Sunday, May 9, 2010

Come Over and Help

Come Over and Help

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sixth Sunday of Easter May 9, 2010

Acts 15:36, 40-41, 16:4-15

During the night Paul had a vision;

there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying,

“Come over to Macedonia and help us.” NRSV

I’m not sure if the name “Silas” is all that familiar to present generations of church people, but it will become more familiar again, I believe. We know from today’s reading in Acts, as well as in the story in Acts directly following our reading – where Paul and Silas found themselves imprisoned in Philippi and their miraculous escape from jail there – that Silas was a traveling companion with Paul in his missionary work.

I recall in my youth having to read Silas Marner, by George Elliot (which, now that I think about it, may not be the ideal association to bring up on Mothers’ Day!) and I recall a few folks from my parents’ generation – and moreso from my grandparents’ – named “Silas.” But if you look on the internet at a site called “Baby Name Wizard,”[1] where you can see how many times per million babies any name has been used in the last 125 years, we can see why the name has not been all that familiar in the so-called baby boom generation. While in the 1880s the name was chosen for 330 boys out of every million born, by the 1960s, that number had fallen to fewer than 20 per million. Since the turn of the century, the name has experienced an increase in popularity, chosen by parents for 250 of every million boys born. Maybe it’s a trend. I suspect the name might still sound sort of old-fashioned to most of our ears. Other than that, and one old uncle of a college friend, I have only one other immediate connection with the name, which came by way of the 60s folk trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, who sang a version of a traditional 12-verse carol on one of their early recordings, called “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Do you remember it? As with most spirituals, there have been a lot of different versions of it, but here is one:

Children go where I send thee: how shall I send thee?

I’m gonna send thee one by one

One for the little bitty baby

Who was born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children go where I send thee: how shall I send thee?

I’m gonna send thee two by two

Two for Paul and Silas

One for the itty bitty baby

Who was born, born, born in Bethlehem.

Three for the Hebrew children...

Four for the four that stood at the door...

Five for the gospel preachers...

Six for the jars where the wine was mixed...

Seven for the seven that never got to heaven...

Eight for the eight that stood at the gate...

Nine for the ninety-nine in line...

Ten for the ten commandments...

Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven...

Twelve for the twelve Apostles...

Now, as a youngster in 8th grade, two years into learning to play the guitar and playing with my brothers, I sang that song with relish, not having a clue as to the meaning of some of the references. Oh, I knew about the itty bitty baby born in Bethlehem alright, I knew that “Hebrew children” wasn’t really a reference to children but to the Hebrew people who were children of God, I knew there were 12 apostles and ten commandments. But who were the four that stood at the door? Why was it “five for the gospel preachers” when there were but 4 gospels? How come seven never got to heaven, while eight got as far as the gate?

Well, if you want to know the answers to these and other mysteries involved in that little song, you’ll just have to pick up a copy of the sermon, there isn’t time to go into all of it here.[2] One verse that I didn’t know much about as a child was the one that says “Two for Paul and Silas.” Oh, I knew at age 14 who Paul was, but Silas? I didn’t know a thing about Silas. Those of you who come well-tutored in the New Testament will recall that Paul and Silas spent an evening together in the Philippi County jail before a midnight earthquake released them.

Today I have the advantage of a bit more study on the subject and I know that Silas was a reasonably well-known person in the New Testament, known both by his Greek name, and by the Latinized version, Silvanus, when he makes an appearance in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, Thessalonians, and gets an honorable mention in I Peter.

Silas deserves to be better known, by all counts. He was a leading member of the new Christian community in Jerusalem following the resurrection of Jesus, and he later traveled with Paul to Antioch, and accompanied him in his second missionary journey to Galatia, from which our story in Acts today comes... He was, by all accounts, faithful, loyal, brave. Parents could do a lot worse than to name their little boys after this man.

Silas is listed with Timothy and Paul in the very first lines of both First and Second Thessalonians, as a co-author or at the very least a co-sender of those letters. Silas is also mentioned with Peter on missions in Pontus and Cappadocia. He served as scribe for the writing of I Peter.[3]

I hope all this conversation about Silas – and Paul – serves to remind us of struggles in the early church. Real struggles. For those of us who think church life ought to cater to our needs or be fun or at the very, least mildly entertaining, the book of Acts snaps us back to the realization that commitment to the gospel was and is downright serious business, especially the spread of the good news. Any time the gospel has reached into new places in the world and in people’s hearts, it has met with opposition. I suspect that when Paul went to sleep in the harbor city of Troas (better known to us as Troy, the farthest west of all the cities of Asia, across the Aegean from and in view of Europe), he apparently had no inkling that soon God would be calling him to cross over to Europe, to Greece and Macedonia. But sure enough, that is what happened in his nighttime dream or vision of a man standing and pleading that he “Come over to Macedonia and help us” across the straights that separate two continents

Paul was in the midst of his second missionary journey, on which he had meant to go and strengthen churches already established in Asia on their first journey in what is today southwestern Turkey, meaning to go to Ephesus, and Colossae. But as we heard in today’s lesson, they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” winding up in the port city of Troas. We don’t know the form in which the forbidding took place, just that it happened and stopped them in their tracks.

