“Walking a Fine Line”
April 22nd, 2007, Acts 9:1-20

I often wondered what I would preach on after a week like this. A week where all the news is about the senseless killing of innocent people. And we’re left wondering… what does it all mean? How did it happen? Where will it happen next? How could it have been avoided?

Bullying seems to be as popular as ever, if not even at its peak! Yet there seems to be little done to control it, at least all versions of it. Sure we can control the school ground bully who beats on other kids. We can put him in detention, punish him into obedience. Not that I’m not convinced it works. We just end up bullying the bullies as a result. How does that help?

And what about the other types of bullying? We hear of cyber-bullying, people picking on one another over the internet. What about verbal or social bullying? And THAT goes beyond our school grounds. We see it in our workplaces and communities, we ignore people around us that we feel we don’t want to be burdened by associating with them.

This shooter in Virginia was a victim. He was tormented over how he talked, not included in activities, forced into isolation. And the warning signs sound like they’ve been evident for years. Bouts of depression, lashing out through writings and harassing other students. Teachers and students all wondering if or when he would commit suicide. Teachers threatening to quit if he remained in their classrooms. He was different, so everyone left him alone, shunned him. And look where it led.

Events like these are far too common in our world. In fact, I’d suggest that once is too often. And here we sit, watching the news for the next couple of incidents to occur. Because that’s the pattern, it happens once, then there are some others who decide it is also their time to lash out in similar ways. Copycats they call them. They always seem to happen in clusters. The media is of no help of course. Everywhere you look you see his face, or pictures of the police running around the campus. Interviews with anyone who was on campus that day. Virginia Tech has even allocated one of their parking lots to be used by news networks setting up their vans and satellites. The whole world has come to this school, harassing the mourners, making a martyr out of the original victim who lost his way and took the lives of others before his own.

So… you might be asking “What does this have to do with us gathering here this morning?” A lot… it has a lot to do with us here this morning, and in every other church in the world. We are called by God to care for the earth and all God created. Which means one another, every human being in our world.

Look at the example of Saul in the book of Acts. He is known for being one of the most zealous persecutors of Christians in the early church, he was a big bully. As he walks to road to Damascus, he encounters the living Christ… and he is transformed.

Initially I had planned to look more closely at Saul this morning, but that was before the events of the early part of the week. Instead I want to look at the example of Ananias and the disciples in Damascus.

While Ananias is praying, God tells him to go to a home and lay his hands on a man from Tarsus named Saul. Immediately Ananias hesitates, and who wouldn’t! Saul is no doubt, well known in the Christian community as one who hunts out Christians and takes them back to Jerusalem to be punished.

Suppose for a moment, someone you have never gotten along with calls on you to go and help them in their weakest moment. After years of dispute and conflict, you’ve been asked to help this person overcome a great burden. What would you do?

Put yourself in Ananias’ shoes. You’ve been told by God to go and heal one of Christianity’s greatest opponents. What a difficult decision it had to be for him. Ananias has been asked to reach out to a great big bully.

To his credit, he does go and heal Saul. After Saul can see again, what does Ananias do? He baptizes Saul! Then, Saul stays with the disciples for a few days and begins to preach himself! So what have we seen happen here?

Well, what we didn’t see was a community turn its back on another. Ananias and the disciples easily could have ignored God and continued hiding from Saul. Saul has encountered Christ, and has been transformed! He changed his life! The disciples could have easily not believed him, they could have assumed he was trying to penetrate the group and bring them down from the inside. The disciples could have chosen to push Saul away, leaving him isolated. Saul then could have chosen to lash out at those who denied him the opportunity to foster his relationship with Christ.

So how does this connect with bullying and shooting sprees today? Think about the profiles of the shootings of recent memory. They were all referred to as “different”, “loners”, “quiet”. Why were they this way? Because society pushed them away from the community. They were not invited to take part, they were not welcomed by others, they were avoided and ignored.

We cannot live alone. Even the most introverted people need some kind of community connection. Our society is a spiritual battlefield. In the wild, when the lion is hunting for food.
Does it go after the strongest of the herd? Of course not, it picks off the stragglers, the weaker ones who cannot keep up with the rest of the herd.

Our society is a herd. And there is great strength in numbers. Evil lurks on the edges, picking off those who do not protect. When people are avoided and pushed away, Satan is there to take advantage. Casting doubts, creating hatred and fear. It builds and builds until it snaps, and bad things happen.

So what can we do? We can stop being bullies for one. When we ignore or push away people in our communities or workplaces, we are being bullies. We are judging people, and forcing them to take on roles that society shuns.

I think it all starts with a simple gesture. An open hand, reaching out, offering acceptance and fellowship to all. What might have happened in Virginia had someone simply reached out and offered help to this young man? The message he left spoke of hatred for the people around him, who ignored him.

All he wanted was friendship. Like most of us. How would we feel if people picked out one of our flaws and then avoided us completely?

As a church, we are to embrace one another. Christ calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the mourning. We are called to reach out to everyone in our communities.
We are not here to pass judgment on one another. We don’t decide who gets to be part of our community and who doesn’t. God asks us to care for creation and all things and people in it.

Ananias probably didn’t want to go to heal Saul. Yet he understood God’s call to serve all His people. And he went.

The result? Well, the New Testament would be a lot shorter if we didn’t have Paul to write his wonderful, insightful letters. Because the disciples heeded God’s call to serve everyone, the church gained probably it’s greatest teacher besides Jesus Christ. There’s no way Ananias and the disciples would have predicted a result like that.

So who knows what will happen if we show God’s love and compassion for everyone we meet, not matter their attitude, no matter their social status, and no matter our own personal feelings.