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Exodus 2.1-10

Matthew 13, selected verses

Serendipity?  Or Providence?

Second Sunday of Easter

A couple weeks ago I told my niece Stephanie the story of my very first Sunday in the second church I served forty years ago.  I was sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee around 7 am on a warm October morning when I heard an unusual noise coming from somewhere – and intermittent whoosh - whoosh.  I walked into the back yard to see what it could be, looked to the sky, and lo and behold a hot air balloon was descending onto the lawn – the church, parsonage and small caretaker’s cottage sat on about seven acres of land.  So there was some room for the balloon to land, but not be honest, not a lot.  It was one of those bright multi-colored balloons with a handful of people celebrating their successful voyage; my guess is they descended earlier than they wanted, because who aims for a church on a Sunday morning?  But they were all in a jovial mood, probably because the tradition is that upon landing, you pop a few bottles of champagne to celebrate the voyage, even if it is only 7 am.  In fact, we were offered a glass, but like I said, it was my first Sunday morning in my new church, and I didn’t think a tipsy pastor was what the congregation had in mind for their new hire.  When I finished telling her the story, Stephanie exclaimed, “What a serendipitous beginning!”  And you know, I believe it was, part serendipity, part providence, and I’ve wondered ever since – what is serendipity?  What is providence?  And are they merely coincidence wrapped in the eye of the beholder?

While I was on sabbatical, there was an opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “What Makes A Coincidence Meaningful?” written by economist Peter Coy.  And to cut to the chase of my questions, his answer is basically Yes, what makes a coincidence a coincidence, what makes serendipity serendipity and providence providence is basically the eye of the beholder.  It’s in the way we look at things.  For example, I discovered on Wednesday that I share a birthday with my colleague The Rev. Olivia Robinson, whom some of you know since she has lived and served in south-central Connecticut most of her life.  What a coincidence, I thought, two clergy who have crossed paths throughout our careers, what a happy coincidence, what serendipity!  But then along comes Peter Coy to remind us that you only need a group of 23 people in order for the odds to be 50-50 that any two of them share a birthday.  If you doubt me, ask Margie Warner and Lynette Bester!

It was surely a coincidence that Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing in that river that day when she saw in the reeds a basket with a crying infant boy.  And that she decided to take him in and raise him as her own, and that one day he would grow strong in the Pharaoh’s court and lead his Hebrew brothers and sisters out of captivity into the promised land, and this is the point, the eye of the beholder, that calls coincidence providential.  Likely with a little serendipity tossed in for the fun of it, right?

So I’ll try to keep this brief.  Here are three quick sabbatical coincidences that made me ask the question, is it serendipity or is it providence?

The first Sunday I was in Hawai’i we attended the Church of the Holy Cross in the town of Hilo.  We were in Hilo because that is where Killingworth’s own Titus Coan built a church and served and lived for forty-seven years in the 1800s; and I chose the Church of the Holy Cross because their minister is The Rev. Erik Anderson, a former colleague of mine in the Connecticut Conference.  Imagine my surprise when Erik started talking that Sunday morning about Henry Opukahi’ah, whose story is a fundamental part of my sabbatical studies.  Henry was a native Hawai’ian who, long story short, heard the gospel proclaimed by the earliest New England missionaries, decided he wanted to learn more, boarded a ship that brought him from Hawai’i to Connecticut, and began to learn about Jesus, first at Yale, then at a school for foreign students established by Congregationalists Cornwall, Connecticut.  You may remember reading about Henry in my first email to you all; the occasion for Erik’s sermon – and thank you Diane Lindsay, who put me onto this historic fact – the occasion for Erik’s sermon was that that weekend was the anniversary of Henry’s death.  The date of Henry’s death is February 17, I attended church in Hilo on February 18, and every UCC church in Hawai’i was celebrating Henry Opukahi’ah Day that morning.  I thought, What a coincidence!  There could not have been a more fitting sermon for the first Sunday of my sabbatical!  Was it serendipity or was it providence?

