Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sermon: Calling Down Fire

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 29, 2016, Pentecost 2C
1 Kings 18:20-40; Galatians 1:1-7;
            Luke 7:1-10

Calling Down Fire

Elijah is, to put it mildly, one of the more difficult characters in scripture to comprehend. He seems to come out of nowhere; unlike many of the major characters of Hebrew Scripture like Moses or David, we don’t get much of a life story for him. His presence in biblical story is pretty brief; a few chapters at the end of 1 Kings and the very beginning of 2 Kings. He is attributed feats of superhuman strength (presumably by divine favor, although it isn’t always made clear) that would qualify him as a character in a Marvel superhero movie. And when his time comes, instead of dying like a mere mortal, he is caught up for a ride in a flaming chariot.
His reputation lives on after his death, or final chariot ride. He shows up along with Moses in gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, and his name is invoked at Jesus’s crucifixion, when someone from the crowd wonders if Elijah will come to save him. In modern Jewish practice a chair is reserved for Elijah at circumcision services, and at a Seder meal the door is opened and Elijah is invited in, and a cup of wine is set at a place at the table reserved for him. As a Jewish friend of ours pointed out to me, though, Elijah never shows up and the wine never gets consumed – a waste of good wine.
A figure like Elijah can take on legendary status – it can be very hard for us to conceive of Elijah as human, with all the flaws and faults that implies, when he is calling down fire, outrunning a chariot, running from Israel to Sinai, or disappearing in a trail of flame. That would be a mistake, though; even in his great moments Elijah displays flaws from which we would do well to learn, if only to learn to avoid.
The story covered by today’s lectionary reading is probably the most famous part of Elijah’s narrative, except possibly for the fiery-chariot departure from the planet. It’s the kind of scene that big old-fashioned Hollywood biblical epics are made of: a dramatic confrontation; wild, frenzied action (particularly on the part of the Baal prophets, in their desperation to get a response from their nonexistent god); a charismatic and slightly crazy lead in confrontation with the political authority of his day; and a spectacular climax (with superior dramatic buildup) that would be a great opportunity for the special-effects department to do their thing. In fact, it rather amazes me that the story of Elijah hasn’t been made into such a movie somewhere along the way, although it does get a good dramatic treatment in Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio about the prophet, Elijah.
Still, though, if we poke around the ends and the corners of this account, there are a few parts that should give us pause.
First, though, it’s worth setting the scene. Israel (the northern kingdom at this point in biblical history, in contrast to the southern kingdom Judah) has, largely under the influence of Israel’s king Ahab and his foreign-born queen Jezebel, taken up the worship of the idol Baal, a figure in non-Jewish religions to which is attributed power over rain. In response to this, Elijah predicted a drought to fall on Israel, which indeed happened; by the time of today’s reading the drought has been in effect for three years. Elijah has first been in hiding in the wilderness, and later with a family in Zarepath, in the region of Sidon, outside Israel (next week’s scripture reading will cover this part of the story).
Now it was no new thing for the people of God to go astray and give their homage to idols. Nor is it a thing confined only to the darker past of such corners of Hebrew Scripture as this. They many not be carved wood or stone, and we may not trust them to provide rain for our crops, but even today the people of God are far too prone to give their allegiance and their trust in false gods, willingly supplied by the culture and society in which we live.
Those of you who follow college sports saw an example of just such a thing in this week’s headlines about Baylor University, which initiated proceedings to dismiss its president, athletic director, and football coach in the wake of an investigation revealing failure to take seriously numerous allegations of sexual abuse of female students on the campus, by male students including but not limited to football players. Despite its self-described status as a Christian institution of higher learning, Baylor apparently tolerated one of the most vile and unchristian, not to mention criminal, actions one human being can inflict upon another, apparently blinded by the idol of athletic prowess and success according to a very worldly status. Idols take many forms these days, but don’t ever be deceived into thinking they don’t exist anymore just because nobody’s physically bowing down to carved wooden statues.
But back to Elijah. God does give a command to Elijah in the face of the three-year drought, but nothing so elaborate as you might think. In 18:1, God issues this word to Elijah: “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.”
That’s it.
Nothing about a big altar-burning contest. Nothing about any kind of big display, or show of force. Just a command to go to the king. But from this Elijah has extrapolated this elaborate contest. When he does meet Ahab, in verses 17-19, he doesn’t even say anything about rain coming. Ahab tosses off an insult at Elijah, calling him “troubler of Israel,” and Elijah rants back and challenges Ahab to the contest with the prophets of Baal.
