Sunday 26 May 2019
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Graduation Recognition Sunday
It has been a hard time for Paul. Things had been going fairly well in his mission to the Gentiles. But then other missionaries started showing up, interfering with his methods, and telling him that he should stop. He’s been called before the apostles in Jerusalem to answer for his unorthodox methods. After a long debate, they reach a compromise, and Paul is allowed to continue his mission, but under supervision. Once he gets back out in the field, though, he has a major argument with his partner, Barnabas. They aren’t able to work out their differences, and eventually they go their separate ways. Accompanied by a couple of new helpers, Silas and Timothy, Paul goes back out on the trail. That’s where we pick up with today’s scripture from the Book of Acts.
And as if he hasn’t been through enough already, as if he hasn’t run into enough roadblocks on his own, now even God is going to stand in Paul’s way. He and his companions have been wandering all over the area that we now know as Turkey, hundreds of miles, trying to share the liberating message of Jesus Christ. They’ve been making huge sacrifices for their mission, but now even God is standing in their way. We are told that the Spirit forbid them from preaching in the province of Asia. Then they try to go to Bithynia, hoping for better luck there. But the Spirit won’t even allow them to go there, much less preach.
It must have been terribly discouraging. This hadn’t been Paul’s choice of a career, after all. God had interrupted his comfortable life to call him to this work, to go out to a new people who hadn’t heard about the liberating message of Jesus. And now Paul is out on the road, abandoned by his friends, in trouble with the authorities, struggling to do anything right. Then even God turns against him, stands in his way. It seems like he can’t do anything right. Nothing he tries is working. He is frustrated, depressed, and ready to give up. He wonders if he is even supposed to be out on this mission at all.
Have you ever felt like that? Have you been lost in the mundane, struggling for meaning in your life, feeling as if nothing that you do is the right thing, like everything that you try ends up wrong? Have you ever felt as if God is working against you somehow? As if God won’t answer your questions? As if God isn’t acting the way that you expected or anticipated?
When I was in high school, I had a deep sense that God was calling me, that God had a plan for me. I had felt that way for about as long as I could remember. But I really didn’t have a very good idea about what God’s plan was, just that there was one. I was pretty sure that it had something to do with music or with academics. I’d always been good at music, and a lot of my mentors were musicians and music teachers.
So I did what any good high school jazz musician does if they don’t want to end up spending the rest of their life in bars: I went to college to study music education.
And it went pretty well at first. My grades were fine. I was keeping up. But I wasn’t feeling very fulfilled. I didn’t feel like my life was headed in the right direction. I asked God about it, but God didn’t answer.
So I decided to get more heavily into the music. Maybe that was the problem. I needed to focus less on the education and more on the music. So I added a music composition major.
And it went pretty well at first. I did just fine with the new classes. I wrote some decent music. But again, I didn’t feel very fulfilled. Something just didn’t seem right. But I didn’t know what it was, or what to do about it. And I asked God about it again, but God didn’t answer.
So I decided to go to a different college, to find a school where I could really just focus on composition. I figured that would be the answer to my problems. I researched schools, and because deadlines were fast approaching, I hurriedly submitted my application.
But after all of those struggles, as if to add insult to injury, for the first time in my school career, I was rejected. I was an honor student, a valedictorian, and yet I didn’t make it into the composition school I applied to.
I was really upset. I was knocked completely off stride. I was questioning everything about my life. So, I asked God about it. And although there wasn’t an immediate and clear answer, there was a new sense of leading and prompting. From that moment of failure, I was led to reevaluate everything. And through that failure, God set me on a path that led me to seminary, and then to pastoral ministry, and then back to school again, and then here, in this sanctuary, among this community of faith.
It would be really nice, wouldn’t it, if God would just be a bit more clear with us. In the Bible, God always seems to be so much easier to understand than God is nowadays. In the Bible, people get things like a burning bush, a visit from an angel, even a voice from heaven. So why can’t we get something like that? Why does God have to be so coy with us? Or has God just lost interest?
Messages from God, though, don’t always come in plain words. And God’s plan for us doesn’t always present itself fully formed. Sometimes God’s plan is revealed, of all things, in failure. Sometimes the best we get is that feeling that things just aren’t quite right. And sometimes it takes a horrible fall before we realize that God wants us to go down a different path.
Isn’t that what happens to Paul in our lesson today? He tries one thing and runs into resistance. He tries something else, and they drag in front of the council to explain himself. Then his most loyal partner and friend leaves him, refusing to work with him any longer. He goes out again, and of all things, the Spirit of God prevents him for continuing.
It is in that moment, when Paul has been softened up a bit by failure, that a tiny speck of God’s plan is revealed. Paul goes to sleep and he has a dream. It isn’t a particularly magnificent dream. There aren’t any angels. There is no voice from heaven. There is just a Macedonian man saying, “Come over and help us.” Paul now has a vision of where God is calling him. It isn’t a very clear vision, but it is enough to set him off in the right direction.
And what’s interesting is that God uses Paul’s failures to lead him not to a more humble path, but to something far more magnificent than he would have imagined. Paul’s failures and frustrations in Asia lead him to be the very first Christian missionary to cross the border and enter Europe. If not for his failure, and his determination to carry on and keep listening for God, Paul would never have come to Philippi, would never have come to Thessalonica, would never have come to Corinth. And we would be left without the letters he wrote back to the churches he had founded among the Philippians, the Thessalonians, and the Corinthians.
Failure isn’t always just failure. Sometimes failure is the very best way that God has of communicating with us, of urging us into a different direction. And for Paul, failure doesn’t mean that his life and work are being downgraded, that he is being assigned something easier or less interesting. No, failure leads him to do something much more glorious, much more interesting, much more important than he would ever have imagined otherwise.
Those of you who are graduating this year, whether it is from kindergarten, elementary, middle, high school, or college, are being sent off in a new direction. Chances are, you have experienced both successes and failures in your schooling so far. Chances are that in whatever is coming next for you, there will be both successes and failures. Chances are there will be times when you are not sure where you are or where you are headed. Chances are there will be a time when you feel like such a failure that you don’t know how you could possibly go on. But that might just the moment when you are open enough to God’s prompting to hear a new call, to take a new risk, to go in a new direction. And you might just find that where you thought you were going is not nearly as interesting as the new thing that God has in store for you.
So when we are faced with failure, and we are tempted to get discouraged or to give up, may God grant us the grace to come face to face with our failure, and to see it not as a defeat, but as an opportunity. When we are struggling along with no sense of direction, may God grant us the perseverance to carry on, even when we can’t see the end goal clearly. And when we are floundering without hope, may God grant us the clarity of Spirit to catch God’s vision for our lives, and once being convinced that God has called us, may God grant us the courage to carry our calling through to the end.