— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
~~~ Sixth Sunday in Easter ~~~
Acts 16:6-10; John 5:1-9
Few, if any, of us live our lives on the basis of our first choices. Most of us live our lives on the reality of a second or third choice. This fact is so common that we hardly take notice of it when reading a biography of another or listening to someone else tell their story. We give that fact little thought because our own lives have been one adjustment after another to broken plans.
Clarence Parks, a member of one of my past congregations in Tampa, Florida, was a chemistry and math major in college. His goal was to coach football…which he did early in life, while also teaching math. He failed miserably as a coach and got a job with Goodyear as a chemist. He later headed a team of research chemists. Over a span of twenty something years, Clarence’s research team focused on developing a formula that would soften plastic and make its use practical. According to Clarence’s simple explanation to me, Germans had developed plastic. Because of its brittleness, it had virtually no use. Clarence’s team developed PVC—polyvinyl chloride—the plastic that is so readily used for many construction products today. His plan as a young man was to become a successful football coach; his contribution to society was far greater through the development of PVC.
Jennifer and I smile and look closely each time we drive by the pond just south of the Elkmont Resort on the way into Cleveland. A gaggle of resident geese have made their home there. However, one lone wild tom turkey amazingly is a part of the gaggle. Jennifer has seen him fanned out several times, right in the middle of the geese. His presence was apparently an unplanned, alternative reality for him. Yet, he has made a good home and adopted family for himself; and, the resident geese have extended exemplary hospitality! (Maybe he is just responding to the leftovers life has dealt him and he’s happy to be a goose, at this point.)
One of the greatest examples of this phenomenon is tucked away in the records of Paul’s missionary journey in the 16th chapter of Acts. Its reading is so subtle that it is easily passed over unnoticed. As a seminary student, I read the autobiography of one of America’s former finest preachers—Harry Emerson Fosdick. Early in his adult life, Fosdick battled depression and struggled with the direction his life should take. As a misplaced American Baptist minister serving as an interim pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Manhattan, he was called to the Park Avenue Baptist which he accepted only on the conditions that the Park Avenue church move to a less affluent area and identifying with the larger Church, rather than just one denomination. The new church became the Riverside Church, widely noted for its strong pulpit, its deep commitment to social ministries, and its position on the edge of poverty and in the middle of the universities seminary settings. Deeply impressed by Fosdick, I later read most of his books, including one that contained a sermon on today’s text.
7When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.(Acts 16:6-10)
At this point in history, Christianity passed over from Asia into Europe. Like other momentous events, such as Columbus stumbling upon the western hemisphere trying to find a shorter route to the East, Paul’s travels to Europe forever changed the course of the early church.
He never had any intentions of going to Europe. That was a second choice. He had planned to go to Bithynia. Bithynia was one of the richest provinces of Asia Minor, and to have carried Christianity there would have been a significant accomplishment at the time.
He wanted to go there and tried very hard. Paul was a person of determination. His plan was broken. The reading of Acts simply says, “the spirit of Jesus didn’t allow them,” which is another way of saying that some circumstances blocked their plans. What a disappointment it must have been at first. Wanting to go to Bithynia, noted city of eastern Asia, but instead he went to Troas, a poor, second choice in his mind.
Where would the world of electronics and computers be without Intel? Dr. Andrew Stephen Grove participated in the founding of Intel Corporation and was a driving force in its rapid success. Andras Istvan Grof was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Hungary. During the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, he escaped Communist-controlled Hungary leaving his home and family under the cover of night and emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York in 1957. He earned a chemical engineering degree from City College of New York in 1960. Later, he received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Berkley. His Bithynia was his homeland, Hungary and Europe; his Troas, was escaping during the night and crossing over to the United States.
Is there anyone here who has not wanted Bithynia and gotten Troas? Those of us with a few years of experience watch our youth and grandchildren come up with all their ambitions and plans for Bithynia and we wonder what they will do when they face the inescapable experience. When they are shut out from some Bithynia and land in Troas, will they know how to handle that? Will they have the spirit and attitude and courage to make the most out of it? And since it is so inescapable a problem, it’s appropriate to ask: “How was Paul able to turn defeat into success?”
His practical and, perhaps, spiritual convictions certainly entered in. “Since I am in Troas, how should I be using my life?” “What can I do to make a difference, now that I am here?”
His understanding about his choice of attitude in the change of circumstances certainly was important. Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, spent time in the Nazis’ concentration camp at Auschwitz. He observed the difference in attitudes of prisoners. At one point, he was stripped of everything he owned—which was only his clothes. One of the guards noticed a wedding ring on his finger and it, too, was taken. Standing there completely naked, he realized that the Nazis could take everything away from him except one thing—his choice as to how he would respond to them. From that insight, surviving Auschwitz he later developed what became known as Logotherapy—based on the premise that finding meaning in life is more significant that finding pleasure or power in life.
None of us really live our lives completely on the basis of our first choice. Actually, often our second, third, or even fourth choices turn out being the blessing of our lives and usually a blessing to others.
“Come over to Macedonia and help us,” the man in the vision said to Paul When he had seen the vision, he immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called him to proclaim the good news to them.
So may such a courageous, flexible, and resurrecting attitude be ours, as well. AMEN.