Sunday, May 26, 2013

Many Gifts, One Spirit

Many thanks to Nan Pashon for leading worship and preaching this morning! 
I am sure that she added much to this manuscript.

Many Gifts, One Spirit
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
May 26, 2013

“I didn't need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”       
                                                ― Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

1 Corinthians 12:4-13
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Romans 5:1-5           
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Today is Trinity Sunday.

The Holy Trinity is definitely a difficult and challenging doctrine of our faith. But it is not an exam question, and we are not prepping for the SAT; we are Christians who worship God, follow Jesus, and live by the Spirit. So we don’t need to think of the Trinity as an exam question that must be answered before we will be admitted to the heavenly banquet.  The Trinity is not a “weed out” class like those challenging college courses that try to sort out the really good students from the so-so ones. Catherine LaCugna explains in her book, God For Us,  the Trinity is “a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life . . . it is the specifically Christian way of speaking about God, and what it means to participate in the life of God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.”[1]

The Holy Trinity is about relationship and indwelling. Trinity describes a relationship between three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- all distinct, but all one. Our belief in the eternal dance among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is belief that God creates, collaborates and communicates with us. And it is about how we are called to create, collaborate and communicate with each other, to the glory of God. That’s the center of the lift of the church. Through the Holy Spirit, that life is made possible.

Last week, for our Pentecost celebration, we asked everyone who was here in worship
to write on a little paper star what gifts the Spirit gave to them, and how they share those gifts. It was really beautiful to see that dark paper sky fill up with stars, and even more beautiful to read what was written on them, what gifts they had been given.

Even though last week we saw and heard how the Holy Spirit moved and acted in really dramatic ways, most of the time we see the Holy Spirit moving and acting in smaller, quieter ways. So, nobody wrote anything about rushing winds or tongues of flame. They wrote about compassion, and caring. They described teaching and learning. The Holy Spirit is moving us to pray, to care for one another, to visit and call and send cards, to reach out to the world around us with love and compassion. The Holy Spirit is gifting us to do the little things, to take care of what is needed, whether it is washing dishes and locking doors or singing and playing music, or preparing food for the hungry, or caring for and teaching little ones.

Saint Augustine said, “If you see charity, you see the Trinity” So in that way, each member of this church is a demonstration of the doctrine of the Trinity. When you see people using their gifts, you are seeing the Holy Spirit! “In most cases the Holy Spirit usually does not try to draw attention to itself but rather works on us to strengthen our relationship of faith in Christ.  This means the Spirit is very busy indeed. In our stumbling attempts at faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit is at work, overcoming our own desire to be in control. When we seek comfort, the Spirit reminds us of Christ’s seeking of the lost sheep and his forgiveness to a betrayer like Peter.  When we need correction, the Spirit calls to mind Christ’s injunction against the love of money or the need to forgive -- even those we classify as enemies. Those who wonder about the Spirit’s presence in their lives need only look to their struggling faith in Christ and they will find plenty of evidence. Left to our own devices, we wander far from the source of light and truth. But the Spirit has other plans. God’s Spirit continually reaches out to embrace and encourage us.[2]

In times of trouble and pain, such as we have seen last week in the terrible devastation
of tornadoes in Oklahoma, the Spirit prays for us with sighs to deep for words. And tomorrow on Memorial Day, as Americans have done every May since the Civil War we will remember those who gave their lives in service to our country. While Memorial Day is not a religious holiday, it is certainly a day to give thanks for those who paid what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

As we pray for those who suffer, as we reach out to the world in compassion, and as we hope and pray for God’s peace to come to the world, we remember that our God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a God of love.

God created us for love, and named us as adopted children. As Jesus did, we can call God “Abba, Father.” God wants to be in relationship with us, not to punish us or teach us a lesson, but to love us forever and unconditionally.

Jesus came to us in human form, to live and laugh and suffer alongside us, to be “God with us.” Jesus died and rose again so that we might have hope, hope that does not disappoint.

