Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sixth Easter, 2007

May 13, 2007 6th Sunday of Easter (c) Acts 16: 9-15
Holy Baptism, Darius Edward Malecki

I’ve said somewhat as a joke in recent years in the midst of the turbulence in the life of the wider church that one of my favorite verses in Holy Scripture is I Samuel 3:1. This line comes towards the beginning of the story of the life of the Prophet Samuel. We’ve heard about his birth, which was something of an answer to the prayer of his mother Hannah, and then of his boyhood, when at an early age he was sent by his mother to the elderly priest Eli, who was resident at the ancient shrine at Shiloh. And then there is this dramatic moment, beginning at chapter three of First Samuel, when Samuel is called in the night by God and given his ministry as a prophet. And the story is introduced, at the first verse, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.” And I stop right there--my comment: Those were the days! Quite unlike our own, apparently, when everybody and his uncle seems to have a special Word of the LORD, and when “visions” seem to be about as common as strip malls in the suburbs. One on every block.

The thing is, when somebody tells you that he has had an idea, a thought, an insight, you can listen, think about it, and respond. You can say, “I agree with you here, but I think this other part of your idea might not work so well.” You can counter with another idea. You can expand. You can find points of agreement, places of common interest, negotiation, compromise. But when somebody tells you that he has had a “vision,” a “Word from the LORD,” that all becomes a lot more difficult. Any modification, any reservation, is a challenge to discernment. Either you’re saying something like, “I think God is wrong about that,” or you’re saying, “I think you are mistaken about what God is saying.” Either way, the stakes are ratcheted way up. Lines get drawn in the sand. Disagreement, even minor hesitation, is not about reasonable people doing their best to find reasonable solutions, but is instead a matter of profound spiritual import.

So anyway: when people tell me they’ve had a vision, a Word from the LORD, the first thing I find myself doing is checking on the nearest exits. Someone said, “Lord, protect us from those who know they are right.” It’s not that I don’t believe that God speaks to us, as we encounter the Holy Scriptures, of which I have the highest view, or the ancient traditions and teachings of the Church, or the common mind and ongoing dialogue of our wider Christian family, or even in a whispered word and hint and nudge from time to time in our own deepest spiritual space, in the “imagination of our hearts.” Certainly there is a Word, certainly a guiding spirit, a Vision of his will for us, a sense of his good future.

But the thing is, all too often the character and meaning of that vision gets wrapped up into aspects of power, control, coercive force. And all too often the field is churning with opposing armies, each marching toward the other with bayonets fixed and each advancing relentlessly, and without doubt or hesitation, with the fierce determination and absolute certainty, that God is on their side. So: give me somebody with an “idea” any day of the week. A thought. A plan. And we’ll see what we can do. But when those “vision” guys come along, be careful: very, very careful.

With all that said, we have this story from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, the story of the critical moment when the Christian message first moves out of Asia into Europe, the first breath of the expanding global mission of the Gospel--which is the heart of the story the Book of the Acts of the Apostles is written to tell--and all beginning with the phrase that triggers me with a red alert: “During the night Paul had a vision.” Be still my heart.

But as we read along, what we hear about this vision that is very interesting, and different perhaps from many kinds of visions that we are likely to encounter, is that it appears not as a way to impose an answer, but rather, as an invitation to sail out into uncharted waters. The word of the vision, after all, isn’t “here are the right answers,” but instead, “come.” “Come and help us.” This is a word not about being right, about being in control, having God on your side, but about a call and vocation for Paul to empty himself, to go to a strange land where he has no role, no status, no reputation, and to allow God to work through him in his own way, in his own time. All Paul can do there is tell the story. What God makes happen then , by that riverside, in the heart of Lydia, the woman who is to be the first Christian in Europe, is what God makes happen. Not about Paul's power at all, but in a way even about his powerlessness. About what could only happen when he would take the rise to move outside his comfort zone, his familiar world.

In any case, it’s kind of a neat story to have before us on the Sunday of a baptism, as Ivan and Barbara bring Darius to the font to be washed and anointed and welcomed into the Christian family. And just to say what is perhaps the obvious, that it’s one of those moments in the life of the Church when we can and should and must open our eyes and our ears, our minds and our hearts, for a Word from the Lord, for a sign of his presence, his love, and with a sense that Darius this morning and all of us are here not by accident, in this place and this community, but because God has a purpose for us, a role for us to play in his story. Which is an exciting and a sacred and profound thought. Remembering the word of God to the Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” Those words this morning for Darius, and for each of us: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”

It’s a dangerous thought, and one that makes me nervous, to tell you the truth, but I think we can be, should be, are called to be, all of us, people who see visions and dream dreams, who sense day by day in a thousand different ways the voice of God leading us, shaping us, rebuking us sometimes, guiding us, challenging us, inviting us to move forward. Baby Darius and all of us. Not visions as club we would use to pound others over the head, not to give us special status, not as a rationale to get our own way and promote our own agenda, but as the inner prompting that creates in us a willingness to let go of our plans, our scripts, and to be a part of his story. Eyes, ears, minds, hearts: open. Not with all the answers already. But with the possibility, even the certainty, as Paul did, day by day, and even today, that he has better things in mind for us than we could ever have asked for, or imagined.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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