Later that same day we visited Hilo’s cemetery where Titus Coan is buried.  Coan’s grave – I shared a photo of Coan’s gravestone on our church Facebook page Friday – is in a special section of the cemetery dedicated to the earliest Christian missionaries to Hilo.  There was a section for the Connecticut missionaries, a section for the Massachusetts contingent, one for the Vermonters, and, surprisingly to me, one for a small band of Scots who had joined the effort in the mid-1800s.  I read some of the gravestones to get a better sense of the folks who made the journey and started the church, and came across one individual named Alexander Muir, who was born, baptized and raised in a wee Scottish Kirk in Kincardineshire in northern Scotland.  How do I know Kincardineshire is a wee Scottish Kirk?  On my very first sabbatical I did a pulpit swap with a Scottish Presbyterian minister who preached in my church in Bridgewater, while I preached in his two churches in Boat-of-Garten and Carr Bridge in Scotland.  But there was a third church in the parish, one so small it only had services once a month, at three in the afternoon every third Sunday.  And so it was that I came to preach and lead worship in that wee Scottish Kirk in Kincardineshire, where Christian missionary Alexander Muir learned the gospel of Christ, was motivated to spread the good news abroad, set shore in Hilo, and worked alongside Titus Coan of Killingworth Connecticut, to whose memory we paid our respects that February afternoon.  Was it serendipity or was it providence?

Jesus always seemed to have knack for describing the kingdom of heaven, the realm of God, in everyday terms.  Pat read just three of Jesus’ many similes to describe it:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed… it is like yeast mixed with three measures of flour… it is like a net thrown into the sea.”  Jesus knew what was most familiar, most every day to people, and he was able to open their eyes to the connections between the heavenly and the mundane.  It was no special trick; he offered the example and let his hearers draw the association.  I think this is how serendipity and providence work.  Here is the coincidence, you decide whether it is a happy circumstance or if there is something deeper in it for you.  But only you can make that connection for yourself, no one can make it for you.

On the second leg of my flight to Hawai’i, the fellow in the seat next to me was chatting up the flight attendant; her jump seat was directly in front of us.  I couldn’t help overhearing him tell her he worked for NBC Sports and had something to do with Sunday Night Football.  I thought, now there is a coincidence.  I once married a producer of NFL football who worked at ESPN; his name was Drew.  Drew married a young woman from my church named Katrina in the late 1980s; theirs was my first interfaith marriage, as Drew was Jewish.  In fact, Katrina’s mother Artricia was our long-tenured kindergarten Sunday School teacher; not only did both my girls have her seven years apart, but my older daughter Clare remained close to Artricia and invited her to her wedding twenty-five years later.  Anyway, I was waiting for a break in the conversation so I could ask my seatmate if he knew Drew, because I know folks in that business know one another.  While I waited for an opening, I got out my iPad, which has a photo of our own church on the lock page, opened to the systems page to connect to the plane’s Wi-Fi - the systems page has the owner’s name and photo in the top left corner.  He must have glanced my iPad, because, without missing a beat in the conversation, my seatmate said to the attendant, “As a matter of fact, this fellow sitting next to me married my wife and me thirty-five years ago!”  Turns out, it was Drew himself sitting next to me on the flight.  We spent the rest of the time catching up on our families and careers, and it turns out that Drew is in fact the Executive Producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football.  But to find myself sitting next to someone I married, whose family intersected with mine at several junctures, and whom I haven’t seen for twenty-five years, I ask you:  was it serendipity, or province?  I’ll let you decide.

Jesus only used the word “coincidence” once, in his parable about the Good Samaritan:  “Now, by coincidence, a priest was going down that road; and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.”  Now of course it was not a coincidence at all, because Jesus was composing the story as he went along.  But the listener gets the point:  it was part coincidence, part providence, and part serendipity that the story unfolded in such a memorable way and it is up to the hearer to decide what it means.

I told my niece Stephanie the story about the hot air balloon on the morning of my nephew’s wedding in Australia’s wine country two weeks ago yesterday.  And I told it to her because as she and I sat outside enjoying our coffee around 7 in the morning, we heard that now-familiar whoosh – and then another one, and over the horizon came eight brightly colored hot air balloons, slowly drifting overhead.  And we both took it as a good sign, perhaps a sign of grace and blessing on the bride and groom, and Stephanie said to me, “How serendipitous!”  And you know, I believe it was.          

 

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