Revelation 22:1-15; Acts 16:9-15
The book of Acts is sometimes called “The Acts of the Apostles” because the book focuses on the actions of the apostles as they spread the good news about Jesus after the resurrection. Acts moves back and forth between stories about Peter and stories about Paul, and in chapter 15, Peter and Paul gather in Jerusalem with the other apostles and elders to make sure they are on the same page about embracing the Gentiles into the early church. Paul argued that the Holy Spirit had been at work in the Gentiles he encountered, even those who had not embraced Jewish law first. And, after vigorous debate, it was agreed that Gentiles were welcome in the early church. They did not need to convert to Judaism first before they would be welcomed in.
This background leads us up to our passage for this morning from Acts 16. The lectionary begins the reading with verse 9, which is where we began this morning. But, I wish they had started with verse 6. “They [Paul and Timothy] 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.” Have you ever had an experience like that, where it seems like everything you try to do fails? In the early chapters of Acts, it seems like everywhere the apostles go, crowds of people embrace the good news about Jesus. But here in chapter 16, everywhere Paul and Timothy turn is a dead end.
I can’t help but think about our confirmation class that is in Denver right now. They were supposed to go on their trip in March. All the plans had been made, reservations in place, an itinerary distributed. All of that changed when a winter storm warning was issued. After sleepless nights and concerns about keeping the confirmation kids and sponsors safe, everyone decided it was best to postpone the trip to the end of May. Surely, there wouldn’t be a winter storm warning at the end of May, would there?
Then on Wednesday, we received news that Highlands Camp was canceling their work day for Saturday. The reason? A forecast of 17-25 inches of snow. OK. They are at a higher elevation, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Our confirmation kids were supposed to spend a night at Highlands, so that needed to be canceled and another reservation booked instead. Then, a winter storm warning was issued for Denver. Again. Seriously? Then we found out the hotel they were staying in was booked up for any additional nights, so a second hotel had to be booked. Then things changed with our sponsors and not everyone could go. Oof. Jeff and I joked with each other that maybe this trip just wasn’t supposed to happen.
I wonder if Paul and Timothy felt like that, too, when they tried to speak the word in Asia and the Spirit forbade it. Then they tried to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus didn’t allow that either. After all of the success of the mission in the earlier chapters of Acts, I am sure it would’ve been hard not to become discouraged. It is into that moment of discouragement and confusion that Paul had a vision that changed everything.
That night, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia. The man was pleading, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Finally! Some direction! The text tells us they got up and went immediately to cross over into Macedonia. You can almost feel the excitement and urgency as they responded to the vision of the Macedonian man. They traveled until they reached Philippi, which was a prominent city in Macedonia. They decided to go by the river on the Sabbath day, perhaps because places of worship were often located along bodies of moving water. As they went outside the gate of the city and went down by the river, they encountered a group of women who had gathered there. It’s possible that these women were worshipers of God who had not yet heard about Jesus, but there is no mention of any men having also gathered in that place for prayer and worship.
Paul spoke to the women and verse 14 tells us that the “Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to listen eagerly to what was said.” After being prevented from entering Asia and Bithynia, Paul preached the message of Jesus to someone who was ready to hear it, although I wonder if he was surprised when he discovered that he had been called to preach the good news to a gathering of women. Lydia was so eager to receive the gospel that she and her entire house were baptized. She persuaded Paul and Timothy (and maybe Luke) to come and stay in her home. I love the way the end of verse 15 puts it, “And she prevailed upon us.” Lydia was a force of nature.
What amazes me about this story–besides the beautiful part about Lydia and her whole household embracing the story of Jesus–is the way Paul and his fellow travelers weren’t bound by their assumptions. When Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading for help, I doubt that he expected to preach the good news to a group of women gathered by the river. He could have gone to worship on the Sabbath day, prayed with his friends, and left. But instead, he came to the river and allowed himself to get to know the people who were there. He discovered that Lydia was a woman of great faith, and he saw an opportunity to share with her about Jesus. She may not have been what he expected, and his assumptions about the calling the Spirit had placed on him might have been challenged, but he allowed himself to remain open and curious about the way God was leading in his life.
