See Acts 16:9-15
Many years ago, Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and school chaplain, wrote a little book called The Sacred Journey. In that book, Buechner unpacked an idea that goes to the heart of the Christian faith: that it is in the ordinary moments of our lives, in the living of our lives, that God is made known. The point here was not some radical new insight of Beuchner’s, even if he does articulate it well. It’s a notion deeply rooted in the Bible, in both testaments.
But to really see and embrace this truth requires of us that we attend to the present moment. My spiritual director loves a little book called The Sacrament of the Present Moment, written by an eighteenth-century French Jesuit named Jean Pierre de Caussade. I commend the book to you, but even if you never read it, like Buechner’s book the “lead” has not been buried! The whole idea is found in the title! So even if you never get around to reading it, it is still possible to meditate on the title and then embrace that wisdom and then try to live it. Each moment, this present moment right now, is a sacrament that holds within it the eternal.
This is the same truth Jesus reveals when he reminds us to consider the lilies of the field, and the birds of the air, and to seek first God’s kingdom. Since we cannot change the past and since we cannot control the future, what is left for us is to do is to open our eyes and ears and to fully embrace what is here right now before our very eyes; this sacred present moment which is a sheer gift from God.
Theologically, we are speaking about the Incarnation: the Word takes on flesh to dwell among us. In the birth of a child or the death of a loved one and in so many less dramatic moments in between, God is being made manifest. God is with us in a meal shared with good friends, not just in an upper room in the first century but at a local diner today. God is with us not just in an encounter with a stranger on the road to Emmaus, but when your car breaks down on the Mass Pike headed toward Boston. God is with us not just at an empty tomb in a conversation with someone you assume is the gardener, but in our own memorial garden when we commend a loved one to God. In the midst of the ordinary moments of our lives, we encounter the Holy One. The journey really is sacred. And everywhere along the way in our sacred journeys, there God is.
The challenge is that too often our eyes don’t see, or our ears don’t hear, because far too often our attention is somewhere else. We don’t see and we don’t hear because we are stuck in the past. Maybe we are reliving some past glory days when we were the star of the baseball team. Or maybe we are reliving some part of the past that left us deeply wounded and scarred, and we are not yet healed. Or maybe we are anxious about the future, about what might happen next week or next month or next year. You know that worrying does work, right? Because like 90% of what we worry about never happens!
Now some sermons require that the preacher spend some time on historical context and maybe a sense of the geography of the Middle East or its social mores in order to unpack the Biblical text. And then we explore what happened and then we ask what it might mean for us today. But today’s text from Acts reveals another truth: a truth that I think requires this more philosophical and theological reflection that I have been speaking about so far today. It is a fairly simple notion to grasp, but it is profoundly difficult to embrace and to live. It is this: we need to pay attention to our lives, for Christ’s sake. Because it is there, in the living of our lives, in these sacred journeys, that Christ is being revealed. If Christ is alive (and that has been Easter claim for six weeks now!) then the risen Christ is found in the world as we go about our lives.
So let’s talk about St. Paul. If you read it quickly this reading from Acts sounds like a simple travelogue. But it is so much more than that. As we heard, he has this vision—this lure, this inclination, this dream to go to Macedonia. Maybe he even has this desire to go there because he’s heard the beaches are great. It’s probably all mixed up together if Paul was anything like us, and I think he was a lot like us. Something tells him he just has to go there. He is convinced that God is calling him to go there.
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.
Have you ever had that feeling? It’s very hard to explain. It may or may not be rational but almost always it is about more than reason. Sometimes we have to just trust those instincts to go where God is leading us even when we cannot yet see what will come of it.
Notice that Paul’s vision comes during the night. Like both Josephs in the Old and New Testaments, the Word of God comes to Paul in a dream, not in the light of day. Sometimes I think we want the skies to open up during the day, and for God to speak plainly: Rich, go to to Holden. Rich, go to Springfield. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go now!
But God’s call, in my experience, just doesn’t work like that. Dreams have to be interpreted. And we need to practice this kind of holy listening to this calling of voices. We don’t know, which is why we must discern and why we must have faith. There is almost never some clearly marked yellow brick road in real life: but that doesn’t mean there is not a sacred path to follow. We get hints and guesses and we figure it out as best we can. We get hunches that we can choose to trust and then follow; or not. Paul goes to Macedonia, convinced that is where God would have him go, but not yet clear about why.
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.
What strikes me is that they are not any place; they are someplace in particular—as we all must be. We can only be where we are in one place at a time. So you and I could book ourselves on one of those Bible trips and re-trace Paul’s steps and set sail from Troas and take a straight course to Samothrace and then check into a Bed and Breakfast there and then go along the next day to Neapolis and Philippi. And that would be really cool, I think, to re-trace the footsteps of this great apostle, and maybe even beneficial.
But something much harder to do and way more important is to walk our own sacred path and to pay attention to our dreams and to step out in faith by going where we believe God is leading us. For if our journeys, too, are sacred then the key is to walk our own path, not on auto pilot but with some intentionality. Driving to work or picking up kids from college or driving to a summer vacation and knowing that even if you end up back at the same place year after year that you can only do that one year at a time, and only this year/this moment/this trip matters because you will never come this way again. It is this present moment in time, this leg of the journey that is sacramental. So it is worthwhile for us to open our eyes and our ears and soak it all in, because where we stand is holy ground.
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.
This encounter happens by the river. Think about a specific river important in your own life and what life is like by that river. What does it sound like and smell like? Is it a babbling brook in the woods or is it a mighty river? Rivers of all kinds are, for me, places of prayer—whether or not there happens to be an official place of prayer nearby. Paul and his companions sit down and they speak to women gathered there, strangers to them. One of my favorite hymn writers is Brian Wren. We sang one of his hymns during communion last weekend, both at 5 and at 10: “I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved, and freed.” That hymn has a line about how when we come to this table, strangers now are friends.
What a powerful phrase that is! The whole gospel of Christ in four words: strangers now are friends. It is such a challenge for most of us, even the extroverts among us, to go up to strangers and talk with them. From a very young age we are taught not to do that, to fear the stranger, not to take candy from them…all good advice for children. But if we are not careful we carry that fear of the stranger well into adulthood. The Bible teaches a different kind of wisdom: that the stranger may be Christ himself. The stranger—the one different from us—may become our friend. The Bible calls us away from xenophobia (fear of the other) to love of the stranger in the name of Christ.
So a certain woman named Lydia was there. And from that encounter, in hospitality and welcome, strangers become friends. God is present. Everyone is changed for good.
Now we here at St. Francis, as rector and congregation, are at an important crossroads in the sacred journey that we have walked together for more than fifteen years now. And now we are preparing to walk in new directions. We are rightly reflecting on the past and offering it to God, but we must be careful not to get stuck there. And we are rightly all a bit nervous about the future and what it will bring. For me it is about a new home and a new job and a new context for ministry. For many of you I imagine it is about the process of calling and welcoming a new rector and what this place will be like under that person’s leadership. I’m sure this is all scary. But we must be careful not to get stuck there. And we do well to remember that a stranger will one day become a friend.
What we can do right now, though, is to pay attention to where we are right now, and savor this time, these moments one by one. What we can do, even now, is continue to look for the living God who is in our very midst, waiting for the Holy Spirit to comfort and heal and prod and guide us all into more and more truth, as the sacred journey continues.
Preached at St. Francis Church, Holden, MA - May 5, 2013