Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 7/9/2017
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. (Acts 16:6-15, CEB)
I was a trumpet major at ONU and got my music degree in 2015. When I was student there, I had to take lessons every week from my trumpet teacher, Dr. K. Every week, he would assign me exercises or etudes or pieces of music to practice that week. By the time I was back in his office for my trumpet lesson the next week, I was expected to have at least improved on everything he’d assigned me.
Beyond that, all music majors had to perform at least one solo piece per semester during the weekly recital hour we had. In my senior year, I had to perform an hour-long senior recital, so I had to prepare all of the music for that. And it takes a lot of music to fill an hour-long recital.
Needless to say, all of that added up. So to accomplish all of it – to keep improving every week in my lessons and not make a fool of myself on stage – I had to place myself in a practice room every day. On a good day, I’d be in there 2-3 hours total because it took a lot of work. There was a lot to accomplish, so I had to put myself in a place where I could accomplish all of it.
That basic concept is true for all of us. When we want to accomplish something, we have to put ourselves in a place where we can actually do that.
If we have a class or test or exam to prepare for, then we have to put ourselves in a place away from distractions and plant our butt in a chair so we can study.
If we want to lose weight, then we have to somehow place ourselves away from candy and place ourselves in a gym for a few days per week.
If we want to get promoted in our job, then we have to place ourselves at work on time everyday so that we can get all of our work done.
In a way, Paul and his companions in that story we read together have to do the same thing. Paul and his companions are out on their second missionary journey around the Mediterranean.
They travel around modern-day Turkey, not landing anywhere for long. For some reason, the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Jesus keeps them speaking and holds them back from doing any missionary work in any of those areas. So they’re wandering to and fro; I’m sure they’re about fed up with this.
But they get to a place called Troas. It’s on the western side of modern-day Turkey, on the other side of the Aegean Sea from Greece. While they’re there, Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia. He’s pleading with Paul to come over with his companions and help the Macedonians.
I picture Paul looking at the rest of the group, wild-eyed, saying “We have to get to Macedonia!” And I imagine them feeling relieved. Finally they’ve heard a response from God, finally they have direction to where they can go where they can engage God’s mission again.
As they set off, we can tell that they know clearly what their mission is, how they can help the Macedonians. After the vision of the Macedonian man, the writer of Acts says, “we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
They know what they’re called to do. They know why they’re going to Macedonia. And they know what they’re going to do there to step into God’s mission there.
So they cross the sea to a place called Philippi. We might be familiar with the book of Philippians later in the New Testament – that’s Paul’s letter to the church in this same place they’re traveling to here. But the letter was written later on. At this point in the story, the Gospel hasn’t reached the city yet.
The author of Acts tells us “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer.”
Again, Paul and his companions knew what their mission was, they knew what they’re going to do in Philippi. That vision of the Macedonian man was God calling them to bring the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection to the people of Philippi. It was God’s call to tell Philippi and all the people of Macedonia that death has been defeated, that brand new life is available to us right now, that forgiveness and acceptance are available to all through the grace of Jesus Christ.
So they were faithful to God’s calling and placed themselves at the river.
Paul and his companions knew there might be “a place for prayer” there at the river. They thought there might be people here by the river, and they might be open to their mission to proclaim the good news there.
So they found a group of women gathered there. We can assume they were there for prayer. So Paul began to talk with these women. We don’t have details of their discussion, but I imagine Paul talked to them about Jesus Christ and the Gospel.
One of the women there – Lydia, a Gentile God-worshiper, which meant that the she worshiped the God of the Jews but wasn’t a Jew herself – she heard the good news proclaimed by Paul and God enabled her to accept it. So she and her household were baptized.
So in a nutshell, this is what Paul and his companions did: they put themselves in a place for God to use them for God’s mission.
They knew their mission, prayed about it, and waited for God’s response – which they received. So they placed themselves at this river because they believed they could best accomplish God’s mission there. And look what happened: after Lydia and her household were baptized, they most likely started the Philippian church in her house and the church eventually grew to such importance that Paul’s letter to the Philippian church found a home in what is now the New Testament.
All because Paul and his traveling group put themselves in a place for God to use them for God’s mission.
So God calls us to do the same thing – to put ourselves in a place to be for God to use us for God’s mission.
