Sermon preached at FBC Worcester, MA
You’ll forgive her for staring.
What self-described 5-and-a-half year old wouldn’t stare at a man who’d been shot in the face? In 2006, Simon was shot by a sniper in Iraq while serving in the British army. And though he remarkably survived, the injury took his vision from him.
“I am called Temperance Pattinson,” the five-and-a-half year old says to him during the face to face interview. “But you can call me Tempy. And I don’t mind which one you call me, but I like my real name best. I did a 100 meter swim and a triathlon.”
Simon goes on to explain his injury, and then asks Temperance why she did the triathlon.
“Because even though I didn’t know any of the soldiers, I just thought that they’ve did something for us, I thought I could give a present back to them–by raising them money. I’m quite proud of the soldiers.”
“Well, I can tell you that the soldiers are quite proud of you. I’m 38 and I couldn’t do a triathlon,” Simon says.
Her empathy still in high gear, she responds to this with a fear of her own. “And I am also scared to go on my bike, so that was quite a challenge for me.”
Using training wheels to help her finish the triathlon, Temperance gave her money to help her heroes—wounded veterans like Simon.
Simon thanks her before the close of the video interview, “It’s because of the challenges that you do, and the money you raise, and the support you get, that people like me can get better.”
Temperance is the antonym of her name: unrestrained in her generosity, uninhibited in her kindness.
You’d forgive him for staring.
What person wouldn’t stare at their enemy lying helpless before them? In our readings today, we find ourselves identifying with Ananias. He is called by God to care for the very man who was on a witch hunt to kill the earliest Christians.
Instead of running or retaliating, Ananias is tasked with tending to Paul’s needs in his blindness.
Despite his fear, maybe the 5-and-a-half year old’s equivalent to riding your bike in a triathlon, Ananias obeys, and cares for Paul.
And not unlike Simon’s comment to Temperance, because of his support, Paul gets better.
It’s another interesting tale in the narrative of Acts so far for the fledgling church.
You’ll remember, Pentecost busts the gates wide open with 3,000 people converting on the spot. Then, these earliest followers decide to huddle close together in a generous community, where everyone gives to everyone who’s in need. From there they begin performing wonders and getting arrested, they’re harassed and suffer defections, they expand their ministries by appointing deacons, and they lose a sibling in their faith to persecution. This, at the very hands of the man now cared for by Ananias, himself a Christian.
Millennia later, we know this story of Paul’s conversion—we’ve discussed it a time or two already this summer—but we sometimes lose sight of the dilemma it posed for Ananias. In aiding and abetting the enemy, he is either a party to his rehabilitation or his return to chasing down Ananias’ friends and siblings in faith.
Of course, the readers, we as listeners, have the inside scoop. We’ve been discovering through the chapters before this how broad this new kingdom of God’s really is, how vast and undaunted. Even those who were not allowed to be a part because of Jewish laws, like the man from Ethiopia who was a eunuch, are welcomed in as they are.
We listen intently to see if indeed, even enemies can be brought in.
It’s an echo to one of the earliest stories in Genesis, that of Cain and Abel. Brothers who became enemies, Abel murdered by Cain in rage, jealousy, who knows. And questioned by God as to where Abel was, Cain’s famously replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Fast forward to the Gospel of Luke, whom many scholars believe the same person or persons also authored Acts as a sequel, we hear Jesus preach about loving God and loving our neighbor. He tells the story of the Good Samaritan, a despicable person in the ears of the listeners. And yet, Jesus reiterates with his story, this is what it looks like to love your neighbor.
And then fast forward back to this moment right now in Acts, as Ananias debates what to do, and we see the two stories converging. It’s as if Ananias goes about trying to answer the questions: Am I my neighbor’s keeper? And is this person really my neighbor?
The author of Acts wants us to help Ananias answer the question. Yes! In this new reality of God’s, everyone is your neighbor!
You’d forgive us for staring.
What person wouldn’t stare at 25 trillion gallons of water submerging an entire region of the country? Yet it’s not the devastation we’re drawn to any longer, it’s the resilience of the people there, the collective kindness that seems to rise with every inch of water.
No one an enemy any longer, only neighbors, people begin facing challenges and dilemmas together, or on behalf of one another. Putting themselves at risk, because before them they see in one another a human being in need.
Like the brothers who drove 200 miles from Dallas to Houston to help rescue dozens of people stranded in the waters.
Like the man who rescued a woman in her living room—on his Jet Ski.
Like the CNN reporter who used his boat to rescue an elderly man with a cane who stranded in waist deep water in his home.
Like the local Houston reporter who flagged down sheriffs with an airboat to rescue the driver in a sinking Semi-truck.
Like the boaters who saved a family floating on an air mattress in the waters.
Like the apartment complex who created a human chain in waist deep water in order to get a pregnant woman who’d gone into labor to a rescue vehicle.
Like the owner of a mattress store who opened his doors as a shelter when some churches wouldn’t even do so, admitting he was willing to suffer the loss of revenue to do the right thing.
Like the police herding cattle, and the family saving horses, and the Coast Guard pulling families and pets to safety in their helicopters.
We can’t help but stare at unbridled compassion when we see it. We can’t help being moved by intemperate kindness.
We have it in us to be good, to come together.
But how do we keep it up?
How do we make this our new normal; how do we make this our default? How do we move away from cynicism and divisions and competition, and rather embrace the shared humanity of us all? How do we, who aren’t living through tragic devastation, catch a hold of this contagion of compassion?
My friends, that is where the Church comes in.
When our collective humanity is engaged in collective love of neighbors, we can’t help seeing a glimpse of the inbreaking of God’s new reality.
We preach and believe and try to embody this sort of kindness; that which is written in our sacred text, and that which has been on display in Texas and Louisiana. We teach and claim and try to adhere to a way of life that loves everyone as we love ourselves. Yet when we see and hear the remarkable stories of goodness in the wake of tragedy, in humility we realize we have more work to do.
Because our kindness as people of God,
our compassion as followers of the Way of Jesus,
our love as Christians should be as remarkable and jarring to the world as these acts were.
Not for the acts of heroism or bravery that we embody,
but because of their vastness,
because of their indiscriminate generosity, because of their undaunted and unrelenting pursuit of the good on behalf of all.
Are we our neighbor’s keeper?
Jesus would say so.
The author of Acts would say so.
Paul and Barnabas and Ananias would say so.
Our neighbors in Main South
and across Park Ave
and up and down every one of the seventeen thousand hills of Worcester are hoping so.
Even if they don’t know it yet.
Maybe it’s the five-and-a-half year old’s equivalent of riding a bike in a triathlon, but I believe that we as First Baptist Church can become and continue being a beacon in the darkness of addiction, a vessel of love to those drowning in debt, a friend in the midst of loss and heartache.
We can’t save the world; that’s for God to do. But we can do our part to join in that work of God’s, not by saving people from their problems, but by coming alongside them like a human chain in waist deep water.
We have it in us to be good, to come together, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We just have to learn who our neighbors are.