Led in a New Direction

“The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step,” according to the well-known adage. But, someone will quickly add, it helps if you know where you’re going, otherwise that 1000 mile journey could turn into quite a few more miles if you head down the wrong path. Make a plan. Chart a course. Envision your future, and then work towards it.

An Eastertide sermon based on Acts 16:9-15.

Charting your future isn’t exclusively an exercise for high school seniors. We didn’t read it this morning, but St. Paul had made a plan for the journey he wanted to undertake to spread the good news about Jesus. But God had other plans. In the verses immediately preceding our lesson we read, “Paul and his companions 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 to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Paul had a clear plan to go to Asia and then, when he was thwarted by the Spirit, to go instead to Bithynia. But, get this, God stopped him from going there too. Now, just to clarify, Paul wanted to go to these places in order to share the gospel news about Jesus. It wasn’t as if he was doing something like Jonah when God told him to go to Ninevah, and he deliberately went in the opposite direction. (This, let me remind you, ultimately causes him to spend a few nights in the belly of a whale.) So even though Paul has both a Plan A and a Plan B, he hits a dead end and so he waits.

That’s when Paul has a dream. There was a man from Macedonia who was begging him to come to Macedonia to help them. Now, if a high school senior got up one morning and told their parents that they had a dream about an admissions counselor telling them that they should attend a school that hadn’t been even been on their radar screen at all, well I suspect those parents wouldn’t be quite so certain it was a message from God. They would be asking if there was a late night snack involving a pizza the night before causing those dreams to be whacko. But not Paul and his companions. They immediately start packing and make their way to the district of Macedonia and into the city of Philippi.

Paul is there a number of days and then, on the sabbath, looks for the place where people are praying. There doesn’t seem to have been a synagogue there in that non-Jewish city, so the ones who would gather to worship the God of Israel would do it at a quiet place outside the city gates where they could pray. And Paul’s right, some women gather there. Paul begins teaching them, and Lydia, a worshipper of God, listens to them. She was a merchant—selling purple cloth to the wealthy people of the area—and the Lord opens her heart to their message. As a result, she and her household are baptized.

Which is an amazing turn of events. God blocks Paul from going to two different locations, sends him a vision of a man from a different place asking for help. He goes to that place from his dream only to find a Gentile woman who runs her own business and household—uncommon for that day—who responds to the message of God. He, a Jewish male religious leader, shares the message of God with a foreign wealthy woman, and she responds to the way of Jesus, and gets baptized. God went to amazing lengths in order to bring the good news to Lydia—someone so very different from Paul.

One commentator suggests that this drama portrays a theological truth: “God’s saving grace dismantles various social barriers that cultivate strife between people.” We know about that strife, don’t we? We’ve seen the rise of more and more distrust between people who are different from one another socially, racially, politically, economically, religiously. Rather than barriers coming down, it feels like more are going up. Last week’s racially motivated hate crime in Buffalo exposed it again, especially when the killer ranted about the so called Replacement Theory. This conspiracy theory claims that White Americans are systematically being replaced by immigrants, refugees, religious minorities, Jewish people, and non-whites in general, and the fear that such people will do away with white culture. That fear led an 18 year old to drive over three hours in order to murder Black people as they shopped for groceries at their neighborhood store. Sadly, such fear-filled beliefs are often rooted in Christian Nationalism, a marriage between religious beliefs and politics with the US being seen as a new Israel. As pastor and sociologist Tony Campolo put it, “Mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream and horse manure. It doesn’t hurt the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”

I suspect some you may be worried that I’m crossing over into politics this morning. That even getting into discussing difficult current events like this, and the motivations behind them, is going to divide people. Especially when I just read a quote about how mixing of religion and politics doesn’t do the religious belief any good. So I’ll stay in my lane this morning, and I will say this: racism is a sin. Perpetuating a conspiracy that non-white people will destroy our nation is not of God. Cutting short the lives of 10 mostly African-American people simply going about their daily lives all because of the color of their skin is anti-Christ. Such views are anathema to kingdom of God.

As civil rights theologian the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman put it “It cannot be denied that too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed—this, despite the gospel.” Because the gospel message of Jesus Christ is especially good news to the downtrodden and marginalized, to those often forgotten in our world. However, we continue to build up barriers and walls especially within the church. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who observed that 11am on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of the week. Studies in recent years show that this observation holds. Worship leads us further apart when it comes to diversity rather than closer together.

Here at St. Mark’s we have a history of being a place of worship for everyone, regardless of race, color, wealth, or station. One of my predecessors—the Rev. Gene Gall—marched during the Civil Rights era, ruffling some feathers back here at home I’ve heard. And we continue to live into the commitment and call to be a house of worship for all, although we remain largely a white congregation. Our work toward change must begin where it did with Lydia and Paul: it must begin with prayer. It must begin with encountering the living God in order that our lives might be transformed by God. Through prayer, we can be opened up to a new way of living. On that Saturday morning some 2000 years ago, Lydia went to a secluded place along the river in order to quiet her soul for prayer.

And God met her there. God made it so that Paul would encounter her at that moment to share the good news of Jesus. The Spirit worked, breaking down walls that would normally divide them, in order for the work of God to happen. And then the most amazing thing of all occurred: she invited Paul and  his companions to come to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And so they did.

Because when God works in our lives, community is found. When the Spirit of Jesus leads us into a new way of being, we open our hearts to people we’d normally not associate with. And the Spirit is prodding us in this time and place to change our way of thinking, to have our plans be modified. You see, it’s easy to continue on the path we’re as good people who don’t support White Nationalism or the rise in racially motivated hate crimes. But not being racist is not the same thing as being anti-racist, as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi describes it. We should desire to be fully against racism in all its many forms because it is not the way of Jesus. The grace and love of God calls us to embrace that beloved community where all are welcomed, respected, and cherished. Friends, our sisters and brothers on the margins are hurting. They continue to endure hatred and violence simply because of they way that they look. Let me say that again: They continue to endure hatred and violence simply because of they way that they look. 

So let us join in prayer. First for ourselves and the ways we’ve ignored systems that keep people in our society down as long as we’re doing fine. Let us pray for the end of violence in our nation, and especially for that against people of color. Let us open our hears up to the movement of the Spirit who wants to bring us to unexpected places in order to share the good news and love of the Risen Christ. And finally, let us allow that prayer to open our hearts up to the fullness of grace that breaks down barriers and all that divides us so that we might fully become the people of God living in community with one another.

Image by Mikes-Photography from Pixabay 

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