Acts 16:9-15 | Rev. 21:10, 22-22:5
Our readings today may seem, at first glance, to be quite different, and they are, but there are some commonalities as well. There is one in particular that I’d like to focus on, and it isn’t something that they both have, but something they are both missing. I’d like to focus not on something that’s present, but something that’s absent: a temple, a church.
This makes pastors like me, people whose livelihood is tied up in the institution, in this building, in Sunday morning worship services, a little nervous. It might make some of you a little uncomfortable as well. Maybe you like our church building, maybe you like Sunday morning worship. For most of us, the word “church” immediately brings to mind a building – maybe this one, or maybe the one we grew up in. Even though we know “church” technically refers to the people of God and not a building, we can’t quite get away from the idea that church has something to do with specific buildings and Sunday mornings.
We must all make this association to some extent because we’re all here this morning. And yet, as we gather in this building, we read passages that seem to render our building unnecessary, or at the very least a passing necessity. God doesn’t need the temple in the new Jerusalem, doesn’t need the synagogue in Philippi, doesn’t need – dare I say – the building at NE 34th and Knott in Portland, Oregon.
In our reading from Revelation, looking forward to the new Jerusalem, John sees a vision of the holy city coming down out of the clouds. The first thing our reading says about this new Jerusalem is that there is no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the lamb.” God is everywhere, filling the whole city with light, and the whole city is a temple, because God is the temple and God is everywhere. This is the future we’ve been talking about for the last 4 weeks or so, and we’ve been talking about how it’s a future that doesn’t stay in the future, it doesn’t wait for us, it comes crashing into our present. In fact, in a weird way, it’s the future but it’s also the past and the present, because it’s a reality that began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus says as much in the Gospel of John. Speaking 2,000 years ago, he says, “…the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” If that’s the case, then the idea that God’s presence is everywhere, that God is not confined to a building, must be true not only in the future but also now, in the present, and also in the past. It must’ve been true in the days of the early church, like when Paul was a missionary. And isn’t that just what our story in Acts tells us…
In Acts 16, through a vision, God leads Paul and his companions – his friend Silas, Timothy, his young protégé, and Luke, the writer of Acts and the Gospel of Luke – to the region of Macedonia, to the city of Philippi. They stay there for a few days, until the Sabbath comes. Strangely, instead of entering a synagogue on the Sabbath, as is Paul’s regular MO, they go outside the city, looking for a place of prayer. They look for those outside the institutional place of worship, they look for those who see God everywhere, speak to God everywhere, listen for God everywhere. We might say they go looking for the “spiritual but not religious.”
They find a group of women who had gathered by…a river (there’s another little connection with Revelation!) to pray. And they have church right there on the muddy banks of a river, flowing outside the city, while the pious and the upright go through the “proper” liturgy inside their houses of worship.
God opens the heart of one woman in particular, Lydia, a strong, self-sufficient woman with her own business and her own home, and she accepts the Good News she hears from Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke and immediately she and her household are baptized, and then, while she’s still dripping with water from the river, she invites these travelers to stay with her. The Good News she hears immediately prompts action – first baptism, then hospitality.
I recently listened to an interview with a woman named Edwina Gateley on the Nomad podcast (I’d recommend checking out the Nomad podcast). Edwina Gateley is a Catholic lay-woman who has lived quite the incredible life. After graduating from college in England, she went to Africa (I’m not sure where in Africa) as a missionary. She says she wanted to bring God to the people there – and her understanding of God then was that he was a white, British, Catholic man – but, she says, when she got to Africa she discovered that “God got there before me.” When she got there she found God in the hospitality of the people she thought she was going to save, and then she realized that hospitality “is the fundamental meaning of the Gospel.” (So according to Edwina Gateley’s understanding of the Gospel, Lydia didn’t just receive the Good News, she understood it: hospitality is the fundamental meaning of the Gospel.)