There’s a guy I know who’s now the worship coordinator at a big UMC in Ohio. But I worked with him during my internship at Fort McKinley church during the summer of 2012, where was in charge of Worship Ministry and Community Ministry. A few years before I came, he applied for that job. But before he knew whether not he’d gotten the job, he and his family moved to Fort McKinley’s neighborhood, just a block away from the church. He said that whether or not he got the job, he believed in the ministry that Fort McKinley was doing in that neighborhood and he felt called to be a part of it, whether as a paid staff or a volunteer.
He put himself in a place where God could use him for God’s mission. He moved into that neighborhood to engage God’s mission in that place.
Let’s get specific for who we are. Within God’s larger mission, the mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How are we as the Alger First congregation doing on that?
The Community Outreach Center we built together a few blocks down Main Street is a beautiful witness to that. We wanted to put ourselves in a place where God could use us in new ways to accomplish God’s mission. Before I came here, you saw that a regular church building like we’re in now proved to be a barrier to us stepping into God’s mission. So you put yourselves in a new place in addition to this place so that God can use you in new ways for God’s mission here in Alger.
But here’s the difficult piece of the picture. It’s no secret that the church in the US is in decline. New generations aren’t present in Christian congregations like they have been in the past. The church’s influence throughout this whole country is declining, giving is decline, and many are leaving the church. Understandably, there’s a lot of anxiety about this all over the place.
That big picture is reflected here in this specific place. The congregation here at Alger First has been in decline for many years. Now that’s not a secret, even if we don’t really talk about it. We can see that there aren’t as many people here on Sunday mornings and not as many people in Sunday school as there used to be.
This decline can be seen in other areas besides attendance. Faith Promise giving toward missionaries and mission projects through our annual Missions Conference has been in decline for at least the last decade, and it’s declined $10,000 since I started here in 2014.
Now there could be any number of reasons for this decline. We follow the pattern of churches around the country, so we’re certainly not alone in this. It’s also no secret that the village of Alger itself is in decline. But whatever the reason, this is a gloomy picture.
But no matter what the numbers say, I am convinced that God is not done with us. God is not done with Alger First UMC. God still has work for Alger First in this village. Our mission still stands: Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There is no reason to give up on that. But to do that, we must place ourselves somewhere different than we are now.
Now when we think of putting ourselves in a place where God can use us, the first thing to come to mind is a physical place, a physical location. That’s certainly an important element of what I’m talking about, but it’s not the only element. When we talk about putting ourselves in a place where God can use us, this could also refer to a mental, emotional, and/or spiritual place. It could mean any number of places.
The question for us is this: How can we place ourselves to be used by God for God’s mission?
Like I said, this congregation’s giving toward missions has been declining for a while. So maybe we can put ourselves in a different place in relation to our finances; maybe we can find ways to give more and sacrifice some of our resources so that God can use our money and resources for God’s mission.
Maybe we can place ourselves on social media to be used by God. I know that seems like a very small thing and pretty weird, but the truth is that’s where the world is now. If we want to put ourselves in a place where God can use us to accomplish God’s mission, maybe that means that we put ourselves on social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. – so that we can engage with the world in God’s mission.
We also can’t ignore that younger generations don’t have much presence in the US church. So maybe we can put ourselves in a place to be used by God for God’s mission by placing ourselves in the lives of younger generations. Invest in your kids or grandkids. Ask Lori Dyer, our youth director, how you can help with Alger First’s youth group. Find ways to pour into the life of younger generations.
Here’s a strange but cool idea – find out what younger generations listen to and watch. Start listening to Top 40 radio and find out what specifically your grandkids listen to and watch online – Spotify, Youtube, Netflix. Then listen to and watch that.
I know it sounds weird, but this is one way we can go about putting ourselves in a place where God can use us for God’s mission. I’m not saying we have to like all of it. But we must put ourselves in a place where we can understand who we want to reach. This means we must change and try something new.
So let’s make that our question for this week. How can we put ourselves in a physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual place to be used by God to accomplish God’s mission?
As always, remember this isn’t a job for each of us as individuals. This is a question I want all of us to ask ourselves and each other as a whole congregation. This is a question I want us to pursue together as a whole congregation. How can we put ourselves as individuals, as families, as a congregation in a place to be used by God to accomplish God’s mission?