Thursday, May 5, 2016

Sermon: "Looking for Lydia"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
May 1, 2016 – Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:9-15

“Looking for Lydia”

Nearly 400 years ago, a shipload of hearty souls set sail on a journey into uncharted waters across a great ocean - because they had a vision of establishing a new home and a new faith community in a new world.
The people landed on the northeastern coast of the new world, and despite the arduous conditions it took them only a year to clear land for their homes and build their church.
In their second year the people established a town government.
In their third year the town government set forth plans to build a road that would run five miles westward into the wilderness.
And in the fourth year, the people tried to impeach their town government because they thought it was a waste of public funds to build a road five miles westward into the wilderness.
Why would anyone need to go there?

The moral of this apocryphal story is that a people who once had the vision to see three thousand miles across an ocean and overcome great hardships to get there, had in just a few years lost the ability to see even five miles down a wilderness road.

In the stories of the early church, we hear about others who had visions of building a new faith community and a new world.

Last Sunday we heard about Peter’s vision where God declared all foods to be clean, opening the church to Gentiles who did not observe Jewish dietary laws.

We also heard about John’s apocalyptic vision from the book of Revelation – where he saw God doing away with this world and creating a new earth in its place, where suffering and death will be no more.

And today we heard about Paul’s visions – when a blinding light forced him to his knees on the road to Damascus and he heard the voice of the risen Christ pleading with him to change his heart - and years later, when yet another vision sent him westward with Christ’s message, and into the path of Lydia and the first European converts.

Each of these visions brought clarity to the individuals who experienced them, and helped shape the church as we know it today.

We’re all capable of having visions but most of ours are not as dramatic as these.

When we’re faced with a dilemma,
or feel trapped in a situation that we can’t escape,
or find ourselves wrestling with our inner angels and demons that continuously pull us in one direction and then another….
it often takes a vision to help us to find some clarity.
That sudden “ah-ha” moment when we see a solution to our problem,
or find a way out of our predicament,
or decide once and for all that we’re going to choose one path over another.

Whether we believe these moments of clarity emanate from God or from our own subconscious, we can’t deny the power of the experience –
the power of the moment where the scales fall away from our eyes and we wake up and say, “This is what I need to do.”

Paul had a vision that sent him to Macedonia.
In the opposite direction of where he’d been trying to go.
As we heard in our scripture intro, the vision Paul had was God’s third attempt to get him turned around in the right direction.
When Paul tried to travel within the familiar territory of Asia Minor he was blocked twice, first by the Holy Spirit and then by the spirit of Jesus himself.
We’re not told how these divine spirits impeded Paul’s progress.
Paul and his traveling companions may have encountered bad weather,
or a road blocked by fallen rocks or bandits,
or a ship that sailed off before they arrived or denied them passage for some reason.

The Spirit moves in mysterious ways,
but the Spirit attempts to move us through ordinary ways as well.

Regardless of how it played out, it was obvious that going west to Greece was not part of Paul’s vision for the newly forming church.
Maybe he planned on getting there eventually but for now it was not on his itinerary.
Perhaps he thought the closer he moved towards Rome the more resistance he would face from government authorities, and the less open people might be to embracing the teachings of a middle-eastern Jewish Messiah.

At this point, Paul was nearly 14 years into his missionary journeys.
The wide-eyed openness to the Spirit that he’d experienced on the road to Damascus had been replaced by the strategic plan of the “mission” - and the day to day tasks of establishing and sustaining multiple Christian communities.

Like our New World settlers, Paul’s vision began to shift from the distant shores to the road just in front of him.

He was already starting to accumulate letters from the churches he and his followers had founded – letters complaining about unfaithful members,
dwindling attendance as false prophets drew people away,
and infighting between members as they argued over whose gifts were more valuable, who deserved a more prominent seat at the table,
and who was not contributing their fair share to the common pool to fund the church’s mission.      (I'm sure none of this sounds familiar)

Paul may have looked to his immediate east in the hope that he’d find fertile ground for new Christian communities, and new energy, new resources, and new converts and leaders to help grow the church.

But little did Paul know, that Lydia was the one he was looking for.

After being thwarted twice, Paul heeds the Spirit’s call and heads west.
In Philippi, he stops by the riverside to tell the women gathered there about the God he loves and the community he’s building, and Lydia is there to listen.
She’s buying what he’s selling, because her heart has already been opened to God.

As a pagan, she has only a passing familiarity with the stories of Abraham and Moses and the new prophet, Jesus, but she is eager to hear more.
She asks to be baptized – to become a member of Christ’s community.
She invites Paul and his fellow travelers into her home – providing a space for them to worship and experience fellowship.
As the head of her household and as a business woman with the means to support herself, she likely gave generously to Paul’s mission and the new church they would build in Philippi.

Lydia is the poster child for the “church growth” movement.
She’s faith-full, passionate, and generous.
She hears one sermon by Paul and she’s ready to sign the membership book, fill out a pledge card, and join the Fellowship Committee, the Trustees and the Diaconate.
What church today wouldn’t love to have Lydia?

But what we should take note of is that Lydia didn’t come to Paul.
Paul came to Lydia.
He met her where she was.
On the bank of the river in Philippi.
As a seeker who was unfamiliar with church language and church ways.
As one who was longing to hear the message of God’s unconditional love, and who longed to be part of a community that expressed that love in the world.

Paul could have easily stayed in Asia Minor working with the churches he’d already established, and fretting over how to pay the bills and how to keep the flock from wandering, but he left that for others to do.
Instead he broadened his vision, and traveled into uncharted waters.

In the church today we often talk about our vision.
Our vision of our mission in the world.
Our vision of the future of the church in general and our church in particular.
Our vision of who and what it is God is calling us to be.

In our plan to restructure our church governance here in Amherst,
we were intentional about including a standing group of people who will be charged with discerning and overseeing the vision of our gathered body.
The hope is that this aptly named “Vision” group will keep us on course and focused – so all that we do as faith community – from worship to fellowship to outreach to caring for our building – is congruent with our larger goal of serving God to the best of our abilities, now and in the future.

We may still embrace the vision our churches once had of packed pews on Sunday morning and overflowing Sunday School classes,
even if this image is slowly fading into the distance in the rearview mirror,
but despite our changing culture, and the changing church,
the larger vision of serving God in the world remains.

As long as we have people living on the streets,
children going to bed hungry at night,
refugees fleeing violence and oppression,
youth being thrown out of their homes because they’re gay or transgender.
As long as we have religious extremists who kill in the name of God,
and politicians who talk more about building walls than building bridges,
the need for us to be the church in the world remains as strong as ever.

Our vision is to be a channel for God’s love, compassion, and grace.

Like the New World settlers, and the apostle Paul long before them,
we’re called to broaden our vision beyond what we see right in front of us.
To not focus on the empty pews in our sanctuaries and instead shift our view to the needs of those in our wider communities and those who reside on distant shores.

We may be looking for Lydia.
So we can bring her the love of God and add her passion and energy to our own.
But if we want to find her – and I fully believe that we will –
We need to follow where the Spirit leads - and meet her where she is.

Thanks be to God and Amen.