Monday, May 6, 2019

The Patron Saint of Stepping Out of your Comfort Zone

Yes, Lent is over, but I am on a mission; a mission to impart church knowledge/trivia to this faithful flock.  Today’s category: Churches named after a saint.  Here are the 10 most popular in the United States:

#10  St. Matthew (724)
  #9  St. Andrew (789)
  #8  St. Luke (1,053)
  #7  St. Mark (1,062)
  #6  St. Joseph (1,152)
  #5  St. James (1,270)
  #4  St. Peter (1,362)
  #3  St. Mary (1,832)
  #2  St. Paul (3,210)
  #1  St. John (3,713)

Now, as near as I can tell, there are only two churches named after St. Ananias: one in New Jersey, the other in Indiana, and both are Orthodox.  Why so few churches named after Ananias?  Perhaps a better question is “Who the heck is St. Ananias?”

According to tradition, when Jesus sends 70 of his followers in teams of two to preach and heal throughout the region of Galilee, Ananias is one of them.  Just a handful of years after the Resurrection, he is leading a small house church in the city of Damascus, some 140 miles north of Jerusalem. 

No matter the size, it appears to be a dynamic and effective congregation because a Pharisee bent on persecuting Jesus’ followers makes the long journey north in order to do harm to the members of this church.  He bears documents authorizing him to arrest those professing to be a disciple, to bind them, and to bring them back to Jerusalem for trial.  Truth be told, if he has his druthers, he prefers to stone them to death on the spot.

The Pharisee’s name is Saul and, as we read in today’s first lesson, something life-changing happens to him on the road to Damascus.  He is driven to his knees and struck blind by an intense light.  He hears a voice in the light.  It is the voice of the Risen Jesus.  Saul’s travelling companions, witnesses to what has happened but unsure of what to make of it, guide their comrade into Damascus where they leave him to ponder what has happened.

Enter Ananias.  The Lord appears to him in a vision, instructing him to go to Saul and lay hands on him in order to restore his sight.  Ananias has heard of Saul and, knowing how he has persecuted disciples in Jerusalem, questions the wisdom of such an assignment.

Here is why I think St. Ananias should be a popular name for a Christian church.  Show me a good parishioner who cannot identify with him.  He is active and engaged in his faith community, giving what he can and volunteering to do those things in his zone of comfort.  Without hesitation, I’d take twelve people just like him to serve on a Vestry and count myself blessed as a rector.

I look around the congregation and do my best to access gifts, skills, and interests.  I then encourage each person to contribute in ways he or she is naturally suited.  I keep a mental list of the comments I hear:

“I’ll fold bulletins, but don’t ask me to read in public.”

“I’ll write check to support such-and-such, but I can’t give my time to it.”

“I’ll visit folks in a nursing home, but don’t ask me to teach in the Sunday School.”

For those of us who like to operate in a church within our comfort zone, Ananias can be our patron saint.  But here is the problem: God has a way of asking us to do things which make us extremely uncomfortable! 

Churches are famous for pot-luck dinners and if there is one thing I’ve learned over 30+ years of ordained life while serving in numerous congregations of varying size and makeup, we Episcopalians discover a dish we are capable of preparing and then bring it to pot-luck dinners over and over and over again.  That is why, years ago at another church, I took a perverse pleasure in announcing a terrific new idea I’d had: a pot-luck brunch.  You have never seen such an uproar.  Why, no one had ever before prepared a dish for a pot-luck brunch.  What to do?  What to do?   You can’t imagine the anxiety created by asking people to do something unfamiliar to them… or maybe you can.

Now, we can laugh at the challenge of switching from bringing deviled eggs to cheese croissants, but each of us knows following Christ places much more significant demands on us than this:

“Do you really want me to love the person at work who continually stabs me in the back?”

“How am I supposed to let go of the pain and bitterness I have carried for so long?”

“What do you mean I must learn to master my destructive passions and cravings?”

Perhaps we have stumbled onto the reason so few churches are named after Ananias.  No one wants to be reminded the Christian faith really is a costly and risky proposition.  How could you enter a sanctuary every week seeking peace and comfort if it was named after a saint who was called by God to pray with (not for, with) a person who wanted to arrest and kill him?  I can just imagine such a parish’s mission statement:

Here at St. Ananias, we strive to make all people as uncomfortable as possible by asking them to do what they feel least capable of doing.  Won’t you join us?

Umm, I think not.

Chapters 8-10 of the Book of Acts chronicle four dramatic conversions, each essential to the unfolding work of God’s Spirit in and through the church.  Philip preaches to hated Samaritans and in the process confronts a man who profits by manipulating a child possessed by an evil spirit.  Philip next approaches an Ethiopian who is reading Scripture while riding in a chariot.  Then we read about Saul’s journey to Damascus and Ananias is introduced.  Finally, Peter is directed to visit a Roman centurion in the coastal city of Caesarea.  This soldier and his family become the first Gentile converts to the Christian faith.  There is at least one common thread in each of these stories: God asks a faithful person to do something unconventional, something outside of his comfort zone. 

Philip challenges the economic status quo.  Peter defies stringent social and cultural convention.  Ananias is asked to do something absurdly dangerous.  None acts simply to go out on a limb.  Each responds after some understandable hesitation because God calls them to do so.

Has God ever called you to do difficult things or to go to unexpected places?  Might God be calling you even now to some thing which, like Ananias, gives you serious pause or concern? 

Annie Dillard famously observed if we take the Christian faith at its word, we wouldn’t hand out bulletins in church, we’d hand out crash helmets.  I have known some people and some churches who acted as if faithfulness looked like jumping from the frying pan into the fire and then back again in a continual feverish frenzy of spiritual and emotional flagellation.  I don’t subscribe to this pattern of Christian living, nor do I recommend it.  However, as today’s reading reminds us, God is about stirring up things until all things reflect God’s dream for the world.  And it would seem when God sets out to stir, God calls on people like Ananias and you and me. 

Imagine how different the world would be if Ananias had stayed in his comfort zone.  A person would have remained blind and wasted away in a house on a street called Straight in the town of Damascus and the church would have been bereft of its first great evangelist and deep thinker.  

Imagine how the world – or at least your life – might be different if you responded to God’s call to do that thing you least want to do or go to that place you least want to go.  The next time you feel hesitant, the next time you are afraid, the next time every fiber in your being tells you to resist, think about St. Ananias, the Patron Saint of Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone, and you will know what to do.