They say the road to you-know-where is paved with good intentions. I believe the road to division and separation is paved with assumptions. When we assume things about others, we don’t allow ourselves to remain open and curious. We paint people in a certain light, and we refuse to deviate from our assumptions, even when a mountain of evidence points to the contrary. This certainly could’ve been the way the story in Acts 16 went if Paul refused to talk about Jesus to anyone except a man from Macedonia like in his vision. Instead, he remained open, curious, and motivated by love.
In the past week, our nation has been rocked by crimes motivated by hatred and assumptions. We saw a black community targeted and a Taiwanese church attacked by people who refused to get to know people different from themselves, by people who made assumptions, allowed those assumptions to become hatred, and took unspeakable actions rooted in arrogance to harm vulnerable and innocent people. These are extreme examples of what happens when we refuse to get to know people who are different from ourselves, but they serve as a warning to us and as a reminder that the only thing that can tear down divisions and separation between people is love rooted in curiosity about the other, and a willingness to put our assumptions aside so that we can learn the truth.
I recently came across an article in the Harvard Business Review that talked about why employees resist change. The article stated that a good manager can offer an employee all the tools needed for change, and yet employees still resist it? Why is that? Because all of us have made big assumptions about ourselves and the world around us, and those assumptions drive our behavior, even though we almost never realize what is actually happening. The article said that instead of urging employees to change their behaviors, employers should focus on helping their employees discover their big assumptions and allow those assumptions to be challenged. This is the only way meaningful behavior change is possible. 
Jesus did this in the way that he taught. He often told people, “You have heard it said… but I say to you.” He took their underlying assumptions and exposed them for what they were, and people were changing their lives as a result. He urged people to love not just their friends, but also their enemies. He called them to be good neighbors, even to people they didn’t like very much. He told them that when someone takes something from them, they should give that person even more. Jesus constantly urged his followers to take a position of love and curiosity toward the people around them, and to get rid of the assumptions that divide people from each other. We do this by taking a risk and getting to know people and allowing our assumptions to be challenged.
A husband and wife needed to buy a couch. They went to look at furniture together, and the man wanted to make sure his wife got the couch she really liked. He realized he could be kind of domineering about these kinds of decisions, so he decided to be more laid back and let his wife choose. They ended up buying a huge gray couch for about $1,000. They started referring to the couch as “the elephant” because it was so large. One day, the wife said something that made the husband realize she didn’t care for the couch at all. He didn’t like it either. It was far from his style. He decided to stop leaving things unspoken and he said, “Why did you choose this couch if you don’t even like it?” And she responded, “I have always hated this couch, but I thought it was your favorite.” “My favorite?” he asked with surprise. “I hate this couch, too!”
$1,000 spent on an enormous, ugly gray couch, all because everyone assumed and no one took a minute to ask.
So, how do we change our assumptions if we usually don’t even know we have them? First, we have to remain curious. This runs counter to the way social media urges us to make assumptions and pile on people, or the way the media thinks they’ve figured out a news story before all of the facts are in. But, it’s imperative. Curiosity puts a crack in our assumptions. And fortunately, curiosity is a muscle we can strengthen. Have you ever noticed how easily kids ask the question, “Why?” I believe it is because they haven’t learned to be afraid of their curiosity. They don’t have a lot of assumptions because they are still learning about the world. “Why?” is a powerful question.
Why did I avoid talking to that person?
Why did my anxiety go up in that situation?
Why does my routine look the way it does?
Curiosity helps us uncover our assumptions and dismantle them.
We have to remain curious, we need to approach people with love, and we need to listen to understand. Revelation 22 talks about the leaves of the tree that are for the healing of the nations. We need that healing don’t we? I believe that we begin to bring that healing from separation and division as we lean into others with curiosity. This week, I would invite you to consider a way that you could step outside of your comfort zone. Who could you talk to? Where might you go? What might you read, or listen to, or engage that is outside of your normal habit and routine? And then, allow yourself to ask questions, to lead with love, and to listen to understand. I believe that if we do this, we might find ourselves having a conversation with someone like Lydia who is already experiencing the working of God in their lives and might transform us by inviting us in.
I want to close with a poem by Jane Kenyon called “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks:”
I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .
I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper…
When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me. . . .
I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .
I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .
I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden. . . .
I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge. . . .
I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .
the longest hair, white
before the rest. . . .
I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow. . . .
I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .
I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name. . . .