One can look at this a few ways. Elijah is simply confident in God to support him. Or Elijah has an ego the size of a planet to think he can challenge the king and have God automatically back him up. Or Elijah has a hair-temper trigger and goes off half-cocked rather easily. Or Elijah has the mindset of a Celebrity Pastor; why simply proclaim the good news when you can put on a monumental show?
To be honest, I think there’s something to be said for the latter view. After all, Elijah doesn’t just challenge Ahab to the contest, but makes a theatrical event out of it at every step. The way Elijah mocked and derided the Baal prophets during “their turn,” you’d think he took taunting lessons from professional athletes. And when it’s finally his turn, he doesn’t just call out to God to consume the fire. Noooooo…first he has to make a great display of drenching the altar thoroughly, using an amount of water that makes very little sense at the height of a three-year drought.
And yet… “…the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.”
Elijah would hardly be the first or last such leader to be subject to temper, or excess, or theatrical overload. Our reading from Galatians captures just a small part of the vitriol Paul unleashes upon the believers in that community over their being misled by religious leaders who taught them rather less good news that Paul and his company had taught. His anger at their straying is palpable and only builds until finally, at 3:1, he exclaims, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” But at least he doesn’t have anybody killed.
There it is, in verse 40, which the assigned lectionary would have me leave out; those prophets of Baal are rounded up and executed. Let me put aside all delicacy and say bluntly (as much as it is a shame that this even has to be said, but such is the world in which we live) that this is not good, and it certainly isn’t commanded of God. There are plenty of disturbing passages in the Old Testament, back in books before 1 Kings, in which God really is portrayed as ordering the king or the prophet to slaughter their enemies (usually an opposing army, though), but there is no such mandate from God here; remember, all Elijah was told to do was to present himself to the king, and that rain would soon some. Everything else here is Elijah’s doing.
Some scholars argue that Elijah is taking retribution on Jezebel for killing the prophets of the Lord, as noted in 18:4. But since when is retribution Elijah’s to take? Violence in return for violence only guarantees more violence, as Elijah himself will find out in the next chapter. This weekend, and the Memorial Day that is observed this weekend, should serve as a reminder of that hard fact, if nothing else. In a day when far too many people are far too ready to kill in the name of God, this bit of “inspiration” from Elijah we don’t need.
The story of Jesus and the centurion found in the day’s gospel reading stands in stark contrast to the Elijah story. First of all, rather than the putative people of God straying from faith, the protagonist is a Roman centurion, an officer of an occupying army, who shows greater faith, according to Jesus, than he had seen in Israel. Secondly, it’s worth noting that Jesus did not consider it beneath himself to go to meet this centurion and the slave who was “close to death.” Rather than one to be destroyed, Jesus saw one to be extended the healing, the wholeness, and the love that it was his mission to show to God’s people. And in the centurion’s clumsy if earnest equation of Jesus’s power to that of a higher military authority, Jesus found a seed of faith that he went out of his way to respect.
Today it seems that Christianity bears maybe too much resemblance to the wrong examples in this story. We get led astray by false teachers, like the Galatians, or we vent our anger at other Christians like Paul (who, it should be said, did eventually get himself under control). We take up destructive idols like the people of Israel, or we appoint ourselves executors of God’s wrath like Elijah.
There’s only one worthy of our worship. We may not erect idols of wood or stone and bow down and worship, but don’t let’s kid ourselves; we create and adulate plenty of idols, and I don’t just mean the ones on that TV singing competition. Our adulation of wealth, or influence, or status; our fanatical support of a political party or figure; even excessive allegiance to a sports team or league or game – any of these, or any kind of overzealous allegiance, can become a false god, claiming adoration and emulation and worship that belongs only to God. It’s not for nothing that John Calvin described human nature as a “perpetual factory of idols”. [i] And yet the overzealous avenger is no better a position to take, bringing only destruction and death rather than life and healing.
As much as we may respect and admire and even learn from the likes of Elijah or Paul, Moses or David or the Apostles, we have only one Person in our Bible who is worthy of emulation or imitation, and most certainly only one Person worthy of worship; the one who frees us, both from the idols to which we would enslave ourselves and the claims of retribution by which we would destroy ourselves. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…[ii]
Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 11:8.
[ii] The Nicene Creed.

