A sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter: Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29
As a prolog, I’d like to thank you for your prayers and expressions of condolences as Angie, and I traveled to and from Phoenix for her brother Gene’s funeral. 3,000 miles is a long way to travel, and after the initial two-hour delay at Lonoke, the trip went well. The 6,000-foot altitude difference in our travels was almost the only other unexpected adventure. In Holbrook AZ, when I took Nugget out for his early morning walk it was 38 degrees. We’d packed for the 90-degree weather in Phoenix.
The other unexpected realization was that, on Angie’s side of our family, we are now matriarch and patriarch. This is new, and we don’t quite know how to be the elder generation when your nieces’ and nephews’ parents are dead. We cannot be their parents, and we are still discovering how to be the cradles of the older generation’s wisdom and experience.
All by itself this is no big deal. But it is not all by itself.
- There are pending generational changes in my family; my mom has been dead many years, and my dad is 87; who knows when a change will come about.
- There are also local changes: the population seems to be decreasing,
- we are suffering from low oil prices with hundreds of layoffs from pipe manufacturers,
- city and county sales taxes are down, and
- though local schools are innovative and are doing remarkably well improving in many areas, there is still a struggle with student learning as expected.
Nationally, the stock market continues to be strong; but I heard the other day, that only a few, less than 10, companies now have a AAA credit rating. International business continues to be sluggish. We continue to have issues with violence; and there are the continuing wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemeni, all of which are contributing to the refugee crisis. And the latest unexpected concern is the Zika virus, and we live in a drained swamp. Of course, there is our presidential campaign where everyone wants to shout and insult the other, and no one wants to debate looking for new visions.
David Brooks wrote in his column last Friday about the betrayal of our current political discourse. He writes how so many Americans are falling through the cracks;
feel pervasively betrayed: by for-profit job-training outfits that left them awash in debt, by spouses and stepparents, by people who collect federal benefits but don’t work. They’ve stopped even expecting loyalty from their employers. The big flashing lights say: NO TRUST.
Social statistics reveal a 30 year high in suicide rates, historic lows in social trust and the persuasive belief that the American dream is out of reach (Brooks). Brook’s concludes we may need a new story.
But this is not the first time things have not gone as planned. Paul and Timothy are headed to Asia to preach; only the Spirit won’t let them get there. The go on to Mysia, Bithynia but the Spirit constrains them. They end up in Troas where Paul has a vision about going to Macedonia, and they end up in Philippi (Acts 16:6-8). On the Sabbath, they go outside the city, the usual local place for prayer, but not exactly mainstream. There they run into a woman, which is not exactly what you would expect. It turns out Lydia is a wealthy merchant, also unexpected. By now it may not be surprising that she is a worshipper of God, perhaps a God-fearer, or a Gentile follower. She may not actively be practicing, and might have been hedging her bets by worshipping another god or so. The central happening in the story is that Paul’s words convert her, and she and her household are baptized, and they get it, because immediately on being baptized Lydia invites them to stay with her, extending to them the oldest of our Judeo-Christian traditions of hospitality.
Sometimes a learning from a story is what is not there. There is no indication Paul or his companions are trouble or frightened by their plans’ failures. They do not seem to be troubled. They do not seem to be afraid. Actually, they seem to be at peace; and not just lack of conflict or trouble, they know shalom, they have that sense of wholeness, a feeling of rightness that they are in harmony with the people and things around them. They are basking in God’s pleasure. Paul and his companions know that no matter what happens, God will not abandon them (Lose).
Shalom is not something you can seek or grasp; you can only receive it. And we can only do that as we let go of the many things we are trying to hold onto so we discover open hands that can receive God’s gift of shalom (Lose).
So when Paul and company come to an unexpected place, Philippi; they go to worship at an unexpected location, outside the city walls, down by the riverside, they meet an unexpected seeker. We don’t know if Lydia knows she is seeking or not. However, her behavior leads us to this understanding. Paul and company are able to share with her the agape, the love of God, through their actions (Leggett). They are able to share the presence of God, the pleasure of basking in God’s presence. Following the Spirit leads them into the unexpected that results in the impossible dream of taking the Gospel to the farthest reaches of the world coming true. They experience how the impossible is not only possible; they experience the impossible becoming reality (Epperly).
We all have expectations of life. Some of us may have plans, and some of those may be formalized. I don’t know anyone who has not experienced the unexpected, perhaps constrained by the Spirit, perhaps by the arbitrariness of life. Brook’s would agree that the US is in an unexpected place. He suggests that we need a new story:
maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over the isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today (Brooks).
St. Stephen’s is not all that different. We have expectations, some formal, some unspoken, some new, some long-standing, some may have been unknowingly expected. And now we are in an unexpected place. Perhaps it’s time for a new story. Brook’s observes that a new story is already emerging in some communities; lead by local patriots creating radical schools, arts festivals, public-private partnerships that are meeting previously unmet needs and expectations (Brooks). The same is true for St. Stephens; I think Friday Families is a prime example, but there may be others. Paul and his companions were constrained by the Spirit several times and even thought the story reads as if they instantly knew it, that is not necessarily so. For instance, how do they know the man in Paul’s vision is from Macedonia, which is way at the edge of their world (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner)? So it may take some time for St. Stephen’s new story to emerge and mature. However, a new story is not the only story St. Stephen’s or our country needs.
As Christians, we have a very old story. We proclaim it to be THE Story of all the cosmos. Meaning, that even as we seek to discern how we are being called anew, let us remember that we continue to live in THE Story, basking the presence of God, revealing God’s love to each other and others in how we act, trusting that as we let go of one vision, that just a Paul did, we will discover an impossible dream leading us beyond the probable right into the continuing ever growing presence of God, right here, right now.
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Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 1 5 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
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Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 1 5 2016.
Jones, Judith. Commentary on John 14:2329. 1 5 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Leggett, James. “Look to the Lord, Easter 6 (C) – 2016.” 1 5 2016. Sermons that Work.
Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection is Companionship. 1 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lose, David. Easter 6 C: Peace the World Cannot Give. 27 4 2016.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Smith, Mitzi J. Commentary on Acts 16:915. 1 5 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.