Sermon 05/26/2019: God's grace finds us where we are

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Sermon by Jason Gerlach on Revelation 21:10 & 21:22-22:5 and Acts 6:9-15


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It’s Memorial Day weekend, which kicks off the summer travel season.  Fridays in June, July and August are the busiest travel days of the year in the United States.  Select any one of them and you’ve selected a day of greater nationwide travel than even the day before Thanksgiving, which many assume is the busiest day of the year.  The season of summer travel has begun!

I’m reminded of this fact, about this time each year, when in conversation with high school seniors anticipating their upcoming graduation, summer trips, and educational or gap year plans for the fall.  Those conversations take me back to that same time in my own life when I learned of an opportunity in Central Java, Indonesia.  Were I to mark my life with push pins and yarn on a map, I’d be able to track how one decision led to a next: from Central Java to Harrisonburg, from afternoon conversational English and Bahasa Indonesia classes where together Agung, Edi, Susanti and I guided each other through the ins and outs of practical language choices to a more permanent pursuit of congregational ministry with children, youth and young adults.  Little did I know that responding to that one decision, heart opened to the possibilities that would transpire from that point forward, that it would guide my life through one transition after another.

Similarly, I’ve recently held premarital counseling sessions with three couples who will be married this summer.  The sessions have centered around the results from the Prepare/Enrich instrument, building communication skills, learning how (as a couple) to make financial decisions, planning the wedding ceremony, and discussing the upcoming transitions of living arrangements and the commitment they are making to each other.

There are yet more venues in which I’ve heard about upcoming transitions.  The Dean House Voluntary Service Unit Committee has heard from both Ali Zuercher and Liza Brenneman that they will conclude their time at the organizations they are serving and move out of the Dean House this summer to pursue graduate school opportunities.  So, our committee has been in conversation with four college graduates who expressed some level of interest in our Voluntary Service location.  We’re still awaiting a commitment for next year as those four individuals have, for a variety of reasons, decided not to join the unit: one was offered a lab technician position at UVA; another selected Americorps as her volunteer organization; another will begin a role as resident director at a Mennonite college this fall, and the fourth expressed a pressing need to save money toward further schooling opportunities.

On Tuesday, I heard senior track teammates pass along nuggets of wisdom to the members of the team who’ll return next year; things like, “if your coaches demand a hard workout with lots of sprints, give it your all, you’ll see the reward by the end of the season.”  “Or,” another senior piped up, “you can throw discus and shot put and then not have to run hard workouts.”  The remaining seniors encouraged their teammates to try out new events, to spread encouragement around, and to get to know all teammates equally.  The track team congregated together after the school-wide spring sports reception took place, in which many heartfelt goodbyes were expressed for an athletic director who’d served the school faithfully for twenty-two years.

I’ve also heard transition comments in conversations about CMC’s conference affiliation decision; and in conversations with people who’ll move back to Harrisonburg soon; or those who’ve committed to stay in their current work setting for the next year but then seek out other vocational opportunities; and as the current members of Catechism class assess whether their next step is to join the church.

Many have expressed their questions about their upcoming transition by saying something along the lines of “What does it mean?  I wonder.”  Or, “We’re asking ourselves, what’s next?”

And I haven’t even mentioned MC USA’s biennial convention or the many trips that members of our congregation are leading to Jerusalem, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Guatemala to only name a few.

Some summer trips will go smoothly.  Others, will not.  I don’t know if you know this but Paul, the apostle, traveled.  Alot.                                                          CLICK SLIDE

And, as recorded in Acts 16:6-8, which comes directly before this morning’s passage, the text says Paul and Timothy wanted to travel broadly but couldn’t.  Listen to the text: “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.”  It also says, “When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.”

So, according to the text, Paul and Timothy stumble around the region running into one barrier after another.  Bared by the Spirit from going south and west into Asia or from going north into Bithynia, they appear backed into a coastal corner at Troas by God’s repeated, declarative statement, “NO!”  These earlier verses, if included in this week’s lectionary reading, remind us that God is in charge of this mission; that the church sometimes searches for God’s calling in mistaken directions; and that God’s Spirit speaks into what humans consider to be frustrating and difficult times of discernment.

It isn’t until Paul experiences a night vision that his next step becomes clear.   Spurred on by a dream, Paul is called to travel across the sea to search out a Macedonian man beckoning for him to, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

So, they set off.  Three dudes on a boat at night.  Paul, Silas and Timothy.

