Saul’s Conversation after Encounter the Outsider, Risen Christ on a Flight to Pittsburgh

Fr. J. Devin Rodgers

Last week I purposely broke one of the rules of pastoring. “Never tell anyone you are a clergy person on an airplane.” There are few reasons for this rule. The first reason is avoiding unnecessary Bible thumping. If you’ve ever been on a flight across the continental United States being drilled with Biblical literalism, it’s not pretty.

Next reason – these conversations tend to be the ones that lead to existential, unanswerable questions that would baffle even the most learned theologian.

“I’m sorry ma’am I have no idea whether we are predestined, pre-elected, or double predestined (that’s a thing) for salvation. That one doesn’t come up a lot in my day to day ministry.”

The last reason, I must be ready to hear and hold the stories people share with me. These stories are intimate retellings of life events that have shaped the teller’s view of God. I need to be in a good frame of mind and willing to actually listen. Sometimes I’m a cranky, mean jerk who is adamant about prioritizing my own story. (Especially when flying) That’s not fair to the storyteller.

With this in mind, last Thursday on a short flight from Washington DC to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I chose to break this rule. I boarded the flight, approached my seat, and as I was sitting down and trying to stuff my bookback under the seat, the passenger in front of me decided it was the perfect time to recline her seat. I managed to spill an entire cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. I was so mad- definitely not in the Godly frame of mind.

The attendant brought me napkins, and I sopped up my drink. Rudely and oblivious I left the wet coffee towels on the empty seat next to me.

A few minutes later a young woman with a short bleach blonde haircut, a hoodie portraying the name of her favorite heavy metal rock band, and an e-cigarette, which she was secretly puffing under her mask, approached me. She looked down at the stack of coffee, clean-up rags.

I was embarrassed.

“I’m so sorry. That was really rude of me.”

She let out a plume of cherry scented e-cig vapor.

“No biggie. I’m a truck driver. I’ve sat in worse.”

Not sure I wanted to know what this worse entailed, but she sat down. She then gestured to the vape, which she had tucked into her sweatshirt.”

“D’ya mind?”

“Well you’re not supposed to smoke on the…”

“Sam! She stuck out her hand”

She and I hit it off immediately. She was traveling from Connecticut to Pittsburgh to see her girlfriend.

“I haven’t seen her in months. I cannot wait.”

The plane eventually took off and she began talking about her life. As this sort of conversation does, we eventually ended up on religion.

She grew up as an only child in a very, very devout and conservative religious home. She relayed stories about being terrified of being left behind and always judging herself against the people that her church saw as condemned. However, there was a big strugglerfor her.. She identifies as queer and there was no way her family would accept her dating or marrying another woman. She might as well give that ticket to heaven to the girl content with marrying a man, shunning makeup, and wearing skirts every day.

“I didn’t want to be alone, and so I married my best friend thinking we could live our life being happy as friends. There is so much more to a relationship than being happy or at least putting up the pretense of being happy. The pressure was

unbearable. I was ridiculed for cutting my hair. I was asked to have kids, pressured to be affectionate. A year in I was miserable. I have never been so sad not being myself.

I was faced with condemnation or conforming to a life that wasn’t my own. I eventually ended up addicted to opioids. It took the pain away, until it didn’t.”

“I wanted nothing to do with religion.”
She shared her story. I listened. Eventually, I broke the silence. “I am sorry your church and your family put you through this.”

[Pastoral care lesson for everyone: It’s ok, and often necessary, to take a punch for Jesus. The less well-behaved and judgey members of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,’ cause much pain and suffering. People are hurt by the church. Anger is a normal response. Faithful people are rejected by their church. Sadness is a normal response.]

“I pray every day. I read the Bible daily. I love people,” she responded. “Eventually love wins. I believe that.”

She’s right. God is love.

God always walks out with those tossed out. But that isn’t the end of the story. The persecutors, those on the so-called, “inside” of religion find their own belovedness through those who are cast out, the marginalized, the persecuted. Every child of God who is estranged for being the wrong gender, sexuality, color, religion or any other identity viewed as less than serves as a means for the persecutor to be born again.

