“Lydia is Listening”; Acts 16:9-15; May 5, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Lydia is Listening”
Acts 16:9-15
May 5, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1A month and a half ago the world saw a new pope elected at the Vatican in Italy. The Protestant church got its start when Martin Luther, a German monk posted his 95 reasons the church needed to change to be faithful to scripture. In the 1500s French/Swiss theologian John Calvin started what became the Presbyterian Church.

When many in the world think about Christianity, we think about Europe. However, none of these things would have happened without our story that we heard today from the New Testament.

SLIDE 4 - LydiaOur New Testament passage gives us a quick story about a woman named Lydia: “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.”

Though her story is a quick two verses, it’s an important moment in the history of the church. Lydia is recognized as the very first European conversion at the start of the Church. The Vatican, the Protestant Reformation, and even Calvin’s Presbyterianism wouldn’t have come about if Paul hadn’t followed his strange nighttime vision calling him to Macedonia.

SLIDE 5 - PaulThere are some lessons to be learned from Paul, from Lydia, and from their seeming chance encounter. These lessons can teach us about our own call to share the gospel with others.

First, Paul was a very unlikely sort of follower of Christ. He tells us in scripture that he originally persecuted Christians: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:13-14)

Paul recounts his conversion in Acts 26:12-18 “I was traveling to Damascus… when at midday along the road…I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …’SLIDE 6 - Conversion

I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

SLIDE 8 - Great CommissionPaul was given a very specific sort of call from God. In the familiar great commission passage at the end of Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples to, “go and make disciples of all nations.” However, the early church was composed primarily of Jewish people who had experienced the miracles of Christ.

SLIDE 9 - PentecostIn the account of Pentecost, the advent of the Christian church, we are told a miraculous account of a whole group of people from every nation who are overcome with the Holy Spirit and are able to understand one another even though they are all speaking in their native languages. A point that I never really picked up on in this passage is that it refers to this crowd of people as, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2:5) So while there was ethnic and geographic diversity in this group, there was not religious diversity. The call to reach all nations had somehow been translated into “the Jews of all nations.” So when Paul was called to follow Christ, he was called to open the eyes of both Jews and Gentiles.

Slide10Paul was a passionate man, so as impassioned as he was about persecuting Christians, he became all the more passionate about converting Gentiles to Christians once he was one.

He was brought to understand God’s plan for his life through a light from heaven, the voice of Jesus, and then later through visions in the night. His response, his willingness to follow where God led, changed the world forever.

Slide11It is incredible how God can redeem even those who seem the farthest off, and use them for the building of the Kingdom. Even now while I am talking about sharing Christ with others, do you find yourself falling asleep or looking around the room at others who are “better at sharing their faith”? If so, you are exactly who I am talking to.

Paul’s willingness is not the end to this story. Lydia’s openness to Paul’s gospel message is at least important as Paul’s willingness to follow God’s will. Though what we know about her is limited, her immediate responsiveness speaks to an even greater openness to God’s will. She gets it. She is a listener.

Slide12The verse labels her as a “worshiper of God.” In modern terms, she would be what we would call a deist, or perhaps even an agnostic. She is religiously unaffiliated, but questioning, open, and listening.

The reality is there are so many Lydias in this world. So many that are unaffiliated, that are looking for a truth to grasp onto. They’re looking for a way to connect. If we get out of our own way of the excuses of why we are not sharing our own Gospel witness with those we encounter, we open ourselves up to meeting these Lydias, and introducing them to our Savior.

More than just accept the message, Lydia is moved to respond. She immediately has her entire household baptism and invites Paul to stay at her home. She is all in, opening her home and her heart to what God would have her do.

Slide13If Paul had his own way he wouldn’t have even ended up in Macedonia to begin with. He wouldn’t have met Lydia, might not have made the effort to evangelize to Europe. Right before the passage we heard today, we are told that Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go to Asia. Like a GPS recalculating, he was constantly being pushed to try somewhere else.

