Today is one of my favorite of the Feast Days on the Episcopal calendar because we mark the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the followers of Christ, to Paul, the prolific writer and emissary to the Gentiles in the spreading of the Good News.
Most know the story: Saul was on his way to Damascus to do some more pummeling of his adversaries, the followers of "The Way", when a funny thing happened. He found himself stopped by a flashing light, so bright that he drops to his knees. A voice called out to him, "Saul, Saul: why do you persecute me?"(Acts 9:4) It is Jesus speaking. Saul is unable to see and must be led into the city with his fellow travelers. There he sits for three days, unable to see; unwilling to eat or drink.
Meanwhile, Ananais, a follower of The Way, receives a vision from Christ in which he learns he must go to the place where Saul is, and lay his hands on him in a healing ritual. Understandably, Ananais argues: ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ (Acts 9: 13-14)Predictably, Jesus hears this complaint, but is steadfast in what He desires Ananais to do: "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." (Acts 9: 15-16) Ananais, no longer able to find reasons to resist this command, goes to Saul, lays his hands on him, and prays: ‘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.’ (Acts 9:17b) The scales fall from Saul's eyes, he is baptized, and he eats some food to regain his strength.
Two enemies brought together through Christ and in Christ. One has his vision taken from him. The other has a vision impressed upon him. Ananais, fearful and skeptical, faces Saul, the fearsome, yet frail. And in between is Christ, the mediator and advocate. What changes things for Saul? Ananais doing the very simple, and Christ-like ministry: he heals Saul through prayer with touch.
To me, this is among the most powerful stories we have in the New Testament, and speaks so clearly to our circumstances today. People are divided, and subdivided, into so many different groups, some of which stand in stark opposition to each other. Conservatives vs. Liberals; Whites vs. Non-whites; "Bible-believing" Christians vs. Christians (this last one truly confounds me. Seems "Bible-believing" is the new descriptor for giving cover for denying equality to LGBT people, in the name of Christ, of course.) What this story out of Acts tells us is that all the labels, all the certainties we have about who belongs to "us" vs. "them", is irrelevant for God because the end goal is always to bring opposing sides together, and holding us in that tension.
How marvelous, then, for this day to mark the beginning of the 170th Diocesan Convention in Florida. Points of view, shaped by individual lives and circumstances and understandings, all coming together to plot the next course for the Church as it exists in that part of the state that is North Florida. My analogy would work better if this Convention were taking up some hot button issues. But the agenda for this annual meeting is mostly focused on the pension for clergy and Medicare Part B. There are also votes for the Standing Committee and other committees on a diocesan level. And then there are parties, and banquets, and concerts.
Meanwhile, a few miles to the north of where the Diocesan Convention is taking place, a Lutheran Church is prepping for its annual Reconciling in Christ Sunday. It's a celebration of St. Stephen Lutheran Church's commitment to welcoming the LGBT community. As part of the festivities, the church is showing the film "Love Free or Die" about retired Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson and the Episcopal Church's struggle with the full inclusion of LGBT people. It is a marvelous and very well-balanced documentary that shows the grace of how Robinson carried himself amidst a barrage of negative backlash in the Anglican Communion. It also did right by the Episcopal Church by showing the different viewpoints within our own faith community. And, at the end of the day, TEC comes off looking good in the film because opposing sides voiced their opinions, had their arguments, and yet stayed together.
Sadly, that isn't always the case within the Episcopal Church. Yet another diocese, South Carolina, has declared that it is leaving. As our diocese wrangles over numbers and pension funds, those who identify as "continuing Episcopalians" in South Carolina are holding their own diocesan meeting with the church's figurehead, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, to elect a provisional bishop for their area. It's an unfortunate scenario that smacks of the sin of leaving the table in anger. What would have happened to Saul if Ananais had given into his fear, and refused to lay his hands on his enemy in healing? What would have become of our story as Christians if Saul had come out his blindness still breathing threats?
Florida is choosing not to take up a discussion of inclusion of LGBT people in ministry or same-sex blessings; thus ignoring this development in the church. How long it can keep this up? I don't know. My guess is not forever. But I see a better vision for our diocese than what has occurred in South Carolina, or Pittsburgh, or San Joaquin. Because I see the hope that is inherent in the story of Saul's conversion to becoming the apostle Paul. I believe our diocese has ability to have these discussions in a way where we can remain in relationship and trust that God is really with us. We just need to believe that. Our theme of this convention is "Procession." I am prepared for our Procession to become Progression.
God is working God's purpose out. We must trust, believe, and allow the Spirit to take us forward.