May 22, 2022

"Something God Along Can See"

Rev. Scott Landis

Acts 16:9-15

A recent Gallup poll revealed that more than 50% of United States citizens admit to having had at least one “mystical vision” in their lives which they attributed to God. An even higher percentage of clergy make that same claim. But the poll also revealed that very few admit having shared that vision with anyone else. For various reasons recipients often keep these experiences to themselves. Whether it was the fear that others would think less of them, or they just wouldn’t understand, OR that they themselves really weren’t convinced it happened, their visions remained buried – never mentioned – nor paid much attention to. But they’ve never forgotten them.

Some may think that visions were reserved for those who lived in pre-scientific times – like those folks we read about today in the bible – but I wonder. What do we make of those experiences – those unexplainable moments that may have been life-changing? I invite you to hold lightly your own experience as we reflect on what happened to Paul in the book of Acts when he engaged in his missionary endeavors throughout Asia Minor. Paul seems to have had such visions on a regular basis and they guided him as he set out to do the work of God. [Pause]

Paul had been traveling throughout the eastern part of the Mediterranean being guided by the Spirit who seemed to prevent him from going to some places while opening doors to others. He was perfectly happy remaining closer to home when he had a dream about a man from Macedonia. That’s where we pick up today’s story.

[You might want to refer to the map I had printed on your bulletin cover for some orientation.]

A Macedonian man stood on the far shore and beckoned him to come and help them. Paul knew from his vision that he was being called West. So, he sailed from Troas to Samothrace, to Neapolis, and then walked to Philippi. I cropped the legend from the map but that would be a total distance of about 200 miles. Nothing by our standards, but for Paul would have taken several days and quite a commitment. Philippi was the main city of Macedonia and a Roman colony. Paul, being both a Jew and a Roman citizen had agency there and could have had a powerful impact on the community.

Here's where it gets interesting. On the sabbath, he did not seek out the synagogue to worship so that he might teach those gathered about Jesus. Instead, he went outside the city gate. Word had it there was a prayer meeting – lead by women – that was happening down by the river and Paul wanted to check it out. That’s where he met Lydia – a businesswoman who worshiped God.

It’s implied that Paul preached there, and Lydia listened intently. She was so taken by what Paul had to say about Jesus that she opened her heart and was baptized into this new expression of Judaism known as “The Way.” [Pause]

This all may seem rather straight-forward but look a little more closely. Every one of these visions and revelations and conversions, and even baptisms took place completely outside the religious institution of the time. And outside the city gates for that matter. I find that interesting and perhaps instructive especially for our day. [Pause]

I doubt this will come as any big surprise to you, but folks are finding many different ways to get their spiritual needs met today – and more-and-more frequently that is happening outside the church. What surprised me in reading this story again was the fact that this very phenomenon was occurring in the first century. That actually gave me some hope.

For some reason, Paul didn’t go to the synagogue on the sabbath. He sought out this band of renegade women who were holding a prayer meeting by the river. There was no priest, no pews, no incense, no hymnals, no bulletins – just the desire to join with others who had come together to pray. [Pause]

I hear of similar situations being played out all the time, and, I must admit it does concern me. Whether they refer to themselves as the SBNR’s (the Spiritual But Not Religious) or the NONE’s (no religious affiliation whatsoever), fewer and fewer are making their way to worship in our churches. 21st century churches – be they mega-churches, or small village churches like Keawala’i are not attracting folks the way we used to. Worship attendance is dropping precipitously. Folks just don’t want to be bothered with the institution. But that doesn’t mean they have given up on God – NOR has God given up on them OR us. [Pause]

Just this past week I had a conversation that reflects this sentiment with “seekers,” as I will call them. A young woman phoned me seeking advice on what to do regarding her infant daughter. “We’d like to do something to honor our faith,” she said, “and would like a blessing for our child, but we’re not sure if baptism is the right thing. You see, we’re not very religious and we really don’t attend church. But we are very spiritual, we believe in God and have a strong faith AND we want to raise our child with solid spiritual values – ones that respect the spiritual lives of all others. What should we do?”

And it’s not just those outside the church that are questioning the institution as we know it. Covid has dropped a bomb on all of us – not only of infection which demanded our medical attention, but to lifestyle which now demands our spiritual attention. Most of my clergy colleagues report that attendance at most services of worship is down by at least a third. It’s forcing us to ask some rather provocative questions: of what relevance is the church today? What are we doing and why? Are we doing anything that is making a difference in our world?

Those outside the church – both seekers and nay-sayers alike – are asking these questions. So, it behooves us to consider them as well, and we had better come up with some pretty good answers if we want to survive much longer.

It's one of the reasons why I feel so strongly about the importance of carefully examining OUR mission – OUR vision – OUR desires for the future of OUR church. And so, I have invited a small group of folks I am referring to as the Transition Team to prayerfully consider everything I can think of that we are currently doing as a church with an eye toward the future. I hope to carefully scrutinize our current practices to determine what we should continue, what we should possibly eliminate, and what we may need to add – and then make suggestions to our church leadership for their consideration. I’ll be writing more about this in our next newsletter. [Pause]

It can be hard to take a good long look in the mirror. What we see may be kind of shocking – particularly if we haven’t looked for some time. But until we do, we don’t know what needs to attention. Ignorance, in this situation, is NOT bliss. So, a careful and prayerful look at who we are and what we do, I believe, is essential as we seek God’s direction for our future. [Pause]

Before I began my meditation today, I asked that we sing one of my favorite songs by Natalie Sleeth, “In the Bulb There is a Flower.” Each verse describes things in which potential is hidden such as a bulb – that becomes a flower, a seed – that becomes a tree, and a cocoon that becomes a butterfly, and so on. And then each verse ends with the line, “Something God Alone Can See.”

This is why I think that this very precarious moment in the life of Christendom is so exciting. While it may not be our finest hour, it may just become one of the most important. An opportunity that we might miss if we are unwilling to pay attention to the vision that God has provided for us – and one that – for the moment – maybe God alone can see. Could it be that we are being invited to open our eyes, to pay attention, and to make the necessary sacrifices that obedience and risk entails?

I doubt Paul had a very clear idea of what lay ahead as he set sail toward Macedonia, but he shared his vision, he took the risk, and the results were astounding.

Now is NOT the time to ignore the vision that God may provide. In fact, now is the time to talk about what is being revealed. That’s what’s exciting for people to hear – both inside and outside the church. That’s what feels alive and meaningful and real.

The next several years in the lives of ALL our churches may be some of the most challenging we’ve ever faced – but they may also be the most creative. If we seek to dig in our heels and fortify who we are and what we have always been, it may be a very painful time that ultimately leads to our death. Because most are no longer interested. But if we open ourselves to God’s vision – whether that is right here or “down by the river,” out on the beach, or in places we haven’t even begun to imagine we may experience a closer and deeper connection to God than we have ever felt in our lives.

That’s where the excitement lies. That’s what folks want to hear about. How is God making a difference in your life? How are you been transformed? What vision is God giving you? How is the church cultivating what God alone can see?

I hope we will all have the courage and the determination to heed and to share what God is revealing to a world that desperately needs a word from God.

As we sang just moments ago,

“There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody;
There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.


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