Based on her experience, Edwina started a missionary organization called the Volunteer Missionary Movement. The movement emphasized, and continues to emphasize, sharing life together. Instead of seeing the local, native peoples as the ones who need the missionaries, Edwina and the VMM believed that both groups need each other. The VMM’s motto is, “A world where we live in the shelter of one another, sharing who we are not just what we have.”
Well, the VMM really took off, with 100s of lay missionaries in 26 countries, and Edwina began to win awards and get interviews, but it was at precisely that time, when she and the organization were doing so well, that she felt God calling her to step down. She says, “I felt a red light, a danger. Don’t buy into the system, don’t buy into the power and the glory. Keep on the journey…don’t get stuck in the system.” But she wasn’t 100% sure, so she went to the Sahara desert and lived by herself in a hut for three months in order to hear from God…because of course, right? That would be all of our first thoughts as well, right? And after three months she felt God telling her to let go of the VMM and to move to a foreign country. So she went to the United States to study theology in Chicago.
After getting a degree in theology, she was ready to go back to England, but, again, “God got in the way.” She felt deeply that God didn’t want her to go back to England, but she didn’t know what God did want her to do, so she bought what she calls an “old caravan” (I think she means a motorhome or an RV or something like that), and she had it towed into the woods outside of Chicago, and she again waited for God to tell her what to do next. She says, “I said to God, ‘Okay, I’m gonna sit in this darn caravan and please hurry up and tell me what to do, because I feel no peace.’”
And she waited for one month, 2 months, 3 months. “And God said nothing.” She says, “It was so boring.” But she stuck it out and stayed in the caravan for 9 months! 9 months she spent waiting for God to give her direction. And then, after 9 months, she says, “The God who I experienced as dead, arose again. The God who slept awoke again.” And the message she got from God was one she didn’t want. She felt God calling her to work with sex workers in Chicago. After failing to talk God out of it, she eventually obeyed God’s call on her life, and she went on to have a wonderful ministry to sex workers. Again, resisting the idea that she was there to help them, she founded a house where they lived together, where they began to call her “mom.” Hospitality.
She says at one point that the streets of Chicago became her church.
The streets of Chicago became her church.
I saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.
“…the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…
In all these stories, all these pictures, God is bigger than our places of worship, bigger than our institutions. God is everywhere.
Now, some of you might be getting the wrong idea. You might be thinking this is pretty good news. You might be thinking, “Sweet, even the pastor is saying we don’t need to come to church. I guess we can sleep in next Sunday instead of coming here! We’ll have ‘church’ in our pajamas while we watch TV.”
But hold on. This is, indeed, good news, but maybe not in the way you think it is. The truth is, if we really think about it, we would probably rather say that God is confined to temples and churches and places of worship. We would rather say that religious experience is limited to one hour a week. Because if it’s not, that means everywhere we go is a temple – or at least has the potential to be a temple: work, home, school, restaurants, bars, dates, board meetings, pickup basketball. If we accept the words of Psalm 24, that the earth is God’s and everything in it, or Psalm 139, which says there’s nowhere we can go where God is not, then that means God can show up at any time in our lives. It means God might start interrupting our sleep with visions of people in other lands, begging us for help. God might pull us away from lucrative jobs and cozy homes to live in Africa – my family knows a little something about that (not the lucrative jobs part, just the living in Africa part J). God might call us outside of the city – outside what we know, and into relationship with people very different than us.
If that makes you uncomfortable, let me offer you a word of comfort: God won’t call you to any of that if you don’t listen for God. If you keep 11:00 AM on Sunday morning at 34th and Knott as your only “worship” experience, you won’t have to worry about God interrupting you. Because God rarely, if ever, just forces God’s way into our lives. Instead, we have to invite God into our lives. And sometimes it takes time to hear from God. Sometimes it’s “so boring.”
Edwina Gateley had to wait 3 months in a hut in the Sahara to hear God’s voice, and that ended up being the quick answer. She had to wait 9 months for God to speak to her in an RV in the woods. We don’t know how long Lydia prayed by the river. It could have been years. Maybe, for years, she went to the river every sabbath and asked God to send her the Good News she knew existed, but didn’t know where to find. Maybe she was on the verge of giving up, when, one Saturday morning, a group of men showed up and sat down and brought her the news she was looking for.
