Monday, May 2, 2016

How Far Will You Travel?

Sermon for May 1, 2016
Psalm 67 and Acts 16:9-15

"Baptism of Lydia" via Wikimedia Commons

(Note: The first part of sermon is a monologue.)

[Put on head scarf] Thank you for allowing me to visit this morning. I have really been looking forward to traveling here to share my story with you. My name is Lydia. Although I am originally from the city of Thyatira, most of my adult life was spent in Philippi. Likely you know something about Philippi since later Paul would write a letter addressed to the house church that met there—a letter that would become part of your New Testament canon. Philippi was a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. It was founded in 356 BCE by Philip of Macedon—the father of Alexander the Great. Philippi was more of a village than a city in those days, though, until it was “rediscovered” by Emperor Augustus some 300 years later. He chose Philippi as a retirement community for retired army officers. By the time I arrived, the city had a population of around 15,000 people—a little less than your own city of Colonial Heights.

I came to the Philippi because I wanted independence. I wanted a new life. I learned the skill of dyeing fabrics from my mother, who was incredibly creative and talented. She could do anything she set her mind to do. When I heard of the vast opportunities available in Philippi, I traveled there to start my own business. Maybe that seems a lofty goal to you—since I am a woman. But somehow I knew in my heart and soul Philippi was the place for me. And I was right.

With a lot of hard work and a lot of prayer—my business took off. Purple cloth was my specialty. I, along with some family members and other women who worked for me—extracted the purple dye from murex shell fish. It was hard work—back-breaking work—and it was a trade considered “unclean.” Still, it was a lucrative business because purple cloth was a luxury item only the wealthy could afford. That’s how I was able to be in charge of my own household. That’s how I was able to have my own property—instead of be someone’s property. 

In business, I was successful but I knew that my success was not my own—I knew that God was the source of it. God put the notion in my head to travel to Philippi. God helped me get my business going. God helped me choose good workers who would help things go smoothly.  Even though I was not born a Jew, God put a Jewish woman in my life who shared her faith story with me. Through her I came to know and love God—not one of the myriad other gods the people in Philippi worshiped—but Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Jewish law required 10 Jewish men to make a synagogue. But in the Greek city of Philippi there were not 10 Jewish men to be found. Greeks, however, experienced places of “living water” as holy. So since we could not gather in a synagogue, as was the custom of the Jews, I, along with other women believers, gathered by the river to pray on the Sabbath. There we found comfort. There we found strength. There we found community. But in my heart of hearts, I yearned for something for which I had no name…I yearned for something more...

One Sabbath when we were at the river’s edge, a man came along—he and some others. At first I thought they were just looking for a place to pray, too, but then they actually sat down and started talking to us about God. Jewish men—talking to mostly Greek women—well that was unheard of. Paul, the apparent leader of the group, began to tell us what had brought him to Philippi. He told of a vision he had of a man from Macedonia pleading for help. Then Paul shared his own story of faith. He once persecuted people who believed in Jesus. “Who is Jesus?” I asked. “Jesus,” Paul responded, “Jesus is the Messiah, the Righteous One, the Son of God who came into the world to set us free—free from fear—free from tyranny—free from all that keeps us bound to darkness and despair.” Paul went on to tell about his conversion on the road to Damascus. He told us about God’s own Spirit that came to live in the heart of every baptized believer. In that moment I knew that God had once again provided what was most needed—God had sent a witness to travel many miles for me—for us. Eagerly I asked to be baptized—me and my entire household. Oh what a joyous day—when Christ washed my sins away—there in the river where I had come to pray.

Life for me was forever changed. I implored Paul and his traveling companions to come and stay in my home while they were in Philippi. It was the least I could do after they had traveled so far to share such good news: Good news of the love of Christ. Good news of the power of the Spirit to transform lives. Good news to save people lost in darkness and sin. In the days that followed I continued to learn from Paul’s teachings. Others learned about these men of God who were staying in my home. People came to hear and many believed. Eventually, my house became a house of prayer for Christians throughout the area.Together we began to learn about becoming believers in community—we devoted ourselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread and prayer. We praised God because day by day the Lord added to our numbers those who were being saved.

