Sermon: 26th May 2019

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Not the direction you expected, not the place you planned on, not the person you were looking for, not the house you expected to stay. That was Paul’s experience. And from it, great things happened for the early church. May we all be open to the ways in which the unexpected, or the unscheduled, or the unplanned, can send us the right way.

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We’re continuing to move through the book of the Acts of the Apostles as it tells the story of the early church – the first couple of decades after that first Easter, the time when there were no patterns, no institutions, no presbyteries or dioceses, no churches in most places, of course. There was no assurance that the church would survive, let alone succeed or thrive. Today we stand on the shoulders of the giants that have gone before us, on the inheritance of generations, of centuries of church life and experience and resources. But still, each Christian, and each congregation, and the church writ large has to listen each day to discern the message of the Spirit for this day and this time and place. So let’s look at Paul’s experience, and see how his story continues to speak to us today.

It’s a little hard to follow the story of Acts without a good map of the region where Paul traveled. We’re so accustomed to hopping around our countries and even the globe that we forget there was a day when this was more difficult. Paul lived in what we now may call the Middle East, and most of his early ministry was in the region now occupied by Syria and Turkey – Damascus, Ephesus, Galatia, and more are all in those two countries. Paul travels through this region, but he cannot act freely – he acts as the Spirit guides him, and we heard in the reading that first, he was ‘forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,’ and then ‘the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them’ to go into Bithynia, a region in Turkey. We don’t really know how Paul was forbidden, or not allowed – my suspicion would be that events occurred that made it impossible for Paul to go where he had hoped. But the critical point here is that Paul understood this as the guidance of the Spirit. He understood his life as directed by more than his own thoughts and desires, and tried to understand what happened to him as guided by God, guided by the Spirit whom Jesus had promised to his followers as the Advocate, or the Counselor. He did not dwell on the past, he did not live regretting what hadn’t happened, but lived in the present and looked for the way forward now, not a way that might have been. Can we look at our own lives, and the life of St. Andrew’s, not nostalgic for the past, not bemoaning what might have been, but seeing the hand of God even in what we did not do, and looking today to see what fresh possibility lies before us? As we meet today for the congregation’s Annual General Meeting, long-time members may think back on the days of John and Patricia Purves, or earlier favorite ministers; or some may be frustrated with the delayed search for a new, permanent minister. But those times are in the past, and neither nostalgia nor aggravation will carry St. Andrew’s usefully into the future.

Now, after being blocked in multiple directions, Paul has a vision. A man from Macedonia – from what we would call Greece, across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, where Paul was, this man appears in a vision, a dream, and pleads with Paul for him to come over across the waters and help. Paul had wanted to head north, to Bithynia, but now believes the Spirit calls him to head west. And it’s not an easy journey. “We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district[a] of Macedonia”. This is new territory for Paul. Though it will become a major region for his work, it was new then, and unfamiliar territory. But he followed the Spirit as he understood it, and ventured where he hadn’t been before. He had to find new ways of doing his work. You’ll recall that normally Paul went to the synagogue, to his fellow Jews, and talked with them about how the Messiah, the fulfillment of the ancient promises, had come in Jesus of Nazareth. But there doesn’t appear to be a synagogue here for Paul to visit. It was a Roman city, and while that doesn’t mean there weren’t Jews there, as they were scattered around much of the eastern end of the Mediterranean region, they would likely have been fewer than in Joppa, or Damascus other cities closer to their home turf. So instead of finding the synagogue on Saturday morning, where Jewish men would gather – ten, it would take, for a prayer service – instead of the synagogue Paul takes himself elsewhere. “On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.”