Allow me to back up.  Paul received the vision alone, but, as recorded in verse 10, the vision had to be interpreted by someone other than Paul alone.  Listen: “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”  Interpretation requires more than one person and it is at this point in the story that the communal “us/we” enters the story.  There are two possible explanations for how the communal we enter the story: (1) did the narrator transition from an eyewitness to a participant seemingly swept up at the moment?  Or, (2) did the author select communal we language as a narrative technique so that readers of Luke/Acts could assess their place in the story?  Whatever the case, the language choice confirms that Paul and others felt God was using the Macedonian dream man to bring about immediate action.  Preachers were needed in Macedonia.  GO!  Formerly the message was NO!  Now, it’s GO!

Although I find the night-vision-as-God’s-call curious, it’s not as curious to me as the fact that there’s no further mention about the Macedonian man.  Once in Macedonia, he seems to be forgotten.  Instead, Paul, Silas, and Timothy hang out for some time and then (later) meet a woman named Lydia.  She was one of several women who gathered at a place of prayer on the Sabbath, possibly the site of a future synagogue.

A few days ago I didn’t know much about Lydia nor the town of Thyatira.  But, in researching the person and place, as well as consulting with Pastor Jennifer, here’s the piece of information I found most relevant.  Despite much political unrest, power grabs and the uncertainty and disillusionment experienced when empires were overthrown around her, Lydia held onto her cultural background and distinctiveness.  If we traced her family lineage we’d find ancestors who lived during the reign of Cyrus the Great and the Persians after they defeated the Lydian capital of Sardis.  Other ancestors would have lived through the time period when the Greek empire ruled the area.  And, still, other ancestors lived under Roman rule.  Despite all of those cultural machinations (Persian, Greek, Roman) Lydian culture wasn’t completely erased.  Interestingly, Lydia’s own name serves as a cultural identifier for people from a specific region.  Her name, Lydia, signifies a place of origin rather than a personal name, which suggests that she may have a former slave.  But, at the point of Acts 16, she’s a free woman who works with textiles — purple textiles to be exact.  This detail about purple textiles counters what I just shared about her as a possible slave.  So, how do we resolve these disparities?  Aligning what we know (that Lydia worked with purple textiles and that the city of Lydia was in Thyatira) we can access that her status may have been more like a well-to-do householder than a former slave.  Thyatira was an important center of the wool trade.  A guild of wool workers is mentioned in an old inscription, and other inscriptions name several dyers and fillers in and around Thyatira, as well as the neighboring cities of Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae.

Now before I continue on… may I highlight just a few things?  Though Paul, Silas, and Timothy apparently waste little time getting to the Macedonian city of Philippi they are required to wait.  Not much happens for a while.  Patiently waiting, they were there for some days (just how long it was we’re not sure).  The appeal in the night vision seemed urgent, and their response to it was immediate, but the results were not seen right away.  When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise.  Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man.  But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman from the area Paul had just left in the east.  Lydia had also traveled by boat to Macedonia possibly along the same route as Paul, Timothy, and Silas.  She was transient like them.  Simple explanations about God’s mission are clearly going to be wrong.  How odd, and grace-filled, that this woman from Thyatira, in Asia, where the Spirit had forbidden Paul to go, is now met in Philippi.

In Acts 16:9-15 I’m struck by the humility of the characters; wandering, waiting, respecting cultural, religious and societal practices while drawing near to people, talking, befriending, accepting hospitality.  I’m struck by it until I’m not.  Well, what I mean is that I’m struck by it until I read one phrase. It’s a qualifying phrase that explains that Lydia was “a worshipper of God”.  When I read the phrase I feel confounded.  Now I know why the phrase is included in the narrative.  I know the phrase identifies her as Jewish.  I get it.   But, to me, it stands out when compared to the humility and respect throughout all other parts of the passage.  Why include it?  Is this a distinction Paul, Silas and Timothy readily looked for: whether a person was Jewish or not?  Possibly.  Or, was it included for those who would hear of their travels?   Does it help signify something in the post-resurrection world, I wonder?  Does it function to distinguish between what is or is not Christian?  And, does that distinction carry with it some form of judgment?  Does it tidy up an question of Christian identity (former versus present) and function similarly to the times Paul asks about the character of Christian lives, about the shape that Christian practice takes, in order to prevent the breakup of Christian community along lines that follow differences between Jewish and Gentile practice, between upper- and lower-class lifestyles and privileges, or between those who continue to eat meat offered to idols and those who do not.  Does it function to distinguish an alternative society, a special kind of club?

Theologian Kathryn Tanner points out that “…because of several complicating factors, Christian identity simply cannot be secured by a sharp cultural boundary.”  She provides the following reasons: (1) it’s rarely clear on what side of the boundary something falls (Say the boundary is supposed to mark a sharp religious difference; Christian practices gain their identity as religious practices that exclude those of any other religion.  Still up for grabs is whether any of the practices at issue are religious or not) and; (2) where the boundaries are drawn is never fixed; social practices that are excluded at one time and place are included at others.