Hymns (GtG): "Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above" (645); "O My Soul, Bless Your Redeemer" (439), "O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee" (738); "Hear the Good News of Salvation" (441)

Elijah, what a showoff...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sermon: The World At Our Window

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 15, 2016, Pentecost C
Acts 2:1-21

The World At Our Window

According to its website, the University of Florida hosts around six thousand students a year, between its undergraduate and graduate programs, who come to the university from countries other than the United States. That’s not uncommon for a university of UF’s size; Ohio State University has over seven thousand international students among its nearly sixty thousand total enrollment. Even a smaller university – like the University of Kansas, my former employer – hosts nearly 2400 international students among its total enrollment of a little over 24,000. Even in my own music history classes I routinely counted students from East Asia – Japan, Korea, and China in particular – as well as the Caribbean, South America, and Eastern Europe.
Of course, those totals are only of students. The international numbers only get larger when one begins to include faculty and staff from other nations – which, at a large university like UF, is going to be substantial – but a number of you know that far better than I do, from personal experience.
A city like Gainesville (or other such university towns like Columbus or Lawrence) is not far distant from the scene depicted in today’s very familiar reading from the book of Acts. It’s a part of the story that is significant as part of the plot, but easy to overlook in all the welter of strange and unpredictable action depicted in it, the familiar part to us.
Much of the story is familiar; the apostles gathered in the upper room in prayer; the sound like a rushing wind, and the strange and disruptive appearance of those things like tongues of fire; the sound of languages they didn’t know; the disciples on the balcony, with the gospel going out in may languages…
But then we might overlook what Luke tells us in verses 7-11. First of all, the nature of the language miracle is made clear; the languages being spoken by the disciples in verse 4 are revealed to be the native languages of the crowd outside, in the city of Jersualem. That multi-national (maybe today we’d say multicultural?) crowd might first have been drawn to the disciples’ building by that sound of rushing wind and what looked like “divided tongues, as of fire” but what got them to stay and listen was the gospel, being proclaimed to each in her or his own language.
And about that crowd… .
There’s something unusual about that list Luke gives us in verses 9-11; not all the references are contemporary – some of them are names of peoples who had lived in regions to the north, east, west, and south of Jerusalem many centuries past, rather than using contemporary terms for those peoples. In both its geographical and chronological diversity, Luke is cluing his readers in on a key point; the world was there, from the four corners of the earth, outside the disciples’ window, waiting for a good word.
Intellectually we know this. Sometimes, though, we don’t do a very good job of remembering this. For example; we do get a good bit of bewailing, in American Christian circles, of how “the church is dying.” If you’re speaking of a specific individual church, or of a denomination, you may not be completely out of line, although fretting about dying seems odd for a church with its very origins in resurrection, as my friend Rev. Ginna Bairby points out in a recent issue of Presbyterians Today. But speaking of the church as dying is shortsighted and maybe a little racist, given that the church continues to grow in places like South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia. The church is there, too, you know.
But in this world and in this town, there is a world outside our window. Persons from many different countries, persons from many different parts of the United States, and persons from every social strata imaginable. Persons steeped in privilege, persons shackled in grinding poverty. And they are waiting for a gospel from us.
The church in this country has gotten pretty good at giving a bad word. The media is always quick to let us know of a church or group of Christians who have been quite insistent about pronouncing a bad word; in the history of Christianity in the US one can find examples of the church, or substantial parts of it, pronouncing a bad word, a word of hatred and exclusion, against: blacks, Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Germans again, Russians and other Eastern Europeans, Arabs, Muslims (the two aren’t synonymous, you know), Mexicans, gays, and most lately trans persons, who seem to be the designated objects of hatred at the moment. The church has a pretty long history of pronouncing a bad word, but it seems like it’s been a long while since the world out there has heard a good word, a real gospel, from us. And the world out there includes the world at our window.
Divided tongues of fire or not, the Spirit wants to speak through us as the Spirit did through those disciples. The Spirit even wants us to prophesy – not make lame predictions about the end times, but to tell the truth, to see the world around us and speak truth to it, to speak God’s good news, to speak gospel. Peter doesn’t go out on the balcony and make up something new; he first turns to the prophet Joel, and then interprets Joel’s words through the life of Jesus, bringing in some other sources from the scripture he knew along the way. He pronounces gospel, even if at times it’s difficult.
And that’s what we’re called to do. We are charged by Jesus, and moved and enabled by the Holy Spirit, to speak gospel to the world at our window.
The Spirit really isn’t random; notice that in this story from Acts the Holy Spirit incites the disciples at the moment when there’s a large, diverse audience waiting to hear that good word. Well, that audience is out there, outside our window, so to speak. You’d best believe the Holy Spirit is inciting us to bear that good word. The Spirit may sound like an unusual hymn in which we learn to hear from the church all around the world – all around us – or it may sound like a life unlike any we could imagine, unlike ours, in which we learn to see the Spirit moving among us. But we are called and charged to speak gospel.
Will we follow? Will we listen to the Spirit when it doesn’t sound like what we’ve been accustomed to hearing? Can we speak gospel, no matter the language?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns, from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal
#289                  On Pentecost They Gathered
#287                  Gracious Spirit, Heed Our Pleading
#292                  As the Wind Song
#853                  We Are Marching In the Light of God