I have traveled here today to share my story with you. We, who go by the name “Christian,” have a story to tell.  I hope you, too, will be a messenger of the good news so that more people may be added to God’s family here on earth. [End monologue by removing scarf.]

The story of Lydia’s conversion—what a wonderful story. Truth be told we do not know much about her. We know she was a successful business woman who was probably a non-Jew who had somehow been drawn to the Jewish faith. We know she was a person of means because she had a home large enough to house several visitors. We imagine she had some influence in the community because she had contact with the elite. We do not know for sure if the Philippian Letter Paul eventually wrote was sent to a church that met in Lydia’s house—but it seems likely.

The story of Lydia’s conversion has captured the imagination of many down through the ages. Allow me to share a poem that resulted from such pondering. Written by Holly S. Morrison, it is entitled simply, “Lydia.”

The purple wouldn't wash off. Still,
Stubborn and savvy as ever, she planned her path
past market stalls, walled gardens, city gates
past the buzzing, glittering temple,
to a place outside: a praying place.
She went down to that dirty river and
prayed for the soft golden skin of her youth,
the bangles jangling on slender wrists,
the traceries of henna,
painted lines of prettiness and praise--
She prayed with hardened hands for better days.

She went down to that rough-edged river and
prayed for the soft smiles of all her servants,
so deft and deferent, so smooth and skilled
she could not quite learn whether she'd
earned—or merely bought—their trust--
She prayed with oil-rubbed skin and the taste of dust.

She went down to that deep old river,
where other praying women met her, held her, heard her.
She prayed for the soft hollow of her soul,
the empty ache under the fine fabrics of her trade,
like a weeping burn, all bandage-bound.
She prayed at the river, where the women gathered.
She prayed at the river, where men seldom wandered.
She prayed at the river till a stranger prayed with her,
and the purple folds of her heart fell open
and the stains of her trade no longer concerned her
and she opened her house to apostles and pilgrims
there at the river,
there at the fringes,
where the Spirit weaves through
and the floods bring fertile ground.

By the river’s edge, Lydia met Paul—Paul who traveled thousands of miles to share the good news. As you look back over your own life, how far have you traveled? Have you gone out of your way to tell someone about Jesus? Have you used your talents and resources to spread the gospel? In the days and weeks and months and years ahead, how far will you travel? You may have an opportunity to travel across the seas to a faraway country to tell someone about Jesus. That would be incredible. But if you do not, there is a mission field right outside our doors. In our own community, there are people who do not know Jesus. There are people who are unaware of their desperate need for the transforming love of Christ. There are people who claim to be spiritual but not religious. Some people have lost interest in institutionalized religion. Others have been hurt by Christians and have no intention of ever darkening a church door again. Regardless, we have an obligation to them. They are children of God and we have been commissioned by Christ himself, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[i]

We are all called to go and share the good news of Jesus Christ. But we never go alone. Christ’s Spirit goes ahead of us to prepare the way—to open hearts to listen just as Lydia’s heart was opened. She was ready, willing, and eager to hear the story Paul came to share. We all have a story—a story about the difference Christ has made in our lives. Why do we tell it so seldom? As a church, is our only evangelism strategy to wait for them to come to us? Are we glued to our pews? Have we been struck dumb? We can talk about the nonsense of the world ad nauseum. Why do we resist talking about something as important as our faith in Christ our Lord? Our love of God the Father? Our dependence on the Holy Spirit?

Over the summer we will have many opportunities in small groups as well as in worship to continue this conversation. We will speak often of that dirty E-word: Evangelism. It is my prayer that God will bless us as we learn new ways to share our story. But we won’t stop here. We will learn and we will go and we will do. Because there are still people like Lydia who are waiting—waiting for good news. May God allow us to be the ones who bring it!

[i] Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV.

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