In elementary school, at the beginning of the year, we had to write and present an essay on “What we did on our summer vacation.” I thought I was a shoe-in for the most exciting presentation. We had driven in a Ford Pinto from north Alabama to Corpus Christi, Texas, then switched to a suburban with extended family piled in and went from there to Mexico City. Who could top it for adventure? I even walked to the top of a pyramid.
When one of my classmates shared his story, though, I knew I was beaten. His family went on a trip that summer that consisted of getting in the van and going wherever they felt like driving. His dad got behind the wheel and said, “Okay, where will it be? North, south, east, or west?” And, according to my friend, they took a vote, and the direction with the most votes is the way they went. At the end of the day, they stopped at the first town that looked interesting, checked into a hotel, and took in whatever that town had to offer. After another night of rest, they repeated the vote the next day. “North, south, east, or west.” And off they went.
Everyone in the classroom was leaning forward as he recited place after place in this zigzag journey. Finally, one kid couldn’t take it anymore. “Where did you end up?”
The presenter looked confused. “Home,” he said. “You always end up home.”
Today we are brought into the middle of a journey where it looks like someone is voting each day – north, south, east, or west? When the reading begins, Paul and his companions are in Troas, which is on the coast of modern day Turkey. But the journey to that place has been anything but straight. North from Jerusalem, a hard turn to the west just east of Tarsus, then a kind of wavy motion, until they get to Antioch. Something interesting happens in Antioch. They suddenly turn north, and head straight into Asia. It seems a decision has been made. Paul has decided they are going to Asia. But each time he tries, the Spirit of Jesus stops him. No, not here. No, not here. And you see the arrow turn west again, and then a hard southern turn and they are in Troas.
The result is that if you look at a map of what is called Paul’s second missionary journey, you will find the trail looks like a line drawn by a distracted preschooler, with no clear indication of a destination. And that’s where we are when the reading for today begins, in a holding pattern by the Aegean Sea…waiting.
It is in Troas that the Spirit of Jesus, who has been denying them entry and telling them no all along, sends a vision, inviting them to, of all places, Europe.
And that’s where this meandering, rather indecisive journey, takes a turn. They immediately begin making plans to cross the Aegean Sea into Europe. They are “convinced” that this vision of a man from Macedonia is in reality the Spirit of Christ, and that they are being called to go.
Note the language. No more stops and starts. No more zigzags. “We set sail from Troas, and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi.”
Convinced. Immediately. A straight course
And now they are in a colony of Rome, at the edge of Europe. Philippi.
Philippi is a lot like, well, it’s a lot like Franklin. Lots of people live in Philippi, but few of them are from Philippi. I will show you what I mean. Raise your hand if you were not born in Franklin. Now raise your hand if you were.
There is another wanderer there as well. Lydia, who hails from Thyatira, which happens to be in Asia, the place the Spirit turned Paul away from, lives and works now in Philippi. If the women Lydia gathered at the riverside with on the Sabbath were to raise their hands to show whether they were or were not born in Philippi, the results would be much the same.
Philippi was founded in the middle of the fourth century BCE because of its proximity to gold mines. It remained a prosperous city throughout the Roman era because of those mines, and it was a main stop along the Roman trade routes from east to west.
Philippi is the place where few are from, the place where people come to make it, to be successful, to have arrived.
It is just the kind of place that attracted people like Lydia. She has come from Thyatira, which is in Asia, one of those places Paul was turned away from earlier by the Spirit of Christ. She has come to Philippi to pursue what must have been a lucrative career. She is a dealer in Purple cloth, which was highly sought after by the elites and royals, who paid well for it when they passed through Philippi, as they did often. We know she has a home and a household, which she clearly leads.
But there’s more to her than success. There’s something that keeps her coming on the Sabbath to the river bank, where other women also gather for prayer. Probably there were not enough Jewish men in this Roman colony to constitute a synagogue – you needed ten – so these women gathered by the water to pray. And Lydia is there. We don’t know how often she comes, but we do know on this day, her heart is open, and she is eagerly listening, hungry for the words Paul speaks.
I was in Whole Foods the other day preparing to give them my whole paycheck for a salad, when I heard a group of people talking in the check-out line. I deduced the three of them worked in one of the corporate offices around here, and they were here for a lunch meeting. One guy asked the other if he had gotten to the Title kickboxing workout he planned.
“No. Can’t find the time.”
“I know,” chimed in the third man. “I can’t believe we’re halfway through April. Seems like just yesterday it was Christmas.”
“Yes, and then summer. We’ve got our kids going in fifty directions this summer. Keeping them busy.”
There was a pause, like they were all reflecting for a moment. On what? The fleeting nature of time? The need for Sabbath? The longing in the depths of their souls?
The spell was broken when one of them got a text and moved the conversation back to the meeting at hand, the reason they had gathered at table.
Franklin is that kind of place. Filled with strivers. Filled with successful, well-educated, busy people. None of which is bad. It is what makes it such a vibrant and interesting and beautiful place to live.
Lydia is eagerly listening. Eagerly. Now, you need to be careful when you eagerly listen to the Word. Sometimes when that happens, when you do that, the Spirit that is always speaking and moving finds a way to break through the distractions, the stress, the drivenness, to reach the heart. And when that happens, we are not the same. Lydia is not the same. She and her household are all baptized. And she opens herself to the Spirit’s work in the world. She opens her home wide in hospitality, inviting Paul and his companions to stay with her. She shares her considerable resources; she has found the place and people that she wants to invest her time and money building.
We believe the church in Philippi was founded in her home and continued to meet there, and when Paul wrote the letter we call Philippians, the letter where he says of that church, “I thank my God whenever I think of you, and when I pray for you, I pray with joy,” it was read in the home of Lydia, where do doubt everyone leaned in to eagerly listen. Paul’s long and winding journey had brought him home, the truest home we will ever know, the heart of God.
I got my haircut last week. I know it looks like I decided to get a summer cut, but I actually did not go in intending to get it cut quite this short. The person who cuts my hair, who has cut my hair the whole time we have lived here, was clearly distracted. She admitted there were lots of things going on. She was really busy. I could tell she welcomed conversation, but I was kind of in that, “I’m just here to get my hair cut, not talk” mood. So I didn’t say much. But she kept talking.
And then, God spoke. She dropped her comb, and as she reached for it, the guard on the clippers just popped off, and proceeded to shave a strip about an inch and a half up my head. “Oh my,” she said. “That’s never happened before. I think I can fix this, but you’ll have a summer cut for sure.”
I couldn’t really see it. But she spent a lot of time fixing whatever it was. And apologizing. At least ten times. I could tell she was terribly upset with herself. When it was done, she showed me how it looked in the mirror, and said there would be no charge.
And that’s when I realized what I had done. I had closed myself off from the opportunity that had been placed before me to listen, to engage, to be present for someone who was clearly in need of that listening ear, and who probably thought she would find it in a pastor.
So I said I wanted to pay. She had cut a lot of hair, so maybe I should pay more. She laughed. And I said, “I’ll be praying for you in this busy time.”
She said, “I know I need to slow down. The days just fly by.”
“I know,” I said. “I know.” Then I left, because I had this sermon to finish. But I wish I had said, “I hope you do find that time. I hope we all do. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the long and winding and busy road leads you home, really home.”
But I was distracted myself, which is why I pray daily that my friend from elementary school was right, in a way deeper and truer than he could have imagined.
You always end up home. Let us eagerly listen for it. May it be so. Amen.