May 26, 2019 – Sermon

Easter 6    May 26, 2019    Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10,22-22:5;

John 14:23-29, Acts 16:6-15          Where to?

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A rabbi’s walking down the street one morning in the Russian village where he lives. A soldier asks “where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” the rabbi replies.

“What do you mean you don’t know,” the soldier says. “Every day for 25 years I’ve seen you leave your house and walk down the street to the synagogue to pray. What do you mean you don’t know where you’re going? You’re going to jail now, for not answering my question properly.”

And the soldier takes the rabbi to the jail – and the rabbi says –

“As I said… I didn’t know… where I was going.”

Pastor Sandra shared this story with our prayer group last week. She found it in a book on prayer, The Breath of the Soul, by Benedictine monastic Joan Chittister.

And this darkly humorous and all-too-serious story makes a pretty good point of entry for our story from Acts today… Where the apostle Paul and traveling companions have set out on a mission trip, heading for the Roman province of Asia (in what’s now the northwest part of Turkey – Asia Minor – not the much larger Asian continent). But the Holy Spirit has other plans – and blocks the missionaries from going where they thought they were going…

So – re-calibrate – re-calibrate – we can almost hear the spiritual GPS re-calibrating their route… As the travelers try now to go Northeasterly to the region of Bithynia… But the Holy Spirit again blocks them from going where they thought they were going… Again it’s recalibrating time  – and not knowing where to go now, the travelers pause in the port city of Troas…

Where, in the night, Paul receives a vision, in which a man of Macedonia pleads – “come, help us over in Macedonia…” And without delay they sail across a corner of the Mediterranean Sea quickly to Philippi – a major city of the province of Macedonia – and a Roman colony. (A reminder the  Roman Empire is in the business of colonizing all political, economic, and cultural life throughout the Mediterranean world.) And the travelers, to their credit, listen well to the Spirit – and adjust their travel plans accordingly…

And a deeper, less obvious kind of re-routing of the journey is also happening, we notice. As now, after a few days, in which they’ve probably been praying and observing – the mission group makes its way to the riverside outside the city gates, where they find a group of women at prayer. They speak the gospel message to the women, and one them, Lydia, listens especially intently – decides to be baptized – and all her household’s baptized with her. She insists now on hosting the missionaries in her home. And we notice…

In Paul’s vision it was a man of Macedonia who pleads with him and his companions to come and help… But now here in Macedonia, there’s no  Macedonian men waiting to hear the gospel. Instead it’s the women of Macedonia who listen and accept the gospel – outside the gates of the city, by the riverside – not in a temple, church, or civic center. Signaling we’re in less-charted spiritual territory – where old maps are of limited use.

Yet when we don’t know where we are or where we’re going… our scriptures can still help. As we remember our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, called by God to leave home, 75 and 65 years old, told to go where they don’t yet know, to a place God will indicate only later.  Remember also how God leads Israel forty years in the wilderness to the promised land… by a long, indirect route… to avoid unnecessary conflicts and temptations… (A bit like waiting til the wee hours of the morning to avoid the Bourne bridge rotary…)

So, whenever we, like gospel travelers of old, or our friend the rabbi, don’t know exactly where we’re going… We’re invited to remember God’s preference for roads less traveled… Where it’s easier to notice what we often don’t notice… on life’s crowded highways…Where already even before this Memorial weekend I’ve been noticing more people cutting me off in traffic, and one guy Friday afternoon in traffic practically jumping out of his seat waving one finger on each hand as if his car was on fire… as we say welcome back to summer on the Cape…

In times like these it’s hard to notice unless we get off the highways and slow down… Hard to notice details that make the story come alive. Details like Lydia, who turns out, will be the first person baptized as a Christian on the continent of Europe – is owner-operator of her own business – with staff or servants –  owner of a house large enough to accommodate visiting travelers… And Lydia is an immigrant – from the city of Thyatira – in the same province of Asia – that was the intended destination of the gospel travelers… so…

Maybe the Holy Spirit, with just a hint of irony, sent our mission guys to Philippi not Asia, because Lydia, the Asian immigrant, may be the one God will send to bring the gospel back to her home province of Asia some day.

