The Power of Listening
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Sixth Sunday of Easter Year C
The Power of Listening
Gracious God, through a vision you sent forth Paul to preach the gospel and called the women to the place of prayer on the Sabbath. Grant that we may be sent like Paul and be found like Lydia, our hearts responsive to your word and open to go where you lead us. Amen.
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.” 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.
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.
All readings for this Sunday:
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9
1. How does it strike our ears differently when a woman (instead of a man) in the Bible makes a decision for her entire household?
2. How do you discern God’s will for your life?
3. When have you ever encountered obstacles on the path you thought was right, until you found the path God actually wanted you to take?
4. Who are women who have been “mothers” in the church, bringing new life and energy to its mission and ministry?
5. How do you imagine the life of Lydia before and after that day by the river, when she met Paul?
by Kate Matthews
There are some times when it’s easier than others to figure out what God wants us to do and where God wants us to go. After Paul, with his new traveling companion Silas, had completed a tour of the churches he had already founded on his first trip, they decided to strike out into new territory.
However, the verses immediately preceding this week’s passage tell us that the “Spirit of Jesus” prevented Paul and Silas from going to Asia to preach the gospel (even though they seemed inclined to do so), so they headed instead to Macedonia, that is, to Europe. How did they decide on Macedonia? Paul had a vision of “a man of Macedonia” asking him to come, delivering a clear message from God, or at least that’s the way Paul understands it.
A note about geography and history from Paul Walaskay, who tells us that here “Asia” doesn’t refer to what we understand as Asia, but to Asia Minor. By going to “Europe” (certainly not as we understand France, Germany, etc., but the easternmost part of Greece), Paul and Silas embarked on their “challenging mission in the cradle of western culture — the home of Homer and Hesiod, of Socrates and Plato, of Aristotle and Alexander the Great.”
Reversing the path of Alexander
The journey of the great evangelist, then, is the opposite of that of Alexander, who left Macedonia to bring the Greek language and culture (along with war) to much of the known world three centuries earlier; Paul, of course, is bringing something much better, Charles Cousar observes: the gospel of Jesus Christ. (In his commentary, Cousar also gives very helpful historical background about the importance of Macedonia in ancient history.)
But the journey is not simply to “Europe”: as Walaskay describes it, Paul’s missionary activity takes him “from Judaism’s religious center into Greece’s intellectual center, and eventually to Rome’s political center.”
A most unlikely convert
If there is something of the unexpected in Paul and Silas’ decision to go to Europe rather than Asia, then there is also a most unlikely candidate for First Christian Convert in Europe: Lydia, a Gentile, and a woman at that. After all, it was “a man,” not “a woman” of Macedonia who summoned them there.
Lydia seems to prompt all sorts of speculation on the part of commentators. Some think she had children and even a husband, along with her servants, all of whom she brought to baptism (whether they wanted it or not, we might wonder). Others say she was single, and still others say she may have been a former slave, but most agree she was now wealthy, and used to dealing (literally) with wealthy people, who were the only ones both able to afford, and permitted to wear, the purple cloth she sold.
A woman in charge
We’re used to hearing in the Bible that powerful men made decisions for their households, but does it strike our ears differently when a woman does so? And how ironic is it that much of European Christianity has long prevented women from being leaders in the church, when the first European Christian was a Gentile woman?
There is definitely something of the unexpected for us in this text, and it makes our patriarchal church history even more perplexing. When we think of the countless women whose works and stories are untold, we wonder what has been lost to the world, and how those women themselves have suffered. I believe it was Maya Angelou who said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Gathering down by the river
Reading only the lectionary passage, however, keeps us from hearing that this period in the ministry of Paul is actually “framed” by this woman, Lydia. The first part of the frame is set when Paul and Silas go looking for devout Jews in Philippi to whom they might preach the good news of Jesus Christ, and they wait until the Sabbath when they’re sure to find an audience among those gathered in prayer.
Is there a synagogue? If so, it’s a humble one, and probably just a gathering of folks down by the river, ready to pray and listen for a Word from God. (We’re reminded of new church starts that begin in unlikely places: bars, coffee shops, karate studios.)
