You Had to Be There!

“You Had to Be There!”

Acts 16-14 Lydia, words

Acts 16:14-15 – May 26, 2019

Sometimes, you had to be there. Consider my daughter Rachel. As part of her music studies, she is taking an intensive summer course in Broadway musicals. Right now, she, her small class of graduate students, and her professor are all in New York City—studying Broadway musicals, in depth. She has told me a little about two of the performances she has seen, and they sound wonderful. So wonderful, she could not even do them justice in describing them. I can imagine her saying “You had to be there!”

The power of narrative, of story. That is what a Broadway play or musical is all about. That is what personal testimonies are all about. As we hear personal stories, we can become immersed in the happenings, the events, the trials and tribulations of the person we are listening to—sometimes to the point of having a personal stake in the events we hear and see.

Consider the apostle Paul. He and his friends Silas, Dr. Luke and several others were traveling around Asia Minor—present-day Turkey—on Paul’s second missionary journey. When, all of a sudden, Paul receives a vision from God. A man from Macedonia—northern Greece—appears to Paul. He begs for Paul to come to Macedonia and preach the Gospel to the people there. This dream or vision was God-sent, and Paul and his friends got on a ship immediately and set sail for Greece.

Ever been in that situation, where you had a dream or vision or message from God that was so strong, you just had to obey? Apparently, this sort of thing happened more frequently in Bible times. And, the followers of Jesus hearkened to Paul and his words about the vision. It wasn’t a second-hand or even a third-hand recounting of some vision some guy had, no. Paul’s first-person account of his amazing vision was so much more compelling!

The narrow stretch of water Paul and his friends crossed to get into Macedonia was the same strip of water that many, many refugees from the Middle East recently crossed to get away from life-threatening danger. Imagine their relief to finally cross the water and be physically separated from war, starvation, political persecution, and loss of life and property. That was the first-person story of the refugees in recent times, their personal testimony.

Let us return to Paul and his friends, and their personal story. Dr. Luke is with them at this time, and he makes note of the place where they are staying: Philippi, a leading city in that area of Macedonia. Not anywhere else in Macedonia, “it is straight to Philippi. In places just like that God planted (and still plants) the church to the community that says ‘no’ to the ways of imperial power and offers a different way of life, a different story, and a different promise.” [1] We have the opportunity to hear a different kind of first-person account, a different sort of personal testimony from people from the imperial city of Philippi, in Europe—not in Asia.

Paul and his friends stay there for some days before any serious preaching or teaching goes on. Then, as is Paul’s habit when in a new town, today’s reading tells us “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.”

Hold it right there! I see a couple of things right off the bat that make this a different kind of situation. There is no synagogue, no ordered gathering of Jews in this large town. Plus, Paul and his friends meet with a bunch of women. Not even a mixed gathering of men and women, but a group of Gentile women. How open-minded of Paul!

Something further: the Bible hardly ever mentions a gathering of only women. Now, this was not in Israel, where things were culturally sensitive. How fascinating “that this well-known Pharisee and teacher from Jerusalem would carry on a serious discussion with a group of women.” [2] Yes, aspects of this whole situation were completely new, almost alien for Paul and his friends. All the same, Paul still preached and taught the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. He still preached Christ crucified. He still told his own personal story.

As Paul discusses spiritual and theological things with the group of women, Dr. Luke tells us about one in particular: “One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”

God does the totally unexpected. “When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi was a woman, and in fact a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east.” [3] We saw several weeks ago when we considered the Easter morning testimony that God chose women to be the first ones to hear and believe the Good News of the Resurrection. Now, here in Europe, the first one to hear and believe the message of the Good News of the Resurrection is also a woman, and a prominent one for this time, too.

Lydia is a business-woman, a dealer in purple cloth. This is a luxury item, which only the upper class was allowed to wear. In today’s terms, she could be seen as a high-end clothing designer and manufacturer. She owns a large house, and has a number of servants and/or employees. Plus, she is held in high enough esteem that when she believes the Good News of the Gospel, her whole household is led to believe in the Good News, too. A pretty persuasive woman! And, a leading citizen of Philippi.

