We begin a new series today, Faces of our Faith. We’ll look at individuals throughout the Bible – often overlooked – but for the most part ordinary people following God. Folks who don’t get a lot of press in the world of sermons and bible studies, but whose lives and faith are worth revisiting. Each week, our preachers – and there will be 3 guests in addition to Ken Pennings and I – will focus on one character and what we might gain from their walk of faith.
Acts 16:11-15 (NRSV)
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 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. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.
One of the most historic places in all of Christianity lies on a little island off the western coast of Scotland. For centuries, Iona has been a place of pilgrimage, and it has been a place of spiritual export for that same length of time. Through many different eras and through many different iterations, Iona has been a place to which people journey to connect with God, and from which they travel having been inspired and convicted. Its current expression, at least in an organized way, consists of the Iona Community – an ecumenical group of people who run a retreat center but as a dispersed community are centered around social justice, worship, gender equality, and youth development. I had the privilege interacting with the community members and staying on the island in the summer of 2004. Their worship resources are used worldwide, including here in our church.
And it was all pretty much a mistake, or certainly unplanned. There is a lovely story/tradition about St. Columba, a priest in sixth-century Ireland, who got in a rudderless boat (to be honest, he was spared death and convicted of exile – so he really had no choice but to leave) and let God and the winds take he and his companions wherever he was meant to be. Columba made landfall once, but decided to push out again because he could still see his homeland on the horizon behind him. The second place he landed was Iona, the island where Christianity touched Scotland for the first time.
Eventually, Iona became the most important center for the evolving Christian faith; and Columba became a most important figure, in both Scotland and Ireland. In Glasgow, yesterday (June 9), the current day Iona Community celebrated Columbafest with music, arts and talks – including one on the ‘three Marys’ (virgin, bossy and prostitute) and another about prophetic women!
God working through the wind is nothing new. As one of our Pentecost hymns reads, “Wind who makes all winds that blow, gusts that bend the saplings low, gales that heave the sea in waves, aim your breath with steady power, on your church, this hour. Raise, renew the life we’ve lost, Spirit of Pentecost!” (New Century Hymnal)
If the God of Creation ‘breathed life into us” with a holy wind, and if Pentecost is a time when a holy wind breathed new life into the church, there is a lovely synchronicity here in our text from Acts 16. For it is through a God breathed wind that we see the beginning of the church on the European continent.
Today’s text centers on the character of Lydia.
Having been ‘refused by the Holy Spirit’ to teach and preach in Asia, Paul has a dream/vision about a man asking, pleading with him, to sail to Macedonia. And so, he does, which is against his stated plan and his previous itinerary. Through harsh winds and harsh people, Paul is not able to go where he intended, but instead heads in the opposite direction.
Among other descriptors, we read that Philippi – the city where they land, is a “Roman colony.” This is where the Empire was powerful and popular. This was the heart of the Empire’s project in this corner of the world, a place that lived like an extended section of Rome itself, intended to be an example of what Rome offers the world.
Though the team apparently wastes no time in getting to the city, the mission still requires patience. Not much happens for a while. They were there for “some days” (just how long was that?). The appeal in the vision is urgent, and the response to it is immediate; but the results are not seen right away.
Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. He had imagine sharing the good news of Jesus with leading religious and political men. Instead, it is with a group of women gathered at the river that they first connect. Especially with this woman we’ve not been introduced to before in the text – Lydia. To those reading the text closely, we note that she is from Thyatira, in Asia, where the Paul had intended, but could not go. The surprises and ironies continue.
Lydia listens, and is touched, converted actually. She was among those called “God Fearers”. The Jewish Orthodox Bible suggests this is really another word for those who ‘revere’ God. This was the name given to people who were not Jewish but who were so intrigued with the God that the Jews worshipped that they lived their lives as if they were Jews. Indeed, most “God Fearers” followed all the Jewish laws except for circumcision.
Her faith becomes immediately active: she is baptized along with her whole household, and she opens her home. If we are attentive to the details of the story, this act of hospitality is huge. John Dominic Crossan has repeatedly written about the fact that what distinguished the Jesus movement from it’s surrounding culture was the open table. Here, both Lydia and Paul are defying custom, and more important, the empirical social norms that define power, status and access. Defying customs meant to keep people in their appropriate class, to keep power in the hands of the empire.
