A Sermon about the Call of the Holy Siri and Being Rerouted

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Grace Lutheran Church
1 May 2016 + Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year C)
Acts 16.9-15; John 14.23-29



Have you ever been lost? No, I don’t mean lost in the spiritual, “Amazing Grace” sense of the word: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” I mean lost like you’re on vacation, you have the map spread out across your dashboard in a futile attempt to determine if you really should’ve gotten off at exit 63, but you might as well be trying to read hieroglyphics.

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I can remember being lost on vacation once with my dad. We were on a hike through the Badlands of South Dakota in the blazing summer heat—a beautiful landscape, yes, but not so much when it’s a thousand degrees outside and you’ve lost track of your car. Though perhaps the greatest lesson learned that day is that when traveling with an ten-year-old maybe pack more than beer in the cooler.

In the age of the smartphone, getting lost has also gotten increasingly more snarky. If you know Siri, you know what I mean. Miss just one turn, and Siri’s nagging to “return to the route” starts to sound like a broken record. And her seemingly helpful attempts at rerouting you are nothing if not passive aggressive.

In our reading this morning from Acts, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit behaves a lot like a primitive Siri. To see what I mean, we actually need to back up a few verses.

At the onset of the chapter, things are going great. Paul and Silas recruit another travel reroutecompanion, Timothy, and the three of them go from town to town, visiting the churches. But then, two interesting things happen: First, we’re told they are “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” So they get rerouted through the region of Phrygia and Galatia. Then, they try to go to Bithynia, but similarly we read, “The Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Rerouted again, they finally wind up in Troas.

Now, those are a lot of place names. The geography itself is not necessarily important, but the sheer number of times their own divine GPS reroutes the trio is noteworthy.

It is at Troas that our reading picks up and where things get really interesting. During the night Paul has a vision. A “certain Macedonian man”—we’re not told exactly who—appears to him. “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” he says to Paul. Rerouted yet again.

At this point, the narrator adds the crucial line: being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. What exactly the Holy Spirit is up to is yet to be made known, but this much is clear: The Holy Spirit is calling Paul, Silas, and Timothy to their missionary task of preaching the gospel—and certainly not where they first expected.

In Macedonia, predictably, the group seeks out the local “place of prayer.” What they encounter is a group of women. It’s easy enough to gloss over this detail in the 21st century, but for Paul and company to engage in conversation with a group of women is no small matter in the original context. Now add to an unexpected venue an unexpected group of people.

Predictably, after these women hear their preaching, one of them, Lydia, along with her family, is baptized. But here again, we should notice something unusual: Between the typical preaching and baptism, there’s no mention made of the Holy Spirit. Last week, we heard Peter’s report to the church at Jerusalem about his own vision while he was staying with Cornelius. In that story, before Cornelius and his family are baptized, the Holy Spirit falls upon them. In the case of Lydia, this detail is strangely missing.

Perhaps, as biblical scholar Mitzi Smith suggests, this implies that the Holy Spirit is already present and active in Lydia’s life. Indeed, we as Lutherans confess that it is only 'The father the son and the holy spirit split.'through the work of the Holy Spirit that we can hear the Gospel and receive the gift of
faith. So it only makes sense that the Spirt would already be at work in Lydia’s life before Paul shows up.

Let me repeat that: The Holy Spirit is already present and active in Lydia’s life before Paul shows up. That simple statement bears repeating because it carries with it tremendous implications about what it means to be called to preach the Gospel.

If the Spirit is already at work in Lydia, then that means the Spirit is not unique to any one time, or place, or people. The Spirit moves where the Spirit moves, and she is always one step ahead of us.

Like Paul and company, we have certain ideas about where we might want to go and about what we think mission looks like. But like a giant “detour” sign, the Holy Spirit is always rerouting us. Sometimes, God simply has different plans in mind for what our mission looks like and calls us accordingly.


As I conclude my time among you as your seminary student intern, I too find myself called away, rerouted, if you will, to the next chapter of my ministry. Looking back on the past several months since I’ve been at Grace, I can see the many ways that this community preaches the good news. Certainly, the good news is preached in all the usual places: in bible study, in confirmation, from this pulpit. But then there are those unexpected places where the Spirit has called us to share the gospel: at a block party in August, at an Easter egg hunt for children and families across this neighborhood, in mutual dialogue with our Muslim friends just a couple weeks ago.

The Spirit is very clearly at work in this assembly, and not simply in the (expected) four walls of this sanctuary.

Each week, the Spirit moves through our liturgy and beyond. In gathering, the Spirit calls us together as the people of God. At the table, we remember the work of God’s Spirit in history and invoke that same Spirit to bless our feast and grace our table with divine presence. And nourished by Christ’s body and blood, the Spirit sends us out in mission to the world.