It’s ironic that the people inside the church have to go outside the church to actually find the Church and bring it back inside the C(c)hurch.

We’d do good to remember the foundation of Christianity.

Love God. Love Neighbor. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Paul experienced this.

Saul was a pretty horrific guy, despite being the so-called “right sort of guy.” For example, did you realize that the person responsible for spreading Christianity to millions of people was an accompice to murder?

The book of Acts describes Saul guarding the coats of the “righteous people” while they were stoning St. Stephen. In today’s lesson he sets on his own way trying to stamp out the followers of The Way.

The Way of love is never understood, and the early Christian community was a group of marginalized outsiders. The most faithful Christians still are outsiders.

The Acts of the Apostles describes Saul setting out on a journey to gather the names of Christ followers so that they could be arrested and thrown in prison – a systematized annihilation of the Church.

The Way of Christ cannot be annihilated…once again love always wins. Love certainly won the battle over Saul.

On the road to Damascus, years after the women found the stone rolled away from the tomb, Saul also came face to face with the Resurrected Christ.

“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked “ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting”

We are told that the light from Christ was so bright it blinded him. There is something else startling about Christ’s words here.” I AM Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.”

The resurrected Lord eternally identifies as a marginalized, tortured to the point of death, human being. If we could see through that blinding light, there would still be nail holes. This forever becomes part of God’s resurrected identity. We are always assured of finding Christ in the persecuted. We are assured persecution isn’t the final answer.

This is what I told my neighbor on the airplane. It’s the good news that seems like foolishness until one actually experiences and discovers what’s good about it.

Your identity as a queer, woman, who struggles with substance use. Your identity as a young woman told you had to conform to be saved. Your identity of pain. Is loved. Is redeemed. Is known fully to God. What’s more, when you live who you are…when you truthfully live into the image that Creator instilled in you, others will see joy. They will see hope. They will recognize patience, gentleness, self control. The Holy Spirit will work through you so that others can also discover who God desires them to be.

The persecuted become the blessed means of revealing God to the persecutor.

Annianias was one such persecuted person. Could you imagine being Anninias, walking up to the notorious (now blind) Saul and talking about Jesus?

Sounds like a great way to end up in prison.

This is what Annanias courageously does. The one meant to be locked up is the one who frees.

He stands beside Saul and says, “receive your sight”

The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’

Another version of the story in Acts describes scales falling from Paul’s eyes when he was baptized.

Saul eventually takes the Gospel and expands it to entire nations and cultures that were previously not included. He extends “the Way” out of its originally Jewish birthplace to incorporate gentiles.
But the important designation here is this. Christ is already with the people not included. God is already at work in their lives, loving them, nurturing them waiting to be revealed. Christians are the ones who are sent out to point and say, “Jesus is here” so that scales may fall from the eyes and sight might be restored to those who are blind to the Holy presence.

This radical new role for Saul necessitated a name change. He became Paul and was sent to people all across the Roman Empire.

To be sent out. To be an apostle.

We too are sent out. We might not be sent out to Corinth or Rome. Sometimes we’re sent to the seat right next to us on the plane, even as we fumble with coffee soaked paper towels. We’re sent to hear the stories of others. We are sent to share our story with others. God wants our stories to meld and form together so that there may be one story.

I now have my friend’s phone number in my phone. I have texted her a few times and have offered her words of encouragement.

I’m throwing the rule about airplane pastoring out the window. Rules that silence us are not very good rules.

We are sent to speak. IF you speak nothing else. Speak this truth because it can’t be spoken enough.

YOU ARE LOVED.

No matter who you are, Where you’re from. What your church tells you. What your family members tell you. No matter if you’re an addict or sober. No matter if you get straight A’s or flunked out. No matter how you cut your hair, who you marry or where you choose to worship and pray to God…or not.

YOU ARE LOVED. THEREFORE…LOVE GOD AND LOVE NEIGHBOR This is the most important part of your story and stories are meant to be shared.