Straight to the Heart

Rev. Wesley Craig | May 23, 2022

Sixth Sunday of Easter – Acts 16:6-15

Laurel Heights United Methodist Church – May 22, 2022
Over the years, I have been to countless baseball games. As a child, I would often take my baseball glove in the hope of catching a foul ball. It never happened. Some time ago, when we move to La Vernia, we drove in for a Missions Baseball game and had great seats behind the first base dugout, about halfway up. Several foul balls had been hit by about the fifth inning. And as usual, another foul ball was hit. This time the ball went way up in the air and I really couldn’t tell which way it was going. Then, I noticed it was coming in our general direction. I was like “wow, it’s going to land somewhere in our general area.” Then I noticed it was coming toward our section, but I remained calm and relaxed with Ellis sitting on my lap. And then all the sudden, the ball is quickly coming at us…at my face.

I would like to tell you this morning that I did what I saw another dad do the other day on social media, reach up and catch it with one barehand. That didn’t happen because I didn’t believe it was coming to us until it was too late. By the time I believed it was actually coming to us, all I could do was duck so it wouldn’t hit Ellis or me on my head. So, the only foul ball to ever come directly to me hit me right on my back.

The good news…I reached back and felt the ball in my chair and held up it up for all to see. So instead of catching the foul ball with my hand (the ideal situation), I caught it with my back and the chair, which I’d like to think took some talent, even more difficult than with my barehand. The ball went from landing somewhere, anywhere in the ballpark, straight to my back.

In the passage from Acts this morning, the good news of Jesus goes from landing somewhere in the ballpark of Macedonia, straight to the heart of Lydia. From Lydia’s heart to her household. From her household to the Philippian community. And so much of this journey to her heart and others was so very unexpected and with a mysterious mixture of human initiative and divine guidance and action.

This particular passage falls within what is called Paul’s second missionary journey. Timothy has just joined Paul and Silas in Lystra. Then they are described as going west through the region of Phrygia and Galatia when unexpectedly and kind of oddly are forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempt to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.

And it was here, during the night, that Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man standing and pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” No more details are provided.

When he had seen the vision, they immediately try to cross over to Macedonia being convinced that God had call them, not just him, to proclaim the good news to them.

So, having received this direction, they set sail to Samothrace and then head to Neapolis and from there to Philippi, a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. And then they are there for some days. Time passes by. There’s no quick success. No further directions. There’s no welcoming party. Where in the world is the Macedonian man from the vision for crying out loud? There doesn’t even seem to be enough adult Jewish males for a synagogue, so they supposed there was a place of prayer by the river and it’s here that they find, not a Macedonian man, but a group of women. They sit with them and speak to the women gathered there.

Among the group of women is a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, and a Gentile worshiper of the God of Israel. And here in this moment the Risen Lord is present and at work. Paul sits and speaks, but it is the Lord that opens her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. Here, at this time and place, Lydia’s life is unexpectedly changed and she becomes a disciple of Jesus that is expressed through her home and work.

For her, her work is no longer just work. Her home is no longer a place to live. Her worship and prayer and her work and home are unexpectedly brought into the life and mission of God in the world. Paul, Silas and Timothy got diverted along the way and even Lydia’s life got diverted on that sabbath day by the river. They all end up in unexpected places with unexpected people. The good news comes in her general direction and it gets closer and closer and then the Lord opens her heart and the good news enters straight in and her life is changed.

What might this mean for us today as individuals…as a church? How do we navigate this journey with God and each other? Do we plan or are we to be more responsive and spontaneous? I think we see a little bit of both in the reading from Acts this morning. We must plan. We must act and go and make choices that we believe are in line with God’s desire for us. Sometimes it’s only a sense of a general direction, but we go. And as go, sometimes there are no’s, closed doors, and redirections, (remember God was involved in their redirections, too) but they and we keep going…trusting God even in the uncertainty…in the fog.

Sometimes there are delays and time passes, and we might wonder if we are where and doing what God wants of us. But we keep going and we try something out and we just sit for a while, and we cross someone’s path, or they cross ours.

And then, after a long journey of coming to a place and time, the Lord surprising shows up and opens a heart. And we are included in that work. And one life is changed that has ripple effects for others.

