Easter 6 C 2019

Easter 6 C 2019

Texts: Acts 16:9-15

          Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

          Psalm 67

          John 14:23-29

“On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” Acts 16:13

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your heart, O Lord, my strength and redeemer.  Amen.

The date was Sunday, March 13th, 1938.  Hitler had entered Austria looking to expand his empire.  The headline in the New York Times read, “Austrian Jews seek a parley with Nazi’s; Leaders plan conference to learn their future.”  In what was truly one of the darkest times in history people around the world wondered if the Jews had any hope for a future.

Anne Czmmermann, a young kindergarten teacher from Vienna, knew the chances for a future with her fiancé, a young engineer by the name of Ernest Brauner, were slim.  You see, Ernest was Jewish, and although his family were not practicing Jews, Jewish blood flowed in his veins. He would never be safe as long as he remained in Austria.

Anne and Ernest fled Austria, left everything and everyone they knew, to escape Hitler’s murderous and maniacal plans.  Ernest traveled over the Alps into Switzerland and then went on to Cuba. Anne sailed to New York and was later to meet up with Ernest in Havana.

Before Anne was able to join Ernest in Havana, a chance encounter on a street corner in Manhattan changed her life and as a result changed the lives of hundreds of others as well, including mine.

I have been doing a lot of driving this week, over 1200 miles in fact.  All that time in the car gave me a lot of time to think. Much of what I have been thinking about concerns chance encounters, especially chance encounters that are life changing.

In today’s reading from Acts we have such an encounter.  Paul experiences a vision of a man pleading with him. “Come over to Macedonia and help us” the man tells Paul.  Macedonia is modern day Greece and going there was not on Paul’s radar screen. He did not have plans to go there and preach or teach, he did, however, have plans to go to Asia.  But God had other plans for Paul.

In discussing the vision with his companion, Silas, Paul becomes convinced that God is leading them to Philippi, a major city and Roman colony, where they are to proclaim the Gospel.  While in the city of Philippi, on the Sabbath, Paul and Silas look for a place of prayer and beyond the city gates, by the river, they meet some women who were praying.

Among them is a woman by the name of Lydia.  Lydia was unusual for her day and age. Lydia sold purple cloth to the rich and famous. She owned her own home, ran her own business, hobnobbed with the elite and powerful.  All of these things put her in stark contrast to women of that era. Some women who were married to a wealthy man had social prominence running the household but here Lydia had her own household, one that belonged to her and not a husband.

All of these things were very unusual.  

Lydia was also someone who admired the Jewish faith enough to try and follow it, but without officially converting to it.  Because of this admiration, this curiosity, we are told her heart is open to listen to Paul and all he has to tell her about Jesus.  Lydia, as a result of opening her heart, also opens her home to Paul and asks him to stay with her until he plans his next steps.

God leads Paul to Philippi and as a result meets Lydia.  Lydia, being open to God’s leading, goes with others to pray and as a result of meeting Paul, she and her whole household are baptized and the gospel is introduced into Europe.   So, is this really a chance encounter?

Let us fast-forward nineteen hundred years.  Young Anne Czmmermann sails to New York and stops a woman on the street to ask for directions to the Office of Refugee Registration.  Anne did not know much English and had never been to New York. Anne was literally just off the boat and at the mercy of everyone. The woman who Anne stopped, whose name was Mrs. Scott, took the time to listen to Anne’s halting English to try and understand what Anne was trying to communicate.  

Mrs. Scott looked at the sheet of paper Anne had with her and was pointing to.  It gave the address of the Office of Refugee Registration. Mrs. Scott suggested Anne take a taxi.  Anne explained that she had just gotten off the boat and that she had no money to do that. Mrs. Scott, looking at the address said, “That isn’t all that far away.  Let me take you there.”

In the walk to that address something amazing happened.  Mrs. Scott was so taken with this young Viennese woman that she offered to become her sponsor so that Anne could stay in America.

After they got to the office and Anne registered with the Refugee Committee Mrs. Scott, who was the wife of a Presbyterian clergyman, takes Anne home so that she might have a place to sleep and to eat.  To make Anne more comfortable Mrs. Scott asks her son in-law, who was fluent in German, to come over and act asa translator for them. Anne’s English was poor, but Mrs. Scott’s German was even worse.

The son in-law’s name was the Rev. Mr. Harrison and he was an Episcopal priest.  It just so happened that Rev. Harrison and his wife were looking for a nanny for their two young children and here was Anne, a kindergarten teacher from Germany.  He offered the position to Anne who would take it, but not before traveling to Havana to try to find and marry her beloved Ernest. They did find each other as they had promised each other in Austria, and they married in Havana.

In September of 1939 Anne and Ernest returned to the United States having been granted Refugee status.  They returned to the Harrison family and lived with them in Virginia, where the Rev. Mr. Harrison was now a rector, until Anne and Ernest left for St. Louis several years later.

Why St. Louis?  Ernest, the engineer, used to work on engines back in Austria and he remembered that the engines had stamped on them, “Century Corporation-St. Louis, Mo.”  Based only on a name and their trust in God, Anne and Ernest headed west. But they had with them a letter of introduction from the Rev. Mr. Harrison to his friend from seminary, the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis. This priest in turn took them in and helped them find some housing and a job; he helped them get on their feet and gave them hope for a new beginning.  

As a result of opening her heart and her home to Anne, Mrs. Scott gave a young couple the start of a new life.  As a result of opening his heart and home to Anne and Ernest, the Rev. Mr. Harrison paved the way for this couple to get on their feet and begin again.  And as a result of the rector of St. Peter’s opening his heart and home to this couple, an amazing gift was given to the community twenty years later.

Anne and Ernest, in thanksgiving to God for all that had been done for them, had become Christians and in September of 1959 they literally laid the foundation of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.  Anne Czermmann Brauner was my parishioner and I have never met a woman of deeper faith and love.

Was Anne meeting Mrs. Scott a chance encounter?  Was my coming to St. Louis, becoming a priest, and being called to St. Matthew’s where I met Anne a chance encounter?  I don’t know how you would answer those questions but what I do know is that because of the kindness and love shown in Jesus’ name to a young refugee in 1939, my life was changed in 2007.  

Every encounter has the possibility to be a vehicle of holiness and love.  Every encounter can be shot through with grace and the flourishing of new life.  Paul did not know that speaking with the women at the river would result in the baptism of Lydia’s household and the opening up of the gospel to Europe.

Mrs. Scott had no way of knowing that her willingness to take the time on a busy street corner in Manhattan to listen to a young woman’s halting English would result in the founding of an Episcopal Church in 1959.  

The Rev. Mr. Harrison had no idea that his offering shelter and a job would change the lives of a young Viennese couple and give them the opportunity to grow in grace and love and offer that same grace and love to hundreds of others who walked through the doors of St. Matthew’s.  

There is no such thing as a chance encounter.  There are only encounters which hold the chance to share God’s love with the world in word and action.  Take that chance, my friends and know that in doing so, you are changing the world.


Robin Whittington