People outside the gate, on the margin
It seems, again, that these devout, open-hearted people, thanks to God at work in their midst, are women, which somehow doesn’t surprise us in a book written by Luke. However, the ironic note is hit again: people outside the gate, people on the edge or the fringe of social acceptance, people who are not traditionally given a voice or a place in the life of organized religion, are often most open and, perhaps, most in need of good news.
The audience may be unexpected, but so is Paul’s behavior: since when do Pharisees sit down with women to talk about faith? (We wonder if Lydia herself was surprised.) This is one of those surprising and intriguing passages that provide a fuller picture of Paul, who is at times remembered as less than supportive of women.
The great conversation of faith
If Jesus came, as he said in the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, to proclaim good news and the year of the Lord’s favor, and we carry this good news, like Paul, to all the ends of the earth, wouldn’t those on the fringes, those outside the gate, be hungry to hear what we have to say?
And could it also be that God has surprises in store for us about who’s included in the circle of God’s grace, and who’s part of the great conversation of faith?
Acts is just full of small moments like this, and big stories as well, from our earliest, earliest Christian ancestors. Yes, they had many of the same prejudices and unjust, exclusionary rules that we have, but the story itself keeps breaking those down. Do we pay enough attention to the big story of which we are a part, and those important though small moments of truth breaking through?
Lydia the God-fearer
It’s also significant that Lydia has been prepared for Paul’s message by her participation in the faith of Israel. According to Charles Cousar, the Jews were often receptive to Paul’s message, because they already knew the God of compassion and justice who would understandably give the great gift of grace in Jesus Christ.
There was great coherence, then, between the message of the Old Testament and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Lydia, “a worshiper of God” (that is, a Gentile who was studying Judaism, sometimes called a “God-fearer”), was drawn to the God who gave us Jesus, and open to hearing how God was working in the world through his life, death, and resurrection.
Lydia and Cornelius
Gail R. O’Day links Lydia, the first official European convert, to Cornelius, the very first official Gentile convert (Acts 10). Perhaps God is trying to tell us something?
Lydia the Unlikely is a “frame” for this story because it is her house, now a house church, as they did things in those days, that provides a haven for Paul after his imprisonment in verse 40. Oddly, while Lydia’s whole household was baptized with her, she’s not described later as the leader of the house church; while she was obviously a “somebody” in her business dealings and her household, she still slips from view (as so many women do) as a leader in the early church.
Who led the church?
The church at Philippi, we recall, was later the recipient of Paul’s beautiful letter of joy, urging them to “make my joy complete” (2:2) and “[r]ejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice” (4:4). Whether we gather in houses, or in church buildings, or in “places of prayer” out on the edge of things, down by the river, have we opened our hearts to the least likely in our midst who are called to share the good news, and to be leaders at doing so?
Even more, are we willing to let them be our leaders in preaching and teaching, as the Spirit moves them to speak out of their own experience? Are our hearts open enough to listen to them, and to learn from them? What kind of discernment would this require of us?
The practice of discernment
Our reading from these earliest days of the church prompts several questions for our reflection. We might spend some time thinking about the spiritual practice of discernment, and the question of how we know that God is leading us in new and unexpected ways. Paul may have thought he needed to go to Asia, but “the Spirit of Jesus” said no. He may have packed all his things and had his itinerary all worked out, but the Spirit of Jesus closed the door on that plan.
Don’t we wonder how Paul felt, with his plans frustrated? How did he feel about all those travels just to end up outside the city gate with only a bunch of women to listen to him? How do we know what God wants us to do, and where God wants us to go, and with whom God wants us to work? And when we get to where we’re going, what surprises wait for us?
Visions or strategic planning, or both?
Commentators provide rich material for our reflection on this question. When it comes to mission, David Forney observes that it’s common to do strategic planning in the church, with the help of experts from outside. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course…but could it be, as Forney suggests, that we find such an approach something we can manage much better than things like, say, visions from God? And yet visions from God like the one experienced by Paul that set him on a very different course in his ministry are found all through the Bible.
Forney writes about the surprising results from a Gallup survey of Presbyterians in the 1990’s (not the 1890’s but the 1990’s!) in which half of the church members, and even more clergy, had had a vision from God. As the daughter of a lifelong Presbyterian, I find this a remarkable result, and I agree with Forney that we need to open our hearts and minds to God at work in our lives in the most dramatic and unexpected ways that might transform our lives and our ministries.