Ironically again, Lydia’s home city Thyatira is part of a district called Lydia. Bible scholar Matt Skinner suggests her name, Lydia, may be a nickname that recalls her home place and status as an immigrant. Perhaps her name also being the name of a large district helps us see her as a new prototype Christian – a type of person we will meet more frequently now in urban areas of the Roman empire. Women, slaves, immigrants, and others living at the margins of patriarchal culture – will now be joining the universal Christian church in much larger numbers…initially through the labors of Paul, Silas, Timothy and others…Then through the efforts of those they reach…

And in just this very brief sketch of one quick encounter by the riverside… we glimpse yet another shift of direction – in how the gospel is to be transmitted across cultural boundaries… A shift of direction… we’re still only really beginning to know how to do…

As we pause and listen… and pray about where we’re going….. Praying to be open to the leading of the Spirit… Remembering…

We already do know our ultimate destination. We know the songs about gathering at the river where bright angel feet have trod… Marching to Zion, that beautiful city of God… We know we’re heading for the heavenly New Jerusalem – where we’ll someday reach the heavenly gates that are never locked…. We know our ultimate destination. Though, in the powerful vision written for us in Revelation, we actually don’t go to heaven – heaven comes to us. We don’t travel to the heavenly  city – the heavenly city descends from heaven to us on earth.

We don’t need to go anywhere in one sense to get to heaven. Yet in another sense we’re always truly on a journey. A spiritual journey, a faith journey. And much like in our reading from Acts today, we can’t depend on existing maps or navigational tools to get us where we’re going. Like the gospel travelers in the book of Acts, we too depend on the Holy Spirit for direction and guidance…

Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is always a trustworthy guide. But guiding we humans is hard work even for the Spirit – if we don’t recognize the biblical landmarks we encounter… on this heavenly journey… We won’t know what’s going on in the New Jerusalem if we don’t remember Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel…

To know our spiritual whereabouts we need to be able to remember…

In the beginning God plants the first human family in a garden and a life-giving river flows out from the garden, and the tree of life is in the garden – along with that infamous other tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil… And having been duly instructed – you may eat of all the trees of the garden, except – do not eat of that one tree of the knowledge of good and evil – which tree, then, do our spiritual ancestors go ahead and eat from anyway?

But in spite of all our human sin, error and willful disobedience… In spite of our mostly dreadful human record of wrecking and ruining so much of God’s good creation, entrusted to our care by God… Still, in the end, again, we see – a river of life – and the tree of life… it’s leaves now given for the healing of the nations… And even the kings of the nations, who we see just a few chapters earlier in Revelation, struck down by the angel of the Lord – now show up again, bringing the glory of the nations into the heavenly city. How does that happen and how can we understand this?

We’ll have to wait for the heavenly city to descend to know… But here and now we do know… The heavenly city is a gift, not something we earn… Nor something we build for ourselves… (That would be tower of babel in re-runs, not the kingdom of God.)

The best short answer may be – we really never know where we’re going – even for the rest of today, let alone tomorrow and the next day. But even if (God forbid) we find ourselves in jail – like our rabbi friend in our opening story, and like St Paul in the next episode of Acts in Philippi… If we’re down with the Holy Spirit we’ll come through fine… As with Paul and companions, as they leave jail and return to the home of Lydia to say good bye on their way out of town – only to discover – now there are some men of Macedonia there too, along with all the women –  listening well to the good news together now… So –

We don’t know where the Holy Spirit is going to lead us next… But when we listen to the Spirit we know – the fields of Zion yield a thousand sacred sweets  before we  reach the heavenly hill, or walk the golden streets…And among the many things about where we’re going that we don’t know – one gospel truth we know for sure – is that the way to heaven is to follow Jesus – learn his word – live in his peace – live by his law of love…

Then even when we don’t know where we’re going next… We always know Who we’re going with… And Who is going with us, always…

Thanks be to God. Amen.