April 15, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Easter 2 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Something Like Scales”: Acts 9:1-10; Acts 9:11-19
The scene is 1934 in rural Germany, a mining town. Up in the attic dormer of an orphanage, two small children are crouched around a beat up radio. A boy with a shock of white-blonde hair and his little sister lean in the dark as a voice comes over the radio. That voice comes over the airwaves, always it seems at midnight, teaching the children lessons of science and the natural world, interspersed with classical music. The lessons about the world, about plants, about animals, about fire, about the sea, are told with all the awe and majesty of a fairytale. “Remember children,” he often says, “open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” He is a Frenchman, they can tell, with an accent like the Frenchwoman who cares for the orphanage in which these two live. They call him The Professor. In one of the boy’s favorite broadcasts, the Professor says,
What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible. (Pause)
This is the voice that weaves together the lives of the characters in Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See. It’s the voice that connects these young people as they grow into young adults of 16 and 17 and older. And the first little boy, Werner, orphaned with his younger sister by the mines in this rural part of Germany. (An accident in the mine kills their father.) Werner is one of the poor boys who gets recruited to serve in Hitler’s youth army. We follow his story as he tries to retain some humanity in a system bent on eliminating the weak by dehumanizing all. To survive, Werner leverages his skill in building, repairing, and using radios, a skill he honed in order to listen as a child to that voice broadcasting with a French accent from what seemed a world away. We meet the other main character in this story hundreds of miles away. Marie-Laure’s father is a keeper of the keys in the Paris Museum, a wiz with puzzles and treasures, locks and gems. Marie-Laure has lost her sight, and it is through these games, puzzles, models of the city, that her father is able to keep Marie-Laure alive. It is through her touch, her smell, that the rich textures of plants and animals and odors, Nature itself becomes another character in the story. It is through her fingertips, nose and ears, interestingly, that the reader can so clearly see what is going on. All these story lines meet at the siege of the coastal fortress of Sant-Malo, where they are entangled with the fate of a precious gem called the Sea of Flames. (Pause)
It’s at the sea that Werner’s defenses begin to crack, after a few years serving in Hitler’s youth army, trying to separate himself from care in order to survive. It’s at the sea when his defenses begin to crack, and those moments of beauty, moments of grace I would call divine, begin to open him up. It’s at the sea where he is finally able to hear the plea his sister Jutta has sent in a letter after him: “Open your eyes, Werner, if you still can.” (Pause)
It’s the light he cannot see and does not expect that blinds Saul on the Damascus Road. This is a man who supervised the stoning of Stephen, in the book of Acts, the book that tells so many stories of what happens after the resurrection to the first disciples. In the book of Acts, it’s Saul who leads the persecution. To him, these followers of the way are dangerous. He’s on a mission to bind up the chaos turned loose in his faith community. He’s out to set things right, to show other people the error of their ways. That’s the mission he’s on when this “light from heaven” flashes around him. The fact that it was from heaven, I imagine, may be a delayed attribution, because at first this takes away his sight. It blinds him. He falls to the ground and hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you?” Saul asks. And the voice responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” And then it gives him instructions. Go into town. Await further messages. So, Saul does go, led into town where he waits, temporarily blinded, for three days. That number is significant. Saul fasts in the darkness, waiting, wondering, worrying, I imagine, about what might be in store for him. On a path of correct belief, Saul did not see this coming. (Pause) But it changes everything.
