The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

RISKY BUSINESS

Delivered 4/25/04
Text: Acts 9:1-20
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

High drama. The story of Paul's miraculous conversion from pious persecutor to proud preacher. We all remember it from Sunday School. The Damascus Road. The light from heaven. The voice. Some of us have had similar experiences as well, although perhaps not so dramatic.

The drama in this one is heightened once Saul is brought into the city. Following a three-day pause in darkness (Is there something significant about three days? Echoes of the resurrection, no doubt), we hear the story of one of the most courageous house calls in the history of Christianity: an otherwise-unknown disciple named Ananias, prompted by a celestial vision, throws caution to the wind and comes to meet this fearsome tormentor. Ananias introduces himself, places his hands on blind Saul and says, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here--has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And the world has never been the same since. All because one almost-anonymous disciple was willing to put life and limb on the line and do the Lord's bidding.

This was risky business, to say the least. Ananias knew Saul's reputation. Every Christian in Damascus did. But then comes this vision. We are not talking about some ecstatic experience here - the fact that Ananias questions the Lord in the midst of it asking, in effect, "Say What, Lord? Did I hear you right?" suggests he is none too sure about the prudence of what he is being asked to do. But we know the rest - Ananias puts his security concerns aside, and ventures out to visit that house on the street called Straight.

To be honest, this is not the first "risky business" story in scripture. We can go back to ancient history and hear again the story of Abraham. God says, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing."(1) The Bible has a number of stories about the faithfulness of Abraham (as well as a few showing him occasionally doubtful about God's extravagant promises), but there is none so startling as this initial one. God speaks to Abram (who at this point, as far as we can tell, believes in many gods) and tells him to leave his homeland and go to a foreign country where he knows no one, banking entirely on God's promise that he will become a great nation. Very interesting - after all, he is 75 and his wife is 65 and they have no children! Abram's security is nothing more than God's promise.

Think of Moses and the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army advancing on them. "Why are you crying out to me?" God demands. "Tell the Israelites to move on."(2) What? Walk into the sea? That hardly seems like the safest or most prudent thing to do. But walking into the sea on God's command and promise turns out to be the way to freedom.

Or think of Jesus as he leaves the upper room with his disciples after the Last Supper. It did not take supernatural insight at that point for Jesus to know that there were people who wanted to get rid of him and that he was in great danger. The most reasonable thing in the world would have been for him to say, "It's getting too hot for us here, boys. If we move fast we can get across the Jordan and lie low for awhile until it is a little safer in Jerusalem." Instead he went to Gethsemane and waited. We know the rest.

Truth be told, in this post-9/11 world, an inordinate value is placed on security. These days in Washington, the phrase "a matter of national security" is enough to shake loose congressional appropriations -- no questions asked. On occasion you hear it when someone wants to keep congressional investigators or special prosecutors at bay. Are we more secure now than on 9/11? I doubt it. The presidential election this year will no doubt be a referendum on who Americans think will keep us the most secure, both militarily and economically.

On an individual level, security is an equally powerful motivator (and, at times, de-motivator). "Is it worth the risk?" we ask, before venturing into uncharted territory. An entire multi-billion-dollar industry - insurance - exists to help us "manage risk" (as though risk can ever really be managed).

How did Ananias manage risk in our lesson? Or Abraham or Moses or Jesus? They simply trusted God, and let it go at that. It really is that simple.

Can we do the same? Why not? To be honest the risks we are asked to take for the faith are fairly minimal in comparison to many others. For Ananias, for Christians of his generation, on down to Christians in the Middle East in our own generation, the risk is life itself. For you and me, the risk is our investment of time and talent and treasure. But ultimately, as we say in our confession of faith, in life and in death, we BELONG...all that we are, all that we have...we belong to God.

The heart of our day-to-day faith is not safety and security. Instead, it is what Dorothy Day called 'precarity.' In the mind of most, precarity (or precariousness) is an uncomfortable state of uncertainty and even danger...It also suggests dependence: the Latin root has to do with being dependent on another's will, being upheld or sustained by another's force. So a faith that acknowledges precarity simply admits the uncertainty of human existence and our utter dependence on God.(3) In other words, risky business, this faith stuff. However, as has been said, "The work is demanding, but the retirement plan is out of this world."

I wish I did a better job of handling it. Do you? I read somewhere of a minister talking with the children about the importance of living right, and he wrapped up with the challenge, "Now, if all the good people in the world were red and all the bad people were green, what color would you be?"

One tot thoughtfully replied, "I'd be streaky." Out of the mouths of babes.

What risks is God asking you to take? What is waiting in the house on the street called Straight? Who knows? Just remember, the risk that an almost anonymous disciple named Ananias took changed the whole wide world.

Amen!


1. Genesis 12:1-2

2. Exodus 14:15

3. Kerry Walters, in Jacob's Hip: Finding God in an Anxious Age quoted by Carlos Wilton on "The Immediate Word," an internet service for preaching at http://www.csspub.com

The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

Mail Boxclick and send us mail