Blocked by the Spirit of Jesus
Of course, visions and dreams are powerful and risky experiences of God’s leading. Paul himself must have wondered at times — on the road to Damascus and here, on the road to Philippi, what exactly God was saying to him. For example, John M. Rottman suggests that Paul found himself a bit stuck here, at the end of his tour of the churches; we might say he was “at loose ends.” Each time Paul and Silas try to go somewhere, they’re blocked, the text says, by the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of Jesus.”
Rottman writes that this feeling of being blocked and frustrated and uncertain might have caused Paul to “second-guess himself,” especially after the argument he had had with Barnabas, his old and trusted partner in ministry, an argument that had actually separated them and sent them off in different directions (such things are not new in the life in the church).
Rottman notes that Barnabas was better than Silas at discerning what God did want them to do rather than what God didn’t want them to do.
The larger story of God’s work in the world
However, the reflections on discernment in this text focus not just on messages about our personal relationships with God but on the nagging, inspiring call of God to the community of faith. Even in the biblical stories about visions and dreams, the move isn’t inward toward self-absorption but outward, toward the wider world of God’s grace and actions in the life that we share.
Rottman suggests a tender, personal image of God inviting us to participate in the larger story of God’s work in the world, a story full of transforming love for us and for the world (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
It’s easy, and therefore customary, to focus on Paul in this text: his discernment of God’s calling, his openness (and his transformation) in preaching to women and even visiting the home of one of them, his establishment of a church in Philippi and his later experiences of imprisonment there, as well as the hospitality he received from Lydia afterward.
However, we might also spend some more time considering Lydia herself, as a figure in the early church, however elusive and partial her story, and also as a kind of “figure” of women in the history of the church (recognizing, of course, the risks of speaking of “types” of women and the role that has played in the suppression of women).
Mothers of the church
Each year on Mother’s Day, which seems almost like a holy day in the life of many Protestant churches, we celebrate the many different kinds of motherhood illustrated by the women in our lives: those who have given birth, but perhaps more importantly, those who have given and nurtured life in each of us (not only biological mothers), in a variety of ways.
But we can also draw from this story, and the story of so many women in the church throughout the ages, inspiration for all who open their hearts and minds and homes and, we might add, pocketbooks, for the sake of spreading the good news. Years ago, I took a course in Patristics, studying the “Fathers of the Church.” Alas, there was no course in “Matristics,” but there have been plenty of “Mothers of the Church” throughout the centuries, and I don’t just mean mothers of ministers and priests (although that’s an honorable thing, too).
Hungry for meaning
True, Lydia embodies the inquiring hunger of someone who senses there is more to life than what they presently, personally experience. Today we might say that she “hungers for meaning in her life.” More than money, more than success, more even than the evident measure of power and influence she enjoyed–after all, this is a woman who dealt with the most powerful and wealthy in her society, those who wore purple when common folk couldn’t, and a woman who could decide that her whole household would be baptized–how unusual is that?
This is a woman who was willing to go beyond the boundaries set for her in a time when women were seen by many as property rather than people who owned and controlled property. When Lydia joins the other women down there by the river, this wealthy, powerful woman leaves the circles of influence and goes out to the margins of her society, joining those who undoubtedly had far less power, influence, and wealth than she did.
Lydia the seeker
When she encountered the gospel in the preaching of Paul and Silas, Lydia found everything she had been seeking, everything she had hungered for, even if she could not name it. How often, we wonder, would seekers say the same thing, when they come to our churches?
Lydia responds to the gospel with actions, with commitment, first in being baptized and then by insisting on exercising the great, foundational Christian virtue of hospitality, the expression of God’s own grace and welcome, to the preachers themselves. Again, how ironic: in her own way, she was preaching to the preachers, through her actions.
Hospitality is always part of the story
The story of Lydia is a story about the early church, about mission, about discernment, about hospitality, community, and, of course, the experience of women in the church, often at its edges but never without impact. Gail R. O’Day writes that “Lydia embodies Luke’s ideal of women’s contribution to the church: to provide housing and economic resources.”
Lydia, then, evokes many other memories, of women through the centuries and in many different settings, our foremothers in faith, who didn’t let their marginalization stop them from being powerhouses for good in the life of the church. (If you’re interested in pursuing Bible study with more emphasis on the experience and contributions of women, The Women’s Bible Commentary is a good resource to use; O’Day’s commentary can be found there.)
