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Sermon for 5 May 2013

FIRST READING Acts 16:9–15

9 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.” 10 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. 11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 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. 13 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. 14 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. 15 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.

PSALM Psalm 67

1 May God be merciful to us and bless us; may the light of God’s face shine upon us. 2 Let your way be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations. 3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide all the nations on earth. 5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. 6 The earth has brought forth its increase; God, our own God, has blessed us. 7 May God give us blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe.

SECOND READING Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5

Chapter 21 10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Chapter 22 1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

GOSPEL John 14:22–29

22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. 25 I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Coincidence or Providence?

Coincidence, happenstance, quirk, fluke, lucky, fortunate, an accident, twist of fate; these are all words we sometimes use to describe events in our lives. Or, would it be more correct if we described these same events with words like providence, blessed, or an act of God? How many here have ever felt, like they were at the right place at the right time? Whether it was helping someone out or being helped yourself, have you ever felt, or realized, that somehow God was at work? And how often do we dismiss these kinds of occurrences as a coincidence? Or worse yet credit it to the universe or fate? Some things certainly can be chalked up to statistics or circumstance, but not everything that happens in life is random.
Back in 1669 a most unusual occurrence took place. The entire village of Runswick, England, slipped into the sea. Tragically, the entire town was swallowed up in the raging tides. But here’s what’s interesting, not a single inhabitant of Runswick drowned that day! For reasons that are difficult to explain, all the residents of the town were attending a funeral in a neighboring village at the time of the catastrophe. It’s nothing short of amazing!
Now, if you had been a resident of that village where not a single life was lost in that terrible disaster, would you say that was providence or would you say it was simply a coincidence? Or, to ask it in a different way, was it the hand of God that all members of the community men, women, even little babies were at that funeral when this tragedy occurred, or was it a matter of simple happenstance? It’s an interesting question.
Dr. Steve Land tells about a seminary student during World War II who was preparing himself to enter the war as a military chaplain. One day this student found a used book at a bookstore on the subject of “How to Speak Russian.” This particular student was somewhat of an introvert. He preferred to remain in his room reading rather than going out to socialize with his friends. He decided that this little book, on how to speak Russian, would be a nice quiet way to spend his evenings. From then until his graduation, he studied that Russian language book whenever he had a chance.
After graduation the young man was inducted into the Army as a chaplain. He was sent to Europe where his battalion was involved in heavy fighting. One night as he lay on his bedroll, staring up at the stars, he became depressed. It seemed like there was never a break. He was constantly being called on the provide comfort to wounded and dying soldiers. Seminary didn’t prepare him for this. In fact, he didn’t feel prepared for anything he was being asked to do. As if to confirm his thoughts, a medic came running up to him. “Chaplain,” he said, “we have a man who’s seriously wounded; he’s scared and panicking, but we can’t understand what he’s saying to us. Can you come help us?”
Upon arriving at the scene, he realized that it was a Russian soldier who had evidently gotten separated from his company. As he knelt beside the man he suddenly recognized he could understand much of what the soldier was saying. For the rest of the night he stayed by the soldier’s side speaking words of comfort to him in broken Russian and praying with him the best he could, until the man died from his wounds.
As he returned to his bedroll and lay down under the stars once again, the young chaplain felt that somehow the stars were brighter and the load he’d been carrying was a little lighter. He now knew that God was at work even in the midst of that awful war. This little Russian language book had fallen into his hands and God used it to comfort a dying soldier through him. Was this a coincidence or was it providence?
Did God lead this young chaplain to study Russian just for this particular moment in his life? Or was it just coincidental? I guess it depends what you believe about the universe. I guess it depends on what you believe about God. The Apostle Paul had many unusual experiences that brought him into contact with a wide assortment of people.
Paul had been shipwrecked, jailed, and had traveled all over to countries on the rim of the Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes he didn’t know exactly where he would be going, or why, or who he was supposed to meet him when he got there. Nevertheless, when the Lord prompted him to go, he went. He responded because he trusted that God would show him what he was to do. And in our first reading for today, Luke records one such incident.