[Caveat Empter] Now, I want to be clear: Not least because the very novel I’ve cited just now is a story of anti-Semitic violence, but because we Christians also have to be very careful whenever we speak about Jews. Saul does not here convert from being a Jew to being a Christian, that he “sees the light” at this moment, and “accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.” That’s relatively recent language, for one thing, and it’s also much more complicated than that. That cannot be what we mean here when Saul “sees the light.” In his own words, in the letters that follow, he remains a Jew, continuing to go to synagogue, continuing to keep the law and honor the prophets. So, let’s be careful with our words. He is baptized here, and a number of spiritual traditions at the time practiced baptism. Baptism also was and is the way new Christians enter into the community. So, there is a lot going on here. It’s complicated. What we do know is that Paul hears this voice and encounters the same God that he has been raised to know through his faith. But it was the last way he expected to see and hear it. (Pause)
Saul has the original “Damascus Road” moment. When it shows up in common speech, a “Damascus Road” moment usually refers to a great life-changing moment, a flash out of the blue. Something happens that changes everything. And that’s partially true, but listen closely because there is also more to this story. This is an Easter story. First, there is a blinding. At first, the light leaves Saul in the dark. Then, a tomb time follows, where the disorientation, loss and confusion lasts for three days. Then, and only after the tomb time, does “something like scales” fall from Saul’s eyes, and when it does happen, it is a liberation through relationship. Saul needs Ananias to come. Ananias who has also heard the voice of God, but is deeply suspicious that this is a good idea, after a little arguing with the Spirit comes anyway. Saul needs Ananias to come and lay hands on his spiritual sibling and pray for him. That’s when Saul’s sight becomes restored. Neither man could see the other as a sibling before. It took new insight – a gentler enlightening for the more open Ananias, a dramatic disorientation for Saul, the more certain in his righteousness. But God uses both for that Damascus Road change. Before this, neither one of them could see what he could afterward. (Pause)
This past week, our own country launched missiles into the very land of Ananias’ and Saul’ insight, which gives me pause. We’ve been on our own Damascus Road for about two years as a country capable of great violence, but called to something more powerful. We, too, live in a time bent on dehumanizing the weak. We, too, struggle to retain some sense of humanity in a system that encourages most of us to do whatever we need to just to survive, to preserve self. And I wonder: What scales may yet fall from our eyes as a nation? I wonder on this Damascus Road what scales may yet need to fall from our eyes as individuals, as human beings? (Pause)
In Doerr’s novel, All the Light, the young man Werner also enters into a tomb time. It’s more than three days. He loses track of time, but he too gets trapped in the dark. He is trapped in the basement of a bombed out hotel in that coastal town for days, while both water and oxygen begin to run out. It is when he and his comrade, his teammate, grenade their way out finally that the friend lays his hand on Werner’s shoulder, and we can tell that “something like scales” falls from Werner’s eyes, but it falls because the friend tells him: Go. Find the girl with the radio. It’s that choice his friend makes to release him from mere survival to embrace life that really helps Werner change because all the decisions he makes afterward are made for life and not just survival. He makes his choices for beauty. He makes his choices for love. (Pause)
It’s the light we cannot see and do not expect that’s most likely to blind us on our Damascus Roads. It is also extremely likely that a tomb time of confusion and disorientation will follow because that blinding light makes it so, at first, we can’t see. But on the other side, the good news of our faith story, of this Saul story, is that God has been at work in other people, that the Spirit has sent others who will arrive to help us regain our sight and be filled with Holy Spirit. Something like scales are most likely to fall from our eyes while we are on the path of passion, while we’re pursing the thing that drives us, the thing we care most about, the place in our lives we most want to get it right. It will be there, at the intersection of our deepest passion and vulnerability that we are most likely to be blinded by the light. It will also be there that Spirit will send the hand of someone else to free us. It’s entirely likely it will be the hand of someone we think is dead wrong and dangerous. It’s very likely it will take that kind of hand on our shoulder for something like scales to fall from our eyes.
“Remember, children,” the Professor said over the radio. “Open your eyes and see what you can before they close forever.” My hope is that as we go out into this world of violence and pain but also joy and beauty and love we’ll allow this story to work under our skin, that Spirit will help us be receptive to those moments: those Damascus Road voice-from-the-sky blinding flash moments as well as those whisper-through-prayer, nudge-of-the-soul moments. God, the Spirit, sends both. We are Easter people helping each other embrace life, not just survival. May we see that in our week ahead.
 Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See, p. 48-49.
 Doerr, p. 53.
 Doerr, p. XX