Robert L. Grabill. Director of Religious Educaiton
Acts 16: 9-15
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
United Church of Christ
For eight weeks this spring, starting at the beginning of Lent, a faithful group of nearly 30 members of this congregation met every Sunday afternoon for Bible study, listening to Professor Fred Berthold’s Socratic dialogues. In the course of those weeks, we had lectures, questions, and spirited conversations. Fred sang occasionally. We discussed the Bible from the standpoint of historical and literary criticism. It was not for the faint of heart. Having ascertained that there are no vulnerable children within the sound of my voice, and trusting that they will not think to access the printed copy of this meditation from the narthex in the coming weeks, I can liken Fred’s impact to that of discovering that there is little empirical evidence to prove the substantive physical existence of Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. As parents know, once the truth is out about one member of that trinity, the other dominos fall quickly. So in Fred’s care we absorbed the likelihood that Joshua may not have brought down the walls of Jericho, and David may not have slain Goliath, and the Exodus, such as it was, may not have occurred with a Charlton Heston-like figure standing on the shore of a perfectly-parted Red Sea, while a Hollywood cast of thousands scrambled across a
bone-dry causeway. Parents know that Christmas and Easter can sometimes be even richer after the kids have learned the nuances of those allegorical figures, and it seemed that the increased knowledge of the Bible after Fred’s class had concluded may have left room for even stronger faith.
Anthony Robinson, a UCC Pastor and prolific author, says that even after deconstruction, the Scriptures can be powerful and transforming. There’s a good reason why they serve as the basis for weekly worship. Robinson says that on occasion “…the Scriptures have the power to mediate the presence and power of God. Not always, to be sure, but often enough, the texts function like the wardrobe door of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories. That is, they open onto another world and another dimension. They reveal God to us. Moreover, they reveal us to ourselves. They give us a new world and a new understanding of the present world.”
The post-resurrection world we have been talking about over the past six weeks was a time of challenge and conflict for Jesus’ apostles and the growing community of belief. It is a challenge for us to understand the way the Christian church came into being, and what that means to our church. But sometimes the story is clear and compelling, and that gap is bridged in a way that makes it possible for us to hear God’s voice with few limitations.
Today’s passage from Acts opens with the Apostle Paul experiencing a vision that directs him and his traveling companions, including Silas, to “come over to Macedonia and help us.” This is a hugely significant turning point in Paul’s second missionary journey. Following his spectacular desert conversion by the Holy Spirit, dramatically and memorably re-enacted in this space by our Sunday School thespians three years ago, and starring if memory serves one of today’s ushers, Paul had traveled on his home turf, sailing to Cypress and then to Asia Minor. After great success in building and energizing churches, preaching mainly to fellow Jews, he returned to Antioch, in Syria. After a Jerusalem Conference with Peter, James and the elders which confirmed the importance of converting both Jews and Gentiles, Paul began a new mission which took him first to many of those same churches, and then, guided by the Holy Spirit and the voice of a man in Macedonia, now called Greece, to Europe.
Bringing the Word to Greece was a big, big deal. The emerging Christian church had been largely local, and it was going global. It had been a ministry that had sought the strengthen the convictions of practicing Jews, and it now entered Europe, and deep into the Roman Empire, with the intent of including Gentiles. And the first convert, the person who would host and nurture Paul’s beloved church in Philippi, was a woman named Lydia. There were a number of women who were instrumental in the formation of the church, both before and after the life of Jesus. There are iconic women in the Old Testament, and in many instances, as in Proverbs, divine Wisdom is given female form. Let me make a case for Lydia to receive more prominence than she may have had heretofore. She stands out in this story for a number of reasons. Listen again to the one verse which introduces her; “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the City of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.” It is significant right away that she is not introduced in terms of her husband. She is either divorced or widowed, most likely the latter, and operating on her own very successfully, as a merchant and the owner of a home. Remember that when she later invites Paul to stay, it is to “her” home, and with “her” household. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth, and that’s significant. Purple cloth in Roman times was sold to and worn by the most powerful and the most wealthy. In the course of her career as a dealer in this fine cloth, Lydia would be rubbing shoulders regularly with the elite. Some scholars paint her as wealthy, which is significant. The gospels did not always deal kindly with individuals
who were rich. Remember Luke’s admonition about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven? Yet Luke, both in his own gospel and in narrating this story in Acts, shows that the wealthy are not automatically barred from salvation. Jesus redeems Zacchaeus the tax collector, and despite her wealth Lydia’s love for God is the first attribute which is used to describe her. Although Paul’s words compels Lydia to be baptized, it is the Lord who opens her heart to the words. Immediately after she and her household are baptized, the first Christians in Europe, she urges Paul and Silas to stay with them. That verb “urged” is important. It is only used twice in all of Luke’s writings, and it conveys urgency and even more. This is more than “can you stop over after church for juice and cookies?”. She is opening her home to them under the shadow of the threat of the same Roman rule that took Jesus’ life and threatened all insurrection with death. The only other time in Luke’s writings a stranger is urged to accept hospitality was on the Road to Emmaus, when two disciples prevailed on a wise traveler to stay with them. When Jesus broke bread with his disciples that night, their hearts burned with recognition as they recalled
his ministry. Their hospitality, overcoming their post-crucifixion fears, paved the way for their belief. In Philippi, Lydia, her heart opened by the Lord, urges the strangers to stay and the Christian church in Europe is begun.