What a turn of events! The first convert in Europe is not a sober Jewish man of stature, a leader of a local synagogue, but a savvy Gentile business-woman, wealthy and significant in the community. Any expectations Paul and his friends had of their missionary trip to Greece were certainly turned on their heads. This reminds me not to make meticulous plans set in concrete for any operation, because God will often surprise us with unexpected outcomes.

But, that is not all. Dr. Luke tells us, “When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.” Imagine, Paul and his friends invited into a large, spacious, wealthy home. Not only that, Lydia probably invited them to make her house a base of operations for their mission to the whole region. A good friend and follower of Christ, indeed.

Remember what I said about having plans set in concrete? “It is not the charismatic personality of the pastor or preacher that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity. From beginning to end, this [Scripture passage] stresses that it is God who is in charge of the mission, God who sets its direction, and God who determines its results.” [4]

Can we show hospitality like Lydia? Like Paul, can we persuade others to consider the claims of Christ? We are still in the Easter season, a wonderful opportunity to tell others our personal story. God can use any personal testimony, to God’s glory. Praise the Lord, we can invite friends, neighbors and acquaintances into a relationship with God. Let us not miss this wonderful, God-given opportunity. To God be the glory. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[2] Walaskay, Paul W., Exegetical Perspective on Acts 16:9-15, 6th Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 479.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1627

Commentary, Acts 16:9-15, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

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Everything We Need?

“Everything We Need?”

Psalm 23 KJV

Psalm 23:1 – May 12, 2019

Advertising lets us know how much stuff we really “need.” Madison Avenue certainly knows how to plant the thoughts of desire and dissatisfaction in our hearts, prompting us to go out and buy, buy, buy! Consume, consume, consume!

Aren’t we supposed to be dissatisfied with what we have? I thought I was supposed to buy lots of things at shoe stores, department stores, sporting goods stores, computer stores, car dealerships, even garden supply stores at this green and growing time of the year.

What does King David tell us, in the very first verse of our psalm reading today? From the Good News Translation, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.”

The first verse of Psalm 23 many people are familiar with? “the Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” The other translation has a bit different words for the second phrase; ‘I have everything I want.” But, doesn’t this fly in the face of advertising and popular culture today?

One pastor expanded on this thought in his comments on this psalm: “We live in a consumerist society that thrives on teaching us to want. Wanting more and more and more: I want a new car. I want a flat screen TV and a Blue Ray player. I want more apps for my iPhone. I want to win Lotto. I want a bigger house. I want it all… “ [1]

Anyone who knows more than one language knows what a challenge it is to exactly translate certain words and phrases from one language to another. Sometimes there are no exact translations. The Good News Translation is one of those versions of the Bible that instead of words, it translates thoughts and phrases from the original Hebrew and Greek into English. Like, right here, where we have the phrase “I have everything I want.”

If I look at life from a sheep’s perspective—which is one perspective of Psalm 23—we do have everything we want. Fields of green grass to eat, quiet pools of fresh water to drink, and a quiet place to rest, all provided for us by this Good Shepherd.

The problem is, we are not sheep. We are human beings, with the complexities and challenges of living in the real world. Life continues to happen. Friends get sick, relatives lose their jobs, loved ones die. Wildfires burn many acres of land, hurricanes devastate towns, floods wash away livelihoods.

We come back to the opening words of this psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.”

Another word for a psalm is a poem. King David begins with a simple metaphor. This first line is concise, simple, and expresses the message of the entire psalm. The Lord supplies—or satisfies—every need. [2] This idea of King David’s definitely goes against everything that Madison Avenue and popular American culture tells us today. But, most of us want to have our emotional and spiritual needs met, too.

Rev. Lockhart lists these needs: “I want a happy life. I want to live in safety and security. I want to be left alone. I want someone to show that they care about me. I want someone to visit me. I want the best for my children and my grandchildren. I want my husband to be more considerate. I want my wife to understand me. I want worship to be more fun. I want to know God loves me. And I want to die peacefully in my bed. I want and I want and I want.” [3]

What’s the use? Life is just not fair. I want so much. I’m never going to get what I want. I may as well quit trying to get what I need.

Except—that attitude of defeat is not what God wants for us.

I can tell us all right now that God never promised us a huge flat-screen television, or a fifteen-room mansion, or the latest iPhone, or winning numbers in next week’s Lotto drawing. However, God did promise us the Good Shepherd’s presence at our sides, all along our journey.

This psalm is so familiar, and well-loved. The pastoral images leap right off the page, they are so vivid. We sheep do have a Good Shepherd. We sheep are led into green pastures full of grass. We even have nice, quiet pools of water to drink from, and can lie down to rest, free from all danger.

Except—we are not supposed to flop down and stay in those green, verdant pastures forever. King David describes a journey. We—that is, all of us—are on a journey. A journey through life that the Lord oversees and guides. Sure, sometimes we do get to rest in those green pastures, but it’s just temporary. Our psalmist is on the go, walking beside the water, along paths, and through valleys. Some of those valleys are really deep and dark, too! [4]

What does verse 4 say? “Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for You are with me.” It does not matter what the darkness is—devastating disaster, mental illness, shattering disease, emotional trauma, sexual abuse, grinding poverty, constant warfare. God has promised to be with us all the way, and all the time, too.

Verse 6 says “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew word “follow” can also be translated “pursue.” You know, the same word used when enemies pursue us when we are trying to run away. Except, it’s not enemies pursuing us. Instead, goodness and love will be pursuing us and chasing us down! [5]

We can thank God for such a wonderful image.

The last line of our psalm finishes up our journey. We are to dwell in the house of the Lord all our lives long. Except—the Hebrew word is not exactly “dwell.” Instead, our verb means “to return.” Again, we were—we are—on a journey with God. Our lives are sometimes peaceful, and sometimes difficult. Sometimes quiet, and sometimes traumatic. This psalm enables us to shoulder difficult burdens, and aids us as we sometimes walk sad paths, as well as those times when we rest in beautiful green pastures—or comfortable, joyful places.

No matter where we are on this journey with the Good Shepherd, Jesus has promised to be right by our sides. Yes, we will end up with God when we finish our journey! I do not know exactly what that will be like. I can’t give you a blow-by-blow description. However, as King David tells us, we can continually return to God’s presence all the days of our lives. And, no matter what, if God is there, for sure we will have no more worries or concerns.

What a Good Shepherd. What a wonderful promise. Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2012/04/psalm-23.html

Psalm 23, Peter Lockhart, A Different Heresy, 2012.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372

Commentary, Psalm 23, Joel LeMon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher, 2015.

[3] http://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2012/04/psalm-23.html

Psalm 23, Peter Lockhart, A Different Heresy, 2012.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372

Commentary, Psalm 23, Joel LeMon, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Who Are You, Lord?

“Who Are You, Lord?”

Acts 9 conversionofsaintpaul - ethiopian icon

Acts 9:1-20 – May 5, 2019

Once there was a recent college graduate named Martin. He had enrolled in a doctoral degree program at the University of Erfurt, but he went home for a few days before the class session started. On his way back, not far from the town of Erfurt, a huge thunderstorm broke over the countryside. Martin was trying his best to get to shelter when a sudden lightning bolt fell to earth. BOOM! It struck the ground immediately next to Martin—so close he could feel it singe his clothing! He was thrown to the earth with great force. Frightened almost to death—literally—Martin made the immediate, passionate vow that he would change course in his life, become a monk and devote his life to God. All this happened while Martin was traveling, on the road. A true “Road to Damascus” experience.

Has anyone here ever known someone who went through a radical transformation in an instant? Or, at least, in a relatively short time? That is what happened to Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus.

But, that comes after the end of our narrative, today. What is the beginning of the story? How did Saul of Tarsus get to this point?

The wonderful commentator Bob Deffinbaugh sets a vivid scene for us. He says, “Imagine for a moment that this is the week of Saul’s arrival at Damascus. By this time Saul has gained a reputation as the ringleader of the movement to make Christianity extinct. A devout Hellenistic Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul did not agree with his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, on how the Christians should be dealt with. Rather, he sought the arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment (with imprisonment the norm and death the ideal, it would seem) of those in Jerusalem. Saul was not content to punish some and to drive the rest from the “holy city.” He did not want to merely contain Christianity or to drive it from Jerusalem; he wanted to rid the earth of Christianity and its followers. His opposition to Christ and His church took on a ‘missionary’ spirit. Saul went to other cities where he sought to arrest Christians and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Damascus, a city 150 miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, was one such city. Word was out that Saul would soon be arriving.” [1]

I don’t know about you, but if I heard of such a bloodthirsty, vengeful person coming to my home town, I might be scared to death, too. What are the followers of Jesus going to do? Ethnic hatred blended with and heightened by religious hatred is corrosive and hurtful, and greatly to be feared.

This was not just a problem in bible times. Seriously, there are many places in the world today where determined, devout people want to eradicate people who do not believe like they do. Not just run them out of town, or out of the country, but instead, put them to death. I am not just speaking about devout Hindus, or devout Muslims, but sometimes devout Jews, or devout Christians or Catholics or Orthodox Christians.

This was the situation with Saul of Tarsus! He was a religious, observant Jew, an up-and-coming rabbi, a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” by his own account. And, he could not kill these “heretics” fast enough. He even had letters of recommendation to the heads of synagogues in Damascus, to let them know his official status as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council.

This was early in the life of the Church, only a number of months after the great Pentecost happening in Acts chapter 2. And, the followers of “The Way” (as they were called) were spreading like wildfire!

But, similar to the situation with Martin in the scene I opened this sermon with, Saul was literally knocked off his feet. A heavenly light, brighter than bright, surrounded Saul. A shocking, out-of-this-world thing happened on the road to Damascus, indeed!

Just like Moses at the burning bush, just like Martin when the lightning struck, Saul had the presence of mind to realize that this was so huge, so stupendous, this could only be a God-moment! Have you ever had a God-moment? You, or someone you know? An instant when you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present? Did you get an answer to that question, “Who are You, Lord?” up close and personal?

I did. I remember it vividly. Itp was early in my first chaplain internship, right out of seminary. In Cardiac Care, I held the hand of a tiny, very elderly woman as she transitioned from this world to the next. The woman had no one—no relatives, or friends, or any one else, except for a state-appointed medical power-of-attorney. I could feel the presence of God. And, yes, God was there with us, as she died.

Saul got that answer from God in plain language. From our reading today from Acts: “Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied.

How stupendous was that response! And, how crushing! All the orthodox theological and religious scaffolding Saul had painstakingly erected throughout his education and training was tumbling around his ears, in that one moment.

Dr. Luke continues with the risen Lord Jesus’s words: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So, they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days Saul was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”

“It was time for Saul to ponder what he had seen and heard. For now, he was told to proceed on to Damascus, where he would be given his next instructions.” [2] It was as if this revelation was going to come in several different pieces, or parts. Yes, his sudden conversion happened on the road to Damascus. However, Saul’s blindness allowed him the opportunity to think deeply about these events, and gave him the opportunity to wholeheartedly commit his life to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. How many of us would take something like this seriously?

Remember bloodthirsty Saul? Breathing fire and brimstone? Remember the shock and stunned reaction to the heavenly light, on the Road to Damascus? And, the follow-up question, “Who are You Lord?” Saul made a first-person testimony. We all can thank God for Saul’s—now, Paul’s—testimony and subsequent witness, too. Witness and Apostle to the world.

Remember Martin, almost struck by lightning? That was Martin Luther, and that was a true story. It really happened in 1505, and Martin’s life was forever changed, that day lightning just missed striking him. That was his Road to Damascus experience, sending Martin on the path to grapple with God’s presence and forgiveness in his personal life, and more.

It doesn’t matter whether you or I have had a Road to Damascus experience, or whether we more gradually become aware of God’s work in our lives, because there are countless ways to come close to God. These were the ways Saul (who changed his name to Paul) and Father Martin developed their relationships with the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus has His arms open. He wants us all to struggle out of blindness, like Saul, and come into His heavenly light, the light of a loving relationship and friendship with Him.

Come to Jesus, like Saul, like Martin. Jesus has His arms open wide.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!