And here we meet Lydia, a worshipper of God and a dealer in purple cloth. We don’t really know any more about her than that and even these apparent facts aren’t totally clear. Worshipper of God probably suggests she was one of those people who was drawn to the moral depth and clarity of Judaism but was a Gentile and not a Jew, not the right tribe to become truly a Jew. At a minimum she clearly was seeking after meaning, after wisdom and understanding, for that is the search for God which draws all who think about this world and the next and wonder how to live in one and prepare for the other. And she seems to be on her own – which itself would be unusual in that day. Purple cloth was enormously valuable, because the dye to color it was made only in one area, and it came from small shellfish, mollusks found in one part of the eastern Mediterranean. So while some people assume this means she was rich, we only really know that her customers were rich, for only the rich could afford purple cloth. But people who deal in luxuries somehow usually seem to get a reasonable share of the profits for themselves as well. So likely she was a person of means. But that does not mean that wealth alone satisfied her. Money solves many problems in life – but it cannot answer the most profound questions about how we are called to live, it cannot satisfy the deepest yearnings for meaning and purpose, it cannot offer hope that sustains through suffering and pain, be they physical or emotional. Lydia was a seeker, and in Paul’s word she found what she was seeking – God’s presence in human life, God’s hope for human future, God’s love for humankind.

But there’s something else noteworthy going on here too. As a Jew, Paul was a Pharisee, before that episode on the way to Damascus that we looked at a few weeks ago. And a prayer recited each morning by observant Jews, as he was, included “Blessed are you, Lord God, that you have not made me a gentile, a slave or a woman.” And yet here we find Paul, Paul finds himself, talking with a Gentile, who is a woman. And before long in Acts he will be welcoming slaves into the infant church as well. As he will write elsewhere, Paul has determined that in Jesus the Christ – in the God that we see in Jesus — “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Last week we read of Tabitha, or Dorcas, who was called a disciple, the only woman so named in the New Testament. And this week we find the first new Christian in Greece is a woman. And other places in the Acts of the Apostles as well we see the key place of women, not only as followers of Jesus but as key figures from the earliest days of the church. This was new learning for Paul, for all those early Christians who were accustomed to a society ruled by men, with little place for women. It can’t have been easy for him, changing habits and expectations isn’t easy for any of us, and we know that the Church backtracked a lot and rather quickly, putting women back in their place and soon limiting official leadership to men – and for much of the church, single men at that. But even then no one could fail to notice the critical role of women in the church, and not just as ‘helpers’ but as leaders in teaching and caring and living out the meaning of Christian ministry and fellowship. And that role continues here as well, as your Kirk Session includes women and men, as Buwanica traveled to Edinburgh as a young adult commissioner to the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, as ministries of this congregation – the Thrift Store and Mulleriyawa Hospital, Helping Hands, and more, are led by faithful women of this congregation. Paul opened his understanding to new ways of seeing people and potential. So has St. Andrew’s. And may we continue to do so as well.

And finally, the last words of this reading, ‘And she prevailed upon us.’ Lydia offered Paul and his companions a place to stay, ‘and she prevailed’ upon them to do so. We find this verb in only one other place in the New Testament. It’s after Easter, on the road to Emmaus. Remember, how two of those who had been with Jesus are walking, and a third man joins them. When the day is late and the two men stop for the night, the third man says he will continue on, but they prevail upon him to stop. And as they break bread together, ‘their eyes were opened, and they recognized him,’ for it was Jesus who had joined them. Important as that is, we also have to recognize how the two disciples prevailed upon this man, whom they didn’t know yet, for the hour was late, and travel was dangerous, and they knew the man should rest for the evening. They extended their concern and hospitality not because they knew it was Jesus, but because they were already followers of Jesus, and they acted that out in their concern and care. So also Lydia prevails upon Paul and his companions, offering hospitality to people she barely knew, but she did know they needed a place to sleep, and something to eat. This is what Christian mission is all about – serving not those we know or those in high position – but serving those in need, whoever they are and however we may come across them. That is the mission we are called to, that St. Andrew’s lives out in the programs it supports, and that we individually are called to do in our daily lives.

Not the direction you expected, not the place you planned on, not the person you were looking for, not the house you expected to stay. That was Paul’s experience. And from it, great things happened for the early church. May we all be open to the ways in which the unexpected, or the unscheduled, or the unplanned, can send us the right way.

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