Sermon of the Week
A Dream of a Different World
Keywords: Lydia, Planless, Purpose Statement
So this has turned into a little sermon series,
without me even intending it to.
Sometimes it works out that way.
We’ve been exploring the impact of Easter.
What does it mean for us, and for the world
that Jesus is no longer in that tomb.
The heart of Easter is the Resurrection:
the surprise triumph of Love over Hate
of Life over Death
of hope over hopelessness
and the heart of all the sermons since Easter has been how
these themes, this notion, that reality
should make a difference. That’s the idea.
And so we considered the first stories of Jesus’ new Easter world
his appearance to Mary
and then to Thomas
and then to the fishing disciples, on the beach
cooking them breakfast over a charcoal fire.
These are stories of a God who calls us by our NAME,
Who breaks through WALLS and
urges us to TOUCH and SEE this new reality for ourselves
A God who understands how we want things to go BACK
to they way they used to be,
even as God pushes us UNRELENTLESSLY
into the new, into the future.
That might have been enough.
But then we started to look at these stories in the book of Acts,
and how other followers of Jesus experienced these things, too
how THEY navigated the confusion
of the first few days and weeks and years.
So we looked at Saul,
that most unlikely of disciples,
a persecutor of the early church,
whom God met on a dusty Damascus road
and found himself RENAMED: Paul, the Apostle
set apart for new work.
And then there was last week, where we considered
that radical dream of Peter
who saw a vision of God’s radical welcome,
and the Spirit of God shared–
who would have thunk it–
even with THOSE gentiles.
Things just don’t stay the same, not in this new world of God.
So, too, our reading for today,
where Paul is trying to figure out
just how it is he’s going to go minister and serve
among those gentiles.
Where to go.
What to do next.
Are any of you Harrison Ford fans?[i]
He’s one of my favorites.
Star Wars. All those Tom Clancy novels they made into movies.
And then there’s this great scene in The Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Ford is playing that
somewhat brave, rather intrepid archeologist, Indiana Jones,
and he’s landed in quite a bit of trouble.
Pits full of snakes. Catacombs and villains with sidearms.
That sort of thing.
Into and out of this trap and then onto the next one.
Indy and his friend Sallah are on this hillside, looking over a barrier
this dirt wall thing hiding them from the bad-guys
and Indy decides he desperately needs to make a move.
They bad-guys are packing things up and will be gone soon if he doesn’t.
“I’m going after that truck.” he says and he nods
down the hill at the truck, which, it turns out,
is racing away from them,
disappearing down a dirt track.
So Sallah does the logical thing, you know,
what any sidekick would do in that situation.
He asks Indy how he’s planning to go get that truck
the one that is driving away from them rather quickly.
And resolutely, Indy replies: “I don’t know,”
“I’m making this up as I go.”
Some have said that Indiana Jones is the most consistently disorganized
reckless, unprepared, seat-of-pants hero on the screen.
“He just isn’t prepared for anything.
I doubt he packed spare underwear” said one commenter.[ii]
And that’s exactly the impression I get, sometimes,
when I read the Book of Acts:
that the disciples and apostles
are a lot like that,
making it up as they go.
The leaders of this new community,
centered around this experience of the risen Christ
don’t really seem to have much of a plan
as they prepare to take their message across the continents.
But that’s ok.
They don’t exactly have a plan, but God does.
One could say that the Book of Acts is the gospel of the Holy Spirit
the stories of how God’s spirit blew across the oceans and seas,
stirred up the sands and dirt of the countryside,
warmed the hearts of the people
and enabled and empowered the good news
to catch on like wildfire.
Today’s lesson is just such an episode.
The Holy Spirit manifests herself in a dream of Paul’s
in which a MAN from Macedonia
that’s somewhere in today’s northern Greece
— a man from Macedonia pleads with Paul to come visit.
Help us, he says.
And because they have no particular plan,
the disciples take up the task.
They set sail,
and after a few stops along the way,
places like Troas and Samothrace and Neapolis
they make it to Macedonia,
and to the city of Philippi.
where our story begins.
But here’s the thing:
We’re people who appreciate a good plan. Right?
I like to have a plan. I want to know what the next thing is going to be.
Some of us really like Google Maps,
which gives us step-by-step directions
when you’re trying to get from A to B.
Google can even tell me when there’s traffic ahead,
and suggest another way to go.
So there’s little chance I’d just venture off on my own, unscripted.
Or, to take another example,
for those of us who are charged with helping
groups of people together to get some work done,
we like agendas, you know, for meetings,
especially if they tell us more or less precisely how much time
we’re going to spend on each topic.
Then again, think about the lists we make
Grocery Lists. Plans for our day.
Some people I know like to make lists of the lists they need to make.
We like our plans.
This isn’t really a type A/type B personality point.
All of us like to have some sense of where we’re going
and how we might get there.
And as I consider my own inclination here,
I realize: I might not have fared so well in those early days of the church.
I’m not criticizing this tendency in us.
This executive function, as it is called, helps us navigate our days.
I’m just pointing out that when we come to like our plans
and stick to our plans
we then tend to be a little less nimble
when something unexpected comes up.
And, when you read the Book of Acts,
One could say that BECAUSE there was no list that Paul was following,
Paul was able to be nimble when things came up.
A man from Macedonia comes to Paul in a dream,
and the plan that came from that vision
was to find the man from Macedonia.
Ok, lets go.
But who did Paul find when he got there?
Not a man from Macedonia,
but a WOMAN from Macedonia.
Good enough for Paul.
They met. They got to know each other. They shared stories about the Love of God.
Now this story might not seem all that significant
– just one of the many scenes in Acts
in which the apostles share the message
of the love of God in Jesus
and a fledgling church is born.
