Acts 16: 9-15, Psalm 67, John 5: 1-9
How aware of you the formal places of prayer in our area? If we think of the immediate neighbourhood we would include St Albans, St Joes’, St Paul’s Lutheran, the chapel at the Mission and the Salvation Army, Sacre Coeur, and All Nations’ Church at the French Elementary School. If we cast our mind further afield we see in our mind Notre Dame Basilica, the Fire of God Church next to Shepherds of Good Hope, the French Baptist church on King Edward, the Haitian Seventh Day Adventist on King Edward, the Chabad Student Network on Friel St for Jewish students, various classrooms on the UOttawa campus for Christian and Muslim worship. Hopefully we also consider our own church to be a welcoming house of prayer. Certainly, one of our street friends does as he often uses our street corner to expound on his version of the Koran.
I always loved this story in the book of Acts describing how Paul and his co-workers, Timothy and Silas were listening for the direction of the Holy Spirit to discover a place of prayer where they might be invited to share their new understanding of God’s inclusive and life-changing love. Paul is open to the dreams and visions that the Spirit gives to him at night or in prayer and as a result he sets sail from Troas to Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman Colony. I’m not sure why he expects to find a place of prayer outside the gate of the city, which is sometimes the place in the gospels where Jesus finds people who are begging, scraping together a living and often in need healing. Of course, if you drive or walk around our neighbourhood it seems that it is downtown Ottawa where you can find so many people begging and in need of healing. We don’t have to go to the outskirts of the city for that.
In any event, Paul finds a woman called Lydia who is leading a group of women in prayer, a businesswoman who sold purple cloth, a status symbol at that time. She was not a local woman but had come from Thyatira, not unlike many of our cities, including Ottawa, where people come from somewhere else, coming here to find employment and build their lives. She was already a believer in the God of Israel, and perhaps some of the other local gods and goddesses – we don’t really know. But she seemed ready to listen to Paul’s good news that he had found in Jesus Christ, how God was embodied in the person of Jesus and how the Spirit of Christ was now unleashed in the world to bring renewal and grace. Her heart was open and receptive to Paul’s words as she and her household were baptized. Paul did what he could do to make her know that she and her people were accepted and loved by God known through Jesus and that they could now live in the freedom and blessing of the Spirit of Christ.
I hope that the family who have brought Cohen today for baptism and those who have witnessed this meaningful sacrament, will feel that your hearts are profoundly stirred and strengthened by the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit, not just today but every day going forward.
Rev. Janet Hunt, an Epicopal priest in the US that I enjoy reading, speaks of how she has to remind herself everyday how to listen for the Spirit’s leading with questions such as these:
- God, how are you speaking now? What are you saying?
- What do you want me to take with me and what do you want me to leave behind?
- What am I meant to learn from this?
We are all too busy. There are a thousand ways we can spend our days, our energies, our efforts. Choices abound. In the midst of this abundance of choices, what would it mean if we simply wondered how God is speaking in the midst of all of this?
Indeed, might we then find ourselves, like Paul, called to “Macedonia,” too?
- What do you suppose would happen if we then simply ‘set sail’ and went?
- And what sorts of surprises might be waiting us there?
- Who might we meet by the river outside of town who would change the course of mission for the church and for each and all of us?
- And where and with whom might we discover and receive unexpected hospitality?
All of these kinds of questions are questions that we can bring to our prayer life both for individual guidance but also in the life on our church family.
The October Observer, 2018 tells the story of a congregation in Markham, On that was dying in so many ways and how they were reborn through rediscovering the practice of prayer, prayer that allowed them to admit their own weaknesses and vulnerability and to rely upon the grace of God to heal and direct them. Rev Connie denBok is the minister who was led on the journey of renewal in 2014 after a devastating period on their church life where in one year she buried over 100 parishioners and understandably how the sense of grief and loss challenged their leadership to live with a sense of hope and purpose.
It is not an unknown scenario in any of our churches in North America, but she describes how attendance at a Mennonite Retreat in a little Prairie town opened up her heart in a new way to let the Spirit heal and transform her, in a way that all her doctoral studies had not done. Slowly she nurtured her people in the practices of prayer, for each other, in small groups and in regular retreats and how they began to see growth and renewal in their congregation. A man who once said he did not feel welcome with us came back to visit after an absence of 12 years. “I see you got an entirely new church,” he observed. “This isn’t the same one that was here.”
