If one is going to preach through the book of Acts, you can’t leave out the story of the transformation and conversation of Saul/Paul. It is a chapter I have heard many times, from many different angles, and recently heard powerfully preached by Bishop Palmer at our Iowa annual conference.
Sometimes, having an overwhelming number of angles going into a sermon is more of a burden than a gift. There are so many things that you want to say that you aren’t quite sure where to start. I opened up my bible on Monday, prayed for some focus, and picked out some hymns to send to my organist. But my prep time was shorter than usual because that evening I got on a plane and flew to Akron, Ohio for our North Central Jurisdictional Conference.
The conference itself was fine. Time with friends and colleagues, conversations about the life of our church and where God was leading us, and worship were the main highlights. The food was surprisingly good. But in the back of my mind, I still was thinking about this sermon I had to write.
Just down the street from our hotel was a little cafe called The Damascus Road Cafe. That’s funny, I thought. That’s exactly what I’m preaching about! I secretly hoped that maybe I’d find some clever little story about this restaurant that would give me a parable for my sermon. Little did I know that I’d throw out my entire sermon to tell the tale of this cafe and the people who ran it.
Every morning, my roommate and I stopped by for breakfast. The prices were fantastic and the food was delicious. The muffins were huge and moist and dense. The fruit was fresh. The staff was friendly. What’s not to like? Every day, those of us attending the conference walked right by this little cafe from our hotel half a block away. We bought sandwiches and coffee, soup and cookies. The place was full of nice United Methodist folks with our huge name badges and conference bags.
And then on the last full day of conference, I started to hear the stories. The story about how this little cafe had been struggling. A story about the mom and dad and their five children who ran the shop. A story about how the week before they looked at the bills piling up and began to pray for help. The story about how they were only a week or two away from closing their doors. The story about how the United Methodists showed up and they made more money in three days than they had in the three years before. I’m not sure of the truth of all of those stories… but what I do know is that this family and business needed help and we showed up just in time.
On the last day, conference had ended and we had a few hours to wait until our flight. So my roommate and I grabbed some coffee and cookies from the Damascus Road Cafe. We sat in the sun and talked through the week and couldn’t wait to get back home. And then about 3pm, just before our rides were supposed to arrive, we walked back over to the cafe to grab a few sandwiches to go. The two of us stood there at the counter while they began to close up shop and we started to talk.
They shared with us their gratitude that we had been in town that week. They asked questions about my friend who was using a cane (Jessica was the one hit by the truck in Tampa two months before). And then the guy behind the counter told the story of his own injury and healing. He had a job that required a lot of walking and time on his feet and bone spurs had developed in his heel. They were so debilitating that he was put on light duty and his job was on the line. One day, he was doing laundry and his wife was in another room watching Pat Robertson and the 700 club. He heard in the distance Robertson talking about a man who was being healed… a man who had bone spurs… pain in exactly the spot where HE had pain… and he ran into the main room. “Honey, he’s talking about me!!!” As he said the words, he felt warmth travel through his leg. He felt the pain leave his body. His bone spurs were healed, right then and there.
Now, those of you who know me also know that I don’t usually pay too much attention to Pat Robertson. I’ve never watched the 700 Club. And I’m sometimes skeptical of these kinds of healing stories. But I was moved by his sharing, and even more moved when he and his family asked if they could lay hands on my friend, Jessica, and pray for healing for her foot. They knelt down beside us and placed their hands on her ankle and foot. We joined together in prayer, right there in the middle of the cafe.
The Damascus Road symbolizes for me a place of transformation. A place where the past doesn’t continue to be the future. A place where the pain and anger of previous times are replaced by light and grace and love. That was why Saul couldn’t continue to carry his name around and had to change it. It is why he left behind persecution and embraced the testimony of Christ. And at the Damascus Road Cafe, we saw a little bit of hope sneak into a dark situation. We felt healing and grace. We saw community formed and relationships built.
That is the story I told on Sunday morning. Not a tale of a guy on a road, but of people gathered in a cafe for prayer, fellowship, food, and grace.