Acts 9: 9-21; Psalm 133
Daryl Davis is an African American man who play piano professionally and has been around long enough to have met Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Fats Domino. Back when he was in his early 20’s and just starting out, he found that he needed to start playing country music to get a gig in the towns near his home, so he joined a country band. One night a white man came up and told him he’d never heard a black man play that way. He said he sounded like Jerry Lee Lewis. Daryl smiled and asked the man how he thought Lewis learned to play, since Jerry Lee Lewis learned from blues players. The man looked surprised and invited Daryl to have a drink with him. The white man sat down in a booth with his friend and invited Daryl to sit across from them. His friend kept looking at Daryl and then back at his friend, smiling a funny smile. The man said it was the first time he’d had a drink with a black man, and Daryl asked him why. His friend kept jabbing him in the ribs saying, “Tell him. Tell him.” That’s when the first man looked at Daryl and told him that he was in the KKK. They talked for quite awhile that night, and the man gave Daryl his card and told him to call him anytime he was playing at that bar so he could bring his friends to see him. That got Daryl thinking about how it was that he might play a part in changing the minds of people who are in the KKK and other white supremacy groups.
Over the past forty years, Daryl has made it a point to befriend people who are in hate groups so that they can see that he is human. He says that he began because he wanted to know why people can hate him without even knowing him.
I found out about Daryl through a documentary I saw called Accidental Courtesy. And as I watched Daryl talk to these klansman, I was amazed. Daryl stayed very clear about what he believed. He challenged where they got their ideas and the flaws in their logic. But he did so with such care. I was astonished. He didn’t expect them to be stupid; he didn’t call them fools; he didn’t patronize them even when they were extremely patronizing to him. What he did, was remain curious about the people he talked to and held them accountable for their own beliefs, staying in relationship with them. He stated quite simply that he did not have any respect for what they were saying, but he did respect their right to say it. And by listening to them, over time, there was space created for them to begin listening to him. He has now collected more than 25 klan robes of people who he befriended who left the klan and gave him their robes.
We are living in a time when I am discouraged by the things that are still happening in our country. I am discouraged that we are still arguing about whether all people are equal— even though it is stated clearly in the Bible that all of us are created in God’s image and all means all; and even though as Americans it is stated in our Constitution that all are created equal, even though at the time it was written our founding fathers weren’t living into it. It is mind boggling that the very idea that all of us are created equal is still considered an ideal— a lofty goal— when as Christians we know that all of us reflect God’s image, or as the Quakers would say, all of us have the light of Christ within us, and that is the starting place of how we see one another.
Which brings me to our story this morning.
In the book of Acts this morning, we are told about an encounter of two people— Saul and Ananias. Saul was a priest in the temple in Jerusalem; but he wasn’t just any priest. He was one of the top guys. And Saul knew that it was his role to uphold the Temple Law. So when he found that there were people still intent on following Jesus even after Jesus was killed; when he heard the rumors that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead; when he received pressure from the Roman leaders around him to squash this new movement of Jesus followers; he took all of this very seriously. I think it is safe to say that Saul hated those early followers of Christ. He hated them so much that he persecuted them in the name of God. He hunted them down. And just a chapter before the one we read this morning, Saul initiated and watched over the stoning of a young Christian named Stephen and then got permission from the high priest to go from synagogue to synagogue rounding up people who were known to be followers of Jesus.
Saul was not to be messed with. He was dangerous and he had authority not only from his own people, but from Rome as well.
Ananias, on the other hand, was a follower of Jesus. We know very little about him really. We don’t know how he decided to follow Jesus, if he was with Jesus during his life or if he began to join the movement after Jesus’ death and resurrection. We don’t know of anything that he wrote or any church that he started. We don’t even know what happened to him after our story this morning. But what we do know about Ananias is quite astonishing and humbling. Ananias did what so few people are willing to do— he went to his enemy and he offered Saul God’s blessing.
You see Ananias had a vision. And in this vision God told him that Saul was praying and that Saul had seen a vision where a man named Ananias came and laid hands on him so that he could regain his sight. And Ananias said, You mean Saul, the one I’ve heard about that’s been threatening us and now has authority to arrest anyone who is following you? That Saul? And God says, yes.
And here is when it becomes crystal clear to me that Ananias knows what it means to follow Jesus. Because he doesn’t say, “I can’t do that, Lord, he’s my enemy.” And he doesn’t say, “Jesus wouldn’t want me to go outside my comfort zone.” He doesn’t even say, “But it’s impossible that he will do anything but hurt me.” Ananias apparently has been following Jesus long enough to know that anything is possible and that everyone is capable of changing and of being forgiven.
Daryl Davis at some point decided that he could do more good trying to talk with his enemy and find common ground than he could in meeting with people who shared his beliefs and talk about how bad racism is. And the amazing thing, is that while Daryl really believes that what he is doing is slowly helping our country heal, what he is really doing is helping these men find their humanity again. Anytime we dehumanize anyone, we dehumanize ourselves.
