Have you ever felt stuck? Maybe you had this great period of productivity, full of energy and excitement, then it kind of died down, and you weren’t quite sure of which way to go next?
That seems to be where the Jesus movement was by the time of today’s Scripture story. After an explosion of new churches through Asia Minor, things had gotten more complicated…. so complicated that they’d had to have a big old business meeting in Jerusalem. With so many churches, so many believers, disagreements among them were bubbling up. Best to talk those things through. See? The church from the beginning has been congregational.
After working things out in Jerusalem, Paul and his partner in ministry, Barnabas, regroup and come up with a plan—they’ll go back around to all the churches they started and check in to see how they’re doing. Barnabas wants to take a young disciple named John Mark with them; Paul disagrees…so “sharply,” Luke tells us, that Paul and Barnabas part company. Conflicts often arise when a group is trying to figure out where to go next.
Reading through Paul and his new companion Silas’ itinerary, it’s curious to see that some of the places they’d planned to go, God’s Spirit directed them elsewhere. “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” You get the sense that the Jesus movement had lost its way. It’s like Paul and Silas are having to guess at what to do next. They seem to be at a crossroads.
I’m wondering if that might be where we are here at FCUCC. I came as your pastor 16 months ago. In that time, we’ve gone through a lot of transitions–of staff, of membership, of ministries. Often when a new pastor comes on board, the sense is, “Oh! Now that we have a pastor, we’ll get back to where we were five years ago.”
And yet…we aren’t the same church we were five years ago. The needs of the FCUCC community are different. The needs of the wider Asheville community are different. The needs of the world are different. Five years ago, our country had a different president. Five years ago, the earth was healthier. Five years ago, marriage equality wasn’t yet the law of the land.
If we were to go back and try to reclaim where we were five years ago, it might make us feel good for a tiny bit, but then what? The world has changed enough since then—our FCUCC church community has changed enough since then—that we wouldn’t be prepared adequately to address what was going on. How do we act today’s world into wellbeing if we’re trying to use the tools and resources of the past?
Perhaps the trickiest part of doing church is figuring out what traditions to keep and cling to and which traditions we need to let go. It’s not like we work and work and work at church then just sit back and do church like we’ve always done it. Doing church effectively in the world requires us to be in a constant state of prayer and discernment. The question always before us is, “How can we share God’s love today? How can we act the world into wellbeing today?”
So, what happened with the Apostle Paul? How did he and his companions find their way forward? In the midst of their wanderings, they make a stop in Troas. During the night, Paul has a dream. A man of Macedonia pleads with Paul to come to Macedonia to help them.
And that is the moment when everything changes. To this point, Jesus’ followers had been spreading the Gospel like wildfire, but only within the area of Judea or what’s called Asia Minor. Ancient day Macedonia is current day Greece…which means the call to Macedonia was a call to take the Gospel to another continent. Today we hear the story of how the Jesus movement was introduced to Europe. This was huge.
So, Paul and his companions leave Troas and head to the region of Macedonia. Macedonia is a large area. Unfortunately, the man in Paul’s dream didn’t offer any specifics. So, Paul and his companions wander around some more.
Finally, settle in Philippi. It was Paul’s custom the first Sabbath in a city to go to the synagogue for prayers. Not sure why on his first Sabbath in Philippi he doesn’t go to the synagogue. Instead he goes outside the city limits, down to the river, where he suspects he’ll find people praying…which he does. He finds a group of women.
Are you getting a sense for how many boundaries Paul has crossed in the story thus far? I’m not talking about crossing boundaries inappropriately. I’m talking about crossing the boundaries of what’s expected…the boundaries of “doing what we’ve always done.” Paul has crossed the boundary between Asia Minor and Europe. He’s crossed the city limit of Philippi, as well as the boundary of his usual M.O. of visiting a synagogue his first Sabbath in town. And now he’s crossed another boundary–he sits down to teach a group of women.
Often when church starts feeling routine, when the going-like-gangbusters settles into a lull, the only way to shake things up is to venture into new territory. I wonder what we’ve-never-done-it-that-way boundaries here at FCUCC God’s Spirit might be inviting us to cross?
Does that feel a little scary, thinking about doing things we’ve never done before, going places we’ve never gone before? Let’s see what happens when Paul crosses the boundaries of what the Jesus movement of his time had always done.
Among the women gathered that morning is Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. The only people in that society who were able to buy purple cloth were the wealthy. So, if Lydia dealt in purple cloth, she spent all her days interacting with the wealthy people in her region. No doubt, she was a woman of significant means. And with no man mentioned in the text—a husband, father, or son—it appears that Lydia had come to her success independently…another significant accomplishment for a woman in that culture.
Despite her great success and independence, Lydia was searching for something more… which is why she went regularly to the river to pray. Having reached a lull in her spiritual life, she also was looking for something new. Lydia also was looking to cross into new territory, but she needed guidance. And so…she listened. That’s what Luke tells us, “Lydia listened.”
Our summer theme begins two weeks from today, which will be Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost—50 days after Easter—is when we celebrate the birth of the church. Each summer, the invitation is to reflect on how we might grow deeper as a community of faith. As we hear stories about the growth of the early church, we’ll be invited to reflect on what growth will mean for our FCUCC community.
Are you ready to hear the theme? Here goes! “Using What We Have to Act the World into Wellbeing.” Often when doing a gifts assessment in congregations, a Time and Talent Survey is distributed, people fill it out, then folks are assigned to committees or ministry teams.
This year, we’re going to do that a little differently. This year we’ll focus on the gifts of our FCUCC community AS a community. We looked at one of those gifts last summer—the gift of radical hospitality. This year, we’ll look at several more gifts of the community.
The theme officially begins on Pentecost Sunday—the birthday of the church. But the most important resource we have for engaging the theme comes from Lydia today. The most important resource we have for discerning our way forward as a church, the most important resource we have for figuring out how to act the world into wellbeing is listening.
When Lydia listened, her life was transformed. She came to believe.
What might happen if we honed our listening skills and began listening more intently? How might our lives be transformed? How might our church be transformed? And how might our listening contribute to the transformation of the world?
When I first encountered Benedictine spirituality 11 years ago, I felt a little like Lydia might have felt down by the river that Sabbath morning. After decades of searching for spiritual practices that would help me grow, I’d finally found a set of spiritual practices that would go deep enough. Eleven years in, following the Rule is still life-giving for me.
At the heart of the Rule is one word–Listen. Benedict wrote: “Listen carefully, my child, to the teacher’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”
“Listen with the ear of your heart.” Listen down to the depths of your being. Listen to hear what the other person is saying. Listen to everything—listen to God, listen to the Jesus of the Gospels, listen to each other, listen to those who are suffering, listen to the world, listen to the planet, listen to what’s going on inside your own joyful, hurting heart. Listen, not to analyze or criticize…listen, not to complain or campaign…listen, not to refute or compute…listen, simply to hear…listen, to learn something about someone or something else…listen, so that when it comes time to act someone else into wellbeing, you’ll have a clue what it will take.
Have you ever felt heard? Has someone ever listened to you and really heard what you were saying? Without judgment? Without an agenda? Without trying to make your story about them? Have you ever felt listened to with the ear of another person’s heart? How did that feel? What did being heard so deeply do to your own heart?
This summer, we’ll explore lots of ways to act the world the world into wellbeing…but none of those ways will make sense if we haven’t listened to the world with the ear of our hearts. And so the invitation as we begin our summer journey is simply this—Listen. Listen. Listen.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2019