Scripture Lesson: Acts 16:9-15
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
In her book, A Big-Enough God: Artful Theology, Sara Maitland, known mostly as a fantasy fiction writer, has this to say: “So, it turns out, we do not have a little tame domestic God, thank God, but we do have a huge, wild, dangerous God – dangerous of course only if we think that God ought to be manageable and safe; a God of almost manic creativity, ingenuity and enthusiasm; a Big-Enough God, who is also a supremely generous and patient God; a God of beauty and chance and solidarity.” [Resources for Preaching and Worship Year C: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers, eds. Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, p. 159-160, quoting Sara Maitland, p. 150]
We see this God portrayed by Maitland in the story that we heard this morning from Acts; the story of Paul and Silas going to Macedonia and finding Lydia and others praying by the river. There are so many things in this story that are unexpected, wild, and generous. There is beauty and chance and surprising solidarity. [Maitland]
First we start with Paul and Silas who were busy going around what was Asia Minor meeting with people in synagogues and telling them about Jesus as Messiah. They were heading to Asia to do this work for God. But this plan is immediately scratched when Paul is given a vision of a man telling him to go to Macedonia, today this is Greece. Europe. Not Asia. So we see Paul and Silas dealing with a wild God that is giving unexpected direction.
In the vision a man tells Paul he is needed in Macedonia. The man is pleading, begging. The need is urgent, dire. And Paul gets to Macedonia, to the city of Philippi and finds not an eager synagogue of people hungry to hear of Jesus Christ, but a group of women, outside of town, praying together by a river, headed by a rich Gentile woman. OK. This is all wrong.
Paul is a rabbi figure who was used to sitting down to teach men not women. And this Lydia woman? First we note that Lydia is not Jewish. She is not coming to the way of Jesus through Judaism as many others have. She is a God -fearer, someone attracted to Judaism and its one God, but not born a Jew; not ethnically Jewish. She is a Gentile woman. Then we notice that she is not in any way identified by her status relative to a man – wife, mother, daughter. No. She is portrayed as an independent, self-sufficient, successful business woman who is in charge of her household. That is not a “thing” in the ancient world. And her business, this dealing in purple cloth, means that she is directly involved with important, powerful, wealthy people because that’s who was allowed to wear purple cloth and who could afford purple cloth. Purple cloth was dyed with coloring from a snail that was found in Thyatira where there was a town named Lydia. Was that this woman’s name or just where she was from? We don’t know. But purple cloth was sold to a very limited very wealthy market. So Lydia was used to dealing with those who were rich and powerful. Thus she herself had power and influence. This is completely unexpected in that context.
So, here are these unlikely characters in this story, Paul, his associate, Silas, and Lydia and her household and friends. Paul shares the good news of Jesus Christ in this unlikely setting (where is the man he saw in his vision?), and Lydia responds by having herself and her household baptized. Remember, she is the head of household, bizarre as it is, so she has the authority to make this decision for those for whom she is responsible. All are baptized, and then, as if to provide evidence of the validity of this baptism, Lydia asks Paul and Silas to stay at her house, she offers them hospitality. She is offering a test, proof that the baptism is authentic, that she is sincere about living a new life emulating Christlike behavior. In this gesture we see the mutuality of life in Jesus and we see the validity of the baptism. Paul has preached and baptized and Lydia immediately responds with the Christian virtue of welcome and hospitality even to those vastly different from herself – men, from a lower socio economic class, and from another country/region. She is welcoming the stranger. So both Lydia and Paul respond to the directives of the wild God of the unexpected.
The first convert to Christianity on European soil is not a man of influence, or a man that is downtrodden. It is not even a man. It is a woman of wealth, power, and influence. This is ironic when you consider that the church in Europe was dominated by men of wealth and means who intentionally prevented the leadership of women. This story is rich in irony and surprise. Isn’t that the way with the wild, unmanageable, almost manic, supremely generous and patient God? The God of beauty and chance and solidarity? [Maitland]
Paul and Silas put themselves at the disposal of God thinking they had some idea of what would be expected of them. Even they were surprised by what God had in mind for them in this story. Did Paul ever think he would be in Europe, Macedonia, the home of Socrates, Plato, Alexander the Great, Homer, sitting on the ground by a river talking to a group of women that he would then baptize in that very river? He could never have anticipated this even though he was in the Lord’s service, a slave to Christ Jesus.
And Lydia. She probably came to pray with these women every week. They were sincere in their devotion. Clearly she knew there was more to life than making money and amassing power and influence. It was not enough to be the head of the household. She knew that she had hunger for more than food. We are not told anything about the heartbreak or suffering she may have been living with. But do we know that she, like all people, had spiritual needs that could not be satisfied by material comforts. She was looking for meaning and a sense of being part of something beyond herself. She was looking for a larger reality; something beyond the borders of her cultural setting and her daily life. Perhaps she was looking to tap into a universal source of grace and love for herself and others. And in Paul’s message she hears of a God of all reality. A God of love for all people, rich, poor, and in-between. Healthy, sick, and in every condition. Liberal, conservative, and all the rest. Asian, European, male, female, and every other sort of person. She hears of that God in what Paul had to say about Jesus and his ministry, his vision of the realm of God here and now. Evidently, it was all Lydia could have hoped for and more. And so it was into the river for her and her household and rising up to this new life that she had yearned for.
