“Better Call Saul!”

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
9:2 and 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.
9:3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
9:4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
9:5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
9:6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 7.13.43 PM.png
9:7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.
9:8 Saul 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.
9:9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
9:10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
9:11 The 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,
9:12 and 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.”
9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;
9:14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
9:15 But 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;
9:16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
9:17 So 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.”
9:18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized,
9:19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
9:20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

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David and I are not big TV-watchers most of the time, but a few years back when our son, Patrick, was still in high school, we got hooked on a show he and his friends and teachers were all watching because we wanted to know what they were talking about. So I think in Season 3, we started watching Season 1 of “Breaking Bad.” Any fellow fans? Getting such a late start meant we had to binge watch to catch up, which we did with great enjoyment, and then we finished out Seasons 4-5 of the series in “real time.” Without going into detail, it is a story in which the protagonist becomes the antagonist – a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer turns to making meth to secure his family’s finances. He’s phenomenally successful at it – but it comes with a huge price that leaves nobody in its wake unscathed. One of the recurring characters in the show was a crooked lawyer who generally “knew someone who knew someone” and could get “things” done, taken care of. His name? better-call-saul_review_under_the_Radar.jpgSaul Goodman, and after Breaking Bad ended, rumors surfaced that there would be a spin-off called “Better Call Saul” – one of his trademark lines. That show began last year, filling in the backstory of how little Jimmy McGill became first Slippin’ Jimmy and then Jimmy, or James McGill, and finally evolves (or devolves) into Saul Goodman – as in “It’S all good, man” and the season finale cliff-hanger of Season 2 is tomorrow night.

“Breaking Bad” wasn’t a “Christian” TV show or story, but it is a story of colossal transformation. “Better Call Saul” the TV show is not a “Christian” story, but it is a tale of transformation of a different sort. Today’s scripture passage about another Saul story is another kind of transformation – a conversion experience that has everything to do with being Christian.   But these stories have more in common than you might think at first glance.

In today’s setting for Saul of Tarsus, heading toward Damasacus, he has just left the stoning of Stephen, which he essentially authorized, and is fully engaged in his role as Public Enemy No.1 as far as Christians and Christianity are concerned.

Saul was already a high profile person. Born in Tarsus, in modern day Eastern Turkey, he was a tent maker by trade, was an avid student under the top Jewish teacher in Jerusalem and was also a Roman citizen. Here is a man who worked with his hands but wrote with the grace of a Greek philosopher; a passionate Jewish zealot who nevertheless enjoyed the rights of citizenship in the world’s greatest empire.

When God wants to get your attention, though…He can certainly do so in whatever fashion he deems fitting, and nobody is off limits.

A literally blinding light from heaven, a voice, that only Saul could understand claiming to be Jesus, and some life-changing, game-changing instructions to HIM to go to Damascus and await further instruction, and then instructions via vision to the disciple Ananias, already in Damasacus, that Saul has already had a vision of Ananias coming to Saul right there in the house he’s about to be in, and restore his sight so that Saul can be filled by the Holy Spirit. When Ananias responds with “Um, are you sure he’s the one you want?” God tells 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.”

How very like God to call Saul, THIS Saul, to be such a kingpin in the spread of Christianity.

God is forever calling the least likely to carry out God’s plans.

Maybe there’s some correlation between the magnitude of how good or bad you are and the degree of the conversion experience you have — sort of like the bigger they are the harder they fall….I don’t know, but Saul’s experience was probably about a 8.9 on the Richter scale.

Saul wasn’t LOOKING to make a change. He was just fine, thriving, actually — passionately, fervently wiping out Christians – he was going places. He didn’t have a change of heart because he was looking for something else. God intervened and said, HEY- STOP THAT. Do this instead.

Have YOU had a conversion experience like that?   Maybe you have – I’m not here to discount anyone’s experience of God. I would expect that if we took a poll of the congregation this morning, most of us would relay experiences with God that were less dramatic, and that we sort of drift into or along with faith, by comparison. Doesn’t mean what we experience matters less or is less meaningful. But I’d bet that most of us WERE looking to make a change, somehow, someway. I’ve felt at times that I’m like a teabag – I’ve always been steeped in church stuff. Doesn’t mean I haven’t dropped the ball and had to come BACK to it from time to time, but I wasn’t ever very far away. Not like Paul.

But it’s not about comparisons, is it ? Blessed are those who have NOT seen and yet still believe. Regardless of how personal or private that experience was for you, what matters is what you do with it afterwards, how you live your life for God. That’s not private at all. How you live is how you let your Christ-light shine.

