Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 5, 2013
Acts 16:9-15; John 14:23-29
“Teach Your Children Well”
What if Lydia had decided not to go to the river on that day?
What if she had decided to not travel to the outskirts of Philippi on the Sabbath and to sit and listen to the men and women of Judea speak about their God of love and wonder?
Lydia was not a Jew by birth or practice, she was a Pagan, and while she was fascinated by this all-powerful God that the Jews held up above all other gods, she was not quite ready to buy into the faith hook, line, and sinker.
In fact, she may have been contemplating whether it was a productive use of her time to spend a Saturday morning listening to these Yahweh worshipers say prayers, sing hymns, and tell stories about this God who ruled over all creation.
She had a business to run, and the affluent men and women who sought out her fine purple fabrics would be waiting for her to open her stall in the city’s market place.
I imagine that it was difficult for Lydia to not think about the sales she was losing as she sat outside the city gates observing the Jewish Sabbath, while her customers took their business elsewhere.
What if Lydia had decided not to go to the river on that day?
Then she would have not have met Paul.
Or heard him speak about the ways of Jesus.
Or been moved to invite these people who called themselves followers of Christ into her home.
Or had her heart spread wide open to the point where she consented to be baptized herself.
If Lydia had not gone to the river that day then it may have been some other random worshiper or seeker who had their name preserved in the Book of Acts as the first Christian convert in the western city of Philippi.
But as a person of faith, I believe that Lydia was right where she was meant to be on that day, and she was having the experience that she was called to have, because she had opened her heart to God.
Lydia’s conversion is symbolic.
She was Christianity’s first convert outside of Asia Minor, in what is now modern day Europe. She was not a Jew, but a Gentile.
She was not male, but female.
She was not a poor fisherman, but an affluent businesswoman who had the means and the influence to plant the seeds of a church in a city that had no idea what a church was or why it was needed.
Lydia was everything that the first disciples were not.
Lydia represented the future of the church as God carried it outside the confines of Judea and western Asia and opened it up to the world.
I like to think that Lydia went to the river that day because God was eager for her to meet Paul.
And Paul went to the river that day because God was eager for him to meet Lydia.
I love stories of chance encounters… and I find it fascinating to contemplate how things could have gone very differently had the players made different choices along the way.
Lydia could have decided not to go to the river on that day, but it was just as likely for Paul to have taken another path, as well.
We may call it fate, but it’s in this encounter between Paul and Lydia where we see the Spirit of God at work.
In the book of Acts we’re told again and again of how the Spirit moves Paul -
first to conversion himself, and then to take the message of Christ outside of Judea to the Gentiles.
Paul is nudged and redirected by the Spirit over and over again as he travels from city to city, and it’s only after experiencing the vision of the man pleading with him to come to Macedonia that Paul travels to Philippi – a city that was outside the perimeter that the Spirit had directed him to stay within.
But this time, shipwrecks, getting blown off course, and unexpected imprisonments do not stand in Paul’s way.
It was time for something new to take root in the world.
Paul meets Lydia because he opened his heart to the guidance of the Spirit of God.
Lydia meets Paul because she did the same.
The Spirit is the advocate, the guide, the teacher that Jesus promises will descend in his place after he has ascended to God.
In John’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace I leave with you, and my peace I give to you. I am going away, but the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
There’s an old Buddhist proverb that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
All it takes is the slightest opening of our hearts to new experiences and a budding awareness of our desire to change for the better, and the Spirit of God will seep into that crack and pry us open as wide as we’re willing to go.
There are many ways in which the Spirit moves in our world.
The Spirit of God manifests in our lives in the form of human teachers –
Those who inspire us to discover our divine gifts and to take risks as we develop those gifts and learn to share them with the world.
The Spirit of God also comes in the form of teachers that we might not easily recognize.
In people who try and test our patience, our compassion, and our willingness to love.