Ananias is willing to go to Saul and to somehow see Saul’s humanity. We don’t get the benefit of hearing the conversation that Ananias and Saul have together when Saul’s eyes are opened, but I would imagine that Ananias sounded a lot like Daryl. In all of my intercultural training, I have been taught that if there’s one thing that’s more effective than anything else, it’s to stay curious. To be truly interested in how the person you are talking to got to where they are now. Daryl did that time and time again, showing true interest in these people who call themselves his enemy. He sees them for who they can be, and many of them get to where they are able to see it too.
Ananias listens to God; goes to where Saul is staying; and lays his hands on Saul’s head so that Saul’s eyes can be open. The author of Acts doesn’t just mean that his eyes are physically opened, of course. Saul receives grace, blessing, and healing when his enemy Ananias lays hands on him. Saul finds his humanity again. He finds out more about God than he ever imagined possible through that one interaction. And it is only because of Ananias’ faithfulness to reach out to his enemy that you and I are here today. Because Saul later changed his name to Paul; and it is this same Paul who wrote much of the New Testament; who traveled from Israel to what is now Italy, Turkey, and Greece, starting church communities wherever he went. Paul is the one who took his own hatred and turned it into love— giving us the passage “love is faithful; love is kind; love endures forever.”
God can do amazing things, and God chooses to do them through us. What that means, is that we, as followers of Christ, need to be open to the places and people God is calling us to talk to. And it will rarely be easy; and it will almost never be comfortable; but God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. God is calling us out of our comfort so that we can find new life. Like a caterpillar in a cocoon, if we stay in the cocoon where it is safe and easy and warm, we will perish. But when we dare to break out of that cocoon, to reach out to people we wouldn’t normally talk to; to dare to have uncomfortable conversations that create bridges where people need bridges, God will bless us and heal us in ways we may not even realize yet that we are ill.
Next month there is a speaker coming to St. Cloud to spread hate. He would like people to believe that interfaith dialogue is harmful to being American. I can’t tell you how much it hurt me to read those words on his flyer. He actually calls interfaith dialogue a trojan horse— a weapon to be used against us. I have heard people in St. Cloud say hateful things towards our Muslim brothers and sisters and our African American brothers and sisters and our Jewish brothers and sisters. And those actions can be addressed because they are obvious. But to target dialogue as something that is harmful to our community and our country is to use the oldest trick in the book and the most hateful one. It is the same tactic used in Jim Crow laws. Keep people away from each other. Don’t let them talk to each other. Don’t let them accidentally strike up a conversation at the drinking fountain. Don’t let them see that we are all human. It is the same tactic used in Israel today as they continue to build a wall and literally wall people out from one another. Israelites and Palestinians literally have no way to interact socially on a day to day basis. And so their hatred grows. It is by not interacting with one another that we are able to dehumanize each other. And that is exactly against everything God calls us to do.
Daryl Davis has received some criticism because people think that he’s wasting his time; that his life could be better spent protesting or organizing or fighting racism in more effective ways. I’m not here to dispute that. What I know is that it takes all of us doing courageously whatever we can do. And for some people that’s marching; and for some people that’s letter writing; and for some people that’s running for office; and for all of us, that’s being in dialogue with the people around us— people we agree with, and people we don’t. People we call friends, and people we may just consider our enemies. Because it is in the relationship that God chooses to work miracles; and who are we to limit what God can do?
In October an amazing woman named Ayan Omar will be coming to co-teach with me the curriculum “My Neighbor is Muslim.” Ayan and I have been having a wonderful time putting those nights together and I hope that many of you will join us and will invite your friends to join us. One might think that Ayan and I would have nothing in common. She is from Somalia originally; she has been through things I can’t even imagine; she is Muslim. And yet it is not Ayan that I have a difficult time talking to.
It is my own flesh and blood— my Uncle. My Uncle, who lived ten miles from me my whole childhood; taught me to ski when I was 13; My Uncle who really would do just about anything for me. It is he that I have trouble talking to. We disagree on almost everything and he insults people and ideas that I care about deeply. My gut hurts when I think about having a conversation with him, especially since he defends most of his arguments with the Bible. And yet I know that God is calling me to stay in relationship, to keep the door of possibility open that both of us will be healed through each other. It is not interfaith dialogue, but it is interfaith dialouge— being calm enough and curious enough to listen to his point of view and to respectfully share my own.
It is so tempting to stay in our homes; keep our doors locked; watch the news we want to watch; drive everywhere by ourselves in our cars where we can listen to our own music and surround ourselves with the ideas that we like best. But our mission as a church is to be disciples of Christ. And Christ calls us out of ourselves to be in community; to reach out to those we vehemently disagree with; and to love our neighbor enough to be curious— whoever they are; to find common ground with our enemies by being in relationship with them. For it is there that we will find our true lives in Christ.