And the Holy Spirit is with us, like a dove or like a flame, as comforter and the one we call “wisdom” so that when don’t act in loving ways, or when we think we have lost hope, or some TV preacher tries to tell us that God is punishing us with tornadoes or terrorism or floods or any other kind of disaster, we have the Holy Spirit as our teacher, our guide, and our friend, God’s presence within us and among us, helping us to create, collaborate, and communicate love and joy and hope through the works of our hands.

Thanks be to God for the Holy Spirit! Amen.

[1] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 1.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Spirit of the Living God

Spirit of the Living God
Acts 2: 1- 21
May 19, 2013, Pentecost
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Acts 2: 1- 21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Obviously, this Holy Spirit thing isn’t some kind of private party. Whoever everybody was, everybody was there, wherever they were. They were all there, together in one place. It would be a relief, later, I’d imagine, that everybody was there, so they’d have someone to validate that memory, someone who shared it. I think they struggled, even them, even then, with the whole idea of the Holy Spirit.

I mean, think about it – God the Father, Yahweh, Elohim, El Shaddai, Mother Hen, now THERE is a God – the one true God, world-creator, breath-of-life-blower, covenant maker, angel-sender; deliverer of captives, giver of the law, demander of justice, inventor of love, supreme being, the great I AM.

And then Jesus, of course, another spectacular person of the trinity –born of a virgin, wise beyond his years, maker of miracles, welcoming outcasts, healing the broken, turning water into wine, walking on water, turning down the devil and all his temptations, standing down the Pharisees, and facing down the soldiers in the garden, kneeling down to pray and standing up for justice, hanging on the cross and rising from the tomb, ascending to the heavens, sitting at the right hand of God, where he continues to live as Word made flesh, fully human, fully divine, lifting up the lowly, comforting the broken hearted.

But the Holy Spirit…well…just between you and me, and I know I can trust you not to spread this around… just between us, isn’t the whole Holy Spirit thing a little bit hard to get your arms around?

I’m serious.  
Is it a person, or more like a ghost?
Do you really see how something, some entity, can be simultaneously likened to tongues of flame, a howling wind, a dove, a companion, and a comforter?
Somebody has said that the Holy Spirit is the unknown member of the Trinity.

Holy Spirit, Sophia, wisdom, ruach, breath, the person of the trinity who is often described in the feminine, because the words in the Greek and in the Hebrew are feminine, she is a mystery, an enigma, somebody we just can’t quite get a grip on. She shows up and people are surprised and bewildered. Other times, when the Holy Spirit comes, they are enlightened, and they can understand, can see, can feel and do and believe things they never could before.

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was all that, did all that, all at once, to everyone.
They were surprised, and amazed. People thought they were drunk.
But they weren’t. They were transformed.
This spirit was not just wind, not just fire, not just comfort. This spirit was words and story and understanding. Everyone from everywhere understood everything! And it wasn’t just any spirit – it was the Holy Spirit.

It was the Holy Spirit that rocked them back on their heels,
that whooshed into their lives like a rushing wind,
and breathed into their hearts like a breeze.
It was the Holy Spirit that comforted their skittish souls
and transformed their tongue-tied talk into a song, a symphony, a poem,
a speech of soaring prose that lifted up their minds into a new perspective

She flew into their consciousness like a dove her gentle wings brushing the brick corridors of their preconceptions, and she dropped just one feather down to the floor, and as it fell it grazed their cheeks and they found that when someone next spoke to them they listened, really listened, and they understood, and they didn’t need to dispute or quarrel.

They could move into another’s story, feel the needs and think the thoughts of the other, and invite them into this new reality, this new story of Jesus, this story for everyone everywhere. It was the Holy Spirit who came like a wind in the sails of the church, to move them forward, outward, onto the vast seas of the world, to carry the precious cargo of grace and love along with them.

It’s no wonder we can’t get our heads around the Holy Spirit. Our language is inadequate.
We say “God sent the Holy Spirit” as if God packed up a down-filled comforter in a box and shipped it off to us to unwrap when we need some warmth. But if it were a shipment, it would be more like opening a crate full of fire and wind, which explodes out of its container and goes where it will. We can’t get our heads around that, and I think that’s why we get nervous talking about the Holy Spirit.

