Sermon for June 12th, 2016
9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and 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. 13On 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. 14A 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. 15When 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.
First Church: Come Over and Help Us
The story is told of a lady who was rather old fashioned, always quite delicate and elegant, especially in her language. After years of persuasion, her less-than-elegant husband finally convinced her to accompany him on a camping trip, so she wrote an email to the campground where they would be staying, asking for a reservation. She wanted to make sure the campground was equipped with what you and I would call a "Porta-Potty." However, she just couldn't bring herself to write the word "potty" in her letter. After much deliberation, she finally came up with the more refined sounding "Portable Commode," but when she wrote that down, she thought even that was too much. So she started all over again, rewrote the entire letter and this time referred to the portable commode merely as the "PC". "Does the campground have a nearby PC?" is what she actually wrote.
Well, the campground owner wasn't old-fashioned at all and when he got the email, he just couldn't figure out what the woman was talking about. That "PC" business really stumped him. After worrying about it for awhile he showed the email to several campers, but they couldn't figure out what the lady meant either. So the campground owner finally came to the conclusion that this obviously refined lady must be asking about the local Presbyterian Church. He sat down and replied to her email as follows...
"Dear Madam, I regret very much the delay in answering your letter, but I now take great pleasure in informing you that a PC is located nine miles north of the campground and is capable of seating 250 people at one time. I admit it is quite a distance away, if you are in the habit of going regularly, but no doubt you will be pleased to know that a great number of people take their lunches along and make a day of it.
They usually arrive early and stay late. It is such a beautiful facility and the acoustics are marvelous; even the faintest sounds can be heard throughout the facility. The last time my wife and I went was six years ago, and it was so crowded we had to stand up the whole time we were there. I would like to say it pains me very much not being able to go more regularly, but it is surely no lack of desire on my part. As we grow older it seems to be more of an effort, particularly in cold weather. If you decide to come down to our campground, perhaps I could go with you the first time you go, sit with you, and introduce you to all the other folks (remember, this is a very friendly community)."
Going strange new places and meeting new people with strange customs is certainly a theme in today's scripture passage.
In our story of the very first church in the first century, last week our hero, the Apostle Paul, split up with his mentor and long-time partner Barnabas, and struck out in a new direction. Things immediately get worse. Listen to the two verses right before today's reading:
"6They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas."
There are several places in the Bible where we see phrases like "their hearts were hardened," or in this case, "they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit" or "the Spirit did not allow them to go." That's usually shorthand for "They got rejected." Or, "No one wanted to hear what they had to say."
Paul is at a low point in his ministry. In Antioch, things were easy. There were crowds of people eager to hear the gospel, ready to be taught. But here, now, every place he turns doors are closing. I wonder sometimes if Paul, after all these rejections, was on the verge of giving up.
All of the places mentioned in these verses are in modern day Turkey. Paul's home city of Tarsus is also in Turkey; for that matter, so is Antioch. Turkey is familiar territory...but at this point it's also kind of a dead end.
Turkey is roughly shaped like a big rectangular box. And that's Paul's problem. He's run out of cities and options. He's boxed in. Speaking of boxes, a few days ago at our Presbytery meeting in Seminole, Texas, Rev. Mike Murray led a group of pastors and elders in the following exercise:
So how does Paul get outside his box? Well, he has a little help from God. We read in verse 9: "During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, Come over to Macedonia and help us."
Where is Macedonia? It's outside the box. Turkey is in West Asia, or the Near East. Macedonia is in modern day Greece. In other words, it's in Europe, an entirely different continent, an entirely different box. And what a different box it is. Macedonia in the 1st century was a wealthy Greek city located on one of the most prosperous trade routes of its day. Its people were highly educated, well-employed, and loyal to the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods. Basically, we know that Paul is having a dream or a vision, because "Come over and help us" are precisely the last words any real Macedonian man would ever say. If anything, it should be the other way around.
Nevertheless, we read in verse 10 that, "When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them." Notice the shift in pronouns here: "we" tried to cross, God had called "us"to proclaim. Before this in Acts, it's always "they" and "them." At some point, therefore, we can presume that the author of the book of Acts has joined Paul on his travels.
The usual approach, when Paul or Barnabas arrived in a new city, had been to go to the local synagogue on the Sabbath day, talk with local Jews, from there reach out to gentiles who were already familiar with Jewish customs and practices. But Macedonia is outside the box, on a different continent that might as well be a different planet. There are no synagogues, and possibly no Jewish people either. So in verse 13, we read that: "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." Supposed. the Greek word here is νομίζω (nomizo), which means to think, consider, suppose, or...more likely...to guess randomly because we have absolutely no idea what these people do or where they do it!
Paul and his companions don't meet the Macedonian man from his vision. Instead, they meet a group of women, and one of those women, Lydia, becomes the first convert to Christianity in all Europe. Think about this: From Macedonia, Christianity spreads to Rome, and then North to what is now France, Spain, Germany, England. For a thousand years it flourishes there, after Antioch and Jerusalem and all of the Eastern cities fall. Europe becomes the primary home of the Christian movement, and then European missionaries carry the gospel message to the Americas, to Africa, Asia, and throughout the world.
We all owe a debt of gratitude...to Lydia. We are all Lydia's children.
So who is Lydia? Unfortunately, we don't know much. Lydia isn't even really a name. It's a region, an Thyatira is a city in that region. It's like saying, "Hi, I'm Texas, from El Paso." She's a seller of purple cloth. Actually, the NRSV translation sticks that word "cloth" in there, while the original Greek version just says she's a seller of purple. Maybe purple cloth, maybe purple dye, maybe purple dinosaurs...? Purple, whatever it is, is a sign of wealth and power in the Roman Empire. If she's selling cloth, she's selling Armani and Versace. She's a business woman in Macedonia, where women already had considerably more rights and privileges than further East.
Like many Macedonians, she probably has everything she needs. She doesn't need anything Paul is selling. And yet, miraculously, something happens. We read that, "the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul." Lydia and her household are baptized, while Paul and his message gain a foothold in a new continent. Later, Paul's letter to the Philippians is addressed to the growing community that began in her home.
There are so many things to glean from this story it's hard to know where to begin:
- Direction and vision often come to us in our darkest hour, when we're ready to give up.
- Success requires a willingness to actually go where God leads. It will most likely be outside the box.
- God is already on the scene long before we show up, working within hearts to connect the right people at the right time. We still have to show up.
- Because of this, sometimes a crazy random guess in an unfamiliar situation...is not a bad idea.
- I'm also tempted to say that the woman who actually shows up is a far better deal than the man who is just inside your head--but I'm not sure if that's quite what the story is aiming for...
Finally, I want to end today with a few questions:
- Who are the Macedonians God is placing in your head and heart?
- Who are the ones pleading, "Come over and help us?" even if, on the surface it seems like they don't need our help and aren't asking for it at all?
- Who are the ones outside our comfortable boxes that God is calling us to today?
Or, if you are one of the Macedonians...
- How long have you been sitting by the river, waiting for the answers to all the questions stirring in your heart?
- Will you receive God's messengers when they come?
- Will you recognize them, and recognize just how much you need to listen?
And whichever side you find yourself on
- What will you do?
- How will you respond?
- How will you be faithful, when God moves in your world, bringing continents and cultures and communities together, asking you to play your part?