It was not an easy thing for Paul to follow Christ’s call on his life. As Paul had previously persecuted Christians, he too found himself facing persecution. We read in Acts 14:2-7 that as he was in Iconium, “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.  So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; and there they continued proclaiming the good news.”

Slide15The important thing to notice here is that follow God’s call to preach the gospel was certainly not always easy. In fact at times it was awful and hard, but even so Paul and his companions continued on their efforts “they continued proclaiming the good news.”

God’s plan was so very different than what Paul wanted to do by his own will. While Paul tried to work his way place by place, this night time vision sent him across the ocean to a whole new area, a whole new continent.

As we seek to tell others about Christ it will be hard, and we might feel defeated from time to time, but there are Lydias in this world waiting to hear the great good news of grace, redemption, and love. If we allow ourselves to get stuck in dead ends, or defeated by those who might even hate us for our faith, we will miss out on those eagerly waiting for us to share our own experience of Christ.

Slide16I read an article this week by Presbyterian pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana called, Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour. In it she writes, “ I love the story of Columba, priest in sixth-century Ireland, who got in a rudderless boat and let God and providence take him where he was meant to be. He 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.” She continues, challenging each of us, “How are we being called beyond our carefully-considered plans and safe assumptions into something daring, unpredictable… maybe even unprecedented?”[1]

I have to admit, as someone who likes to have a plan, a direction, and a purpose, the idea of a rudderless boat seems genuinely frightening, not to mention dangerous in all the storms he likely encountered. Opening ourselves entirely to God’s will can be a terrifying proposition, it requires vulnerability, perhaps even helplessness, but it can also change the world. May we open ourselves to what God would have us do, knowing that somewhere in your life, somewhere in your path, God has placed a Lydia, who is just waiting to respond. Amen.


[1] Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour, by MaryAnn McKibben Dana http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/easter6cn/

Letter for Annual Report

Grace and Peace to you!

What a year this has been in the life of this church! There have been many transitions: from saying goodbye to Pastor Kristy, to ministering with Pastor Christine, to welcoming me as your pastor there has been quite a lot to adapt to as the year has gone on. While my involvement with this church only began in September, I cannot say enough about how blessed I have been to serve God with you these past few months. A year ago at this time, none of us could’ve predicted that Pastor Kristy would be leaving, or that I would be coming to this church, but through God’s grace we find ourselves together now.

As I reflect back on this year in the life of this church, I immediately think of the hard work this spring and summer of your Pastor Nominating Committee. They are a devoted bunch of people who love this congregation and love God. They were tremendously welcoming and allowed me to envision that this was a congregation and community that I should be a part of. I truly believe that God worked through them to bring us together.

When I started in September I was greatly impressed by the many ways that this church was already in motion, with planning for WOW in place, Sunday school already going, and all of the ongoing groups continuing to meet. I have been so pleased to see the many ways that everyone has kept up the momentum of this church; all while the leadership of the church was changing.

With all of the change that has happened here over the past year, there are many things that haven’t changed: the great number of people devoted to ministering to the children of this community through WOW and Sunday School, the warmth of fellowship at Bible studies and Mission Sewing groups, and the willingness of this congregation to show up each week to worship God in community. In these past few months I have witnessed a wealth of fellowship, a generosity of time and contributions towards mission, and a congregation willing to see the many new ways God is moving in our midst.

This congregation is also blessed with strong leadership. The elders and deacons show great care towards this church and community. They genuinely enjoy serving God together and work well with one another in decision-making. But they are not the only leaders, each member of this church leads in their own way: by offering a hug or handshake of friendship, by seeking opportunities to provide comfort to someone hurting, and by stepping up and helping out when needs arise. The Body of Christ is certainly moving through each of your actions.

I am excited to see how God will continue to use this church to speak hope, love, and joy into this community in the years to come. I am ever blessed to be here with you!