We can go into mission confidently because we know the Spirit precedes us. Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the “Advocate”—“Paraclete” in Greek, literally something like “the one who is on your side.” But he also promises them the gift of peace—a “profound and holistic sense of well-being,” rooted in the joy of the resurrection.

We hear it in today’s Gospel, and we heard it four weeks ago in the locked room with Thomas. With the gifts of peace and the Spirit, Jesus sends the disciples into mission. And with the same gifts, we too are sent.

As I leave this place for my internship in Omaha, the ministry of this congregation continues on. As the Spirit moves through this assembly gathered here, so too she moves in this neighborhood. Can you hear the man from Macedonia? “Come on over to Elmwood Park, to Chicago, to River Grove, to Oak Park, come on over and help us.” We have good news to share, friends. It starts here, but it continues in our Monday-through-Saturday lives, especially in the most unexpected places.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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A Sermon About Rejoicing and Not Worrying (Really?!)

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Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
3 November 2015
Philippians 4.4-7 (Advent 3C)


[Click here to listen along!]


I hate to break it to you, but you realize that we’re now just a mere five weeks and three days away from the end of the semester, right? That’s only 38 days to research and write those final papers and give those final presentations. And I know most of us in this room are doing MIC (Ministry in Context), so let’s not forget about preaching or leading adult forum or teaching confirmation at our congregations. And Thanksgiving’s just around the corner, with Christmas lurking not all that far behind: the gift shopping, the cookie baking, the extra worship services, the stress of awkward family gatherings. But you know, don’t worry.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably take issue with what overly optimistic Paul has to say in this passage from Philippians. Rejoice always. Don’t worry. Pray continually. And by the time he rolls around to his conclusion, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding,” his maxims and platitudes have reached their pinnacle of gag-worthiness.

I learned the lesson about vapid platitudes and overly optimistic maxims the hard way during a summer of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). During one patient visit, I was listening to a woman, Amy, talk about loss upon loss in her life: her son’s unemployment, her own tenuous employment and lack of sick pay during multiple hospitalizations, the uncertainty of whether or not the bank would foreclose on her house and leave her homeless for the second time. So at one point when I said, “Well, you’re here now, and it sounds to me like you’re a survivor,” she basically told me to shut up. I imagine if Paul were in the room telling her to rejoice in the Lord always and not to worry about anything, she might have said something similar.


There’s been an article floating around Facebook this week titled “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades.” The author reports that about 62% of students suffer from “perpetual, toxic anxiety.” Stress, she says, is “a force to be reckoned with.” It can have damaging effects on our sense of well-being and our ability to function, resulting in fear, doubt, and depression. In response, the author conducted a study focusing on what her students were doing to actively combat stress. Among her conclusions: you don’t have to be a perfectionist, and you’re not alone. In other words, stress isn’t worth it if it costs you your mental health and your life in community.[1]

The Philippians appear to have been no strangers to stress, either. There’s evidence throughout Paul’s letter that the church at Philippi experienced both external persecution and internal conflict. But Paul offers them encouragement. “Rejoice,” he says, and “let your graciousness be known to everyone.” The Greek word for graciousnessepieikes—means, essentially, not insisting on the letter of the law and instead being gracious and forgiving. It’s also the word Paul uses to refer to the graciousness of Christ in another letter to the Corinthians. As one commentary puts it, epieikes evokes a sense of generosity toward others, and Paul uses it here as a model of living for the Philippian community. Be like this because Christ was.

In this passage, Paul is basically telling the Philippians the same thing as the author of the stress study tells us: Your unity and graciousness to others are more important than getting it right all the time. Paul is concerned for their unity, and against the background of conflict and anxiety, his words remind the Philippians that they’re in this together. As one biblical scholar puts it, “Jesus has redeemed us from petty squabbles and derisive chatter to provide a particular kind of witness to the world. That witness is found in the way we treat one another.”[2]


So: rejoice in the Lord always, let your graciousness be made known to everyone, do not worry… and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul ends with a promise of God’s peace, but it’s not just another vapid platitude. The word Paul uses for guard can also be used in the sense of confinement in prison. I don’t think his word choice is just a coincidence. Paul knew what confinement was like, since at the time of his writing to the Philippians he himself was locked up in Rome, pending capital charges. So if Paul could be reassured of the peace of God in his situation, the Philippians could believe it in theirs. Paul wasn’t offering empty words; he was offering his lived experience.

We can rejoice in the Lord always and not allow ourselves to become confined by stress or conflict. We can rejoice not because circumstances are always ideal or easy, but because in the end God’s peace endures even in those dark places—be it the stress of the rapidly approaching end of the semester or the depression that accompanies the ever-shortening days until the winter solstice. Advent is the season we anticipate the inbreaking of God’s new reality in Jesus, culminating in the angels’ proclamation: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”


[1] Kristen Lee Costa, “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reset-247/201510/your-mental-health-is-more-important-your-grades.

[2] Jacob Myers, “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1505.