We can write up a neat little resume for God, get Jesus’ curriculum vitae in order in just a couple of pages, but the Holy Spirit….just gets a mention in the Apostles’ Creed, and then we move on quickly.

I think we get nervous talking about the Holy Spirit in the same way that talking about God or Jesus ought to make us nervous. We think we can contain the first two persons of the trinity with neatly drawn boxes and ten-word descriptions, so we make them kind of comfy pals – God as cosmic butler, who comes when we ring the bell and brings what we asked for; Jesus as eternal buddy, who conveniently absents himself when we are mean-spirited or callous or wicked, then just as conveniently shows up to give us a friendly little side hug and tell us we are okay, really, and that’s alright, he forgives us.

But this Holy Spirit keeps acting like, well, like God or something: indescribable, uncontainable, unpredictable, generous and gentle, swooping and scorching,
fierce and demanding – intense.

Because the Holy Spirit is God – moving among us,
the flame in the burning bush that calls us,
the wind that alternately refreshes and rearranges,
the light that shines in us.

A short while ago, you heard the voices of some of God’s stars, imperfect human people who were gifted and called to serve this amazing and mighty God.

In each of your bulletins, you’ll find a star. That star is there to remind you that you, too, are gifted and called to serve this amazing and mighty God, through the power of the Holy Spirit who rushes in on the wind or drifts down on you like a feather.

I want to invite you now to take a moment and think about how you are gifted and called by the Holy Spirit. What light, whether candle or blaze, has God ignited in you?
What gifts do you have, and how will the light of those gifts illumine this shadowed world?

Take a moment and think, then write on that star a word or two that describes that gift and how you will use it to shine, to carry the light, to speak and listen, to live as one in whom the Holy Spirit is alive and active.

You don’t need to put your name on it if you don’t want to – just name your gift and say how you’ll use it.

At the back of the sanctuary there is a large poster displayed for you to place that star,
so as you leave worship today, I ask you to stick your star on the poster.

What gifts do you have, and how will the light of those gifts illumine this shadowed world?

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. 
Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created. 
And You shall renew the face of the earth. 
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Freedom's Just Another Word...

Acts 16:16-35 (36-40)
May 12, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

The scripture for today is the last in our series on the book of Acts, and next week we will celebrate the day of Pentecost. We’ve been tracking the apostles Peter and Paul in their early journeys as they go out from Jerusalem to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ve been witnesses to the power of God at work in the world to redeem and redirect and release people from sin, captivity, illness and ignorance, literally raising one person from the dead, and figuratively setting all of them free for new life. So we come to this story now, in Philippi, where we traveled last week with Paul. Paul has been staying with Lydia, a new convert, as he and Silas work in town to share the good news of Jesus with people. But every day, on the way to work, there’s this crazy shouting after them by this woman who tells fortunes for money.

Acts 16:16-35
One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman. She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling.  She began following Paul and us, shouting, "These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!" She did this for many days. This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, "In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!" It left her at that very moment. Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center. When her owners approached the legal authorities, they said, "These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can't accept or practice." The crowd joined in the attacks against Paul and Silas, so the authorities ordered that they be stripped of their clothes and beaten with a rod. When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them with great care. When he received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet in stocks. Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison's foundations. The doors flew open and everyone's chains came loose. When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul shouted loudly, "Don't harm yourself! We're all here!" The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He led them outside and asked, "Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?" They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household." They spoke the Lord's word to him and everyone else in his house.  Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.

Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian minister and missionary, was taken hostage in 1985 by Muslim extremists in Lebanon. He was held for 16 months and released without any explanation. He was held with a number of other Americans, including Father Lawrence Jenco and Terry Anderson. Weir’s deep faith carried him through that experience.