Paul went looking for men in leadership, men with relative power. Instead, what is put in his path was the radical and boundary stretching faith of a woman.
We read that Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth. Apparently, it took thousands of mollusks; tiny little crustaceans…shellfish to create the dye; and one had to crush and treat thousands of them just to make enough dye to make a yard or two of purple cloth.
So it was very expensive, worth its weight in silver. Wearing purple was a statement of status and wealth. Lydia is selling purple; purple cloth, purple robes, the power of purple. This ironic twist on power and royalty would not have gone unnoticed.
It is intriguing that this text is the story of Christianity coming to Europe. For congregations like ours, i.e. predominantly white and of European descent, this is our origin story.
And for all the problems of our history, this story highlights that the first act of discipleship of a Christian convert on the European continent is not proselytizing, and it’s certainly not a crusade or an inquisition. It’s hospitality, giving of oneself. It is redefining definitions of community in a Roman colony.
And central to it all is the fact that Philippi in Macedonia wasn’t part of Paul’s plan. He thought he had a good idea of where he should go next—Asia—but God intervened and took him on a wild adventure the likes of which he couldn’t have imagined.
In late 1991, I was scheduled to visit a church in Schenectady New York for an interview to be their solo pastor. Airline tickets were bought, accommodations were arranged. A few days before the trip, I got a call from the search chair saying my visit wasn’t necessary. The committee had decided, on the spot, to go with another candidate the previous weekend. They were able to refund the tickets for travel vouchers. “I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but maybe you and your wife can use the airline voucher for a nice trip somewhere together anyway.’ I was miffed and confused, but now in possession of vouchers for two airline tickets.
Fast forward to March of 1992. Tammy and I were scheduled to travel to Fresno for a similar interview for their associate position. A few days before the the visit, Tammy’s grandmother died. In addition to that, her parents asked if I’d lead the funeral on the weekend we’d planned to visit Fresno. This time I had to call to back out. This time there was no refunding the tickets. There was sadness, but when I asked about rescheduling, they said, ‘sorry, we can’t afford to buy a second set of tickets.”
Well, thank you Schenectady! Using those vouchers, we rescheduled Fresno, made a visit, fell in love with the church and spent 7 beautiful years as a young family.
Wind that makes all winds who blow…
When we think about the people of faith, the faces of faith, that inspire us, it is in the details, isn’t it.
The Roman controlled Macedonia instead of Asia
Waiting for days, wondering…
A God fearing woman instead of a group of prominent men…
A bull headed missionary who wasn’t adverse – at least sometimes – to changing his plans
A simple, but radical act of inviting someone into the home.
Earlier this week I heard African American pastor and Judge Everett Mitchell asked, on a podcast, ‘if you could talk to any two people in the world, who would it be? One alive and one deceased. I assumed he’d say something like Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama. Those would be two on many of our lists. But Everett took it in another direction. The deceased person he’d like to talk with was Rachel Corrie – a 23 year old American woman killed in 2003 during protests in Gaza in southern Israel. She was protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes by the Israeli Defense Forces, and lost her life when she stood in front of a bulldozer. In a visit to Israel/Palestine earlier this year, he came to hear how Palestinians of both Muslim and Christian faith continue to see Rachel’s simple action as one of life-giving love and solidarity.
Who inspires us? What are the details that rise in the stories of those paving a path for our walk of faith? So often these lives that inspire us are full of surprising turns, but a detailed and committed embrace of what God has put in one’s path.
Acts of compassion, hospitality and solidarity that at the time may seem small and unnoticed.
Where are the winds of the Spirit guiding us? In what ways is that guidance asking us to practice radical, custom defying hospitality? Empire withstanding acts of social witness? Asking us to be patient when we are ready to go?
May we, like Paul and Lydia, like Columba and Rachel Corrie, like our mentors and guides, welcome the winds that blow in our life and may we respond with reverence and hope. Amen.