According to Luke, one night Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia. This man was standing and begging Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul believed this was a call from God, so Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke all embarked at once for Macedonia. However, the trip to Macedonia wasn’t easy. Paul and his missionary team traveled by boat and were forced to make several stops along the way. One of those stops was at Philippi, a leading city in the district of Macedonia and led by the Holy Spirit, Paul and his friends stayed there several days.
Evidently there was no synagogue in Philippi. So when the Sabbath came, they went down to the river to find a place to pray. Without a formal place to gather, it seems that the “God-fearers” of the city would gather by the river on the Sabbath for prayer. Either knowing this or having been led by the Spirit, Paul and his companions gather as well and strike up a conversation with some of the local women. One of the women assembled that day was named Lydia.
Lydia by all indications was a successful business woman. As a dealer in purple cloth, Lydia was probably quite wealthy. Purple was the color of royalty and the Roman elite. Purple cloth was so valued and held in such esteem, that the emperor, and only the emperor, would wear a toga made entirely of purple cloth. The reason Purple cloth was held with such regard was that the dye was quite expensive. It was made from a juice found in minute quantities in shellfish. It took thousands of these small crustaceans to make just a yard or two of purple cloth. Purple dye was rare and purple fabric was worth its weight in silver. Franchises for dealing in purple were highly coveted.
Additional indicators of Lydia’s financial standing can also be seen in the size of her house. At the conclusion of this short vignette, she invites Paul and those who are with him to stay at her house. What makes this impressive is, that Lydia didn’t live alone. There were others in Lydia’s household, probably servants as well as children, if she had children. Since no husband is ever mentioned, we could suppose that Lydia may have been the head of her household. Perhaps she was a widow. Additionally, there could have been extended family. Anyway, to house four traveling evangelists in addition to the rest of her household and servants indicates that Lydia’s house was quite large for the time.
It’s also important to note that Lydia was not a Jew, but she did worship God. As Lydia listened to Paul’s message, Luke tells us the Lord opened her heart to the message of Jesus. And right there on the spot, she and all the members of her household were baptized into the Christian faith. Afterward, she invited Paul and his friends to her home. “If you consider me a faithful believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” After some insistence, they accepted her kind hospitality. Incidentally, Lydia was Paul’s first convert in Europe.
Now, if you had asked Lydia, “Did you just happen to be there when the Apostle Paul came down to the river to pray?” how do you think she would have answered? Was it providence or coincidence; was it God’s hand or mere happenstance? Obviously there are some who would try to argue that it was simply a coincidence. However, I believe that Lydia would have said, “It was providence. God brought me to that spot just so I could hear the Gospel.”
I believe Lydia would say her encounter with Paul was providence because she was a person of faith even before she was exposed to the Gospel. This is important. There’s a tendency on the part of some religious people to divide the world into the saved and the unsaved, the righteous and the unrighteous. If you’re not a baptized believer, in these people’s eyes, then you are somehow inferior, unacceptable, probably immoral, too. What’s interesting is that the New Testament isn’t that narrow. In the New Testament there are Jews and there are Christians and there are people who are referred to as God-Fearers. Lydia fits the description of a God-Fearer. Luke uses a different reference when he refers to Lydia, he simply recognizes her as a worshiper of God. In today’s church vernacular, we might call her a “seeker;” someone who is outside the traditional faith community, but is seeking after God. Last week in our first reading we read about another individual who would fall into this category.
In Acts 10 we read about another man who also fits the description of a God-Fearer, Cornelius. Recall, if you will, that Cornelius was an officer in what was known as the Italian Regiment of the Roman army. Cornelius commanded a hundred men whose main job was to maintain order in Caesarea. Cornelius also wasn’t a Jew nor was he a Christian. Luke recorded that, “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” This is interesting to note. It also leaves us asking, can there those who are outside the mainstream of Judeo-Christian faith and still be devout and God-fearing? Evidently the answer is yes. In fact, according to the book of Acts, you can be outside the mainstream of the faith community and still be used of God. Cornelius is a great example of this. Of course we must be careful here; using these stories to dismiss the importance of a Christian community would be to only see half the story.