The reason the phrase “a worshipper of God” stood out because it functions differently than the rest of the passage.  Again from Tanner, “Although all that seemed relevant about another way of life was that it was not Christian … the missionary impulse in Christianity tended to work against a dichotomous typification, against a ‘they are all one way and we are all another’ mentality.”  Heralded should be Paul, Silas and Timothy openness of heart to God’s mission and guidance.  However, when retelling their journey they noted the boundary Lydia traversed: once she was not a part of us, now she’s included.  I ask again, “Was this information necessary?  For whom was it included?  Were a similar story to happen today would it have been included?  I’d venture to say no.  As Tanner notes, “This suggests, contrary to the influential views of H. Richard Niebuhr, that in the Christian case relations with the wider culture are never simply ones of either accommodation, on the one hand, or opposition and radical revision, on the other, but always some mixture.”

A number of years ago three friends and I spent a week toward the end of summer traversing the states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  During the trip we sought out local swimming holes and used book stores; we hiked the Long Trail; we swatted flies in Bar Harbor; we staked out J. D. Salinger’s residence; we ascended Mt. Washington; we ate Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.

At Mt. Washington’s peak we headed toward the Visitor’s Center along with many other visitors.  We were thirsty but, even more, we were uncertain about the time.  Our campsite for that evening wasn’t nearby and we guessed it to already be mid-afternoon.  We felt pressed to begin our return trip.  At the Visitor Center’s entrance, we met up with a family of four.  We held the door for them or they for us, I can’t remember.  What I do remember is that one of us asked the father if he could tell us the time.  He told us by turning his wristwatch in our direction.  We thanked him and went on our way.

Innocuous, right?  Nothing to it.  We were all summer visitors to a National landmark years before the proliferation of cell phones as time-telling devices.

It would be innocuous if there wasn’t more to the story.  Three days later we checked into a Youth Hostel in Portland, Maine, just before dinner time.  Together we’d decided that this would be the evening we’d eat at a restaurant as the next day we were headed to Bar Harbor where we had reserved a campsite for our final nights.  We asked the Youth Hostel caretaker for restaurant suggestions.  He gave us some suggestions; two nearby “weren’t bad,” he claimed, but his favorite was much further away but “well work the walk.”  As it happens with a group of friends; three wanted to eat at one location while the other did not.  In time, we found ourselves walking across town aimlessly, still undecided about which restaurant to choose.  We rounded a street corner and I took note that we were walking toward a family.  A block separated us but they have headed our direction on the same side of the street so the distance was narrowing.  All of a sudden, I knew that I knew these people.  I nudged my friend and asked him, “Is that the family we met at Mt. Washington?”  He looked and nodded.  As we neared the family, we stepped onto the street shoulder to allow them to stay on the sidewalk but as we did so, my friend called out to the father, “Can you tell us the time?”  The father stopped and looked at us.  His face changed numerous times over surprise, perplexity, fear.  And then he recognized us.

This time we introduced ourselves.  Explained our trip.  They did the same.  We tried to convince them that we weren’t following them.  But, when we recognized them my friend explains he felt like he had to repeat the question we’d asked at the Mt. Washington Visitor Center.  It was awkward.  We laughed it off and then went separate ways.  At the restaurant, my friends and I talked about it throughout our entire meal.

Many years later I wonder what the family thought of us.  Was it something they dismissed as a coincidence?  Did they feel at the time (or since) that we had ulterior motives?

As much as it’s unsettling to meet someone in an unfamiliar context many of us have experiences of just such an occasion.  We can be visiting a foreign country and meet someone from our hometown or other times it takes no more than five minutes to figure out via some version of six degrees of (Mennonite) Kevin Bacon that we know each other or that our grandparents knew each other.  We could all share similar stories.

But, I can’t shake this experience.  It’s one I think about often.  I don’t know how to feel about it or its probability.  Should we have, in the moment, even acknowledged their presence or let it pass?  Should we have been open to something even more: inviting them to dinner or telling them the details of the remaining days of our trip to assess whether we’d overlap a third time?

God’s grace finds us where we are.  When we hold onto dichotomous boundaries unaware of how they cause harm or, when we feel we’ve missed an opportunity to befriend other people, not only once but twice, possibly causing uncertainty or fear.  And, God’s grace finds us amidst upcoming transitions.

This morning’s passage shows that along life’s circuitous routes God is in charge of God’s mission.  God sets its direction, and God determines its results.  But, the characters responded to God’s mission with hearts opened: (1) Paul, Silas and Timothy were open to shifting travel itinerary; (2) Lydia was open to listening to Paul, Silas and Timothy; (3) Lydia’s household was open to joining her in baptism; and (4) Paul, Silas, and Timothy warmly receive Lydia’s hospitality.  These characters opened their hearts to God’s work.  God’s grace found them where they were.  God’s grace finds us today where we are!  Amen!


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