A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 16, 2012
Acts 16:11-15 GNT
On an autumn day in 1986, I stepped into a Walden’s Bookstore in the Golden Triangle Mall in Denton, Texas. It was one of those periods in my life when I was feeling somewhat restless; I was searching; feeling like I was not where I really wanted or needed to be in my professional life and ministry. In short, I was discontent. I was searching for something to read that day, and while browsing through the literature section of the bookstore, a book title jumped out at me. The title of the book was The Winter of Our Discontent. The author was John Steinbeck. Now, I had read a couple of Steinbeck’s short stories in college, but I had not read one of his novels. By chance, during a period when I was feeling discontent, that book title caught my eye. I pulled it from the shelf and read the back cover and decided to buy it. I loved the book so much I went back to the bookstore and bought Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, one of the great American novels. Then his East of Eden, and then his Of Mice and Men. I was hooked on John Steinbeck, and all because of that chance encounter at that Walden’s Bookstore on a day when I, myself, was feeling discontent.
Well, over the course of the next few years, I was to read just about all of John Steinbeck’s novels. Then in the early 1990’s, when it came time to settle upon a Master’s in English literature thesis project, it didn’t take me long to decide what I wanted to write about. I decided to study and write about the nature of man in all of John Steinbeck’s book-length works. So I ended up reading all 17 of John Steinbeck’s novels and novellas (most of them for the second time), as well as dozens of books and articles about Steinbeck and his writings. For months I lived, breathed, and slept John Steinbeck. The end result was a Master’s thesis titled “The Nature of Man in John Steinbeck’s Long Fiction.” Now, why am I telling you this? Other than the fact that I love John Steinbeck? Simply to point out how my one, small “chance” encounter in that Walden’s Bookstore and pulling The Winter of Our Discontent from the shelf was the first step among many that somewhat altered the course of my life.
“Chance” encounters. I chose the passage from Acts because of the chance encounter that Paul and Barnabas had with Lydia in Philippi. The encounter occurred during one of Paul’s missionary journeys. Lydia, it is believed, was a Gentile who was sympathetic to Judaism, what was sometimes referred to as a “God fearer.” As a seller of purple cloth, Lydia was a woman of means. Lydia was sympathetic to the Christian message that Paul and Barnabas preached, and she and her entire family were baptized into this new faith. Because of the encounter between Paul and Lydia, Lydia became the leader of a Christian community in the city of Philippi. Who knows how many lives were changed because of Paul’s chance encounter with Lydia? And what impact did Lydia and her family have upon the development the of the Christian church in Philippi?
And under the umbrella of religious history, all kinds of chance occurrences and encounters resulted in drastic changes for the world. Martin Luther’s being knocked to the ground by a nearby lightning bolt led him to become a monk and later the powerhouse behind the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterian-Reformed theology, was diverted en route to Italy by a road closure because of war, which caused him to detour through Geneva, Switzerland, where he was led to become a leading reformer and Geneva became the center of Presbyterian and Reformed theology. Universalist preacher John Murray, who had come to America for a new start after being excommunicated from his church in England because of his Universalist ideas, vowed to never preach again. But by chance the ship he was on ran aground on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey. Murray went ashore in search of provisions and met a man by the name of Thomas Potter. Now it just so happened that Potter had built a chapel on his property and was praying and waiting for an itinerant preacher to come his way that he could persuade to preach in his chapel. After much cajoling, Potter finally convinced John Murray to preach for him and his neighbors in his chapel. Murray preached on universal grace, and it was just the kind of message that Potter had been waiting to hear. Thus was the birth of the Universalist Church in America. All because of a chance encounter between Murray and Potter.
Some of the best things that happen in the world happen because of chance encounters or chance discoveries. Many medical miracles that all of us depend upon—such as X-rays, penicillin, and the blood thinner Coumadin—were the result of chance circumstances.
Chance encounters happen to all of us. A book we pull from the shelf. An article we read in a magazine or journal. A chance meeting with someone who proves to drastically impact our life, becoming perhaps a best friend, or a spouse, or someone else who is responsible for turning our life in a whole new direction.
So here is the point of the day: Chance encounters hold the potential of being moments of profound grace. And by “grace” I mean opportunities for our lives to be blessed and impacted in a most profound and positive way. Perhaps grace as such is when Divine favor or the good gifts of the universe intersect with our human need. The experience of grace is sort of like when you are in a dark room or dark shed and in need of light which comes streaming in through the cracks in the walls. A chance encounter or moment of grace may not lead directly to where we want or need to go, but it may serve to open up our minds and/or hearts to a path or world we may have never considered before.
But for chance encounters to become moments of grace, we have to be open to them. Or to put it another way, we have to practice “mindfulness.” As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “our effort is to practice mindfulness in each moment—to know what is going on within and around us” (Living Buddha, Living Christ, 14). It is to be awake to the possibilities of the present. Surely it must be that we miss so many opportunities that could turn out to be moments of grace in our lives because we are not open to and mindful of what is going on within and around us. There is that book we come across at the bookstore or on the library shelf that we have the urge to pull off and read, but we don’t. There is that person we encounter who could hold possibility for imparting some wisdom or exerting some positive influence in our lives, but we don’t give them the opportunity to make themselves known to us. There is the opportunity to attend a class, lecture, or continuing education event that could possibly open up a whole new world to us, but we decide it is not worth the effort. And so the chance encounter that could have resulted in a positive outcome is not welcomed, and the possibility for a moment of grace is thwarted.
Now, this is not to say that we should become obsessive about every little detail of our lives. That is not what I am suggesting at all. But it is to say that most of us could practice more mindfulness and openness to the world around us than we currently practice. And if I don’t watch myself, I can be one of the world’s worst when it comes to mindfulness. Sometimes I can be so task-oriented and focused on some end result that I forget to live in the present moment. I think life requires a balance.
Returning to John Steinbeck, one of his most quoted lines is “Men do change, and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass.” Life is about change, isn’t it? Positive change. But in order to experience change, we must be open to it, and open to the grace that holds out the possibility of positive change invading our lives. And often those graceful moments that might lead to positive change in our lives are hidden in life’s “chance” encounters. Amen.
Cited: Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.