“…I remember saying to myself that I was still in the presence of God. I was shackled and they taped my face, leaving only a tiny spot open so I could breathe through my nose. After we stopped at one place, they put me in a box and closed the lid. A truck took me to what was to be my prison. They removed the tapes and put a blindfold on me instead. …
I tried to get my bearings. It was a small, bare room, seemingly completely cut off from the outside world. I felt my faith becoming rather weak. I missed the presence of God in there. I knew I must hold on to my identity at all cost. I let my imagination go to work. I looked up and I saw a round metal weight suspended from the light fixture above me. It looked like an eye. ‘Here's God's eye watching over me,' I thought.

On Christmas Day 1984, Mr. Weir said, “I thought of my family; of all the families who would be celebrating together in the 'normal' world. Then I hit on an idea. I would sing all the Christmas hymns and carols I could remember since my childhood. Now, my captors had told me not to make much noise. So my singing was more like a humming. But it helped.”

Like Paul and Silas, singing through the dark night, Weir sang the songs of his faith through that bleak Christmas. But also like Paul and Silas, Weir did not hate his captors, nor wish them ill. Weir recalls that one of his guards lamented that he too was a prisoner. He told Weir, “We've got to spend our time here looking after you, and we're not free.”[1]

When Weir emerged from captivity, it was with a new understanding of the plight of Palestinians and Muslims in the Middle East. “What the extremists are doing is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The resentment towards our policies (is) widespread, even among Arab moderates. They feel that our backing of Israel with $3 billion worth of weapons and other materials is a grave threat to their own lives. Unless the Palestinians achieve self-determination, there is little hope for peace in the Middle East….”

Weir’s experiences and his story informed the response of the church. After his release, he wrote a book entitled Captive Bound, Captive Free. And the next year, he was elected moderator of the General Assembly, At that gathering in 1987, the PC(USA) shifted its public position on the issues of Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East. The final document recognized the importance of the Holy Land for Jews, but it added an expression of sympathy for Palestinians and “all people to whom rights of 'land' are currently denied.” In a separate action, the church pledged to counteract bigotry against Muslims and Arabs in the U.S.[2]

A good story – captive bound, captive free.
Paul and Silas, bound as captives in a land far from home, are beaten and thrown into prison for healing a slave woman. She’s being used by her owners to make money, and since she is a slave, her owners are keeping that money. A common factor of all Luke’s narratives in the two-book set of Luke-Acts is the special attention he gives to the poor and downtrodden, and to women. But here Luke doesn’t mention that Paul felt compassion or even love for the woman shouting after them every day. Paul doesn’t feel sorry for her, enslaved and mentally off-balance. He is annoyed by her. Annoyed. So he sends the evil spirit away from her. Cures her. Heals her.

But she’s still a slave.  Still owned by these men. And they are furious. Paul and Silas have violated local customs, confronting a tiny sector of the economic system, and destroying their livelihood of exploiting this unfortunate woman. In short, Paul and Silas are a first century version of the Occupy movement. Occupy Philippi. They are arrested, stripped, beaten and thrown in jail. Never mind that they are Roman citizens, with rights as citizens. Never mind that the act they have undertaken was one of healing. They are guilty. Guilty of upsetting the status quo. Off to jail.

But of course, the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and no jail cell can hold the apostle if God doesn't want him imprisoned. So an earthquake comes and breaks their chains. Sets them free. 

The jailer is in despair.
When the warden finds out, he is dead meat. So he prepares to take his own life, to preempt the execution he must certainly suffer. But … Paul and Silas aren’t leaving, they reassure the jailer. He leads them out into the night and asks that question which everyone must finally ask in some way at some point in our lives: “What must I do to be rescued?”
They answer simply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

So the jailer takes them home, cleans them up, feeds them supper, and everybody in the whole household gets baptized. He’s overjoyed. A good story – captives bound, and captives freed.
Good story.

Really good story.
It’s got all the elements – good guys, bad guys, slave and cruel exploiters,  innocent victims, unjust charges, singing in the jail cell, an earthquake, a conversion for the jailer, freedom, irony, and dissembling government authorities. The temptation is to stay on the surface of the gripping story and skim across the spiritual aspects without confronting the layers and layers of relevance for us today. The temptation is to ignore the questions that niggle and nudge at the back of our minds.

