The Cloister Walk, VI: Damascus
Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
The Damascus Stone in our Cloister Walk means two things to me: Violence and Grace; Malice, but also a Second Chance.
This is a congregation of educated global citizens who read newspapers and books, so I am obliged to talk about the history of Violence Damascus represents, but I will be brief and spend more time on the Good News Damascus also symbolizes.
Archaeologists can’t confirm it with certainty, but some call Damascus the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It is a city of beautiful rivers and lush soil and is sometimes called The City of Jasmine.
But Damascus is only 150 miles northeast of Jerusalem, and in the Old Testament, Jerusalem in Israel and Damascus in Syria shared the unhappy distinction of being the capital cities of small nations with huge ambitions. Israel and Syria on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean in the Levant were pipsqueak countries sandwiched between larger, more menacing superpowers like Egypt to the southwest and Assyria to the northeast, so Damascus and Jerusalem were always either trying to destroy each other or forming alliances together against these bigger bully empires. So much for the Old Testament.
In the New Testament, Damascus is where Paul was going to imprison or kill the disciples of Jesus when God so rudely interrupted his hostile mission, so you see what I mean when I say that Damascus has a fraught history with Jews and Christians.
Fast forward 2,000 years. Since 1970 Syria has been under the thumb of the oppressive Assad regime—Father Hafez till 2000, and son Bashar since then. The Assads are Alawites, a secretive, somewhat eccentric sub-sect of Shiite Islam which comprises just 12% of the Syrian population. Secular and Sunni Syrians have long resented this stifling Alawite regime and began a rebellion against it in the Arab Spring of 2011.
The chaos of that Syrian Civil War created a power vacuum that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria rushed to fill. As you well know by now, the Islamic State is a terrorist organization so horrible that it disgusts Al Qaeda. What do you have to do to disgust Al Qaeda, who murdered 3,000 Americans on 9/11? I was going to tell you how the Islamic State disgusts Al Qaeda, but I just couldn’t bring myself to mention those atrocities in this sacred space. You watch television and read newspapers.
Things are so bad, partly because of Damascus, that 12 million Syrians, or about half the population, have been displaced, more than seven million internally, and more than four million as refugees to bordering nations. No one knows exactly how many have died, but it is probably at least 200,000.
I just ache for the Syrian people, but also for our own President, Pentagon, and Congress, because I have no idea what is best and rightest for the World’s Policeman to do. I guess I just wanted to fold Damascus and Syria into our prayers this weekend and give voice to a meager hope.
I probably don’t even need to point this out to you, but this is NOT, by a country mile, the best sermon you will hear this weekend. I guess I just hope that President Obama had it right in his eulogy from Friday: God can take towering malice and make something healing from it, because grace is amazing.
And so now, let’s talk about Amazing Grace, because Damascus means not just violence, but also its end. This character Saul, later Paul, we heard about in our Scripture Lessons, was raised in the city of Tarsus, near the southern coast of what is now Turkey, about 300 miles due north of Jerusalem, the son of wealthy parents who could afford to send him away to school in Jerusalem.
Paul sat at the feet of Gamaliel, a wizened old sage considered the best teacher of the first– century. Saul, later Paul, was on every dean’s list ever posted in Jerusalem: National Honor Society, Phi Beta Kappa, the whole nine yards. When he grew up, he joined a religious sect so strict and exclusive and conservative that its enemies scornfully labeled its adherents ‘Pharisees,’ which means ‘set apart,’ or ‘separate,’ or ‘pure,’ or ‘Don’t-mess-with-the-status-quo-we-like-it-just-the-way-it-is-thank-you-very-much.’ That’s pretty much what ‘Pharisee’ means. Paul was the Antonin Scalia of first-century Palestine.
The Law, the Torah, was what Paul loved more than anything else in the world, and Paul would kill to maintain the sanctity of the Law, and proved it when he held the coats of the executioners who stoned Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen was preaching a new thing, you see. Jesus Christ was a new thing. Jesus Christ turned the law upside down, and so Saul, later Paul, went to war with this new thing.
Paul was on his way to Damascus to throw a few more Christians in jail when Jesus completely upends Paul’s hateful little errand by knocking him off his horse with a blinding light from heaven and an ominous voice straight out of the starry night sky. Well, the Bible doesn’t actually tell us about the mighty steed but that’s the way Caravaggio painted it and I suppose it’s possible. So there lies Paul sprawled out in the middle of the Damascus Road blind as a bat and it’s a good thing because if he could see he’d notice that he was staring straight up into the wrong end of his horse.
So to me, Damascus represents that radical reorientation of life that God occasionally visits upon us, whether we want it or not, that hard left turn into some unvisited geography.
What are you doing here? Wouldn’t you rather be playing golf or reading The New York Times at Starbucks? What are you doing here? Is it because you’ve no choice in the matter? Is it because you’ve been struck sightless quite against your will by the blinding light of a life that was lashed and lynched and left for dead but then turns out to be bursting with the plenitude of creation’s very intention?
“Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? Don’t you understand that I am the point of your existence?” Haven’t you heard it? Aren’t you here because before him life was small and you were mean and enemies were legion and the unknown was frightening, but now because of him life is large and you are kind and enemies become friends and the adventure of holiness is what pumps your blood?
In my Connecticut congregation there was a woman whose life work, whose God-given vocation, is coming to a successful conclusion now that her children are leaving home. She needed to become something else. So she prayed about it, and God found her at her prayers. Now she drives to the federal penitentiary in Danbury once a month to visit convicted felons, and to pray with them, if that is what they want.
Most of these women in Danbury are incarcerated for drug offenses. Piper Kerman was incarcerated at the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution and wrote Orange Is the New Black when she got out, and so if you watch that Netflix series, you know that my friend from Greenwich has almost nothing in common with those prisoners.
My friend is married to a doctor; her children grew up to become successful doctors and teachers; she lives in a beautiful home on two acres. She has almost nothing in common with these prisoners, except that she is, like them, a mother. What she has in common with them is her maternal love for her children, and when they haven’t seen their children in eight years, she can let them cry on her shoulder. My friend heard a voice and saw a light on her way to Damascus.
I know a guy who purchased all the fresh produce for the largest grocery chain in the Midwest—well, before Walmart and Costco anyway. Do we have Meijer’s Stores around here? I haven’t seen one. But this guy traveled the world buying millions and millions of dollars worth of perfect bananas from Honduras and oranges the size of volleyballs from California and lavish clusters of grapes from Chile for hundreds of stores across seven states. He had a Ph.D. in groceries or something.
Now he’s retired and he scours West Michigan for surplus government cheese and day-old bread from Olive Garden and Idaho potatoes almost sprouting eyes but still good from Shop-Rite and puts them in the local food pantry where they end up larding the cupboards of the poor with prolificity.
I know a 62-year-old orthopedic surgeon who was so good at knees and ankles that he became the team doctor for Grand Valley State University, four-time national football champion in Division II of the NCAA. He worked for Brian Kelly before Coach Kelly got famous at Notre Dame. He has four NCAA championship rings; he lets me touch them sometimes.
It was a blast tearing down the goal-posts after the game with the star quarterback whose ACL he repaired just in time, but he’s retired now, so what else are you gonna do? Now he flies to Kenya or Haiti or El Salvador and sets the broken bones of subsistence farmers for free. He’s my good friend, but it’s hard to stay in touch with someone you can never locate. He refused to slip through life unchanged.
One last thing and then I’ll quit. This happened a long time ago, but she was such a good friend I still remember it. It was Christmas Day. We went to her house for Christmas dinner. This young woman had three passions in life—her hair, her jewelry, and The Wizard of Oz. She was four years old.
That very morning for Christmas she’d received four dolls—a scarecrow, a tin man, a cowardly lion, and Dorothy; five dolls if you want to count the Toto that Dorothy is carrying in a basket over her arm. These were the most beautiful dolls I had ever seen; the alabaster plastic skin looked like porcelain; Ralph Lauren couldn’t drape finer fabric on George Clooney than the clothes these dolls were wearing. They were as detailed as those American Girl dolls my daughter later loved so much, but a little smaller. Dead ringers for Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Ray Bolger.
She was very proud while showing us her new dolls. I picked up the tin man and, not having seen the movie for a long time, said, “I think this one wanted a brain.” My friend scoffed, “The tin man didn’t want a brain—he wanted a heart.”
I picked up scarecrow, and said, “And what did this one want?” She said, “The scarecrow wanted a brain!”
I held up the cowardly lion. She said, “That one wanted courage!”
“And why did Dorothy go to see the Wizard, Cassie?” Without blinking an eye, she said, “That one went to the Wizard to have her hair done.”
Now I’d always thought that Dorothy was off to see the Wizard because she was trying to find her way home. But I guess it’s all in the way you look at the movie. You go back home and watch it—Dorothy does indeed get her hair done before she sees the Wizard–a complete make-over for her and her friends. Her hair is plain old pigtails the whole movie until she gets to the land of Oz, and then after that it is brushed and hanging down in all its glory. Do you remember how the cowardly lion gets his mane done up in curls? You forgot that, didn’t you?
My friend is 22 now. She graduates from university this spring. She wants to go to law school. She wants to work for legal aid. Why are you off to see the Wizard? To get your hair done? Are you here for cosmetic reasons?
How about this instead? Embrace broken people and show them they have hearts of gold, and brains of more than straw, and leonine courage. You can melt wicked witches and befriend fantastic aliens, and once you’ve finished your magical journey to the Emerald City, Kansas can never be as drab as once it was.
He is the voice in the stars and the light that blinds. Follow him. That’s what Damascus is really all about.