Whatever state we are in, physically, spiritually, emotionally, financially, whatever our needs, even though we may not know what they are, God is here, seeking us out, offering us grace and love. And it may be hard for us to recognize because it is coming to us in the most unexpected fashion, involving the least likely people we can imagine. And when we say yes, and yes again, and yes again, this trust puts us in situations we may find extremely unexpected and transforming.
On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember those who have been killed in the armed services. It is a poignant day. A day of grief. It’s not easy to willingly recognize the horrible toll of war and armed conflict. And war is not only perilous for soldiers. Families, elders, and children are killed in war as well. Refugees forced to flee war torn areas die or are killed. People who need healthcare and food die because the resources are diverted to armaments. Memorial Day is a time to remember the terrible toll of war. And if we are open to it, if our spirits are pliable, this remembering can open a space for the God of love to offer forgiveness, healing, and a way to peace. Many avid peace activists have lost someone in war or have personally served in armed military conflict. They know the price of war firsthand and are willing to pay the price of peace whatever it may be. Memorial Day for us can be like Lydia going to the river. Going with her needs and desires and opening herself to being surprised by God. Then saying yes to the wildness of God. Under God, in whom we trust, may our annual Memorial Day observance move us ever closer to peace through non-violent resolution of conflict.
The story of the encounter between Paul and Silas and Lydia and her household reminds us that we can’t control God, the unmanageable, huge, and wild God of almost manic creativity, ingenuity, and enthusiasm. [Maitland] But we can position ourselves to be open, to be receptive, to be willing to welcome that God into our lives. Lydia went to the river each sabbath to pray. We can prepare ourselves by practicing our faith – coming to church, praying, serving others. We can make ourselves more receptive by reading the Bible and other writings that inspire and illuminate life and who we are. We can learn and seek and trust and engage. Then to the God present in our lives, we will say yes, we will go on the journey, we will take the plunge – whatever it may be.
This story shows us that God, the wild, unpredictable dangerous God [Maitland] is not only a God for people who are poor and suffering and downtrodden. This is a God for everyone and all forms of life and all that sustains life. Christianity is not limited to serving those who are materially disadvantaged, those who are abused and forgotten. Christianity is a spiritual path that is welcoming to everyone – in all states of growth as well as all lifestyles, experiences, and income levels. It is open even to those who are causing, knowingly or unknowingly, abuse and injustice. This is not a religion that assumes that material wealth is a sign of spiritual well-being. In fact, many people with lots of money seem to be more despairing, more lost, more awash, more in need morally and spiritually. So many people with material security are unsatisfied and lost. The country with the highest Gross Domestic Product, United Arab Emirates, ranks 20th in the World Happiness Report. In case you are wondering, the US ranks 18th. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Happiness_Report] Money doesn’t necessarily mean happiness. This story of Lydia shows us a God concerned with the well-being of everyone, those who are well off in some ways, those who are disadvantaged; all who suffering and broken hearted as well as those seeking a deeper experience of human life.
There was a survey done of Presbyterians in the 1990’s about their experience of God. Half the church members said they had had a vision from God. Yes, half. And an even greater percentage of clergy admitted to having had a vision from God. [Cited by Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews at Sermon Seeds 5.26.19, https://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_may_26_2019] Some thought the results of the Presbyterian survey were surprising. The numbers very high.
I must say, the statistics for the congregants surprised me but not for the clergy. When you consider the stressful, demanding, challenging nature of the profession of ministry, even given the rewards that satisfy beyond measure, it is still surprising to me that people go into this field, including myself. I had in mind becoming a lawyer and working for those who don’t get justice in the court system – people of color, people of low income. But one Sunday morning, walking back to my dorm after the service at the Wellesley Congregational United Church of Christ, I had a vision that if I made one person feel the way I felt that Sunday morning after church, I would have served my purpose. That is what I was supposed to do with my life. I was to enter the ministry. The message was strong and clear. No ambiguity. After that there was no turning back. And I have not regretted it, well, at least not very often.
In the Presbyterian survey, half of the lay people also reported having had a vision from God. Why is that surprising? Isn’t that what we come here for each week? Isn’t that why we are part of the church? We are trying to open ourselves to God. Cultivate a willing spirit. Trying to make ourselves more receptive to grace and love. Looking for a word of healing, forgiveness, comfort, and hope. We want to be part of the Divine reality that we see in the ministry of Jesus. We want to be part of the vision of the God of love and new life.
So, whoever we are, rich, poor, broken, solid, happy, regretful, God is seeking us. And in God our deepest hungers and desires will be fulfilled. But this may very well all happen in ways we least expect and involve people we never thought we would meet and couldn’t have imagined in our lives!
May we open ourselves to taking our part in God’s visions and dreams. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.