Why didn’t Paul do something to free that poor woman?
Maybe she was better off before – now she is fully aware of her captivity.
Then there is this paradox of freedom and captivity that we see with Paul and Silas in relation to the jailer – who is really imprisoned, and who is really free?
Then there’s the personal element: What must I do to be rescued? 

But to really get the irony to this tale of Paul and Silas, we have to read on to the end of the chapter. Here’s what happens after that wonderful night with the jailer. The next day the authorities send the police to the jail to turn them loose. Apparently without a hint of irony, they say “You’re set free. Go in peace” But Paul’s not having any of that! He tells the police to go tell the authorities they are Roman citizens, and they have violated their constitutional rights, as it were. This alarms the mayor and the whole town council of Philippi. These boys are trouble. So they go and escort them out of prison and then like the sheriff’s posse in a western movie, tell them to get out of town by sundown! Paul and Silas get out of Philippi and head to Thessalonica, where they run into more troubles with the locals. 

There’s another good story.
When Benjamin Weir was released by his captors, it turns out that it was an arms-for hostage deal engineered by the Reagan administration: Iran-Contra. The United States sold armaments to Iran in a deal that was was brokered and facilitated by the government of Israel. When he was asked whether the recent U.S-Iran arms deal affected his release, Mr. Weir said that he could not be certain. “Certainly … I would regret it very much. The best way to stop kidnappings of Americans is to help remove the causes that make some men choose that drastic method in despair," he said.[3]

In approximately the year 50 AD, the first Christians faced captivity, imprisonment, and persecution, and they responded to their jailer with compassion, healing, and the gospel. His despair, which led him to the brink of suicide, was relieved by the message of grace brought by his prisoners. 

In 1985, a group that called itself Islamic Jihad held a Presbyterian minister captive, and when he was freed, he responded with compassion, an attempt at healing, and the gospel. The message hasn’t changed. Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.

Now, more than 25 years later, we still struggle with these issues.
To what forces are we held captive?
What does it take for us to be truly free from sin and truly captive to Christ?
What must we do to be released from the chains of hatred,
from the prison of prejudice,
from the fortress of our past mistakes?
How can we be set free from our fear?
What must we do to be rescued from the anxiety created by an onslaught of frightening news stories, from a relentless pressure to consume beyond our means, from the solitary confinement of  lives that have no meaning beyond pleasing ourselves?
The message hasn’t changed.

Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.
To believe in Jesus means more than simply nodding when we hear his name.
To truly live in Christ and have him live in us demands that we make ourselves captive to the Holy Spirit, servants to the law of love, slaves to the message that Jesus taught.

To truly live in Christ is to be his servants, and his alone. 
Through his pardon, we become free from sin and in his spirit, our spirits are captive to his grace. His love breaks the chains of hatred, shatters all the walls that divide us from self and neighbor, and emancipates us from the slavery of our past. 
In him, we are given the gift of a new life of freedom, unbound to share the good news— and to shout it louder than the evening news: through Jesus Christ, we are set free.

The prison walls will crumble, and we will live not in confinement but in the blessed sunlight of community, and no matter what may happen, our spirits, through the Holy Spirit, will be free.
Believe in the Lord Jesus, in what he said, what he taught, what he did,
--  in his life, his death, and his resurrection, and you will be set free.

The songwriter said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
In Christ Jesus, we have nothing left to lose, and everything to gain.
Thanks be to God for freedom!



Sunday, May 5, 2013

On the Road Again…With a Detour

Acts 16: 9-15
May 5, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We've been traveling with Peter and Paul these last few weeks and experiencing with them the power of the Holy Spirit, the comforter and presence of God that came to the church on Pentecost, which we celebrate in just two more weeks. I mention this because for most modern churches, Pentecost, coming at the end of the Easter season and the start of summer, marks for us more of an ending than a beginning.

After Pentecost, we say, we won’t be so busy. After Pentecost comes Memorial Day weekend, and vacations, and VBS. No more Sunday Christian Education classes, after Pentecost. So the day that represents the first stirrings of the Holy Spirit, the great and glorious celebration of the beginning of the faith, the very birthday of the church, has become for us a sign that it is time to relax!