Credit: I'm with you, kid...

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Sermon: *Those* People

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 8, 2016, Easter 7C
Acts 11:1-18

*Those* People

First of all, let’s make sure we get one thing straight: that’s not a typo in your bulletin.
No, the sermon title is exactly as I instructed our church secretary to enter it, so don’t go fussing at her (as I know some of you do). Leave her alone.
It’s printed this way because you need to read it this way. It’s not “those people,” it’s “those people.” You know how the conversation goes: “…oh, one of those people.” The inflection has a world of meaning.
And that world of meaning, and how it gets broken down and exposed, is what you need to understand about this story, a story of Peter making a leap he never expected, in today’s lesson from Acts.
The part we heard a few moments ago is basically Peter’s defense speech, given when he is summoned (a much more sinister-sounding word than merely “called”) before the council of the church, in Jerusalem, to account for his actions regarding a certain Gentile named Cornelius, whom he had first encountered while staying in Joppa in the days after the raising of Tabitha, or Dorcas (remember her?) from the dead.
While staying at the home of a tanner named Simon, Peter gets hungry one day. In this case, though, getting hungry becomes the occasion for the Holy Spirit to visit, to show a vision to Peter, a vision which called upon Peter to take a step that he could never have imagined taking, one that, literally, charged Peter to do something that went against the way he had been raised and against everything he had ever been taught about scripture.
In the vision, which is recorded directly in chapter 10, Peter sees something like a great sheet being lowered from heaven, containing animals of every kind, including all the creeping things and bottom-feeders you could imagine, and hears the divine voice – at least that’s clearly how Peter hears it, as his reply makes clear: “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” It’s actually a lot like an incident recorded in the book of Ezekiel, in which that prophet utters very nearly the same thing. This time, though, the voice of the Lord says virtually the most shocking thing possible: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Let’s not try to soften things here. Peter is not wrong, or just making stuff up. You can, if you’re so inspired, look to Leviticus 11 or Deuteronomy 14 for a starting point in surveying the amazing and very particular detail on dietary law in the Torah. And this wasn’t minor stuff in the Jewish mind of the time. Peter’s response might have been heated, but it was also virtually a reflex – “we don’t do that.” And yet here God is telling him to do exactly that, and getting in Peter’s face about it just a little bit – “must not” is never wishy-washy language in scripture, and that’s what Peter has just been hit with.
As if all this wasn’t shocking and destabilizing enough, Peter sees this vision a total of three times. If you remember Peter’s story, you remember that he has a bad history of things happening three times.
Finally the visions are done, no more sheets full of unkosher food descending from heaven. Peter is left trying to sort out just what he has seen and just what it means. Little does he know that the Holy Spirit has already been at work well before this set of visions. The messengers who come from Cornelius, the Roman – and very Gentile – centurion are there because the Holy Spirit has already been at work responding to the earnest prayers of a God-worshiper.
You might remember a similar term being used for Lydia in last week’s scripture. Apparently Cornelius was a Gentile who nonetheless claimed allegiance to the God worshiped in the synagogue community, but had not become a Jew. The extent of such dedication was that he was a generous giver and was constantly in prayer, and that “the whole Jewish nation” spoke well of him, according to 10:22. Those prayers got a dramatic answer when Cornelius – well before Peter’s vision, at least a day – received instructions to send for Peter. Of course his messengers arrive as Peter is trying to sort through his own vision, one that must have seemed far more nightmarish to him than Cornelius’s to him.
