Before I went to seminary, I participated in a program at my parish called EFM – Education for Ministry. I know many Hickory Neck parishioners have done the program, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, the program is a four-year program where a small group of people gather and each year study a different topic – Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, and Theology. When I was taking the class, during one of the scripture years, I was traveling by plane alone and I was sorely behind in my scripture reading. So I threw my overly large study bible into my bag, planning to use flight time and layover time in airports to catch up on my scripture reading. Now, I do not know if you have ever thought about taking a huge study bible along with you to an airport, but I would encourage you to think long and hard before you do. Over the course of the day I found I could barely read in peace. I had a middle-aged woman chat endlessly about her church and bible studies she had enjoyed. And of course, there were tons of people who just stared at me warily trying to figure out what my angle was and making sure they had a ready escape just in case. You would think the lesson from my trip would be, “Take a Bible with you, and see what evangelism opportunities the Bible creates.” But to be honest, I found myself wanting to never carry a Bible with me again in an airport.
These days, I find wearing a collar has a similar effect. Just this week, I was in a parking lot and some man approached me about giving money to his ministry. After I agreed to take some information instead of giving him cash, he asked me what the thing around my neck was. When I told him I was an Episcopal priest, he gave me a smirk, and kind of grunted as he turned away and looked for his next “customer.” Most often when I am in my collar, people stare – sometimes discretely, but other times I have to catch their eye before they realize how blatantly they are staring. Other times – probably my favorite times – people will tentatively ask me if I am clergy and then will ask some really interesting questions, sometimes even asking me for a prayer.
I get to have a lot of God conversations because of my collar. But when I am in plain clothes, and I imagine for most of us here, finding ways to engage others about faith is trickier. We certainly could lug around a huge study bible. We could print up some Hickory Neck gear and either hope people talk to us, or make sure the gear says “Ask me about my church!” We could get really bold and when we are at the coffee shop put up a little sign that says, “Ask me about Jesus and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.” Or we could take the opposite tack, and just hope not only someone will randomly talk to us, but also the conversation will magically shift toward spirituality, church, or God.
Truthfully, when most of us think about evangelism or having spiritual conversations, we kind of wish we could be a little like Paul in our scripture lesson today. Paul travels from town to town, receives direct instruction from God about where he should go, and when he and his group talk with a group of praying women, one of them – in fact, a prominent, powerful woman of wealth, not only decides to be baptized, but also invites Paul and his group to stay in her home. When we think about evangelism, or at least the baptismal covenant promise we make to share Good News, we want something similar. We want God to be super obvious about where we should go and to whom we should speak. We want to know if the coffee shop, the grocery store, or the brewery will be the place where we can avoid awkwardness and have a meaningful conversation. We would love to know we are going to talk to a group of spiritually-minded people who are open to what we have to say. And, secretly, we would be thrilled if whatever conversation we have leads to a total conversion – someone as enthusiastic as Lydia who wants to come with us to church on Sunday. If Jesus, the church, or our crazy clergy keep insisting that we talk to people in our community and have God conversations, we at least want to be assured we will have as smooth of an experience as Paul.
But that’s the funny thing about Paul’s experience. Paul does not really seem to know how to handle this evangelism thing much better than us. In the verses of Acts before our text today, we are told that Paul starts out for Asia, but the Holy Spirit prevents him from going there. As Paul keeps trying cities on the way to Europe, he finally has a dream where a man from Macedonia implores him to come and help. But once Paul finally makes his way to Macedonia, the man from his vision never appears. In fact, Paul and his crew hang out for several days in the city, not seeming to do anything. Not until the sabbath does Paul seek out people who are already worshiping. Paul does not approach strangers or people whose faith is unknown to him. Instead, he finds the familiar – people of his own tradition, praying to God, and there he decides to share his faith. And although Paul thought he was bringing blessing to others, Lydia is the one who brings blessing to him – offering her home and hospitality, and continuing to do so when Paul gets in trouble with the law (which is a story for next week!).
At the heart of what happens in our story today is what theologian Ronald Cole-Turner calls the “inexplicable convergence of human faithfulness and divine guidance.” According to Cole-Turner, “Paul would not have been guided to this place at this moment, were he not first of all at God’s disposal, open to being guided, sensitively attuned to being steered in one direction and away from all others. Lydia would not have arrived at this place or time, had she not first of all been a worshiper of God, a seeker already on her way. Paul does his part and Lydia hers, but it is God who guides all things and works in and through all things, not just for good but for what would otherwise be impossible.”[i]
That is our invitation today: to be faithful. To be willing to listen to God, to be willing to speak, even when we worry what others might think of us, and to be willing to listen to and honor the story of others. That is really all Paul does – rather clumsily, but faithfully. And we can be faithful in that way – on the golf course, at work or school, at the local eatery, because we know that there will be an inexplicable convergence of our faithfulness with divine guidance. We can be faithful because we know God will show up. God will make sure we have that casual conversation that leads to us talking about why in the world we would work so hard to get ourselves and/or our families here every Sunday. Jesus will make sure that when someone is sharing something vulnerable or painful with us, we will be able to name God’s presence in the midst of their experience. The Holy Spirit will make sure that when we open our mouths, despite the fact we have no idea what to say, something meaningful will be said. Divine guidance will be there because of our human faithfulness. Inexplicably converging, and working for good. I cannot wait to hear your stories of convergence! Amen.
[i] Ronald Cole-Turner, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 476.