identity, even their age or cognitive abilities, sometimes, we are blinded to how different people are being called to be God’s instruments and lead the Church.
On the road to Damascus, God showed the new community that was to become Christ’s Church that God is not bound by old paths when it comes to calling leaders.
Last week, God reminded me that no matter our age, no matter our experience or years connected to the Church, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, the Holy Spirit can and does empower anyone and everyone, anytime and everywhere, to be an instrument of Christ’s peace, using our gifts to bless and lead the Church in our mission to share the good news of Christ’s love with all the world.
God is calling each of us and the Church to be made new. Lord, open our eyes that we may see…….