“What then is to be done?”

Unknown Acts

Acts 21:27-39

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn

May 21, 2017

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“We walk by faith and not by sight.” So begins the famous hymn written by the poet Henry Alford over 150 years ago. One very tangible and physical way Christians have practiced this goal of faith is by literally walking a labyrinth. Labyrinths have been used for 1,000 years by people striving to grow closer to God. You can see what one looks like from above in your bulletin.  This circular design, with pathways that meander, is painted onto floors, or formed with bushes in a garden. There is one entrance and one exit. It looks like a maze but it is not a maze because you cannot get lost in a labyrinth. Your path will always lead you to the center, even though several twists and turns will surprise you by taking you right up to the center and then swerving you to the outer edge.

Labyrinths were used by clerics for a long time and so many saw them as symbols of an experience that was spiritually separate from day to day reality. But a labyrinth is more about the everyday experience of faith. It requires you to put one foot in front of the other, even when the way seems strange. And it offers the peace of knowing that, if you keep going, you will end up where you are supposed to be. Millions of people have walked out of labyrinths with their faith lifted and their perseverance strengthened.

Which makes me think about Paul. By the time we meet him in Chapter 21 of Acts he has already been flogged and jailed. He has been chased out of too many towns to count. He has wrangled with synagogue leaders and colleagues alike. In our verses he is seized, dragged and beaten. A crowd tries to kill him and he is arrested and shackled in chains. It seems like a lot of difficulty for someone who didn’t even convert until Chapter 9.

And I ask myself, as you must surely also be asking yourselves: How did he do it? How did he keep going when strangers shouted at him? How did he keep going when he was being beaten for his message? How did he keep going when even his fellow apostles were uncertain of him? It is easy to call Paul a hero and, certainly he was. But let’s not diminish him by giving him that title. Because he was also just a man.

He had fears and questions and regrets and weaknesses like any of us. We know that well from some of the things he writes in his letters. “I have a thorn that never leaves my side,” he writes. “I don’t do what I want and end up doing what I do not want,” he shares. “What a wretched person I am!,” he cries. Yes, he was a hero. But he was very much human. So how did he do it? How did he know what to do next? How did he keep going?

Few of us are facing chains and few of us, gratefully so, are as reviled as Paul so often was. But we each have a path to walk and, for each of us, it will at times be very difficult. There are disappointments and regrets. There are painful decisions and there are fears that lay us bare. How can we keep going? How can we keep going when our life looks nothing like we would have hoped? How can we keep going when a diagnosis has labeled our life? How can we keep going when we feel like we are completely lost?

Not only can we let the labyrinth be our guide and trust that, even when our path seems to be headed the wrong way, we cannot get lost from God’s plan for us; we can let one particular labyrinth be our guide. You can see it in your bulletin. It is the outdoor labyrinth at Louisville Seminary. And there is nothing special about it except if you walk it barefoot.

When you do, you realize very quickly that, while the twists and turns can concern you, there are parts of the path that are much harder to walk than others. You see, only part of that labyrinth is shaded by trees. The grass that is shaded is soft and cool to the touch. But the grass that is not under shade is completely different. It is hot to the touch and its grass is prickly and sharp. The lesson for us? No matter where our path goes, even the hardest parts, are more bearable if we will stay close under the tree.

The Bible likes to describe God as our shelter, our refuge. Psalm 91 promises that God shelters us under his wings. Isaiah says God is our shelter in the storm. Psalm 46 praises God as our shelter and strength in trouble. Whenever I read these descriptions of God, I always thought he was our shelter because he could keep us safe. And that is part of it. But maybe that isn’t why he shelters us at all. Maybe God shelters us so we can keep walking. His presence in our lives does not keep us from having to walk the path before us, even the worst parts of it. No, his presence in our lives is what makes us able to walk the path before us, even the worst parts of it.

It would be easy to say that Paul kept going because of the light that blinded him that fateful day on the way to Damascus. I am sure that recalling that moment of his life gave him courage at times. But that single moment is not what allowed him to keep going. It was not that one day of listening to Jesus that did it. It was the listening he did every day after that. And not only listening, but sharing with other Christians and worshiping.

Between his conversion and this chapter, we can hardly go 20 verses without reading about Paul gathering in prayer with other Christians, or others laying hands on him, or their sharing a meal together or singing together. And that is how he was able to keep going. He kept going because of each small step his own faith was able to take; because of each step his faith community was able to help him take. It was one foot in front of the other, just one step at a time. He was able to do it because, no matter how hard the walk, at least he was walking in the shade. Paul did whatever he could–he prayed, he sang, he broke bread, he worshipped–whatever he could do to stay close to his shelter. That is how he was able to keep going. Otherwise it would have been unbearable.

When the apostles were feeling confused they asked Paul, “What then is to be done?” And we ask the same question all the time. How do I take this next step? How do I know the next step? How do I face the path that is before me?

You do it by finding shelter. Not to keep you safe but to keep you going.

Let’s learn a few things from Paul because what he did was, in fact, very basic. He made sure he prayed: a lot. He prayed with people he’d just met. He prayed with friends. He let others pray for him and he prayed alone in quiet places. When the path was difficult he sang any hymn he could remember. He ate and drank with people who built him up and who loved Jesus as much as he did. All of these things, kept him near God’s shelter. All these things can keep us near the shade of God as well.

Because we have a path to walk, there is no doubt. And we have no choice but to walk it.  It is not just about what we might have experienced one time so long ago but about the choices we make every single day that get us closer to our shade. When God is our shelter it makes any next step bearable. In fact, God’s shade is what makes it even possible. Because, no matter the twists and turns, if we have our hearts aimed at God, we cannot get lost. Amen.