Sermon preached for Graduation Sunday for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Acts 16:6-15 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the regions of Phrygia and Galatia because the Holy Spirit kept them from speaking the word in the province of Asia. When they approached the province of Mysia, they tried to enter the province of Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them. Passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas instead. A vision of a man from Macedonia came to Paul during the night. He stood urging Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. From there we went to Philippi, a city of Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony. We stayed in that city several days. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered. One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message. Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us.
Some years ago, it became popular to read the Dr. Seuss classic “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” to graduates, especially high school graduates. It’s a great little book, like most Seuss.
Congratulations! [it begins]
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
Well, with lots of respect and love to Dr. Seuss (and I really mean that), I don’t agree.
We aren’t always the one who gets to choose. Sometimes it’s God who decides where we are needed, and calls us to go.
I don’t mean that God controls every choice. God has had surprisingly little to say when I bought my house in Villa Hills, or about where I go on vacation, or which restaurant I eat at for dinner. There is plenty that God leaves for us to discern, using those brains in our head.
But every once in awhile, God shows up and says: here. I need you here.
The apostle Paul was a traveler from birth. He was born in Tarsus, in southern Turkey, but given his passion for his Jewish faith, likely traveled with his family to Jerusalem for the festivals. He was a Roman citizen, which granted him freer passage than some. But one day, when he was headed from Jerusalem to Damascus, God stopped him in his tracks. We read the story a few weeks ago—Jesus spoke to Paul from the heavens. I need you, he said. I need you to come work for me.
It didn’t take long for Paul to become a traveler again. He had a message to spread, after all—the message of God’s love for all people. So he put his feet in his shoes and off he went.
But here’s the thing: if you look at maps of Paul’s journeys, they are terribly planned. Really inefficient. He skips obvious stops, redoubles and loops back, hops from continent to continent. If you were to sit down and draw up a route to most efficiently and effectively launch a new product—or, in his case, a new faith—this is a really weird way to go about it.
Which is a pretty good indicator that the Holy Spirit is in charge.
God’s plans for us are weird. They are inefficient. They are rub up against our own plans. They take us to places we never expected to go, and to people we never expected to meet.
When Paul and his friend Silas set out from their journey, scripture says that “the Holy Spirit sent them on their way” (Acts 13:4). I love that image of the Holy Spirit as our launching pad, reminding us to pack a toothbrush and cheering as we hit the road. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t let us go alone. She runs to catch up with us and guide us on our way.
The first few verses of our scripture today are a bit strange: Paul and his companions are traveling through Northern Turkey while the Spirit keeps stopping them from carrying out their mission. Verse six says they are in Turkey because the Spirit stopped them from preaching in Asia; now they try to go to Bithynia, but the Spirit won’t let them go there either. These “nos” from the Holy Spirit must have been hard to hear, and frustrating. Sometimes the life of faith is like that; all we hear is God’s “no,” and we have to wait awhile to get our “yes.” Just because we are traveling with the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean everything is always going to be easy.
Joan Gray is a longtime Presbyterian pastor who wrote a book called Sailboat Church. She is talking about congregations, but I think what she says is true for us as individuals, too. She says we can try to function like rowboats, knowing in our heads what God wants us to do, but relying on our own power, strength, intelligence, and stubbornness to get us there. It’s efficient. In a rowboat you can get exactly where you want to go, as fast as you have the muscle power for.
But it’s also a path to exhaustion. Eventually, your arms are gonna get tired, and then you’re stranded on a dark and choppy sea.
Sailboats, Gray says, are different. Sailboats rely on harnessing the wind to get going. Waiting for the wind can be frustrating, and even once you’ve found it, you sort of have to go more or less where it wants you to go, as fast as it decides you’ll be going. It’s an inefficient, unreliable means of travel.
But have you ever been in a sailboat that’s caught the wind? There’s nothing like it.
Being a sailor is work too, don’t get me wrong. You still have to hoist the sails and angle them correctly, watch the steering, keep tension on the ropes. Catching the wind does not mean laying back and sunbathing while something else does all the work. It means partnering with the wind to go farther and faster than you ever could by yourself.
The wind, Gray says, is like the Holy Spirit. When we partner with the wind of God’s spirit, we go further and faster and more freely than we ever do relying on our own strength.
Paul spent plenty of time in boats as he traveled back and forth between the landmasses of the ancient world. There were times he rowed, because sometimes you just have to hunker down and do it. But there were times when he knew the freedom of the wind, and I have to think it made him smile.
In Troas Paul has a dream of a man from Greece, calling him to come preach. It’s God’s way of saying: here. I need you here. So Paul goes, sailing from Turkey to Greece and then walking from city to city until he meets Lydia at Philippi, herself an immigrant there from Thyatira. It’s likely she sailed to Greece too, to launch or extend her business selling purple cloth. Paul saw a man in his vision, but he realizes that it’s Lydia God has sent him to. Once again, he has to veer with the Spirit.
Our graduates today are starting out on a journey. It’s very possible you all have already made your plans with what to do with your new degrees—good plans, efficient plans, useful plans. I’m here to tell you that God delights in ruining plans. I’m also here to tell you that there’s more delight in following God’s wild schemes than anything you could dream up for yourself.
But even if you aren’t graduating—even if you’ve left the milestones of early life far behind—it’s never too late to begin. It’s never too late to pull up your oars and sit a few minutes listening for the wind. It’s never too late to decide to go after all, when God says here. I need you here.
Sometimes God calls us to big things, like global travels or lifelong vocations. Sometimes God calls us to little things, like a single action or donation or conversation. Sometimes God calls us to mysterious things, to paths we won’t understand until many, many years later. But I know this: it is in fully following God that we become fully who we are.
I’m ashamed to admit, over the last few years, that I’ve become something of a lapsed Whovian. But I used to love Doctor Who, so recently I picked up the show again. If you aren’t familiar, the main character, called the Doctor, has the power to regenerate, allowing them to change out actors and keep the show fresh. Each iteration of the doctor has their own look, their own quirks, their own style—but also at their core they are the same—wild, adventurous, clever, and kind.
In the first episode of the latest doctor, Jodie Whittaker, she reflects on what it means to change so fundamentally while also staying the same:
There’s this moment, [she says] when you’re sure you’re about to die. And then you’re born. It’s terrifying. Right now I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hone my nerve and trust all these new instincts—shape myself towards them. (Doctor Who, The Woman Who Fell to Earth)
I can still remember all three of my graduations, and while they weren’t nearly as dramatic as an alien regeneration, there was a sadness to each, something like a death. Each meant leaving behind people I loved, places where I was happy, routines I was familiar with. Transitions are hard, no matter how good they may be in the long run.
But each transition offers us a chance to be a bit more the people God is calling us to be. No matter our stage in lie, each day we wake up a little bit of strangers to ourselves. Who are we meant to be? Where are we meant to go? Who are we supposed to reach out to? What are we supposed to with these brains in our head and these feelings in our heart? How do we pick ourselves up and try again when we fail?
Here’s all I can say: Trust your instincts. Trust that God is with you. Trust that even when you’re stuck in the doldrums and it seems like nothing is going your way, the wind is picking up.
There are places for you to go. And God is always calling, calling, calling, showing up in dreams and comments from other people and a weird feeling in your own gut, saying here. I need you here.
All we have to do is hoist the sails, and fly.