 

In Christ,

Pastor Kathleen

“As God Sees,” 1 Samuel 16:6-13, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17; June 17, 2012; First Congregational Church of Williamstown, MA

“As God Sees”
1 Samuel 16:6-13, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17
June 17, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

by Salvador Dali

Time for Children

Who can tell me what you see in this picture? [Old couple, vase, people playing instruments] What else? Did you see the picture differently when other kids suggested something different? How about in your life…are there people that seem different after you know what someone else thinks about them? In our scripture today we were told that God looks to the heart of a person rather than to their appearance. This week as you talk to your family and friends I’d like you to think about how you can look to someone’s heart, the way that they show love and care for other people and think about people differently because of it.

“As God Sees”

Who should lead? This is the question of our passage in Samuel and quite frequently the question in our day-to-day lives. Millions of dollars are spent on ad campaigns telling us who would be the right candidate for any given office: mayor, senate, congress, president. We are told why they would be the right person for the position and why their opponent would be the wrong person. Anyone who has turned on a television in the past year has undoubtedly seen many of these ads, particularly for the presidential race. Though there are discussions based on experience, and platforms, there is also inevitably discussion of who “looks more presidential.”

Some argue that John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was due in part to his ability to look better than Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential election debates. In fact many who had listened to the debates on radio said that Nixon was the better debater, but those who watched on television thought Kennedy was more successful in the debate. As Kennedy was the one elected, it’s hard not to think that his presidential appearance was a factor.

As in Samuel’s day, we have expectations of who will lead us. We feel like we know what they should look like, what sort of background and qualifications they should have. In our Old Testament passage today we read that Samuel initially goes along with these expectations, looking to Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab and thinking, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But God requires greater discernment, saying to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Samuel then passes over the seven older sons of Jesse and asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse tells him that the youngest one is keeping the sheep. Samuel says, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

The anticipation built in this passage likely carries a different meaning for a reader of Paul’s time, because they know two things:

First, someone out keeping the sheep could be quite far off, taking perhaps a few hours to be reached and brought to the place where Samuel and the rest of Jesse’s sons were gathered for a sacrifice. I can also imagine the frustration of the other brothers in first being passed over and then being made to wait for their youngest brother, who was not important enough to even be present at the sacrifice. Though the text says nothing of the brother’s objections, I can’t help but compare this image to that of Cinderella’s step sisters trying to dissuade the prince from searching for their step sister turned maid when he came searching with that glass slipper.

Secondly, in Jewish tradition seven is a number of wholeness. Jesse had seven sons that Samuel had examined. Surely the one God had chosen would be among the seven, and if not, does that mean that who ever is to come is more than whole?

When the youngest son, David arrives, the Lord speaks to Samuel saying, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

This is the one. I don’t know about you, but I envy the clarity of this declaration that the Lord gives to Samuel.

Though I do defer to God’s will in prayer, God’s desires for my life are rarely as clear as a direct “choose this, not that.” Still, this passage contains an important message that is applicable in our lives: we are told that the Lord focuses on the heart, rather than the outward appearance.

In the Hebrew, this word leevahv that is translated most often in English as “heart,” means something different from how we know it today. Leevahv can also be translated as, “the mind,” “inner soul,” or “determinations of will.” To look to one’s heart is to truly examine a person’s being, intentions, and desires. So what was it about David’s leevahv that made him so desirable as a leader?

Tony Cartledge, an Old Testament commentary author tries to answer this question. He wrote:

“Consider the significance of David’s openness—his spirit of adventure, his delight in trying new things, his willingness to let God work through him. David’s heart was not closed because his mind was not made up and he made no claim to having everything figured out. The impression we get is that David’s heart was open to the future, open to new possibilities, open to mystery, and therefore open to the spirit of God. As David remained opened to the spirit’s presence and leadership in his life, God’s spirit remained with him from that day forward. As a result, God accomplished great things through David.”[1]

Notice that David did not suddenly become older, or more scholarly, or wealthy; he was still a young, naïve shepherd boy. But God saw through the unassuming exterior and sociological context into the midst of who David was, and deemed his will enough to serve God as the anointed leader to supersede the now disgraced Saul. If we read ahead in scripture we know that David indeed has his own failings, but he was still called and anointed for God’s service. And though he was human and therefore fallible, he was still used for God’s purposes. God’s will was still enacted through David.