There are those who would use the stories of Lydia and Cornelius to justify dismissing organized religion is to abuse the accounts. Yes, these people were somehow exposed to God and had come to the realization that we are to fear and worship God. And yes, these people came to this understanding outside of the traditional Judeo-Christian community. But God sent people to them to welcome them into the community. Once they were exposed to the good news of the gospel, they created, or better stated, they became a part of the larger Christian community. This included gathering regularly around the Word and Sacraments and were taught by qualified leaders. They didn’t remain apart, doing their own thing, they were brought in. None of this could have happened apart from the work of God. It was no accident that she was down at the river engaged in a prayer meeting when she encountered the Apostle Paul. Lydia was hungry for God.
I’ve belabored this point for this reason. Our community and country are filled with people like Lydia and Cornelius. There are fine, decent people, particularly young people, in our society today who are seeking God. Many have little or no church background. They may have been turned off by a church at some point. They may have even been hurt by a church sometime in the past, but they still hunger for God. Maybe they hunger for God because they’ve seen the bankruptcy of other approaches to life. They’re disgusted by the self-indulgence and materialism of our greater society. They want solid values, life-changing values. They want something they can depend on as they journey their way through life. And we, the church of Jesus Christ, need to reach out to them. We need to encounter them where they are and share genuinely and generously what God has done in our life. If we do that, God will use our witness in a marvelous way.
I love a story that Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross tells about a woman she encountered when she was writing her famous book on death and dying. Part of Dr. Kubler-Ross’ research involved interviewing dying patients in the hospital, trying to find out how they felt and what they thought as they faced death. As she went from room to room in the hospital, she began to notice a remarkable pattern. Sometimes she would go into a dying person’s room and the person would be calm, at peace, and tranquil. She also began to notice that often this was after the patient’s room had been cleaned by a certain hospital orderly.
One day, Dr. Kubler-Ross happened to run into this orderly in the hospital corridor. The doctor said to her, “What are you doing with my patients?” The orderly thought she was being reprimanded by Dr. Kubler-Ross. She said, “I’m not doing anything with your patients.” “No, no,” responded the doctor. “It’s a good thing. After you go into their rooms, they seem at peace. What are you doing with my patients?” “I just talk to them,” the orderly said. “You know, I’ve had two babies of my own die on my lap. But God never abandoned me. I tell them that. I tell them that they aren’t alone, that God is with them, and that they don’t have to be afraid.”
Think about this for a moment and imagine that you’re a patient in that hospital. You’ve reached a low point in your life and a gentle and caring hospital worker comes in to your room and while she cleans, she listens to your concerns. During the conversation, this orderly shares with you, that she was once in your situation and she reached out to God and God was there and God helped her through a bad situation. From this genuine act of caring and sharing, you find that you’ve been helped. In fact, you come out of that hospital experience a stronger person than you went in. I believe it would change how you deal with life.
Later when you look back on that experience, how do you explain it? Was it just a coincidence, or was it providence that you encountered this woman in your hour of need? In truth, it was both. It may indeed be happenstance that you were assigned to that particular room where that woman was working. But it was also providence because she had yielded herself to God and God was working through her, reaching out to anyone who would heed her calming and reassuring message.
You see, that’s how St. Paul looked at his life. He had adventures, not all of them pleasant, but he knew that wherever he was, God could use him. And so, when there was no synagogue in Philippi where he could worship, he and his friends looked for a place down by the river where they could at least join in prayer.
And when they encountered these women and realized that the women were seeking after God, they knew that God had brought them to this place and so they shared from their heart. And this smart, successful woman named Lydia responded to their message. She and all her household were baptized and became followers of Jesus Christ. If we could hear Lydia tell her story, my guess is she would say, “I was so fortunate. One day I was praying with my friends and God sent me a messenger, a man named Paul, and God changed my life.”
The truth is, the Lydias and Cornelius’ of this world are all around us. They’re waiting for you and me to reach out to them with the love of Jesus Christ. We can be a tool of God’s providence and grace, if we yield ourselves to be used of God, if we look at every conversation we have, if we see every situation in which we’re helping others, as potentially a God-sent opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. If we’ll do this, then we’ll realize that there are actually very few real coincidences in life. What we may come to realize is, that many of these so-called coincidences are really acts of providence in disguise.

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