But this story relates the first time the apostles made it to Europe;
and therefore it is a major milestone
in the movement of a faith tradition from a regional phenomenon
to a global one.
Had Lydia not been there, outside the city to pray;
had Paul disregarded her
as he looked for a man and not a woman of Macedonia
as directed in his vision during the night;
had Lydia not invited Paul and his companions in,
had Lydia not opened up her home,
who knows whether any of this movement of the faith
into Europe and the wider world
would have happened.
I also really love the fact that it is Lydia at the heart of this story.
Lydia, herself one of those people who
lived somewhat outside the bounds of her culture
pushing at what her community thought was appropriate.
This is a thoroughly patriarchal culture,
male-dominated culture, remember
and it was very unusual for women to operate businesses
much less to accumulate any means on her own.
But Lydia was a worker,
a merchant of purple cloth
a valuable and rare thing
meant only for the upper classes.
And she was a success.
But there’s more:
Lydia dealt with wealthy people and was likely wealthy herself.
She was able to be a sponsor, to host people in her home,
which, again, was very rare for women of that day.
She as an early patron, a benefactor of a fledgling movement.
There is no indication that Lydia was married
– I mean, she invites Paul saying, “Come to my house.”
Not “come to our house”
or “let me check with my husband
to see if he’ll let you come to my house”
but “Come to my house.”
Now, maybe it was because Lydia lived outside the bounds
of what her culture thought was appropriate
that she was able to do this unusual thing
of inviting complete strangers into her home.
Or maybe it was that, despite her wealth and status,
she was missing something in her life,
and in this serendipitous meeting with Paul,
he offers her what she’s been missing:
a faith, a hope, some true good news.
We don’t know exactly.
But what we do know, in this story of God’s sometimes wild
sometimes unscripted, often outside-of-the-box acting,
in this story, Lydia began a house church
that laid the foundation for the church in Philippi
to which Paul would later write that beautiful,
joyful letter to the Philippians
Rejoice! Rejoice! Again I say Rejoice!.
It was because of her.
Because of Lydia.
And because God sent Paul THERE,
sent to places with strange sounding names
like Troas and Samothrace and Neapolis
and, finally, ultimately, to this faithful woman Lydia
who was listening to Paul
and found her heart opened,
because of all that,
Lydia was the first of the faithful in that city. Thanks be to God.
This sort of thing happens all over this wacky book of Acts.
The wild, unpredictable, unscripted Spirit of God,
moving a people outward,
not without purpose,
not without values guiding their actions,
not willy-nilly, where they just do or say ANYTHING.
No, people are sent out of their comfortable places
with a SPECIFIC message and a PARTICULAR task:
to bear the LOVE of God in CHRIST JESUS,
and to share that LOVE
with all they meet.
So what are we to make of this story?
It’s pleasant enough;
an idyllic scene of faith and hospitality and yes,
maybe of making it up as one goes.
It’s a piece of history, sure,
how the church expanded beyond the Middle East and Asia Minor.
It reminds us that Christianity drew in people
from all walks of life and from all corners of culture.
It captures a hidden story of how God broke through
patriarchal mores and schemes.
But what really struck me was how this story captures
the ability of both Paul and Lydia
to respond to their immediate situations,
to be PRESENT in the moment,
to be OPEN to the movement of the Spirit in their midst.
Truth be told,
change happens slowly in most churches, including ours.
New things are studied and planned and voted on
many many times before they actually start.
We Presbyterians are not known for our nimbleness,
and trying to change something sometimes feels
a bit like turning around an ocean liner.
There’s good reason for that.
We want to think through things
and not be hasty
you know, we want to have some depth
about our decision making.
But does that personality trait as a denomination hinder us
from being present in the here and now,
to being responsive to what lies in front of us;
do we miss the movement of the Spirit in our midst?
That’s more of a guiding question.
I’m not sure that it does.
I think that’s our reputation, to be sure.
But we have been pondering this thought in our own efforts, here at the Kirk
as we plan to try new things, to see what sticks
to let ourselves brave possible failure
for a chance to be more effective
I’ve been proud of us as a congregation
how we’ve sought out new ideas
such as taking on Center Schools as a mission focus
and expanding our work at Cherith Brook
and expanding day camp on our lawn, of all places.
We adopted a new purpose statement
that is meant to help ground us as we free ourselves for listening to the spirit:
We welcome all
to experience God’s love as seen in Jesus Christ
through worship, authentic relationships, and meaningful work together,
and promote peace and justice in the world.
That purpose will help us listen for God
so that we can hopefully respond to the movement of God’s spirit a bit better.
But my main thought this week
was how much of our current ministry:
where things don’t go as planned
where we need to be listening to new ideas and novel plans
where we might find the guidance we need in visions
and the welcome of people who are not
quite who culture or society looks to
as those with gifts to give.
how much THAT sounds an awful lot like this world
we find in the Acts of the Apostles.
The 21st century church may find itself in a world
very much like what these first disciples and apostles found.
And the more that’s true, the more we need to be ready
for the next part of the plan,
not our plan, God’s plan.
My prayer, not just for myself but for all of us,
is that we have enough sense and faith
to get out of the Spirit’s way,
to allow to her blow
in all sorts of wonderful and unexpected things,
to keep us alive and well and changing and being faithful.
That sounds so much fun. Let’s go.
May God grant this, for God’s sake.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] The idea and use of Indiana Jones and some of the following structure came from a sermon I heard on this text from the Rev. Beth Neel.
[ii] Cara Ellison, on her blog post “I’m Just Making this Up as I Go” at http://caraellison.co.uk/travel-2/im-just-making-this-up-as-i-go/
Image credit: Dewey Webster at http://www.deweywebster.net/uploads/1/1/5/4/11545006/9357153_orig.jpg