Also an heir according to the promise
The beauty of this story is how well it illustrates what Paul later writes in the famous passage in his letter to the Galatians, when he emphatically quotes the baptismal formula used by the very early, early Christians: “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.”
When Paul baptized Lydia that day down by the river, we can just imagine him using those very words as he welcomed a new daughter of the promise–and it no longer mattered if she had been a slave, that she was a woman, or that she was a Greek (or gentile), because now she was an heir according to the promise, too.
The rest of the story
I once heard a sermon by a colleague, Jan Aerie, who told the story of women in the earliest days of global mission work in the church, more than two hundred years ago, the “rest of the story” of the Haystack Meeting that we all learned about in school. When that story is told, we hear about the young men who committed to going overseas in mission, but we rarely if ever hear about the women who were such an important and early part of the story of global mission.
Jan told us that morning, “Before the establishment of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and even well before the five students received their call through the thunder and lightning, the women were hard at work on mission. The Female Society for Spreading Christian Education (later changed to the Women’s Board of Mission) was organized in 1801, a full five years before that haystack call. The women started the ‘Penny Society’ and asked women in the churches to give one cent a week for mission.”
Saving pennies for mission
Jan continued, “By 1812, when four of the young men and their wives were duly commissioned and ready to sail across the sea, the ABCFM knew the funds were not sufficient to book passage. Ironically, or in divine order, the ship’s sailing was delayed for several weeks. In the meantime, churches were inspired by the prospect of mission and money began to flow. But it was the women that saved the day.
The women’s Penny Society over twelve years had raised $6000—that is 600,000 pennies!! Their $6000 was what enabled the eight to book passage on two clipper ships, fully outfitted with supplies and food and salary for one full year! We can safely say that without the women this would not have happened. For fifty years the women faithfully collected their mission pennies and, working closely with the ABCFM (men), funded many, many missionaries.”
However, Jan also notes that, “[t]hroughout that time the ABCFM (men) would not allow any woman to be sent as a missionary herself.”
Matristics for Mother’s Day
As I listened to Jan speak, I thought of this Lydia text, and it felt like a different kind of Mother’s Day, showing the wondrous ways that God is at work in the world. It was, in its own way, a brief but inspiring “Matristics” course. The journey of Paul and Silas into new and unexpected places, in ministry with new and most unexpected people (women! Gentiles!), is the story not only of the early church but of the church throughout the ages.
And, as we embark on God’s mission in our day and in our own setting as well as around the world, we are more, together, than simply the sum of our parts: we are the Body of Christ active, at work, in the world that God loves.
Listening for God’s leading
The power of this community exists not just in the story of Silas (or Barnabas, or Lydia) added to Paul’s ministry long ago, but in the relationships of all of us in the church, each and every one of us, in our rich diversity, our unique stories and gifts, and our visions, too, opening our hearts and listening for God’s leading.
We open our hearts and offer our lives, asking God where we should go, even if it’s to the most unexpected places; how we should get there, even if the means come from the most unexpected sources; and whom we should serve, even if we find ourselves most unexpectedly blessed by them in turn.
Listening to unexpected leaders
How does it strike our ears differently when a woman (instead of a man) in the Bible makes a decision for her entire household? How do you discern God’s will for your life? When have you ever encountered obstacles on the path you thought was right, until you found the path God actually wanted you to take?
Every May, we celebrate Mother’s Day, but truly, we should consider every day the women who have been “mothers” in the church, bringing new life and energy to its mission and ministry. Consider Lydia, for example, our mother long ago: How do you imagine her life before and after that day by the river, when she first met Paul? How might that meeting thousands of years ago change your life, today?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Emily Dickinson, 19th century
“We never know how high we are/Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan, Our statures touch the skies.”
Meryl Streep, 21st century
“Motherhood has a very humanizing effect. Everything gets reduced to essentials.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 20th century
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
Jeanne d’Arc, 15th century
“One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”
Fred Rodgers, 20th century
“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.”
High Eagle, 20th century
“To be blessed with visions is not enough…we must live them!”
Parker Palmer, 21st century
“The moments when we meet and reckon with contradictions are turning points where we either enter or evade the mystery of God.”
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