For all his confusion and distress, Peter at least seems to get that his vision must have something to do with these visitors. That doesn’t mean he’s immediately comfortable with what he’s being asked to do; even if the spirit tells him to go with these visitors “without hesitation” that doesn’t mean he’s going with comprehension or ease. But he does do a remarkable thing nonetheless, giving them lodging for the night before making the trip with them the next day to Caesarea, a thoroughly Roman city, like Philippi from last week’s reading.
Why is all this so remarkable? Well, Peter is associating with those people. The regulations in the Torah about associating with Gentiles and purity are as precise and fixed as the ones about food and purity. You didn’t just have Gentiles in your home, and you certainly didn’t go into their homes and share meals and things like that. Torah was quite clear that one was not to be cruel to Gentiles, and that one was not to abuse them if they were travelers in their land, and that one was to live in peace with them. But there were limits, and Peter, if still a bit uncomfortable as he makes clear in 10:28, was about to do all those proscribed things and more.
And it was this choice that had caused Peter to be brought before the church leaders in Jerusalem, which is where his account is given that is recorded in Acts 11. Notice how in verse 3 of that chapter, the leaders in Jerusalem had thoroughly failed to understand what has happened; all that they can think about is not that Gentiles have received the word of God, but that Peter ate with Gentiles. As you might have noticed, we today live in a world, and in a church, where God’s work is too often and too easily ignored in favor of humans taking offense.
So Peter has to relate his experience to them. In the end, what finally gets through to the church authorities is that the story is not really about Peter, as much as he is the one telling it. The actions that matter here are not Peter’s, but God’s.
It was God who answered Cornelius’s prayers and instructed him to send for Peter. It was God who gave Peter that strange and disturbing vision. It was God who told Peter directly to go with those messengers from Cornelius.
And it was God the Holy Spirit who came upon Cornelius and his household, right in front of Peter. Peter was at Pentecost; he knew what it looked like. He knew exactly what was happening. And it happened at the Spirit’s own initiative, without waiting for any cues. The Spirit came upon them while Peter was still speaking, giving what might have been his more-or-less standard introductory sermon. Other unexpected converts had received the Holy Spirit upon being baptized, but not Cornelius and his household; the Spirit didn’t wait. Peter called for their baptism, because after what the Holy Spirit had just done, how could he not?
We moderns really aren’t always any quicker than Peter to catch on to what the Spirit is doing in the world. We are more prone to seek comfort and familiarity rather than be open to those among whom the Spirit is moving. To put it rather bluntly: when was the last time you invited someone to this church who was in some demonstrable way – in race or ethnic background, or class, or orientation, or national origin, or (shudder) even political party – different from you? Clearly we do not reject persons of different races or backgrounds; we have welcomed, we do welcome, we will welcome – but do we invite? Do we take the initiative to reach out?
The silos in which we live in society can be composed of very nearly anything, not just the classifiers noted above, and we in our homes, our workplaces, our social circles, and most certainly our churches can fall into the trap of sticking with what’s comfortable, what’s familiar, instead of practicing the welcome of Christ, or following the initiative of the Holy Spirit. But we can’t do that, and not just because – not even primarily because – the church dies if we don’t follow. We’ve got to open ourselves to where the Spirit will lead us because that’s how we follow. That’s how we submit to the Lordship of Christ, not by memorizing rules, but by being active followers of Christ and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit always.
We worship a God who does a new thing. We worship a God who makes clean. What God has made clean, we dare not call unclean.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): “Alleluia! Alleluia! Give Thanks” (240); “Help Us Accept Each Other” (754); “Dream On, Dream On” (383); “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (640)