Later today we’re going to ordain Mitch, and I know from many conversations with him, that this call didn’t come easy. It took a lot of waiting, a lot of wrestling, and a lot of faith.
Do we have the courage to open ourselves to God’s call, and do we have the patience to wait for it?
If we are willing to wait for God to speak to us, how will God speak to us? Well, it could be any number of ways, it could be something you sense in your heart, the way Edwina just knew she was supposed to work with sex workers in Chicago. God’s word could come to you in an article you’re reading or from something a friend says off-handedly at lunch. God could speak to you through a tree or a butterfly or a stranger on the bus. If God is everywhere, if every place has a spark of the Sacred, then God could speak to us anytime in any situation in any place. Even church. Sometimes God speaks in the silence, out in the woods, as God spoke to Edwina Gateley and Paul. And sometimes God speaks to us through one another, as God spoke to Lydia through Paul and his friends.
And this brings me full circle, back to that place that is absent in our readings this morning, but in which we are all very present at this moment: our church. Sunday mornings are still important. We just can’t limit the sacred to only Sunday mornings.
In fact, with the days getting longer and the mountains calling, I want to make a special request – and I know this sounds almost contrary to what I’ve been saying but – please come to church when you’re in town. I know life is busy and I know it’s summer and I know there are a million really good brunch spots in Portland and even more hikes in the Gorge, but when you’re not here, we miss you. When you don’t come, we feel the lack. Really.
I’m sure you’ve all experienced it, when you come to church and hardly anyone else shows up and the room feels kind of empty. But every time the majority of you are here, people come up to me after the service and say, “Man, church was so good today. The energy was great.” It’s not about getting butts in the seats, or feeling like we’re “growing.” It’s that we’re the body of Christ together, and it’s hard when members of the body are regularly missing. We feel incomplete. So please come when you can. I really believe it’s important.
Because church is the place where we remind one another of God’s promises, where we speak hope to one another when we feel despair. Week after week is full of bad news. David and I have done a pretty good job in the last few weeks to paint a bleak picture of our world! Just this past week, another minor died on the border due to our inhumane immigration policies, and another trans woman of color was murdered.
I believe that the whole world, already, is the temple of God, that there is nowhere that God is not, but it’s so easy to forget that. We’re tempted to lose hope. And so we come on Sunday mornings, not to keep a dying institution alive, not to go through wrote practices that mean nothing to us, not, I hope, because we feel obligated, but to receive new eyes, eyes that see God in the sunshine and in the rain, that hear God in the call of birds and laughter of children. Eyes that see a river flowing outside of Philippi as the very same river that runs through the new Jerusalem. Eyes that see everything ordinary and mundane as holy, that see everyday life as a miracle.
Edwina Gateley tells a story: one night around 11, she was walking home on the streets of Chicago. She saw a group of 5 women across the street sitting on the church steps (outside the church again) and they hollered at her, “Hey come join us, we’re having a picnic.” She walked over and they had a half bottle of ginger ale and box of Dunkin’ Donuts. “We’re having a picnic,” one woman said. Then she poured the ginger ale into 6 Styrofoam cups. And she kept saying, “There’s enough for everybody. There’s enough for everybody.” Then she took out a donut and she broke it and she said again, “There’s enough for everybody.”
We take Communion at church so that we can recognize Communion in ginger ale and Dunkin’ Donuts. We pray here so that we can pray without ceasing out there. We worship here so that our lives might be one sweeping act of worship. We remind one another that God is with us here, so that we might come to see that God is everywhere, and there’s enough for everybody. Amen.
 All quotes from Edwina Gateley come from the Nomad Podcast, Episode #189: “Edwina Gateley – Missionaries, Mystics and Mother God,” Jan. 21, 2019.