Sixth Sunday of Easter
Paul should have expected the unexpected. He had big plans, but God’s Holy Spirit had bigger plans. We miss a couple of important (and hard-to-pronounce) introductory verses in our reading from Acts. “[Paul, Timothy, and Silas] 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; so passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas…” (Acts 16:6-8). The names are weird, I know, but the big point is that Paul and his friends had plans to go one place and the Holy Spirit steers them in another direction. If Paul were in New Jersey, it would be probably sound something like this, “Paul went through the region of New Jersey, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Pennsylvania. They attempted to go to Jersey City, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so passing by Camden they went down to Trenton.” Then Paul gets a vision of a man asking for help in Macedonia and Paul and his friends head in that direction ending up in Phillipi or we can call it Cape May if we are sticking with our New Jersey geography.
Paul says, “I think the best move would be if we went left.” The Holy Spirit answers, “Nope. We’re heading right.”
Paul ends up in Philippi, a place he did not expect to be. Paul then waits for the Sabbath when the Jews in town will be in Synagogue for worship. Instead of going to the Synagogue to preach about Jesus as he has already done many, many times, he takes a stroll along the river and there he finds a place of prayer. There a group of women are praying together. Paul tells the story of Jesus to the gathered worshipers and he meets someone particularly curious- Lydia. Lydia is non-Jew seeker. She is interested in the God of Israel and wants to learn more, but she has not made a commitment in conversion. Sort of an odd duck. On top of that she is a wealthy businesswoman dealing in purple cloth (an expensive garment only afforded by the wealthiest folks. Today she would be the lead distributor for a major diamond jewelery producer, like De Beers). This was at a time when women were defined primarily by their men- be they their husband, brother, or father. An independent, successful, businesswoman was certainly an odd duck too.
In so many ways, Paul has found himself encountering the Holy Spirit in unexpected ways. In a region he had not expected to travel to, in a city he wasn’t planning on going to, by some river outside of the city and not in a house of worship like he was used to, and in a woman, Lydia, who breaks all of the expectations for what a woman “ought” to be and what a believer ought to look like (she is not supported by a man and she is not a Jew). There, outside of the norm, Paul finds God powerfully at work.
The stereotypical place to find God at work would be within the church building. I think a lot of people think about a church building when they think about Christians. While it is true that God is found in buildings like the one we are in now, that is certainly not the only place God is to be found.
God is still found in those unexpected places. The Holy Spirit often functions as a sort of Gospel Matchmaker. In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Yenta is the village matchmaker. This old woman is in charge of pairing young men and young women together for marriage.
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
catch me a catch
Look through your book,
And make me a perfect match
The Holy Spirit has been doing this type of matchmaking since the birth of the church and probably before that. The Holy Spirit was at work in Paul guiding him away from some places and toward others so that he might meet his Gospel match. Paul is steered away from Asia, gets a vision to head to Macedonia, and there in Philippi he meets Lydia and the other worshiping women. The Holy Spirit was at work in Lydia at the same time. The Spirit was at work in her heart stirring up a holy curiosity about the God of Israel who lovingly created God’s people, protected and delivered them, and called them to be a light for all nations. The Spirit guided Lydia to find that group of faithful women who gathered at the river each week.
Then, these two people of faith, Paul and Lydia, get together. From that odd and unlikely meeting, Lydia experiences the joy of knowing Christ and she and her household are baptized at once. Paul receives shelter and provision. The church receives the beginnings of a new Christian community of faith.
The Holy Spirit is some matchmaker, huh?
Who do you think the Holy Spirit has in mind for our match? Where do you think this match made in heaven will occur?
Maybe it will be within these walls. We’ve seen it happen before. Heck, we’re celebrating it today. Joann and Norm, who will be our newest (official) members in a matter of a short time, came into this place. Maybe they were curious like Lydia and maybe they carry a new message that we need to hear like Paul did. The Holy Spirit Matchmaker made us a match here at St. Bart and together we trust that God will work in these relationships to build peace, justice, hope, and life that comes from faith in Jesus Christ.
But maybe it won’t be within these walls. Maybe the Holy Spirit is stirring our hearts to go to new and sometimes strange places to experience the presence of God in new and sometimes strange people. Paul was called to unexpected places and found the Holy Spirit at work in unexpected people. In several hours the 3rd Annual Unity Walk will begin. People of many faiths will gather at the murder sites in Trenton from the past year. We have said that God’s Spirit is calling us to get out of our houses of worship and go to the places of pain and suffering to pray and publicly confess that God has not abandoned those places or these people. In unexpected places in unexpected people. God’s Spirit is making a match.
Last Tuesday, the Evangelism Team met and discerned that God’s Spirit is calling us to get out and make our nearby bus stops places of prayer. God’s Spirit is making a match.
St. John’s Lutheran in Passaic operates a free breakfast ministry in a Home Depot parking lot. The day laborers who gather there to find work enjoy a meal together and then worship together. God’s Spirit is calling people together and building up the church through those matches. God’s Spirit is making a match. Those matches are often not what we expect to find and not where we expect to find them.
God’s Spirit is at work bringing people together for the sake of spreading the joy of Jesus Christ’s victory over death and the grave. God does this often in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, and through unexpected people. May God grant us the boldness and joy of praying,
Make [us] a match,
Find [us] a find,
catch [us] a catch
Look through your book,
And make [us] a perfect match.