Peter wasn't into barbecue, I guess...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sermon: Macedonia

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 1, 2016, Easter 6C
Acts 16:6-15


“Macedonia” is the name applied generally to a region of southeastern Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula. That more general region includes two current political entities with the same name: a region in northern Greece, and an independent nation once a part of Yugoslavia. Historically, Macedonia was perhaps most famous as the home and kingdom of Alexander the Great, from whence he set out to conquer the world. In later years the region was a significant province in the Roman Empire.
One of the important cities in that Roman district was Philippi. First founded by one of Alexander’s successors, the city was re-established during the Roman Empire. It was the site of the climactic battle of Marc Anthony and Octavian, successors of Julius Caesar, against his assassins Cassius and Brutus. Under Octavian (later known as Augustus) Philippi became a city for retired soldiers, and was slightly modified by the addition of a Roman-style forum and the division of land among the soldier-colonists, becoming in effect a “miniature Rome.”
It was into this territory and this city that Paul and his fellow travelers were more or less forced by the Holy Spirit in today’s reading, and event which marked the first known foray of early Christian proclaimers of the Gospel into what we now define as “Europe” – a fact much more interesting to us today than to Paul and his co-workers. For us, a church like most Presbyterian churches made up of mostly white European stock, it’s an origin story. To them it was all Roman Empire, but Philippi, due to its unique origins, might have been just a little more Roman than other places on their journey.
To say that Paul and his company were “forced” into Macedonia isn’t really a stretch. When the party had sought to move towards Asia (not the continent we know today, but another Roman province occupying what we would call western Turkey), Paul had been “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” from proclaiming the Gospel there. They tried to go to another region “but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”
What does that even mean? Luke doesn’t give us any details here, but don’t you wish he had?? Whatever form these divine roadblocks took, Paul and Silas and the whole traveling group were stuck in a place called Troas, wondering what to do next.
Think about this. They were prevented from moving forward. They were “forbidden,” they were “not allowed” to go. Those are very strong words. We modern Christians have this perhaps overly catchy phrase about how “when God closes a door, God opens a window” – maybe you’ve heard it? We tend to forget about the door-closing part of that phrase in our eagerness to get to the open window, but we do need to pay attention. If Paul and Silas – the great missionary team of the book of Acts, and most prolific proclaimers of the good news – had doors divinely slammed in their faces, we need not think we can just make up our minds and charge off in whatever direction looks good to us. Whatever path this church or any church seeks to discern for itself and for its future, that particular church needs to be ready for some doors being shut in our faces.
At this point comes the dream, or if you prefer, the open window. A “man of Macedonia” (you know how in a dream you just know who someone is, even if you have no reason to?) appears calling the group to come to that region and “help us.” It’s a fairly meager dream as Luke describes it, but given all the preventing and forbidding that has been going on so far it sounds like a great positive, and Paul and his party undertake the voyage, the first time Paul takes to the sea in Acts since the relatively short jaunt to Cyprus and back in chapter 13. Unlike that trip this was no short journey. The trip involved several ports of call and a couple of days’ sailing, before a short overland journey to Philippi, that leading city and old soldiers’ home.