Those first disciples were always getting signs, always seeing visions that told them where to go, and what they were to do.

Acts 16:9-15
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 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.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.

The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying,
“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.”
And she prevailed upon us.

Pop quiz – what popular artist recorded a song whose title is part of the sermon title?
Hint, it was not Alvin and the Chipmunks. That’s right, Willie Nelson.

That song, “On the Road Again,” is the quintessential traveling musician song. It’s also a great description of many of the stories in the book of Acts. Three weeks ago, we caught Saul as his entire life took a detour, when he was knocked off his …donkey… and brought into a life of faith in Christ. The last couple of weeks, we’ve been following Peter as he took a detour from his planned itinerary to drop in and visit Dorcas, and raise her from the dead. Then Peter had to go over and visit Cornelius, the gentile who came to know Jesus through a vision and through Peter’s witness.

Now we are back with Saul, who is Paul, the Apostle. And he is about to get on the road again. We've moved into the 16th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, so we are past the Jerusalem Council that I mentioned last week. That was the first big confab of this new group called “Christians,” and it is where they decided that Gentiles didn't need to become Jews in order to come to faith in Jesus Christ. I mentioned last week that the Jerusalem Council was the first such meeting but by no means the last.

But now, in chapter 16, we’re past that dispute, everything has been sorted out, and the elders have given out the list of what can and can’t be allowed. Paul has begun his missionary journeys in earnest, following the Roman roads and spreading the gospel out to the empire. His plan was to go East.

In the verses prior to those you heard in the scripture reading, it says:
“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 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.”

Now, twice, Paul (and whoever is with him) has been detoured from his intended route.
They have been given a sign, a very clear sign, in a vision from God. They are to go to Macedonia. So they do, to the leading city of that region, Philippi.

If you are like me, and you sometimes skip ahead to the end of a book to find out how it ends, and you want to know more about Philippi, look up Philippians in your Bible, and you’ll see the results of this visit. But for now, Paul and his companion or companions
are making their first visit to this town.

Philippi has a fascinating history. The city was founded by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, around 350 BC, and was the site of a strategic garrison. It provided access to gold mines and was the site of a royal mint. For a brief period, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, Macedonia became the most powerful state in the world, controlling a territory that included the former Persian empire, stretching as far as the Indus River; at that time it inaugurated the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greek civilization.[1]

Philippi later had some fame as the site of a battle in the Roman civil war, the war that erupted after the assassination of Julius Caesar. There, Mark Antony and Octavian confronted Caesar’s assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus and Cassius – remember, “Et tu, Brute?”? Antony and Octavian were victorious in the Battle of Philippi. After that victory, they released some of their veteran soldiers and colonized them in the city. One source says that it was a popular retirement spot for Roman military.

So Paul comes to this “leading city” in Macedonia. It is his custom to go find the Jewish community, so he goes down to the river side on the Sabbath. He comes upon a group of women, gathered in prayer, and he sits down, in the pose of a teacher, and talks with them.

One of the women the Apostle Paul meets is a leading citizen of Philippi, a wealthy business woman named Lydia apparently a single woman. She listens eagerly to what Paul has to say, and the Lord opens her heart to the gospel. And so, not only does Lydia welcome the gospel message, but she and her household are baptized, and she welcomes Paul into her home. This gives Paul a base of operations for his further work in Philippi, which we’ll see more of next week, when the journey detours into a jail term for the Apostle.

These stories from Acts, while they may seem distant from us and from our own stories, are filled with parallels to our own lives. I read somewhere recently that a Gallup poll of Christians, years ago, asked if any of them had seen visions, and many answered that they had. But few people bring this up in conversation. 

