I would like you to imagine yourself here – in the midst of biblical bookends:
- One, the first bible story read today from Acts, which happens after Jesus’ death and resurrection (and after Jesus’ ascension… and after the “woo hoo” of the Holy Spirit showing up… and after Paul launches his ministry).
- And the other story, from the book of John, as we hear Jesus’ words prior to his death.
Today we have a before story, and an after story. What are we to do with these narrative bookends guiding our reflection?
The story in Acts begins in the night.
A stirring of the Spirit.
The question that popped up for me as I read these passages has to do with this idea of vision. Dreams. Does this happen today? Do we still dream… do visions still occur… do we… do you… do I… have visions today? If so, how… and when… and where… and to whom do these visions occur? Have YOU had a vision? A stirring of the Spirit? Is there something stirring in your heart right now? Something in your hopes, your dreams, that is an opening… an invitation… from God… from our community… to our community… that rises out of a deep down longing in your soul?
Thus, I am really intrigued by this story in Acts. Just what was the Holy Spirit up to that day? Here is an outreach trip that echoes the wild antics of Jake and Elwood years ago in the 1980 movie, The Blues Brothers. I know that I am dating myself a bit with that reference, but do any of you remember the movie? Jake and Elwood head out on a “mission from God” to save Sister Mary’s Catholic orphanage. Sometimes, visions from God are a little like Jake and Elwood trying to get the band back together!
Today in Acts, it is not Jake and Elwood, but Paul and Timothy, that are on a mission from God—except that God, or the Holy Spirit, or this Jesus they are following, keeps setting up roadblocks. Paul and Timothy had a plan. They had wanted to go to Asia, but a few verses earlier we are told that “the Holy Spirit blocked that route” (Acts 16:6, The Message).
Hmmmm. And so Paul and Timothy try to go someplace else—northern Turkey—but scripture tells us “the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go there either” (Act 16:7, The Message). What? How are they supposed to “get the band back together,” or in other words, share the Good News if the Holy keeps getting in the way?
In a vision.
Through the stirring of the Spirit.
A gut response.
They find themselves along the banks of the water.
Outside expected boundaries.
Beyond the walls.
At a prayer group.
The Jesus story is shared.
There is a spontaneous immersion in the transformative waters of baptism.
And suddenly, Paul and Timothy find themselves with an invitation from Lydia to “come and stay at my home” (Acts 16:15b).
Which reminds us that it is not only Paul and Timothy that are caught up in God’s vision. Just WHAT was the Holy Spirit up to as Lydia woke up that morning? What were her thoughts as she walked through the familiar streets of the city, out the gates, and down to the water? Was she distracted by her “to do” list? Was she thinking about a family member who was sick, a neighbor who was homeless, a business contract that had fallen through? What stirred in her heart that day as she took time out of her busyness for Sabbath? To find a moment with God?
There are all sorts of debates around who Lydia was. We have clues, but no answers. Was she, as some suggest, a wealthy business owner, dealing in luxurious, highly sought after, purple cloth? Was Lydia then also a community leader, a prominent faith leader (we are told she was a worshiper of God), and/or well-regarded in the city as head of her household? Or, as others surmise, was she part of a marginalized community? For the dying and processing of purple cloth was a grimy, foul smelling job. Maybe Lydia’s “household” was a collaborative community of people living on the margins.
Just why were they gathered at the water that day? Did these women need to escape the city to pray outside of the gates?
What was it about Lydia that opened doors,
Made her pause and listen to these foreign men, Paul and Timothy?
Launching new relationships,
And flipping tables?
For no matter how you look at it, this was a moment of radical hospitality.
God got Lydia’s attention.
In the reading from John, Jesus says, “We—God, Spirit—will come to them and make our home with them.”
Born out of a vision.
A deep down, transformative response.
Have YOU had such a vision?
Is there something…
Is there a something, an all-encompassing stirring in your heart, your hopes, your dreams, that just might be an open invitation… a poke… a prod… from God… ?
Has God captured your attention?
Last week I was at the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Homiletics is one of those “funny church words” that basically means I was at a preaching conference. This was a gathering of over 1600 pastors gathered to listen to, and learn from, the best preachers in our country today. You may (or may not) know some of the names: the Reverends William Barber II, Traci Blackmon, Will Willimon, Otis Moss III, and Amy Butler. Whether or not you have heard of these amazing preachers and prophets before, know that this was ALL worship, ALL day!
One of the preachers I heard was the Rev. Jim Forbes. He reminded us that early in the book of Acts, Peter lists the signs of the end times recorded by the prophet Joel in the 9(ish) century BCE:
“I will show portents (omens) in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…” (Acts 2:19-20).
Forbes then looked at us and asked, “In these awful times, has God gotten your attention?”
In these times.
In these times, has God gotten your attention?
During the night, Paul had a vision. A person. A pleading: “Come over and help us.” When God gets your attention, this is the space in which Forbe says, “God’s heart touches your heart. God’s mind touches your mind. God’s longing becomes your longing.”
Has God gotten your attention?
God sure has gotten mine.
Just what is the Holy Spirit up to?
Big and small, the Holy Spirit shows up.
Has God gotten our attention?
As a congregation involved with creation care, and creation justice, are you someone for whom the Spirit is stirring a response? A ministry? Has God’s heart touched your heart? Do you have a vision? If so, how might we respond? How might we be, as our bulletin covers suggest this morning, disciples together?
As an Open and Affirming congregation, with proposals arising this past week that suggest protections put in place for individuals who are transgender be eliminated, and with the media reporting that there have been 5 people who were transgender killed already in 2019, how might the Spirit stirring us to respond? How has God’s mind touched your mind? Do you have a vision? If so, how might we be disciples… together?
There are, of course, so many more stories. So many more visions. Great hopes. But I have one more story to share with you, a local one, which rises out of the great privilege I have as your pastor, working with community partners to distribute emergency financial assistance. This past week, Memorial UCC received requests to help 1). a woman who hoped to get into an apartment, 2). a man whose electric services had been turned off, and 3). a woman who has not had phone service for 12 months due to unpaid bills. My contact at Porchlight, Hasan, facilitated two of the three requests. Thanks to the generosity of this congregation, I was able to authorize funds. Hasan responded, “…that is one less homeless family and one less family living in the dark to worry about over the holiday weekend.” Being disciples. Together.
There, as I noted, sooooo many other stories, this sermon could go on and on. As followers of Jesus, are you someone for whom the Spirit is stirring a response? A ministry? Has God’s longing become your longing? Do you have a vision? If so, will you share your story? How can we be… disciples… together?
And so I ask:
People of God—do visions still happen?
Do we still dream?
Has God caught our attention?
Do you… or do we as a faith community… have a collective “deep down in our souls longing” that is inviting in God’s Great Hope? If so—would you be open to share the stirring that is in your heart? Today after worship, I will be in the Fellowship Hall. I encourage you to come join me for conversation. I would love to hear how God is catching your attention. What are you visions for this church? For our community?
Or, if you prefer, let’s set a time for coffee. Come to my community office hourse. Send me an email. A letter.
Let us explore together where the Spirit is leading us into God’s vision.
Let us be… on a mission… for God!
Reflection on Acts 16:9-15 and John 14:23-29 offered on May 26, 2019
 Goodnough, Abby, Erica L. Green, and Margot Sanger-katz. “Trump Administration Proposes Rollback of Transgender Protections.” The New York Times. May 24, 2019. Accessed May 26, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/24/us/politics/donald-trump-transgender-protections.html.
 Human Rights Campaign. “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2019.” Human Rights Campaign. Accessed May 26, 2019. https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019.