So I am wondering how we are being called to grow more intentionally as a house of prayer, not thinking here of our building, but as a people, for there are many places and ways to gather for prayer. Bernice tells me how members of her other faith community, the Ghanaian Methodist church, are invited to gather weekly for prayer by conference call at a set time. So for instance we have a Facebook page here that could also be a place of prayer.
At one point in our history, Jean Black and Ruth Stutt had organized a prayer chain, where requests for prayer were given to them, but then Ruth moved away to be near her children and Jeanie had to give up this ministry as she approached 90. When a woman new to our church family offered to take up this work, Michelle Robichaud, she was not welcomed to this work. Not someone easily disheartened and as a woman open to call of the Spirit, she continued to move where other doors were open to her, becaming a licenced lay preacher and now serving her own congregation as a Candidate for the Ordained ministry in Eganville, a small town in the Ottawa Valley.
This ministry of prayer and reflection continued as a few us met on Wednesday mornings here at the church over the past 9 years but that too has had to come to an end. I feel the loss of that mid-week ministry profoundly and wonder how it will re-emerge.
However, you do not need to be ordained or licensed to share your life of prayer with others, as many of you already know, for prayers can be shared in your family, where you work, with friends in need whether in person or digitally, on the street corner, especially here where there is endless drama, or down by the river, especially in our communities where there has been so much devastation from flooding.
The other important aspect to this story is that Lydia moved from prayer to practice, in her case, the practice of hospitality, for the story says that she then welcomed Paul and his co-workers to her home after her baptism. It you were to read the rest of chapter 16 which has a most interesting story about a fortune-teller that harassed and ticked off Paul enough that he ended up getting tossed into prison and when he finally gets released from prison through the power of prayer and hymn singing, he is welcomed back to the home of Lydia. She had found that she had a special call to support those who were teaching and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We are now leaving the season of Easter in which we have been celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ for the past six weeks, learning how the Spirit continues live on through people of faith, addressing our doubts, fears and questions and being challenged and hopefully inspired to trust in the presence and guidance of the Spirit in more profound ways – to believe that we are worthy to receive the blessings and hope that the Holy Spirit brings.
Next Sunday, we will be invited to open up again to God’s creative Spirit through our hearing the story of Pentecost, sharing in the Feast of Holy Communion, and by sharing in holy conversation with each other our insights and dreams about the purpose and future of our congregation. You will be given some questions to help you discern those times of life and vitality that you have experienced through this congregation and how you sense God might be calling us as we move into the future. You are also being invited to discern how the gifts that you have, that you are will help to make our dreams a reality. Sue Mowers, Gail Moore and Patrick Wilmot will help you in the conversations known as Appreciative Inquiry.
I am tempted here to bring some of my own ideas of how I might see the Spirit at work in our neighbourhood, how daily I see so many of the needs of the homeless, addicted and possessed crying out in sharp contrast to the richness all this area offers with its wonderful hotels, art galleries, theatres, university and businesses. But I know that this needs to be your work, sharing your dreams, your gifts and strengths that God is calling you to listen to, affirm and share. Who are you being called to become through the grace of God? What are the assets and gifts that our church building and welcoming church family can offer to our city?
Also, we need to acknowledge that Paul, in the story prior to today’s story about Lydia’s baptism, that Paul attempted to share the good news in several other locations, Phrygia, Galatia and a place called Bithynia but the Spirit did not allow them to do any ministry there. It is also important and okay to discern when the ministry in a particular location or with a particular group of people has run its course and the Spirit seems no longer to be supporting our work.
This much we know. Paul was open to seeing the vision God offered him and courageously acted upon it, being willing to sit and pray with even the most unlikely people – a group of women sitting by a river. So how might we be open to the visions and dreams that are ruminating in our hearts, that might be rising to the surface, that might be the source of incredible new life both to us and to others?
Our openness to God’s dreaming in us begins through making ourselves a place of prayer and so I invite to that place either through listening or by singing our hymn, MV 79 Spirit Open our hearts…..