Alleluia Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
Have you ever been stuck? Have you ever had a plan that looked really good, but every time you tried to put it into action you were stopped by roadblocks; nothing coming together, no clear vision emerging? That’s where St Paul was when our story from Acts begins. Paul and his travel companions were literally at a crossroads in their mission. They were in the middle of what today is Turkey, and they intended to go north towards the Black Sea, but for some reason it wasn’t working out.
Then Paul had a dream. Somehow, he knew that the man in his dream was from Macedonia – maybe it was his accent that gave him away – and in response to the dream, everything changed. As we might say today, “Make plans and God laughs”. Paul let go of his desire to evangelize Asia, and the team set out westward. They took ship across the Aegean Sea to northern Greece and a few days later arrived in Philippi, the capital city of Macedonia. Christianity had arrived in Europe, a momentous event in the history of the world.
Another significant thing happens at this point in Acts: the narrator stops talking about “them” and starts talking about “us”. As you know, Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, so it seems that Luke himself has now joined the team. The story is no longer about some people somewhere, but about us: it’s personal. And personal stories are always the most compelling.
It’s a man who calls to Paul in his dream, but it’s a woman who turns out to be an important new convert. Lydia is a Gentile businesswoman, trading in the expensive and exclusive commodity of purple dye – there were actually laws restricting its use to the upper classes of the Roman Empire. So Lydia is obviously wealthy and she has access to the highest levels of society. She’s quite a catch for the missionaries!
Lydia is a seeker, a “worshiper of God” we are told: she is not a Jew but she feels drawn to the God of Moses. She and her women friends – maybe her employees – are hanging out by the river where Paul, Silas, and Luke come seeking a synagogue. The missionaries enter into conversation with the women. Lydia is captivated by the Gospel. She and her household are baptized and she insists on opening her own home to the travelers while they are in town. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Lydia became one of the major donors supporting Paul in his ministry. She is a hugely important figure in the story of the early church: the first European convert, a woman with both wealth and influence.
The story is dramatic on its own, but when you consider how it unfolds, you have to be amazed at the fact that it happened at all. What if Paul had stuck to his original plan, in spite of the dream, and headed into northern Turkey instead of going to Greece? What if they had moved on from Philippi before the Sabbath Day? What if they had found the synagogue before they ran across Lydia and her friends? What if they had obeyed the prevailing etiquette rules and not started a conversation with strange women? What if Lydia had not been at a place in her life where she was ready to hear and believe the good news of Jesus Christ?
The key to all this seems to be the willingness of certain human beings to listen for God’s call. Paul discerned a call to evangelize Europe. Luke discerned a call to go with him and keep a travelog, which became the Acts of the Apostles. Lydia discerned a call to disregard cultural norms, engage with a bunch of foreign men, and believe what they had to say. And the evangelists, entrusted with the mission of sharing the good news, didn’t insist on sticking to their itinerary, but discerned a need in the community and responded to it. Macedonia needs some good news. These women want to hear us. Let’s put aside our own agenda and follow the call.
Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” We will come to them. Jesus comes to us. Jesus comes to where the need is, where the hunger and thirst for righteousness is most acute, where the loneliness and the isolation overwhelm, where the outcast and the stranger cry out. Jesus comes to us in the shape of people who bring good news to the poor in spirit and who proclaim release to the captives. Who are these people, the Pauls and Silases and Lukes of our world? They are us. This is our job as people of the Jesus movement: to recognize God’s call and respond in love with what hurting people need, wherever that response may take us.
Last summer we enjoyed an intensive series of summer socials in parishioner homes all over the area, from Bonita to Del Mar to Spring Valley. Well over 200 of us enjoyed time together and built relationships, and we didn’t do it at church but out in the neighborhoods. We held the socials because we perceived a need in the cathedral family for stronger bonds of affection at a time when we were perceiving some negative energy in the congregation.
This summer we are going to do it again, but this time it will be less of a sprint and more of a long-distance hike, as we look ahead to three plus years of construction on this campus. There’s a continuing hunger for connection, for opportunities to be together, and so we are responding to the need by going out into the neighborhoods again, and hopefully creating mini-communities of cathedral folks who will come together from time to time for fellowship, encouragement, and even carpooling to church, in the face of the parking challenges.
None of this happens without the love of God as we experience it in Jesus Christ, who dwells with us and among us, who brought us together as strangers and has made us friends, who calls us into ministry in unlikely places and with unlikely people.
On Wednesday evening Bishop-elect Susan and I were honored to attend the annual interfaith Iftar hosted by the Islamic Center of San Diego. The theme of the evening was the role of the media in the development of a united community. We learned about several initiatives, including a new children’s book “Born Here”, illustrating that Americans come in all colors, religions, and ethnicities; a joint prayer service by Christians and Muslims at the border wall in Friendship Park; and a movie that tells the story of a young, contemporary Syrian refugee and her relationship with the poetry of Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet whose words (in translation) are to be found today in Hallmark cards everywhere.
Responding to the needs of the community: going to the schools to address bigotry, to the border to witness to injustice, and interpreting a global tragedy through popular poetry: our Muslim neighbors are showing us what it means to be bearers of good news to the world.
As St Paul’s enters into the construction period we will be listening hard for God’s voice, moving forward with our plans but ready to respond to the movement of the Spirit.
I want you to think again of a time when your plans were upended by something that you now believe to have been God’s will for you. My story goes back to 1992, when I had two small children and planned to deepen my roots in New Hampshire, standing for election to the vestry and starting Education for Ministry. It wasn’t a dream that interrupted my plans, it was lunch with our assistant rector, a young mother like me, and a conversation that included what I thought at the time was an idle question about the ordination process.
My life since then has taken turns and brought me to places I would never have imagined, just as that dream once took Paul to Europe instead of Asia. It hasn’t all been wonderful: my marriage didn’t survive the stress of parish ministry, and there have been griefs a-plenty along the way, but I am confident that paying attention to that call all those years ago was the right thing to do. I am at peace with the journey.
Now turn to someone near you and share your story of God calling you in a direction you didn’t expect. What happened? How did it change you? When did you recognize it as God’s plan? When did you come to peace with it? 2 minutes….
Jesus offers us peace. “My peace I give to you.” The peace of Jesus isn’t the world’s peace. It isn’t anesthesia. It isn’t a Pax Romana or a Pax Americana that spreads a thin layer of peace-like calm over a roiling mess of racism, homophobia, bigotry, greed, and fear. It’s a peace that Jesus has won for us by going through the crucible of suffering on our behalf, defeating the power of death so that we might have life. It’s a peace that enables us to move beyond our fear and hold steady in the midst of chaos and uncontrollable change, so that we can keep the words of Jesus and find the courage to say who we are and whose we are, to speak truth to power and insist on the value of love.
So let’s keep listening for the words of Jesus. Let’s step out to share our stories, to share good news with our neighbors, ready to go where we are needed, filled with the peace that passes understanding. Let’s renew our commitment to the one who created us, who redeemed us, and who sustains us through his living and life-giving body. Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
May 26 2019
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges