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I’m a maps guy. I like to see where I am, what the options are for where I am going and to make my own decisions about it. Maybe it’s a control issue. I don’t like the GPS. No computer can make a better decision than I can. Besides, the GPS doesn’t know that the other route takes me by Braum’s…where I might just stop for some ice cream on the way.
I have included a map in you bulletin this morning so that those of you who are map oriented can see the places we’re talking about, and trace the route that Paul and his companion Silas are taking. They are tracing the trade routes, heading from major city to major city along the coast, where boats and wagons, horses and people carried the supplies that the empire needed to function from place to place. He begins in Jerusalem, but then heads up the coast to Tyre and Sidon, still called “Saul” according to the writer of Acts, and then to Damascus, in Syria, where one might, sadly, have a life-altering experience of another kind these days. There “Saul” becomes Paul and on he goes, with new companions…to Derbe, near his hometown of Tarsus.
But look at your map, because the travels don’t exactly follow dot-by-dot, they jump around, for in the verses just before this, the writer of Acts tells us that they went through the region listed on your map as “Asia”, passing by Galatia without speaking a word, which seems to be contradicted just a few books away in the Bible by Paul’s letter to the church in…you guessed it…Galatia. So, bear in mind as you read Acts that this writer is writing about Paul…Paul might not necessarily agree. But along the way, the Spirit seems to be guiding them, and they are not “allowed”, the text says, to go some places, like Bithynia. I don’t know how they are not “allowed”, but the implication is that Paul, Silas and Timothy are pretty in touch with the Spirit…or it is at least more direct with them than it is with me. I never use the Holy Spirit to give me driving directions.
So, they make their way down to Troas, in the northwest corner of Asia Minor, where our passage form today picks up…and that’s why you have this map, so you can know where we are when the story starts!
Now, if you are not map oriented, you can use it as a bookmark…or you can make it into a hat, or a broach, or a pterodactyl. You don’t have to use maps. I tend to use maps as a locator of space – where are you in relation to other places? The map helps you see a starting point and an end point. But it doesn’t necessarily help you with what comes in-between.
For in-between point A and point B you can encounter detours, construction, traffic or closed streets…what I like to call “driving in Tulsa”. You can have a stalled vehicle, an illness, a death, or you can just run out of gas. All kinds of things can happen between point A and point B. And when they do, you get the map out and you look for point B and you re-imagine…
This story in Acts, and the book of Acts itself is, in part, the story of that “re-imagining”, it’s the story of what happens between point A and point B, as the followers of Jesus learn to follow something else. After Pentecost, the Acts version of history goes, the Spirit comes to guide and direct…meeting the disciples first where they are, but never satisfied to leave them there. Instead, the Spirit calls them beyond themselves, beyond inward-focused theologies or the slow drag of institutionalization. But that is not an easy path to take, especially when you think that point B is so clear…it’s right over there, but the Spirit keeps pulling you in other directions.
Paul, we are told, has a dream that sends him towards what he initially thinks is his point B. I want us to recognize that several places in the book of Acts the action takes place as a result of a dream. We shift suddenly in Acts from the direction of Jesus to his disciples to the discernment of dreams, the loose assertion of a vision or the slippery directions of imagination. There is no direct set of instructions here, just images and words placed in the sleepy head of Paul, or Peter, or one of these “apostles”, a word in Greek that is something closer to an “envoy”, sent forth to carry a message along a route that is constantly changing. Perhaps they could have used a GPS, which would have perpetually been saying…recalculating. Because these envoys were following the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit doesn’t walk the well-worn path. It ventures into the woods…it wanders…it explores.
And that is the same Holy Spirit we’re connected to now. It doesn’t follow a map. It doesn’t subscribe to a doctrine, and isn’t confined by theology or scripture or even something as rudimentary as consistency, save consistency in the capricious motion of love.
See, as much as some people like to make the Bible an instruction manual, or believe in a God of providence, pulling the strings and orchestrating our entire lives from a cosmic vantage point, the witness of the early church, and of Paul, and of many of the early church fathers on through to the monks and the mystics is that our lives are more like being lost at sea. Wow, pastor. Thanks for the pep talk. I think I’ll go someplace a little more uplifting…like a funeral planning seminar.
But – listen – I actually think that this is part of the discipline of being disciples, part of the training for following Jesus…that we learn to listen to something besides our gut, that we practice love more than judgment and that while we might have our maps close by for reference, but are guided by something else indeed. But wait, someone might say, surely the Spirit cannot lead where it defies scripture! Why not? It does so throughout the book of Acts, as Peter defies “holiness code” to eat “unclean” things and to baptize the rejected and teaching about the resurrection of the dead, all things outlawed by scripture. Jesus constantly gets in trouble for “breaking the law”, or at least for defying the current interpretation of scripture with his actions, but that’s the same thing. The law, the “code”, the map of what things are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to be…those maps change…especially as we get new information. A map of the world from the 14th century looks a lot different than ours because we have seen the globe from space.
So, when the map changes, the Holy Spirit is there to change our own understanding, to grow our capacity, to lead us in love. Here in this story, led by the Spirit in a dream, Paul and Silas encounter Lydia, who defies all of the rules that any good Jewish Roman citizen, like Paul, would recognize. Lydia is the head of her household, it appears. She is an independent business woman, and we need not assume that she is a widow. The text says that Lydia is also a worshiper of God, and by this we are to understand a worshipper of the same God who Paul and Silas worship, that is, the only God. Lydia even leads her household in worship on the Sabbath. So, when Paul, this Jewish male who is also a Roman citizen, things that Lydia most certainly is not, when he begins to preach, the text says that they listen and receive him well, but there is no “out pouring of the Spirit” like in other stories, no act of conversion or repentance.
Maybe no “outpouring” means that the Spirit was already operative in Lydia’s life, which would have been a “head-scratcher” for people of Paul’s time. Lydia does not represent who we think God works through. But in Acts, God’s Spirit moves as it choose, inhabits whom it will, and is not confined to a particular routine or pattern. It is not submissive to our feelings or our biases against others who worship, speak, look, live or love different from ourselves. The “church” that we think Paul and many others are forming is actually the church they are discovering. God is forming it. And once we realize that our evangelism is really about a search for God out there, not an attempt to bring people to God in here, then we hear the call of The Spirit beyond religion into revelation. It is the beginning of our deconstruction. And then we can get reconstructed…converted if you will. Converted from “Christians” to followers of The Way…not makers of The Way, followers of The Way.
This is, I’m afraid, the kind of encounter that people like Paul and Silas and even Lydia have with God. It isn’t one that comes wrapped in certainty and absolutes, but one that teaches us to embrace waiting, to hope as a verb, to embrace not knowing and to enjoy the beauty of becoming, for when nothing in certain…anything is possible.
The church was born as a bridge-building, barrier-busting movement. Maybe in this church, in the here-and-now you’re part of the leadership and you’re lost on what is coming next as we re-organize ourselves and even rewrite the by-laws. That’s confusing stuff. Maybe out there you’re lost in a job you don’t like or can’t even find a job to dislike. Maybe you’re caught in a more existential spot, wondering what it all means or how you’ll make it through or what the next step might possibly be as you feel like you’re walking through your living room in the dark and someone has moved all the furniture.
And what I want to leave you with today is no certain answer whatsoever. I want to leave you with a belief that all will be well without any map leading you from point A to point B. I want you to know that you are on a journey, and that God’s Spirit walks with you trying to guide you and help you. If you have a hard time hearing that Spirit, then consider “being the church” by doing some of the things that help us to open our ears…
Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Embrace diversity. Reject racism. Forgive often. Love God. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Enjoy this life.
For what does it mean if the action of the Spirit is to call us beyond ourselves? What if that is the mark of followers of The Way…that we are always seeking God, not possessing or defending God, but looking, as if God were always somewhere out there. It changes everything.
So, let’s start here. At this table, where we say everyone is welcome and none of us…none of us understand how to make that happen or what the ramifications are or how it is even possible in the first place…but we claim it anyway.
Come to the table.