But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
This is a long passage and I want you to hear it first as a whole. The Bible is one story, about God’s love for us and the twists and turns that takes. It’s also a bunch of stories, each with its own integrity. So I want to talk about this whole story before we dive in. We read earlier about how Saul was an approving witness when Stephen was executed. We also read that he was a leader in the persecution that drove Christians out of Jerusalem. Here we continue the strange story of Saul.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
23After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; 25but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. 26When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.
27But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. 30When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. 31Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
Now that you’ve heard the whole story, I want to focus on one part of it, but without losing the whole story we’ve just read. As I’ve read and reread this passage the word that keeps tugging at me is “instrument.” Maybe the first time you read or hear this passage the word doesn’t make much of an impression. Can you remember where the word “instrument” comes up in the passage?
The Lord is talking to a disciple named Ananias. God tells him to go to Judas’s house and there he’ll find a man named Saul, who is praying. Saul will be expecting Ananias and Ananias is supposed to lay hands on Saul so he can get his sight back.
Ananias is taken aback. Saul is the biggest enemy of the church right now. He’s in Damascus to arrest disciples of Jesus and take them to the chief priests in Jerusalem. God tells 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; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
That word, “instrument” has been tugging at me all week, and even before. And then it broke open for me in a whole new way through God’s amazing gift of music. Maggie and I went to see Pink Martini on Friday as part of Jazz Fest. If you don’t know Pink Martini, you really should. They’re incredibly eclectic. During the concert on Friday they sang in English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and Croatian. Most of their songs are jazz with female lead vocals. Some are new renditions of old favorites and others are original. One piece was basically straight up classical music with a violin and guitar. The band on stage included a trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, piano, upright bass, guitar and two drum sets as well as tambourines and such. The concert as a whole blew me away and opened my heart and mind in some ways I’m not at the bottom of yet, to say the least.
The part of the show that’s related to our passage was a song called U Plavu Zoru, which means “At Blue Dawn” in Croatian. The song starts out with an unbelievable cello solo. Unbelievable, not because it is technically difficult, though I’m sure it is, but because it’s so emotionally intense. For that moment the cello is the whole world. It’s speaking right to your heart and all you can do is listen totally captivated.
As the piece moves on, the cello takes on a rhythm that reminds you of a train, because the song is about a train taking the singer far away from someone she loves. Then the cello steps out of the spotlight and becomes just a sound effect of a train running on its tracks. The other instruments take over and the cello disappears completely to make way for the rest of the band. That piece and the show as a whole made me think a lot about what it means to be an instrument.
What is an instrument? Usually we think of musical instruments, but we can also think about scientific instruments like test tubes and stirring rods. We can think about architectural instruments like a straight edge and compass for drawing buildings not yet built. An instrument is something that someone uses for a purpose; it is a tool.
So if Saul is God’s chosen instrument to proclaim the gospel, especially to gentiles and people in power, that means that God will use Saul for that purpose. And even though Saul is the author of a quarter of the New Testament, it is not about him. He is a servant in a bigger story. Sometimes, like the cello solo, he is the central voice. His teaching and preaching ministry was important, and even early on, he was the target of criticism and persecution. But even when he’s the center of a community or a book, the story isn’t his. He is an instrument, not the composer.
As I think about this passage and about instruments, I think also about the lesser-known characters in this story. As far as I know, this is the only time we hear about Ananias. But at a time when the world was turned upside down and everything was dark for Saul, Ananias is the one who brought healing and hope. Ananias was the one who first welcomed Saul to the community of disciples, who restored his sight and baptized him into the body of Christ.
Barnabas made a brief appearance earlier when he sold a field and gave the proceeds to the church. Here he appears as Saul’s way in to the community in Jerusalem. We don’t know how he and Paul met, but Barnabas believed him and helped convince other leaders he could be trusted. Paul and Barnabas end up traveling together to spread the good news. Ananias and Barnabas don’t have huge parts in the symphony of faith, but without their roles, without them as instruments of God’s grace, the song wouldn’t be the same.
The community of faith is like an orchestra. Each instrument is important, but it is the sound of the whole thing that matters most. For the whole orchestra to sound good, every musician has to practice on their own with dedication and they have to play their heart out on stage. At the same time, they also have to put the whole ahead of themselves. They need to merge their sound with that of their neighbors. Sometimes they have to hold themselves back so their neighbor’s sound will come through more clearly. Sometimes, they have to be totally silent for the sake of the overall effect, though even in silence, they are part of the composition.
Sometimes in your walk of faith you need to play a solo. Maybe there’s a friend who only you can walk with, someone who needs the gifts and perspective that you have. Other times you will have to hold back your own expression or desire to make space for someone else. For instance, those of us with strong ideas sometimes need to hold back so someone else can lead and grow through that experience. And like with an orchestra, we can only be our best if each of us is committed to practicing our faith all the time.
Today celebrate leadership and about being instruments for God’s message of love. We celebrate Pauline Braggins’ ordination anniversary. By spending much of her life here as a committed member of the church Pauline grew in her faith. She felt a call in her life and a need in the church for her gifts, so she was ordained as an elder when women elders were quite rare. Years later, continuing to sense God’s call to leadership, she went to seminary and was ordained, 28 years ago, as a minister of word and sacrament.
Pauline’s ministry focused on working with older adults, but also included preaching the word and working for justice. That work and witness continues today, because Pauline is God’s beloved instrument, and God is not done with her yet.
As we celebrate Pauline’s ordination, we also ordain two new elders to lead us in this chapter of Laurelton’s life. Dale Ericson has been a deacon before and has been feeling a call to get involved in ministry here in a new way. Karen Simpson has a strong faith and has been finding ways to serve and get involved since she came to Laurelton just over a year ago. She felt God’s call to serve as an elder through her work on the nominating committee.
We also install four elders to new terms today. Karen Kingsbury finished two terms on session recently, but felt like there was still work God was calling her to do on session. Donna has served faithfully over the last thee years and begins a new term today. Charlie and Jan finished one-year terms and are continuing on session with new one-year terms. While we aren’t taking any official action with our other elders today, we also celebrate and give thanks for the continuing leadership of Sharon Greaves, Scott Fralick and Ella Van Loon. And we give thanks for Bob Hicks, who completes his term today and moves on to new areas of ministry that we will see develop.
God has blessed Laurelton with faithful, open and wise leaders in the past and today. These men and women are instruments of God’s love, called to unlock your potential as ministers of the gospel. If we continue the orchestra analogy, these folks are section leaders who lead us as we play together. We each have gifts to use, roles to play and space to grow as instruments of God’s good news. So let us play boldly and with great love, as the beautiful symphony of grace unfolds.
Thanks be to God.