There are tons of things to quibble over in this passage; details in the different records of the story vary – did anyone else hear a voice? Did they hear but not understand? Were they really on the road to Damascus? How this word and that word were translated from the Greek one way in this version and differently in another version….

But all of those things are beside the point of what I think is significant about this story, which is that God makes a habit of calling the least likely, the least fit, the most sinful, the most despicable to carry out his work. Over and over again.

7a16576b272460878d117c8960549db4.jpgWe worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God chose Abraham to be the father of Israel and of Isaac when he was way too old to become a father; Jacob was a shrewd liar, trickster, and thief. Moses stuttered. Noah drank too much. David was little kid who slew a giant warrior, then grew up to be an adulterer king and a murderer. Rahab was a prostitute—Saul hunted down and imprisoned Christians all over the place, executing them when he could.

Why God calls each of us to different things in different ways, I don’t know, but thank God he does. Has to do with grace, I guess. With God, it’s never too late. There’s nothing you can have done that God can’t somehow reconcile and make new. And there’s nothing God ever calls you to that you and God can’t do together.

The least of us. The most broken of us. The least deserving of us. The most flawed and screwed up of us. We are the people Christ died for. So when God calls us to live for him, may our answer be a resounding YES, Lord.

That’s the element that’s missing from the popular TV shows I was talking about. They’re great stories that accurately portray how regular people with regular, ordinary lives can make choices with the intention of helping others that instead cause the very fibers of their lives to unravel. Why do they get so off-track? Why do things fall apart for them SO colossally? ………

In these TV shows at least, they are doing it all on their own. The characters are all on their own. They have no hope. No Hope with a capital H. There’s nobody saying, hey, there’s a better way, a different way – or Way with a capital W. The TV characters that reflect our day to day realities so well are godless people. So of course they get lost along the way.

We all do; we are fallible, imperfect human beings, prone to wander, prone to make mistakes. Our lives can implode and fall apart, too. But the difference is, with God, if you DO hit bottom, it is solid. And even if it doesn’t feel like it all the time, God is good, all the time, and God has each one of us right here in the palm of his hand.

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It’s our job, as Christians, to offer hope, to help show people they don’t have to go it alone. That’s being fishermen. That’s feeding the sheep. That’s what we’re called to do.

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“Breakfast With Jesus”

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.

Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.resurrection-breakfast-sm2.jpg

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”

He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.
But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.

Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Very truly, I tell you, when you DP800295.jpgwere younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)

After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

The Sea of Tiberius in today’s scripture is also known as Lake Geneserat, aka the Sea of Galilee. It’s a freshwater lake about 33 miles in circumference — 33 miles longs, a bit over 8 miles wide, right at 64 square miles, which is about the size of Washington D.C. I have never been there, nor anywhere in the Middle East, although it seems to me to be among the prettiest spots there, based on pictures I’ve seen.  In Jesus’ day, there were 10 cities scattered around the shores of the lake – if you were to go out into the middle of it in a boat, a tour guide could point out the locations while a sound system blasted “Put Your Hand in the Hand” in the background.  Much of the Holy Land, like most anyplace that is riddled with tourism, has approximations of where actual events occurred; after all, a lot changes in 2,000 years. But the lake is the lake. There’s an honesty about that that speaks to me. Somewhere along it’s shores, Jesus fixed breakfast on the beach.

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There IS a church there marking this scripture: the Church of the Primacy of Peter was built in 1933 over ruins of 2 chapels, one from the 5th century and one from the 4th. It’s an oddly shaped but beautifully charming, small, weathered gray stone chapel with a tile roof, right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

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Inside is a reeeeally big rock that is supposedly the rock on which Jesus and the disciples had their post-Easter breakfast — the original breakfast bar. It wasn’t moved there; it belongs there. And whether it was THAT selfsame rock or another one similar to it, its authenticity and truth to the story is anchored.

 

Several things jumped out at me in this scripture that seemed relevant for our time together here this morning.

First, an observation: this amazing, incredible thing of Jesus’ resurrection has happened. And he has appeared to them since then, several times – even Thomas has seen and believes. Sooooo, what are they DOING with that? How are they using this incredible event to spread the Good News? What are they doing?