It’s that awkward moment, when you mention casually, 
“So, Jesus spoke to me last night in a dream, and told me to go to Keokuk.” 
People just don’t know what to say…

We certainly aren’t looking for such events to change our lives. Or maybe we do, in fact, have such signs and visions ourselves, but we are unable to interpret them, or understand them. In my email every day, I get a little picture and story from Story People, a company in Decorah, Iowa, that makes signs and cards and posters. The other day, my Story People email said this:

I used to wait for a sign, she said, before I did anything.
Then one night I had a dream, and an angel in black tights came to me and said,
“You can start any time now.”
And then I said, “Is this a sign?” and the angel started laughing and I woke up.
Now, I think the whole world is filled with signs, but if there’s no laughter,
I know they’re not for me.”[2]

I wonder sometimes if we have become blind and tone-deaf  to the signs around us. Certainly, most of the time we don’t see visions of people saying, “Come over here and help us.” But we seem to be waiting for some stunning moment, an angel, or sky-writing, or Jesus coming to us in a blinding light. I think we sometimes expect a flash of lightning to direct us, instead of just going down to the river to pray.

For us, that place may not be the river side. It may be the church, or the coffee shop, or the band concert, or club meeting, or the board meeting, or the dinner party – wherever the people are gathered. And the sign may be that someone asks us something – about our faith, our church, our beliefs, our position on an issue. The vision may be of a person in need – a child who needs lunch, or a lonely senior citizen, or a group that needs a safe place to meet, or a youth who needs a caring friend, or someone who doesn’t know how to ask for our help.

We may feel called, or invited, or even compelled to take a detour, to engage in a new kind of conversation, to explore a heartfelt question, to go out of our way, or in a different direction, because we sense God has asked us to do so. And how do we know that it is indeed a sign or a calling from God?  How do we distinguish a genuine opportunity to detour for ministry from a twinge of guilt or a bit of undigested pork or a fever of religious fanaticism?

Judging from the stories we have read so far in Acts, there are some pretty clear indicators:
If we take these stories as a guide, we can conclude that in a real God-detour, the information we get is reasonable –  there’s no sense in which the detour is crazy. The route is fairly clear, and if there are obstacles, we can see how to overcome them, or we have the community of faith with us to help us overcome. When we take the path of one of God’s detours, the way becomes clear. There is a Quaker saying that when God wants something to happen, “way will open.” There is a Zen saying that says, “Move, and the way will open.” Or, like my Story People story,  we just hear the words, “You can start any time now.”

Sometimes we can’t see where the detour will take us, but in this story, when Paul speaks with the women, the Bible tells us “The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly.” Now, just in case you are getting nervous because you are afraid I am going to talk about the E-word – evangelism, and you are worried that I’m going to tell you to share your faith, take a deep breath, don’t worry. Nobody is asking you to go out and knock on doors and thump on a Bible and push your beliefs on other people. What you are responsible for – what we are all invited to do is to be open to the Holy Spirit, to let her work in our lives, and watch for her movement, whether it is like a gentle breeze or a roaring wind.

To do that, we need to pay attention, to be awake, and to be open to the signs and visions that God may have for us, to be ready to take a detour. And we need to remember that when that happens, and we respond, the result is not fear or anger or unhappiness – the result is eager listening, gladness, hospitality, a welcome.

So the detour is not a scary winding road to nowhere, but a path that takes us to a place of great joy. Most of us are more comfortable taking the beaten path, following the strategic plan, drawing up the future and staying on the main road. But there can be discovery, and joy, and happiness, on the road, with a detour, if we can be open to the vision.

One of the clear signs we are given is at this table, in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. When we come to this table, we receive a clear sign of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, grace and hospitality for ALL people. We are welcomed into a vision of God’s kingdom at a table where all people are loved and welcomed to come in, sit down, be fed and nourished. We do not need to sign our names to a list of doctrines, or subscribe to a statement of belief, or prove that we are worthy. We only need to come with hearts open to the good news, hands open to receive the bread of life, eyes open to see the cup that is offered freely and with love. The sacrament of communion is a sign, a sign of God’s extravagant love.

When you detour away from the world, from your own plans, away from self and toward this table, you come into Christ’s presence. It is a detour that takes you on the road that leads to a life of meaning. And if you listen carefully, you might hear the sound of joyful laughter, and the voice of an angel saying, “You can start any time now.”


[2] Waiting for Signs, © 1976, Brian Andreas.