We might think of our spiritual journeys in faith as some sort of self-generated “Mapquest” in which we plug into the celestial computer the request for directions, and then we are on our own way. But God does not want us to go on our own way, God wants to make the journey with us, and God can be quite insistent about this too.

Sometimes the only word the Spirit has for us along our pilgrim way is something like the signs we occasionally see blocking old forest tracks: “Road Closed.” Sometimes the Spirit senses our determination to go one way in the walk of faith and responds “No, you can’t go that way. Not now.” Sometimes the road is blocked by bad weather or a traffic jam. Sometimes the recruiter who interviewed us for that job we really, really wanted calls to say, “Sorry, we chose someone else.” Sometimes the perfect college for all our dreams fails to admit us. Sometimes aspirin won’t work, so we have to try Advil. Sometimes what we thought was our best chance for romance turns out to be the date from purgatory. “No” is the word we sometimes hear even when we have made extensive plans to go a certain way, as Paul and Silas must surely have done. At such times it’s important to remember that “No” doesn’t mean “Stop everything; Give up.” It only means “Stop going that way. Find another way.”

Probably Paul and Silas came to the city limits of Troas totally confused about where they were to go, but they were not confused about where they were not going.

A friend of mine once wrote,

“Often when someone is standing at the crossroads of a difficult decision he or she will come to see the pastor. I’m often struck by the wonderful opportunities they have. They could stay home with the kids or keep working. They could take the new job or keep the old one. They could move into the retirement home or keep the big house. ‘Well isn’t it wonderful,’ I say, ‘that you are not a serf on a medieval farm?’ But most of the time they are not impressed by my cheery optimism. What they want to know is: what is the right choice? What choice does God want them to make? This is when I usually shrug my shoulders and as profoundly as I can, say, ‘I dunno.’ It is then that people realize why pastoral counseling is free. But just to drive home the point, I continue, ‘Do you really think God is up nights worrying about whether you’re going to move to Boston or Houston?’

“We all need to live with a good theology of Plan B. This theology goes like this: I thought I was supposed to head this way. Apparently I was wrong because the road is now closed. Now I need Plan B. The Bible is filled with people who had to go to Plan B. Abraham’s Plan A was to have a child with Hagar. Moses’ Plan A was to kill the Egyptian. David’s Plan A was to be a shepherd. Peter’s Plan A was to prevent Jesus from going to the cross. Paul’s Plan A was to evangelize the Jews. All of them had to go to Plan B. But in the discovery that Plan A was not working, all these people grew closer to God which was God’s plan for them all along. Some of you are up to Plan X, Y, or Z, by now, I know. That’s okay. Go to double letters if need be, but you have to get off the hook for being right all the time. That is called hubris, and it is one of the deadlier sins.”[4]

Of course, Paul discovered where he was supposed to go with the help of a dream of a man from Macedonia, the little country just north of Greece, across the Aegean from Troas. The man was saying “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Macedonia. In Europe. The gospel had not yet been taken to Europe. What if Paul had waked up and said to Silas that he had a dream that they should carry the good news to Macedonia. But after conferring with Silas, they decided the boat trip would be too risky – the Macedonians were all Gentiles anyway – and, delivering the crushing blow the church often applies to all new ideas, they uttered what are often called the Seven Last Words of the Church: “We’ve never done it that way before.”

But they did not respond that way, they went over to Europe and carried the gospel of Christ with them. And from Europe, the gospel eventually made it’s way to the Americas, and after a couple centuries it was carried around the Horn and across the Oregon trail until, in 1882, some frontier Presbyterians carried it to a meeting of eight men and seven women here in Vancouver and started the very church congregation which has continued in ministry until this very day.

Who is saying, “Come over and help us” today? Let’s listen to the Spirit to find out. And let’s go.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

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[2] Four for the four that stood at the door... (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) Five for the gospel preachers... (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and all gospel preachers who followed after) Six for the jars where the wine was mixed... (the six jars of wine at the miracle feast in Cana, John 2:1-11) Seven for the seven that never got to heaven... (This verse may originally have meant the seven that came from heaven, the seven-fold spirit of God) Eight for the eight that stood at the gate... (The eight who entered Noah’s ark) Nine for the ninety-nine in line... (Those who waited while the good shepherd sought the one lost sheep) Ten for the ten commandments... Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven... (The disciples, minus Judas Iscariot) Twelve for the twelve Apostles...

[3] I Peter 5:12

[4] Craig Barnes, “Road Closed,” preached at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, January 9, 2005.