Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev Art Ritter
May 26, 2019
They 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. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 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. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
Author Tony Evans tells the story of a little girl who asked her father for a nickel. He reached into his pocket but he didn’t have any change. So he pulled out his wallet and discovered all he had was a twenty dollar bill. Now he loved his daughter very much, so he said to her, “Honey, I don’t have a nickel but here’s a twenty dollar bill.” The little girl began to pout and she stomped her foot. “I want a nickel!” Her father explained how many nickels the twenty dollar bill represented but she just didn’t get it. Evans writes that we are often like that little girl. When we want nickels we can’t appreciate the twenty dollar bills that are offered to us. We are so focused on our own plans that when they sometimes end in disappointment, we can’t see the holy opportunities that God has presented in the detours of life.
In the early spring of 1983, I thought I had things in my life lined up fairly well. I had finished two years of seminary and was going to start a year long internship at First Congregational Church in St. Johns MI in the fall. I was then going to return to school for my senior year of seminary. The summer of 1983 was also well planned. I was accepted for the Clinical Pastoral Education program at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. And I was going to live rent free at my girlfriend’s mother’s home in beautiful Pinckney, Michigan. The proverbial ducks were lined up in a row. Perhaps things were planned too well! In late March I got a letter notifying me that my Clinical Pastoral Education experience had been changed to Harper Hospital in downtown Detroit. I wasn’t thrilled about having to be in such a large hospital and I was wondering how I could drive from Pinckney to Detroit every day. A few weeks later I got that phone call that every young man dreads. It was from my girlfriend saying that she wanted to take a break in our relationship, to have some time to think things over. Suddenly I needed to find another place to live that summer. I was crushed, personally and professionally. My well planned, happy life had taken an unexpected detour. I felt hurt and angry and disappointed.
For a couple of weeks I was ready to give up on the entire summer. I considered just returning to my parents’ home for three months, perhaps even skipping the year long internship, and going straight back to seminary, forging ahead with a senior year of classes. But wisely I realized the merit of the practical experience I could obtain at both the hospital and the internship and I decided to find a way to make the alternative plans happen.
I eventually placed a call to a college friend of mine in Lincoln Park and spent the summer living with his family and sleeping in a very hot upstairs bedroom. My Clinical Pastoral Education experience, while extremely challenging, taught me things I use each and every day of my life. And in the middle of that summer, July 3, 1983 to be exact, a certain dietetic intern from Colorado walked into the chapel service that I was leading at Harper Hospital. It took the rest of that summer to get her attention but I succeeded and a year and a half later we were married. My well planned summer was destroyed. Yet the blessings of the detour were beyond what I imagined in my own road mapping and certainly far more than I deserved. Looking back with the perspective of faith, I can see God’s hand in everything that took place.
During the season of Easter we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. We also celebrate that resurrection in us as God raises us from time and places of disappointment and despair to new lives of hope. As we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives we are transformed and we too begin to live in ways in which the Risen Christ enters the world. Dead ends become new opportunities. Detours become places where new holy roads are being built.
The Scripture lesson this morning is one of those little noticed stories of the early church as told by the author of the book of Acts. It is the story of Paul and Silas and their visit to Philippi, a city in Macedonia. The story itself is rather unremarkable in content. There was no significant event. There was no great sermon preached. There was no miraculous healing. Instead in this routine account of the missionary work of the early church we find a story of obstacles and roadblocks. In this account from the 16th chapter of Acts we find all sorts of detours that reveal something interesting about the power of God.
The missionaries were Paul and Silas. The writer of the book of Acts explained in great detail about how the two traveled through parts of what is now the country of Turkey. But for some reason they were kept from witnessing in other parts of Asia. Verse 6 says that they were forbidden to speak the word in Asia. Verse 7 says that the spirit of Jesus did not allow them to move east. Instead Paul had a vision of a man asking him to travel to Macedonia, to Europe to proclaim the good news. Blocked by an abundance of formidable orange barrels, Paul and Silas took a detour to Philippi.
Next the narrative mentions that the two men went down to the river. That in itself was a detour. Normally when entering a city, Paul would go directly to the synagogue and preach Christ crucified and risen. But apparently there was no synagogue in Philippi. According to Jewish law, it only took ten men to create a synagogue but it seemed that ten faithful men were lacking. So instead Paul and Silas went down to the river, a place where people without a synagogue traditionally prayed.
This presented another detour. The only people praying at the river were women. In the first century A.D., women were at the bottom of the social ranking. It wasn’t appropriate for men to engage in conversation with women. In a real sense, there was no one at that river to whom Paul and Silas could speak. Since when did Pharisees like Paul talk to women? Yet he did. He shared of the good news of Jesus Christ to the women who had gathered there.
The narrative says that one woman, Lydia of Thyatria, a dealer in purple cloth accepted the message of Paul eagerly. The fact that she was a dealer in purple cloth must have meant that she was wealthy because purple dye was extremely expensive and only rich people wore clothes made of purple cloth. Of all the women at the river, the rich woman dealing in purple cloth would have been the least likely candidate to hear the message about a poor Judean carpenter. And of course Lydia was a woman. Paul’s vision that sent him to Philippi told him that it was a man who needed his help. This was another detour, a reversal of plans. Finally, the account says that Lydia was from Thyatria, a city in Asia that Paul and Silas wanted to visit but were somehow prevented from entering by the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Jesus. It was one of those places blocked by the road closure. While the path was blocked, somehow they got to whom they needed to see by heading a different direction.
The story ends with Lydia opening her home to the missionaries, introducing her household to Paul and Silas, and many being baptized. Paul and Silas stayed at her home and from there the church at Philippi was born, the same church to which Paul’s letter to Philippians was later addressed.
In tune with the Holy Spirit, detours arise, plans change, and new directions are made apparent. Things change, lives change, and perspectives change. The lesson of this account from the book of Acts is that all of us need to be listening for God’s leading. While we may try to plan, to strategize, and to manage our lives- we may be frustrated by detours and roadblocks. Yet we can’t stop moving. We must always open our hearts and minds to where God really is at work in our lives and keep traveling, trusting that these detours will take us to a time and place where we are called to be.
Parker Palmer writes, “The moments when we meet and reckon with contradictions are turning points where we either enter or evade the mystery of God.” Every so often, our roads encounter the detour sign. Yet if we listen and look for God’s leading we might find a different answer to the questions: Where should be go? How should we get there? Whom should we serve? God works in unexpected people. God takes you to unexpected places. God offers you unexpected opportunities. In the detours of life we might find the holiest ground. In the mysteries of life, we might find God more certainly.