A Sermon for 1 May 2016
A reading from Acts of the Apostles 16:6-15. We’re hearing of the travels of Paul and Silas and Timothy here. Listen for God’s word to us.
“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 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. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Fifteen years ago, 9/11 changed us. Do you remember the day? Early in the morning as many of us were just starting work, the reports broke in. In an instant our sense of security as a nation came crashing down. And in the next instance an overwhelming compassion for one another bubbled up in many of our hearts. We knew ourselves connected as we hadn’t known the day before. We were a little bit more friendly to one another because we suddenly were reminded that we all are in this together. . . . And then there was that time six years ago. The 2010 floods of Nashville. Some of you might have found yourself in a very dangerous situation. As the rain came down, so too did the defenses many often wear around their hearts. The disaster reminded this city, we are all in this together. Neighbor helped neighbor. Strangers provided for the needs of other strangers. Hearts were open to the pain each other was experiencing. In the midst of such destruction, it was a beautiful sight to see all that loving-kindness spreading across this city like a comforting warm blanket. . . . The same kind of thing often comes to pass when tragedy strikes us individually. Life throws us the kind of curve ball we never could catch on our own. We need one another – as we do each day – yet it too often takes the extremes in life for us to remember. To obliterate our sense of self-sufficiency so that we might open our hearts and minds to what might be.
We’re lucky that the Apostle Paul was open – even if it took a blinding light on that Damascus road to finally get him that way. At the start of our reading for today, we hear that Paul and his fellow followers Silas and Timothy had a whole itinerary mapped out. They wanted to go into parts of Asia. But they couldn’t. Instead in a vision, a man of Macedonia comes to Paul pleading for help (Acts 16:9). Immediately Paul set their course to head in that direction. For the first time, the message about Christ was on its way into Europe. Philippi was in the district of Macedonia which is a part of modern-day Greece. . . . Paul and his buddies had a typical pattern when they entered a new city. Usually on the Sabbath they would seek out a Jewish synagogue. They’d look for any circle or house of prayer where Jews would be gathered for Sabbath to give praise to God. For whatever reasons, the place of prayer Paul had learned about in Philippi was outside the gates of the city, over by the river. Maybe because there weren’t ten Jewish men of the city to constitute an official synagogue there. Open to finding those the man of Paul’s vision said were in need; Paul, Silas, Timothy and whoever else might have been with them were willing to venture this different course. . . . I wonder if they were shocked to find that it was a women’s prayer group they were intruding. . . . In those days, men and women most often kept themselves separated. The world was divided into women’s work versus men’s. Male places of privilege and typical spots of the women. In antiquity, whether they wanted to or not, women were obligated to keep to the home – seeing to the needs of however many family members lived there. Property of their husbands, it was suspect for women to converse with un-related men. In the spirit of Jesus who didn’t bother himself with such rules, the apostles don’t seem to care that it’s a women’s prayer circle they find that Sabbath day. Teachers sat to teach back then. And the text clearly notes that “we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there” (Acts 16:13). They were open to teaching whoever might listen.
Someone else in this story was open – thank goodness: Lydia. She’s a fascinating woman. Way back then, before women’s suffrage, Lydia was a successful businessperson. The text makes no mention of a husband. In fact, it’s shockingly clear that she is in charge of her household; for when her heart is opened, “she and her household (are) baptized” (Acts 16:15). She is open to this new message and has the authority in her household to ensure they all receive the mark of commitment as well. Further, without seeking permission from any male relative, she invites this group of foreign men to come stay with her at her house – additional signs of her independence and wealth. She’d have enough to be able to provide for whatever they needed. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth – which likely means that she rubbed elbows with the elite. Purple cloth was costly. It was a sign of immense wealth because the dye to make cloth purple, came from secretions of sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean. Supposedly twelve thousand snails were needed to yield enough dye to color just the trim of a single garment. One could either take the laborious time to milk each sea snail for its little bit of dye day after day. Or one could crush the snails completely, which of course meant that business would be dependent upon fishing daily for more sea snails in hopes that they wouldn’t become endangered or extinct. Either way, purple cloth was a luxury item. As one involved in such an elite trade, Lydia certainly must have led an interesting life. . . . One thing more we know about her was that despite any temptation to let her status go to her head, Lydia worshipped God. The word used in Acts to describe her indicates a Gentile who somehow had come to know of Judaism’s God. So she observed the Sabbath and offered her prayers. Whether or not she had spent her life searching for something more, her spirit is open to hear whatever these strangers have to say that day. She must have been so brave to even stick around when the unfamiliar band of men approached. Unhindered by fear or social customs or entrenched beliefs, she is eager to listen. She is open to whatever might come.
O for a world that lived like that. I mean wouldn’t it be a whole lot more fun? Paul went to bed that night possibly a little disappointed that he wasn’t going to get to go to the next place he wanted to. Then God gives him a totally new direction when he hears the need of those somewhere he’s never yet considered. Lydia got up that Sabbath probably thinking it was going to be like every other time she arrived to worship. When suddenly some strangers came along. The stories they told about one crucified and risen, one filled with compassion who was completely faithful to God’s mission of love; those strangers knew stuff she never could imagine but indeed God had made it so.
A seventh grade friend once sent me the following message: “I wonder what the next crazy venture beneath the skies will be.” What an incredible attitude! What a great way to get up each day open to whatever God has in store. Maybe, like Lydia, one of us is supposed to open ourselves that a whole new ministry might begin in our midst. You know, she insisted the apostles come back to her home and thus began a joy-filled church in Philippi – the first one ever in Europe! Throughout the epistles we hear that it constantly brought gratitude to Paul’s heart when later in life he thought about their faithfulness. Maybe, like Paul and Silas and Timothy, we’ve got a message within us about God’s saving grace. Maybe we’re supposed to share what we know of God’s love with someone who hasn’t heard, or with someone who knows of God but has never been able to fathom the reality that God loves even them no matter what. . . . Open to whatever comes, we’re bound to know more joy. Open to God’s presence in our midst, we need not fear. Open to each new day, even open to each other, we can trust that somehow God can take who we are and what we have and see to it that God’s will is accomplished in this world. . . . If it doesn’t come naturally, then we can pray. I mean Acts indicates that it was the Lord who opened Lydia’s heart (Acts 16:14). Maybe that was her prayer that very day: “Open me, Lord. Open me, Lord, to whatever you will this day.” . . . With this as our mantra, who knows: who knows what crazy venture beneath the skies will be next for us all.
In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, and the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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