My sister, Amy, teaches fifth grade language arts. In order to help her students get in the right mindset for revising their papers, she has students put on “Re-vision” glasses. These are made from 3D movie glasses with the lenses popped out. She teaches that when you revise something you have written you are supposed to look at the paper with new eyes, as “revise” means literally to look at again. This is what God asks us to do, to look again, to “revise” our perceptions of one another, looking not at the external markers of how someone has been cast in this world, but rather to their heart, to their intentions, into the midst of the will of that person.

Our New Testament passage today offers us a new lens through which we may see to the heart of one another, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us listen to God’s Word together as we are reminded of our New Testament passage today from 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verses 11 through 17:

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

This passage invites us, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, to look not to what we profess about ourselves, but to what God professes about us as a part of a larger new creation. Through the example of Christ’s life, we are shown what it means to love, what it means to show care for our neighbor, and we are given a glimpse of the limitless grace of God. This call to regard one another through looking to the heart is a call for us to glimpse Christ’s transformative powers at work in one another.

I heard this story once; perhaps you may have heard it too, about a monastery. As the monks were getting older and passing away, no new monks were coming into the community and eventually there were only five monks left in their order. A few miles from the monastery lived a hermit who many thought was a prophet. As the men of the monastery discussed the bleak state of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he would have some advice. The five monks went to the hermit and explained their situation and he said that he didn’t know how the monastery could be saved. He said the only thing he could tell them is that one of them was an apostle of God. They were confused by this and wondered what it could mean. They were doubtful that one of them could be an apostle, and each wondered if it were true, who could it be? As they thought about this things began to change in their community. Because they weren’t sure who was apostle among them, they began to treat one another with a new kind of grace and respect, on the off chance that one of them might actually be an apostle of God. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect. As others from the outside visited the community, they noticed the care that the monks showed one another and some decided that they too wanted to be a part of that community. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order of respect and grace.

What would your life look like if you regarded the people you faced day to day in light of God’s grace? How would that change the person in front of you in line at the post office or grocery store? How would that change your family? How would that change this congregation?

This phenomenon of seeking God’s divinity revealed through the other is what Barbara Brown Taylor would call reverence. In her book, An Altar in the World, she writes,

“reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self–something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding…reverence stands in awe of something–something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits–so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”

This sort of reverence is what God desires when we look at one another, to look not at outside indicators of affiliation, class, or profitability, but to look to the heart. My seminary’s beloved Hebrew professor, Carson Brisson was known for a blessing that he pronounced at the end of class. It goes something like this:

We should offer each other all that we have to offer, but if we base our care on what we have to offer there is no future. We should strive not to fail each other, but we do fail each other, so if we base what we call love on the fact that we haven’t failed each other yet, we don’t have a future. There are communities that present compelling intellectual and heartbreaking emotional evidence that the claims we find ourselves belonging to are falsehood. Those communities must be heard. Love must first listen, it doesn’t have to agree, but it has to listen. However, nevertheless having listened, we do find ourselves included in, drawn to, lifted by the claim that there is a love in God’s own heart that has been given to us and that even in the failures and confusions of our own lives corporate and person, this love never fails and this love never waits for a cause. Therefore, beloved, may joy and nothing less find you on the way. May you be blessed, oh may you be a blessing and may light guide you and countless others, whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent, all the way home.[2]

This blessing speaks of a depth and breadth of love that God calls us to grant to one another. A love based not on a person’s worldly worth or perfect record, but on the beauty of lives and hearts transformed by God’s redemptive power. It is my prayer today that we all may seek to re-vision this world and each other in light of God’s great grace. Amen.

[1] p 204 Smith Hewly’s Bible Commentary

[2] Blessing by Professor Carson Brisson.