And once they got there … “we remained in the city some days.”
Again with the delay. Really, one might be excused for wondering if God is really with these folks or just messing with them.
Up to this point Paul’s usual practice had been to seek out a synagogue when arriving in a town to speak first to the members of that synagogue. Frequently many would be receptive to their word, but others would reject it, and sometimes violently. In Philippi, though, it doesn’t appear that Paul and Silas and company found one, hence they “remained in the city” for those several days. Finally, somehow, they got wind of a gathering, outside of the city gate and down by a river, that might be what they were looking for.
Well, sort of. What they found was a group of women led by Lydia, a wealthy woman (a dealer of purple cloth was inevitably wealthy) described as a “worshipper of God,” a term sometimes used to describe persons who were not part of the synagogue of the time but took an interest and directed their worship towards the God represented in the synagogue. So where was the man of Macedonia from the vision? Anyway, Lydia (who ironically was originally from the region they had just left behind) received the gospel with her whole household, and then pretty much took over, prevailing upon Paul and Silas and the whole party to stay in her home for the duration of their stay in Philippi. You know the folks who can do that kind of thing? They won’t take any of that nonsense about you staying in a hotel, we’re going to put you right up in the guest rooms and let’s make sure you’ve got everything you need while we’re at it? That was Lydia.
So Paul and his party intended to go into Asia, perhaps cover some familiar territory, with the familiar base of the synagogue, in doing the work of the gospel. Instead, they ended up in an entirely new place, much more in the heart of the Roman Empire, working without their usual safety net, and in the care of an independent woman of means. So much for best-laid plans.
And yet, if we truly want to seek God’s vision for the church – this one or the church universal – we’d better be ready for something similar to happen.
That hymn we just heard the choir sing, “Be Thou My Vision,” is rather dangerous if you actually pay attention to it. If we’re truly going to give ourselves, our prayers, our time, our gifts, our energies, our very being to God’s vision, we run the risk of ending up in unfamiliar places, among people who are unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable for us, doing a work we could not have possibly have planned.
If we’re truly going to be about God’s vision, we have no idea where we will end up. And really, that’s as it has to be. We follow Christ, after all. Christ doesn’t follow us.
The Spirit gives us absolutely no assurance that our church in five or fifteen or fifty years will look anything like it did five or fifteen or fifty years ago. That’s not the point. The point is to be faithful, and to follow. The church doesn’t get to “go back to” anything. Our call is to be faithful and to follow, even if we end up in places we couldn’t have possibly imagined. We end up at tables with God’s children we’ve never met or never imagined, not necessarily comfortable for us but absolutely who God calls us to serve and love.
For the vision that drives us forward, even when we have no idea where we are going, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#375                  Shall We Gather at the River
#733                  We All Are One in Mission
#506                  Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!

#765                  May the God of Hope Go with Us

Yeah, Lydia had things together...