For me, this entire passage is so much of the life of faith. As we go, we trust that the Holy Spirit is leading and guiding us, but we must be ready for what we do not have planned, but God unexpectedly will do. We go forth knowing and believing that the Holy Spirit is present and at work in us and in others. Us being willing to go to someone else, sit down and tell them about Jesus for there are Lydia’s in our lives ready to respond with faith and discipleship! We follow, sit down, wait, keep going in general direction, initiating relationships and conversations, trusting the Lord to show up, guide, and open hearts and see what more will happen.

The opening of her heart wasn’t the end. She then opens her home to Paul and the others to begin and nurture the first church in Europe. The church that Paul wrote to in his letter to the Philippians. The church that supported him. The church in Philippi came to be because of Paul, Silas and Timothy’s obedience to God’s call to go and one woman listening and responding…one woman seeking the God that opened her heart to Jesus and her home to others. What a story of the mysterious, unexpected and surprising working of God with his people and the Risen Lord in a person’s heart.

One of my favorite novels is a book called Thin Blue Smoke. It’s a really good book and it has a lot to do with barbeque. The downside is it makes you really hungry and crave barbeque while reading it. Food aside, two of the central characters are LaVerne, a reformed felon, ex-baseball player, and owner of Kansas City’s best barbeque joint and a man by the name of Ferguson Glen, an Episcopalian priest and fading literary star with a drinking problem. At one point in the story they are getting to know each other and LaVerne asks Ferguson about his new teaching job at the local seminary.

LaVerne asks. “What do you think about the seminary?” “So far, so good,” Ferguson said. “Though I wouldn’t have guessed in a hundred years, I’d end up in Kansas City.” Ferguson leaned back in his chair and stared at his bourbon. Then he went on to elaborate with a story about a turtle. He then continues sharing saying… “I taught for a few years at a small libral arts collge just east of Grand Rapids. It was an older school that was originally located downtown. But eventually they needed more space and some better facilities so, with some money from one of their alumni, who was also one of the Amway billionaires, they bought some land out in the country and built themselves a brand new school. It was beatiful. State-of-the-art. All glass and gleaming steel. And right in the middle of campus was a lake. Well, they called it a lake. But it was really just a big man-made pond, with pretty landscaped islands. And every once in a while, as I’d be walking to class, I’d see a turtle on one of the rocks out on one of those islands. And I’d think: How’d that turtle get there? I mean there were no other lakes or swamps or rivers anywhere near that school. So, if that turtle walked to that campus pond on its own, it walked a long way, which couldn’t have been its plan. There’s no way it could have known the pond was there. It probably left home one morning on some turtle errand and got distracted, or lost, or something, and ended up at the campus pond. The question is: Did ending up at that pond save his life or ruin his life? After all, if he hadn’t found the pond he’d probably have died wandering around lost. On the other hand, he never found his way home, did he?” Ferguson took a deep breath. “I guess the other possibility is that the landscapers who built the pond went out and bought a turtle wherever it is you buy turtles and put it in the pond to make it look like a real lake. Either way, the turtle didn’t plan on being there.” LaVerne responds saying, “I guess we’re like turtles. Sometimes we get diverted and end up in a place we never expected to be.”

Events take place. People cross our paths, and we too are diverted. We end up in unexpected places, sometimes a pleasant place, sometimes not.

The reading from Acts tells the story of Paul, Silas and Timothy getting diverted, ending up in a place and encountering a woman they didn’t expect. So, who might be the Lydia in your life that God is directing you? Who might the Spirit be leading you to sit down and tell them about Jesus?

Lydia could have said that she wouldn’t have guessed in a million years she would have ended up a disciple of Jesus and possible sponsor or leader of the early church in Philippi. But she put herself in a place where God could work in her life…a place of prayer. Where are you putting yourself to hear the voice of God?

For us, so often we are the diverted turtle. We are Paul. We are Lydia…ending up in unexpected places because of God…because the Holy Spirit is leading us and we are open and responsive. Divine initiative and human obedience met at the riverside. It meets in our lives, too. Let’s plan. Let’s take initiative but let us be open to the unexpected and unplanned for divine surprises because the Risen, Living Lord is still opening hearts today. Thanks be to God! Amen.