Often it is the most difficult people in our lives who become our greatest teachers, as we learn how to live in community with those who have different beliefs, conflicting ideologies, or who just get under our skin or rub us the wrong way in a multitude of ways.
Most surprisingly, the Spirit of God can appear to us in those nudging forces that we often dismiss as something other than God’s presence in our lives:
Chance encounters, coincidental events, a gut feeling or intuition that causes us to choose one action or path over another.
Some of us are inclined to chalk these occurrences up to the randomness of the universe, to our instinctive need to find patterns of meaning in unrelated events, or to our own fears or desires manifesting themselves and influencing the choices that we make.
If we lean towards the rational and the pragmatic we can easily miss the times when the Spirit is moving in our lives.
On the other hand, if we lean towards the belief that everything happens for a reason and that God directs every minute event in our lives, then we might be challenged to explain why God would arrange for us to win the lottery or to get a good parking spot at the mall, while seemingly doing nothing to thwart the plans of those bent on causing pain and suffering in the world.
We can’t explain how God’s Spirit moves among us… or why some hearts are open to feeling and responding to God’s presence and others are not.
But even those who consider themselves to be jaded realists, can name at least some ways that they see God at work in our world.
Last week, 27 members of our Senior High Youth Group spent 7 days in New York City being the presence of God in the world.
Our teens pushed themselves miles outside their comfort zones to serve people who have had very different lives than they have had.
They met men, women, and children who have no homes, no families to fall back on, and little hope that their lives will change for the better in the near or distant future.
The teens cooked and served meals, carried heavy crates of food, washed dirty sheets, sorted through piles of fruit and vegetables pulling out what was spoiled, and played with smiling children who went home to neglectful parents and empty cupboards. The stories they heard were heartbreaking.
The work was endless. Yet the teens came back to the church where we stayed each night, rolled their sleeping bags out on the floor without complaint, and thanked God for the blessings in their lives and their chance to serve and make a difference in the lives of others.
We have much to learn from our kids.
Two weeks from today, the 21 members of our 8th grade Confirmation class will stand before this congregation and make a decision about their level of commitment to our church community and to God.
For those of us who choose to join the church as adults, it can be difficult to find time in our busy schedules to attend the required 2-hour orientation session before making the decision to join.
Even then, it’s not an easy decision to make as we consider whether we want to officially commit our time, talent, and treasure to a church when we have precious little to spare as it is.
In comparison, our 8th graders spend a year committing their Thursday nights to confirmation classes, their Sunday mornings to attending services here and at other houses of worship, and countless other hours writing reflections and spending time with their mentors, as they learn what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
Finally, each Confirmand will meet one on one with Pastor Dick, our Confirmation leaders, and their mentor, to discuss whether or not they feel ready to join the church as a member at this time.
It’s not an easy decision to make as our young teens think deeply about what they believe about God and Jesus and how they wish to express their faith in the world.
Again, we have much to learn from our kids.
The Spirit of God continues to teach us in ways that we least expect.
Through the spiritual questioning of a child, the selfless acts of a teenager, the audacious hope of a person living in poverty, the challenging behaviors of our adversaries, and the everyday chance encounters with the divine that leave us shaking our heads in amazement.
What if Lydia had decided not to go to the river that day?
What if she hadn’t opened her heart and allowed God’s Spirit to find its way inside?
What if each of you had decided not to come here to worship today?
What if you decided not to walk in the Crop Walk, or donate food to SHARE, or volunteer at Ann Marie House, or sing in the choir, or gift your time and talent to a committee, or teach Sunday School, or mentor a Confirmand?
What if you hadn’t opened your heart and allowed God’s Spirit to find its way inside?
We have wonderful and compassionate kids and teens in our congregation because they learned about serving God from watching all of you serve God.
God calls us to teach our children well, just as the Spirit teaches us well, as we learn to walk in the ways of Christ, together in community.
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled…” ….for the Spirit of God will always be with you.
Thanks be to God, and Amen.