Columba was born in 521 in Donegal, Ireland, son of a local chieftain. By birth he had the right to be a candidate for the High Kingship of Ireland. But from an early age he was called by God. Trained as a priest, studying poetry and languages, his passionate way soon got him into trouble. Columba was accused of secretly copying a rare manuscript of the Latin Vulgate – an important translation of the Bible.1 This – in an age in which access to the text was so limited – led to a battle between his followers and others. He was tried in a church court in his absence and excommunicated. Columba and twelve men hopped in a boat and left, with little more than a vision of a new kind of community of followers of Jesus. They landed on the southern shore of the isle that would be named Iona, the west coast of Scotland, on Pentecost 563. They founded a community. Pilgrims began to come, an abbey was built, and for nearly fifteen hundred years pilgrims from all over the world have come to breathe in God’s mercy as a part of the community there. This is the where our youth visited two summers ago, and where I’ll go at the beginning of my sabbatical for a few days. Strange visions sometimes become something.2
Ben and Allen are Presbyterian ministers about my age. They graduated from seminary, served churches, moving up the ladder. But God had given them this vision. I’ve gotten to know them in recent months, and – this feels very unPresbyterian, I love it – they have a vision of a church on a farm, a group of people who understand something of the agrarian images that fill Scripture, and who could find a way, through the work of the land and their worship intertwined, to address issues of hunger and food insecurity. These pastors and their families left Wisconsin and Kentucky and their accompanying financial security (and health insurance) and moved to Durham. Today at SEEDS – a nonprofit and garden doing environmental education downtown – Farm Church will hold their first worship service. Strange visions sometimes become something.3
"They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Spirit to speak in Asia," Luke writes in Acts 16:6, before today’s text. Then abruptly, one night Paul had a vision. We are in the heart of Paul’s second missionary journey. He is in Asia Minor, on the southwestern edge of what is now Turkey. In this dream, there stood a man from Macedonia – across the Aegean Sea, into Europe, into Greece. He was pleading: "Come over to Macedonia and help us." There was something SO COMPELLING about this vision, the man’s words or his way, something in the way the Spirit struck a chord, that IMMEDIATELY they tried to cross over, convinced they were called by God.
I love the fact that they are moved to follow right THEN, but it takes a while. This feels more like life does to me. They answer the call, but really have to get to Troas, hop a boat – another thing they couldn’t do quickly – get to Samothrace (an island 150 miles from the start of the journey), refuel, then the next day to Neapolis, from THERE another almost 10 miles to Philippi, a city of around 15,000 people.4 They remained there, the texts says, for some days.
The travel narrative zooms in close on one particular day, the Sabbath, when Paul and his buddies head down to the river. They evidently hadn’t made connections with other Jews, and were looking for a place of prayer – this word is often used synonymously with synagogue.5 What they are looking for is a group of men, ten of whom would be required for a formal service, and they come across a group of women. Luke has always taken care to remind us, in a society dominated by MEN, of the importance of women’s leadership in the movement, among the followers of Jesus. It is a group of women, Luke records, who are the first witnesses to the resurrection. The role of women and girls in the church, as LEADERS, is really important, and the church is slowly beginning to figure this out.
In this group was a woman named Lydia, a wealthy businesswoman and worshipper of God. The clue is in the purple cloth, from a dye from the ink sacs of mollusks, rare and highly prized.6 Just as Paul’s heart was opened in the dream to travel there, the Lord opened Lydia’s heart, Luke says, to listen eagerly. We don’t get clear timing, but she listens, and over some period invites the disciples to her home – she was the head of household – offers them hospitality, and they all are baptized. "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us, Luke writes.
There is something confounding and irrational about this Word, this gospel, confronting us in Jesus Christ. This gospel rarely – and this makes me profoundly uncomfortable, orderly, well-paced Presbyterian that I try and be – this gospel rarely calls us to things that fit our schedules. It’s almost always exactly the opposite. Paul was asleep, and was told in a dream to go to an entirely different place, not on the route the GPS mapped out. He met a small group of women there – NOT who he was looking for – and one of them was drawn into their circle. Lydia soon drops from view, but it is thought that the Philippian church began meeting in her home.7 These kinds of visions and dreams echo back to Abraham, and forward to saints like Columba, maybe even our colleagues across town worshipping on a farm.
It is this irrationality that hits at the root of our carefully scripted lives. We do our best to keep the wheels on, going in so many different directions. We feel the press of work, of success and fame and achievement. As much as we try we get sucked into worrying what other people think. We want to know and be known, as people who have it together. Who make a plan and execute it. But when we follow the Spirit absolutely ridiculous things start happening. We give away stuff, not to clean out our closets but because others might need what we have. We give away money – not for trips or summer camps or lawn maintenance, but for the hungry and the homeless and the mentally ill. We let go, releasing our iron grip on the world we seek to control, so that we might begin to be open to the Holy Spirit’s ridiculous leanings.
I had just done some reading on this text Wednesday before last, and was drawn out to the courtyard on a beautiful evening. It was one of those nights that make me love this church even more. It was the final evening of we•form, our Wednesday afternoon program for children. It’s run by adults who are volunteers, surely with better things to do. Parents send their kids. Those parents know – I hope they haven’t thought too much about this, how the program does absolutely no good in the vein of most activities for kids – it won’t make them Olympians or Ivy League scholars. It simply reminds these children, and I’d guess the adults in the teaching, that they are beloved of God. As this motley crew was singing and eating a potluck meal, La Nueva Jerusalem, the Hispanic congregation that meets in our cabin on the weekends, was gathering for Bible study in the Fellowship Hall, literally gathering in a circle and laying hands and praying, with deep passion. At the same time folks were dodging children coming in to meet Pastor Leon, to learn about what God is doing in Haiti, which doesn’t make any sense to do. The cheesecake was delicious, but why would anyone, on purpose, spend their own money to go to the poorest neighborhood in this hemisphere? Why in the world would people do that…? They surely have better things to do.
But the Holy Spirit, she’s an insistent one. Persuasive. It is this same Spirit that screws up our routines and messes with our plans and, in some beautiful and terrifying way, calls us. To give it up. To leave it behind. To follow Jesus, wherever he might lead. As we come to the table in a moment, maybe the Spirit will plant in your head some odd, strange idea. Maybe the ability to listen. The courage to act. Some vision. Come. Help. Do. Be. Partner. Give. Pray. Something that doesn’t make sense. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The Vulgate’s history is fascinating in itself.
2. Chasing the Wild Goose: The Story of the Iona Community, by Ronald Ferguson. (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 1998), pages 21-23.
3. Learn more about Farm Church.
4. 27 Bartlett, David L. and Taylor, Barbara Brown (2011-06-10). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Location 16946). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. Distances, etc, from Justo Gonzales, Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit, (Orbis: Maryknoll, NY: 2001), p 188.
5. Gonzales, 188.
6. Gonzales, 189.
7. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Paul Achtemeier, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p 632.