Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C)
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on Sunday May 26, 2019.
Have you ever had a desire or dream or vision about something that felt really good and healthy and godly to you and then pursued it, only to watch it all fall apart before your very eyes? If you have had that experience or if you’re having an experience like that right now, I want to say to you that you are blessed; and that God has “such good things that surpass your understanding” in store for you, as we prayed in this morning’s beautiful Collect. Just as Jesus said to his disciples right before their dreams for the messiah were completely shattered so too is God saying to you, “Don’t be troubled; don’t be afraid. Trust me. Trust that I have prepared such good things for you that surpass your understanding.” Blessed are those whose dreams have been shattered, for God has prepared for them such good things, beyond their wildest dreams.
Just yesterday, several of us from Christ Church travelled to our cathedral in Sacramento to attend the ordination of the now “Rev. Cindy Woods” who spent her last six months of lay leadership with us here. The powerful sacramental moment reminded of my own ordination and ordination process. Ten years ago, I was interviewed by the Commission on Ministry in the Diocese of Los Angeles, an interview that lasted about 12 hours. This was after a year of discernment at my local parish in San Gabriel CA and then days of physical and psychological evaluation. My deep desire and dream was to become a postulant in the Episcopal Church so that I could then become a Candidate for Holy Orders and then a transitional deacon and then a priest. I felt like this healthy, good and life-giving desire and dream was given to me by God; and I was eager to pursue it. Several days after the interview, I received a letter in the mail, saying that the Commission on Ministry did not recommend me for postulancy. The bishop did not make me a postulant. I was told no. I felt deeply confused and profoundly disappointed as my dream to become a priest in the Episcopal Church appeared to be shattered. I could not understand why God would give me a desire for something good and then seem to rip it away from me. I couldn’t hear God at the time, but I believe God was saying to me, “Daniel, don’t be troubled. Don’t be afraid. Trust me. Trust in my love for you and trust that I have prepared such good things for you.”
It turned out that that “No” was really a “Not yet” and an invitation to participate in a Ministry Study Year at an Episcopal parish in Albany CA called St. Alban’s. It was during that Ministry Study Year that I realized how much I loved parish ministry. And the affirmations I received from members of my Lay Discernment Committee and other parishioners continue to sustain me in my ministry today. Because of my time at St. Alban’s in Albany, I was able to see myself as a parish priest rather than as a full-time chaplain or teacher or retreat leader, priestly vocations I had previously considered. If it were not for that initial “No” from the Commission on Ministry and my subsequent time at St. Alban’s, I would likely not be here at Christ Church today. Blessed are those whose dreams have been shattered, for God has prepared for them such good things as surpass understanding.
In our reading this morning from the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul has a specific vision of a man from Macedonia, saying to him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul then becomes convinced that God has called him to proclaim the Gospel to the Macedonians. Paul has this God-given dream of a most receptive community in Macedonia who are desperately thirsting for his message. I imagine that Paul envisioned a quick and enormously successful ministry there. I imagine Paul was eager to meet this particular man who showed up in his vision and say to him, “Here I am!” and expect to be received right away with joy and open arms. But that’s not what happens. I invite you look at the reading in your bulletin or you can open your pew Bibles to page 1009 to read Acts 16 verse 11, which follows Paul’s vision and says, “We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.” It’s worth noting that the author uses the first person plural (“we”) so we know that St. Luke, the author of Acts, was part of this journey, which he describes in some detail. After this, he says, “We remained in this city for some days.” Now here it’s helpful to read the original Greek because what he actually says is more like, “We sat around for a long time, twiddling our thumbs.” Eugene Peterson, in his modern paraphrase of the Bible called The Message, gets a little closer to the original meaning when he says “We lingered there for several days.” The Greek word for “lingered” is the word diatribo, which basically means “killing time” and can connote boredom. It’s also where we get the word “diatribe.” And I can’t help but imagine that Paul was having an inner diatribe against God after he had rushed over to Macedonia, where all he could do was hurry up and wait. Where was the receptive community? Where was the man from Paul’s dream? His vision for Macedonia seemed to fall flat. Usually Paul and his message energize people in one way or the other but in Macedonia, nobody seems to care. This must’ve been very confusing and disappointing for Paul, after having this clear vision and then pursuing it only to watch it fall flat. But blessed are those whose dreams have been shattered, for God has prepared for them such good things as surpass understanding.
Paul and his companions then decide to go to a place of prayer by a river, perhaps to regroup and figure out what they might have done wrong or might have somehow missed in their communication with God. The water is a great place for this, for listening to the Spirit. During our Sacred Saunters, I always loved it when we gathered to pray the Psalms by the little trickling water falls at Sequoia Park. As I’ve shared before, the Hebrew word for “Heaven” is the word shemayim, which is a combination of two words: shema which means “listen” and mayim which means “water.” According to the Hebrew language, listening to water is heaven. I like to think that Paul heard in the flowing water of the river a heavenly voice respond to his confusion and disappointment by saying to him, “Don’t be troubled; and don’t be afraid. Trust me. Trust that I have prepared such good things for you that surpass your understanding.”
Feeling renewed by God’s love, Paul shared the Gospel with others by the river, who also knew how to listen. One of those deep listeners was a wealthy woman named Lydia, who welcomed them into her home and who eventually became St. Lydia, the first European convert to Christianity. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, St. Lydia is considered “Equal to the Apostles” because of her high status and leadership in the early church. Lydia was the first leader of the Church in Philippi, a church that Paul raves about in his most joy-filled Epistle: the Epistle to the Philippians, in which he calls them his “beloved and longed-for brethren, his joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1). Blessed are those whose dreams have been shattered, for God has prepared for them such good things, beyond their wildest dreams.
If you are struggling or have struggled with a broken dream or a profound disappointment or tragic loss, I invite you listen today to the divine voice of love say to you now, “Don’t let your heart be troubled and don’t be afraid. Trust me. Trust in my love for you. And trust in my love for all my children. I love you and I have prepared for you such good things that surpass your wildest dreams.” During Communion, we will sing a song written by Church of Scotland minister John Bell who led worship at Iona for several years. He wrote this song during a time of profound disappointment and the words are simple: “Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger; my love is stronger than your fear. Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger; and I have promised; promised to be always near.” No matter where you are in your spiritual journey, let these words of divine love wash over you and empower you to receive all the good things God has prepared for you. Amen.