Fishing. They’ve gone fishing. It’s what they do ! Peter started it – ever the disciple who speaks when silence would be better, jumps to the defense when the time has past, denies Christ when the going gets really tough, and doesn’t know what to do with the empty tomb. Well, he IS a fisherman from way back. It’s what he DOES and has always done! It’s what he knows! So, hey guys, I’m going fishing – wanna come? They don’t know what else to do, so they’ve gone fishing. An attempt at normalcy. Who of us hasn’t done that same thing after a life changing event? Particularly the death of a loved one, a dear friend. At some point, you revert back to old ways. Whether or not they fit anymore may depend on a lot of things, but I don’t think it’s fair to give Peter too hard a time about reverting to what he knows is familiar ground, or familiar waters.

So, they’re out there on the water all night without catching a thing. Probably they dozed some, for sure they would have talked, don’t you think? Maybe drunk some wine, maybe eaten something. Just speculation. But it’s been a long, unfishfilled night.

Then a voice breaks in, a man on the shore, yelling to them try throwing the net on the other side of the boat, which of course, once they do, becomes full of fish. The Disciple whom Jesus loved (John) recognizes that it’s Jesus, (AND HERE’S THE SECOND THING) which causes Peter — who was NAKED – to put on his clothes and then jump in.   – OK wait. So, why is he fishing naked ? Well maybe he’s stripped of his out cloak because of its bulk – I’ve heard that fishing naked wasn’t unusual in biblical times, so maybe so. But regardless, why throw on all your clothes and THEN jump in? He’s excited it’s Jesus, and he’s always bolting off in the wrong direction….. or maybe he’s excited it’s Jesus but doesn’t want to appear naked in front of him, or vulnerable, — is he ashamed, like Adam who was found naked by the Lord in the garden? Or is that reading too much into the text?

THIRD:   Jesus already has a fire going and fish on it. He’s already there and ready. Just like always. The scripture even says it was a charcoal fire (you’d think it would be a driftwood  fire, wouldn’t you, there on the shore of a lake?) I think the only other place a charcoal fire is mentioned is the night Peter denied Jesus three times — they were huddled against the cold around a charcoal fire.  That can’t be a coincidence.

FOURTH: And about the 153 fish they caught with them… seriously? 153? Why 153? Again, possibly as an indicator of God’s abundance, or possibly it is symbolic of God’s abundance in a different way – some folks far more learned than I say  there were 153 known types of fish in the day. So, the catch represented EVERYONE.   God’s grace and abundance; everyone for breakfast, breakfast for everyone. There’s a space for everyone and enough for everyone.

All of this leads into what is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible to me, this 3.jpgquestioning of Peter. Three times – Peter, do you love me? And of course Peter’s recent denial has to be weighing heavily on him. How painful to be queried at all, let alone three times. You can feel him squirm.

Gotta hurt. But he’s actually reinstating him, whether Peter realizes it or not.

Because it’s all about belonging.

Feeding the sheep.

Maybe the disciples thought it was all over, in spite of having seen Jesus after his death. Maybe they WERE trying to return to business as usual, because there wasn’t anyone there to tell them what else to do. But then suddenly Jesus IS there, and once again, he calls them, not to abandon their nets and follow him, but to cast the nets where he shows them, and THEN follow him.

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We are told God goes before us and behind us and beside and around us and through us – Jesus shows this. He’s already on the beach with a fire made and breakfast waiting. He provides more fish, a more-ness that is indicative of God’s grace that is enough for everyone and sufficient to every need.   And Peter, who did in fact deny him 3 times, is asked 3 times to affirm him, AND tasked with the job of shepherding, rather than fishing.

There IS a new plan. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

Maybe Jesus is referring to Peter’s trademark impetuousness with the remark about “when you were younger you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wanted to go…” Like all of us – we’re eager to follow Jesus as long as it’s easy and we’re young and strong and can kind of follow him on our own terms…but following Jesus is not for the faint of heart and can get you crucified. It is a different calling to follow for the long haul.

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I had the opportunity to talk with several of you this week – really talk, the kind of conversations that go a little deeper than just the casual getting-to-know-you chit chat, and I’ve been thinking how much this scripture applies to all of you in this congregation. You’ve been following Jesus’ lead for a long time. You’ve been feeding and tending the sheep and lambs, and you still are.   Don’t ever feel useless, or like there’s nothing left for you. You do an excellent job of caring for each other – as Ram Dass says, we are ALL just walking each other home, after all.  We’re reaching out, trying to connect with others who aren’t here yet, and that’s fine,

Like here. We’re feeding the sheep. We are the sheep. Walking each other home….

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