Lydia’s hospitality was not a one-time occurrence. Paul and Silas stayed in Philippi, and worshipped again at the place of prayer by the river. Later in their visit they were jailed for healing a mentally ill slave girl, whose fortune-telling had brought her owners a great deal of money. Her owners, angry at the loss of the source of their income, had Paul and Silas thrown into prison. You may remember what happened next. There is an earthquake at night, and everyone’s chains are unfastened. Paul and Silas have been praying and singing with the prisoners, and they remained in jail, sparing the life of the jailer, who was ready to take his life for having failed in his duties. He is so moved, he asks Paul what he must do to be saved, and is baptized along with his household. Another Gentile conversion. Paul and Silas are subsequently released from prison, and return immediately to Lydia’s house. There they see and encourage the brothers and sister there, and resume their journeys. Eventually, as you know, Paul will travel to Rome, and his church will become our church. It is clear from his second visit to Lydia’s home that it has become a site of regular Christian worship and fellowship. Lydia’s love for God has informed her invitation, underscoring the adoption by Christians of one of the world’s oldest virtues, that of hospitality.
Our national United Church of Christ has for years been planning a new initiative entitled Faith Practices, which will be available to local churches in the fall. Many staff members and lay volunteers have been canvassing UCC churches and asking them for their “best practices”. What are they doing in the lives of their churches that works? What elements of worship, of outreach, of stewardship, or congregational life are bringing their congregations closer to God and the fulfillment of God’s charge to walk together in all of God’s ways.? The UCC will be providing resources to churches for study, for worship, for teaching and programming, aimed at all ages. They have identified 24 faith practices, and will be rolling these out over the next six years, four practices per year. Now if you’re like me when you hear the list, you might be thinking, “Well, hey! We’re already doing that, and doing it well”. And we may be right. And it may be rewarding for us to get the affirmation to learn that some of the best practices suggested by the UCC are already our best practices. And we might also learn some new ones.
The very first of the four faith practices being introduced next year is Giving and Receiving Hospitality. What a coincidence. The oldest thing that our church has done well has become new again. Now as I have said, I believe that this congregation already practices what is preached, and perhaps does particularly well in the area of hospitality. Many of us wear our name tags regularly. Thanks to Carla’s helpers Emma and Richie, and the other little peeps in the front rows, we pass the friendship pads, and that information is studied carefully and acted upon. Our members are warmly open to new faces. In addition to welcoming strangers, we are proactive in extending our hospitality outwards in dozens of ways. CCDC Cares. That’s a noun and a verb. Within the last few months a few dozen members of the congregation, led ably by Ann Bradley and Amy Stringer, have offered hospitality to our own members. These generous volunteers have helped others with a variety of small but significant tasks. They deserve the gratitude of us all for making this community closer. But I think the real heroes here are the ones who have asked for the help. The UCC best practices emphasize giving and receiving hospitality. This was the case with Lydia and Paul, where hospitality was a two-way street. God inspired Lydia to offer her home, but without Paul’s willingness to accept that help, the church in Philippi may have had a different history. We see God’s grace in the helpers, but just as much if not more in those who seek help.
Congregational vitality is a function of movement. It is offering to care, and having the grace to ask. It is learning to be open to new ways of giving and receiving hospitality. It is learning new ways to hear God’s word in scripture that has survived our deconstruction, and that of countless generations prior to ours. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Thanks be to God.