August 6, 2000

"It Can't Happen to Me"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
8th Sunday after Pentecost

Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.

Scripture: Acts 9:1-20

Thousands of protesters marched up and down the streets of Philadelphia this week. They had opinions that they wanted delegates at the Republican National Convention to hear. Some say the protesters marched with the effectiveness of civil rights and war protesters of the 1960's. Others say they made most of their impact on angry commuters as they snarled downtown Philadelphia traffic. There are protesters currently in training to do the same when the Democratic Party meets in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks.

Delegates for the political parties meet believing or at least hoping that their work for elected government officials or their service as elected officials will make the United States a better place to live. We may disagree with items from either or both of these parties' platforms, but we can agree that the majority of party members want what they believe is right for this country. And, in truth, the same goes for the majority of the protesters, those holding signs and singing in the streets outside the convention doors. Everyone has an idea of how things should be done.

And, yet, in the midst of the well intentioned political debate this summer, suffering, poverty and violence are still evident in the United States and around the world. The news stories of just this past week show us that. There are political riots in Peru where people die, in Israel some mourn and other sing with joy that there is no lasting peace, in Africa famine and terrorist wars rage. And here in the United States, even in this county, murderers receive lifetime sentences, victims die in alcohol related car crashes, people are arrested for transporting and selling illegal drugs. And we know that in Ann Arbor, Monroe and Toledo people line up every night for a place to sleep. Even here at this church, this week, people lined up to receive food.

It's enough to make us ask, "Is there a clear sense of right and wrong? Where is our compassion for one another? What can we do to help, where there is so much wrong, so much pain?"

The overwhelming hurt of many in the United States makes one wonder if all the conventions and noble speeches, all the protests and marches, all the signs and songs can help. Christians overwhelmed by the pain of the world wonder if putting a Bible in every hand, telling the story of Jesus to every person would make a difference or humble prayers can make a difference. Can the violent and the unjust change their way of living overnight? Their victims say, "It can't happen to them." And if we asked those weighted by anger so deep, so nurtured, "Could you change?" They would answer, "It can't happen to me." If we ask those caught up in a cycle of poverty, those who are hopeless to just get a little hope, they would respond, "It can't happen to me." If we ask if we could possibly have a role in helping in this world, the answer would often be, "It can't happen to me."

All of us have some doubts that God can bring positive change in this world and in our lives. Can we totally break from personal habits and activities that harm ourselves or others? Can perpetrators of crime change their actions? Can political leaders learn to trust? Can the victims of violence find peace? We tend to say, "It can't happen to me. It can't happen to them."

And yet. . . it has happened. Criminals in jail cells, addicts in the depths of despair, the young, old, rich, poor, and the famous at the height of power have seen a "light", a force greater than themselves, and their lives were changed forever.

One of the greatest stories I know of personal change is that of Saul of Tarsus. Saul, which means "asked of God", was really good at his job. He was a Jew and Roman citizen born in Tarsus. He was a Pharisee and a member of the religious ruling class, a member of the Sanhedrin. He had found his call in life as a persecutor of the Christians. He is first mentioned in Acts as the man who watched over the coats of those who stoned Stephen, the first Christian martyr. (Acts 7:58) And, as we learned in today's reading, he traveled to other cities in search of Christians so that he could bind them and carry them back to Jerusalem where they would be put on trial.

He was making the 140 mile trip to Damascus on just such a mission when his life was changed forever. You've heard the story: a blinding light, a conversation with Jesus, his traveling companions leading the blind Saul into Damascus. Saul had seen Jesus just as surely as the eleven apostles saw Jesus at his Ascension to Heaven. Saul had been confronted by him. He waited there three days, much like the wait from Jesus' death to resurrection, without seeing, without eating or drinking.

He would never have believed something like this could happen to him.

At the same time, in the city of Damascus, another man was being surprised by the call of God, Ananias. The vision of God frightened him. He might have said, "This can't happen to me," but he did what he was commanded. He dared to believe in God's power to reach the unreachable as he laid hands on Saul in order that he might see and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Saul, who would come to be known by the humble Greek name, Paul or "little one", was the one who had been chosen to bring the message of Christ to the world outside Judea. Saul stayed and heard the stories of the disciples in Damascus and then he began to proclaim the truth of the risen Christ.

This story of a "twice born" man, born into life, born into the Christian faith, tells of the most unlikely of disciples, and it refutes the claim of those who do not believe they are worthy or not religious enough or do believe they are too busy: "It can't happen to me." But> through the power of Christ Saul was changed. He entered a whole new life with new companions and a new mission.

Ananias, a quiet, faithful man, living his days out in Damascus, hesitated to believe in this miraculous conversion or his part in it. "Lord, it can't happen to Saul; he's a persecutor of Christians. Lord, you can't mean me." And yet, those who live by faith in Christ will be asked to do amazing things in his name.

Now, you may be saying something similar about the call of Christ on your life, on the life of this church, on the lives of those you know, whom you sense will never change. "It can't happen to me. It can't happen to them." But the story of Saul underscores the ability of God to reach the unreachable, to change the unchangeable.

It can't happen to you? It can. Through Jesus Christ, God can make us new. If you're feeling lost and unconnected you're in the right spot this morning. Jesus is looking for you. It can't happen to you? It can. Jesus has an amazing, even frightening task for you. And he will see you through it. God can give us the words and actions necessary. It can't happen to us? god can reach us--even if we've decided that certain parts of us are unreachable, unchangeable.

I look again at the events of this week. I consider those who desire change and work through their vote or through their protest signs. I consider the pain, the suffering and I know there can be change. I can happen to us. It begins with trust in the power of Christ. If God can change Saul, the champion persecutors of Christians, he can change us.

Let's pray to see Jesus as Saul did, as great light, savior of the world, the story about which we cannot keep quiet. Let Christ's be the voice we desire to hear, the power on which we lean. Brothers and sister, you are called by Christ. It can happen to you.