May 26, 2019 Worship Sermon - "Following God's Call"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Acts 16:6-15, Psalm 67,Revelation 21:10, 22--22:5, John 5:1-9
Did you ever have one of those days where everything you try to do seems to go wrong? The day starts off bad when you pull a shirt out of the closet and see that it has a stain on it. After ironing another shirt, you’re late for work; but then, as you pull the car out of the driveway, you see that your out of gas. Once you get gas, you drive a few blocks further, only to find yourself stuck in a traffic jam. By the time you get to work, you’re steaming mad. Your boss is pointing to her watch as you walk through the door. You apologize for being late and she asks you why you haven’t completed the assignment that was due earlier in the week. You rush to your desk, turn on your computer so that you can complete the assignment, and there’s a system update happening. Your computer isn’t going to be usable for another hour. And you think to yourself: “I should have called out sick.”
In our reading from Acts, Paul seems to be having a day like that – or rather – a month like that, because his plans seem to be thwarted at every turn. He was traveling west, through modern day Turkey, trying to spread the Good News of life in Jesus Christ. He tried to make a left to go to southwest Turkey, where there were lots of big cities, but the Holy Spirit said, “No, you can’t go there.” So he tried to make a right to go to northwest Turkey, but the Holy Spirit blocks him from going there, too. Finally, Paul ends up in a town called Troas, which was as far west as you could go before you hit the Aegean Sea. He couldn’t go south and he couldn’t go north and he must have been wondering, “What on earth am I supposed to do here?” But in the midst of his frustration, he has a vision of a man from Macedonia, which was on the other side of the Aegean. The man in the vision begs Paul to come to Macedonia and help the people there. So Paul crosses the Aegean, goes to the main city, Philippi, and stays there for some time… apparently without anything happening.
Usually, when Paul visits a new city, his first stop is at the local synagogue, where he preaches to the people who are gathered in it. That doesn’t happen in this case, perhaps because Paul is now in Europe, deep into Gentile territory, and there aren’t enough Jews to merit building a synagogue. I can imagine Paul’s frustration as he wandered the streets of the city looking for a receptive audience. He had had this vision of a man from Macedonia begging him for help; so where was this man? Finally, on a Sabbath day, he happens upon a group of women praying by the river. Paul may have had no indication that these were the people he was supposed to help; after all, the vision was of a man of Macedonia. But Paul talks with the women and one of them, Lydia, hears what he has to say and desires to become baptized into Christ. The church that Paul and Lydia started in Philippi ends up being one of the most faithful and supportive of all the congregations that Paul established.
Sometimes, the obstacles that get in the way of our plans might actually be leading us to a better destination. We’re get angry because we’re late for work, but in our lateness we see or experience something good that we would not have otherwise experienced.
If you are someone who seeks to live out God’s call in your life, pay attention to the story of Paul and Lydia. So many of us want to follow Christ and we make plans that we think will enable us to do what God is calling us to do; but then we become frustrated when our plans don’t turn out the way we had hoped they would. You may think God is calling you to be a teacher, when in fact God is calling you to be a healer. You may think God is calling you to marry one person, when in fact God is calling you to marry someone else. You may think God is calling you to be in one place at a particular time, when in fact God wants you to be somewhere else altogether.
The same principle applies to us as a congregation. We plan projects and programs that we hope will enable us to fulfill our mission to share God’s love for the world; but some of our plans never get traction and we end up spinning our wheels and feeling frustrated. A couple of years ago, we tried to start up an advocacy group here, where we could work together to advocate for justice. Certainly that would have been a worthwhile endeavor. God calls all of us to work for justice; but it never got off the ground. Should we have tried harder? Maybe. Or maybe it just wasn’t the right time and place for this to happen. Maybe there is another group of people in our community that is more suited to pursuing this work.
I find the story of Paul and Lydia so liberating because it means that we don’t have to know in advance how everything is going to work out in order for us to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Being faithful means following the direction of the Holy Spirit; but it also means being open to roadblocks and detours that we encounter along the way. When I get caught up in accomplishing my goals and achieving my vision, those roadblocks can be the cause of tremendous frustration and anger; but once I recognize that the vision and the ministry are God’s not mine, then I can let go of my frustrations and trust that God will accomplish God’s purpose in my life and in the world. It’s just a more serene way to live.
There is a similar message for us in our reading from the Gospel of John. Here too we find a group of people gathered by a body of water. They also need help; there are people with all kinds of disabilities gathered by the pool. One of them definitely knew what it was like to have his plans frustrated. This man had been lame for thirty-eight years and his intention of being healed was constantly being blocked. Every time he tried to crawl into the water and be healed, someone else got there ahead of him. So when Jesus comes up to him and offers healing, he’s not even able to say, “Yes, I want to be healed.” His mind has become trapped in pursuing the one method of healing that he knows. Every other sick person in the Gospels runs up to Jesus and begs him for healing; but this man doesn’t even bother. The frustration of his plans has brought him to a place of despair. Jesus heals him anyway, even though he demonstrates neither faith nor even a desire to be healed.
When we feel completely frustrated, when our plans are thwarted on every side, it might be that God is calling us to try something new, something better than what we had originally hoped for.
Frederick Buechner writes: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I think that’s very true; but what our scripture readings this morning tell us is that sometimes it takes a while to find out just where that place is. We may make some wrong turns along the way; and that’s ok. All we need to do is be faithful in following God’s call and trust that God will bring us to the place where we should be.
“God moves in a mysterious way, God’s wonders to perform.” This is the first line of an old hymn and these words come to mind as we consider how God’s ways and our plans don’t always coincide. This hymn written by William Cowper, a man who, like the lame man by the pool, had battled depression and despair for much of his life. There is true comfort in knowing that God’s ways are not always known to us in advance and I can imagine Cowper finding comfort in the mystery of God’s grace. One of the verses of the hymn goes like this:
“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.”
The clouds do form even on days we had been planning to have a picnic. And yet, God’s mercy rains down upon us day by day, year by year, in ways we could never have expected.
Christ Lutheran Community Church
Christ Lutheran Community Church