Sunday, May 05, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, May 5, 2013 Acts 16:9-15 “New Rivers”

It’s an interesting fact in the story of Paul going to Macedonia that the key person in the tale is not the fellow who appears in Paul’s dream. It is Lydia who both receives Jesus’ word and the gift of baptism from Paul, and who then becomes an ardent advocate for Christ and supporter of Paul’s ministry.

Who is this woman? She is a gentile, but one who is attracted to the Jewish religion. She goes to the river to prayer, presumably with other women, since even Gentiles regarded separation of the sexes as appropriate. She has not yet made the full commitment to conversion to Judaism.

She is a businesswoman who is successful enough to own  her own home. She deals in cloth, specifically purple cloth. That kind of cloth is reserved for the use of the upper classes, so she regularly has contact with people of power and wealth. She is, in fact, the first person converted by Paul in Europe, since she lives in Philippi, in Greece.

So Paul lands in Philippi and meanders down to the river, a usual place of prayer, and there are a group of women, including Lydia. He speaks to the women and Lydia is particularly taken with the message.

So intrigued is she that, after Paul baptizes her in the river, she insists that Paul and his traveling companion stay at her home.

What a woman! And when it comes to the church Paul founds at Philippi, Lydia is not the only woman of note. Paul refers to Euodia and Synteche, other women who were key to the mission work that he started in that place.

For some, that may be a surprise, because we may have heard folks quoting Paul saying “women should be quiet in church” (I Cor 14:34) or that “women should submit themselves to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22).

Those words are often used when someone does not want women to have a leadership role in the church or in the home…but if that is what Paul says to the churches in Corinth and Ephesus, what is he doing lauding the work of Lydia, Euodia and Synteche in Philippi? Or the fact that he cites a woman named Chloe as a key leader in the church in Corinth even as he says women should be quiet?

Seems a little confusing, doesn’t it?

But perhaps not.

Paul is a missionary. He goes to different places, with different cultural mores, and sets up churches and then moves on. He has to find the best people to carry on his work, and he has to deal with the way people are used to doing things, including respecting the social structures that are prevalent. Missionaries know you can only change things so much from the standard culture in a place, and Paul is nothing if not a smart missionary.

So he responds to the people and the place where he goes. He reads the context, as social scientists might say, and he works within that context.

And when they write to him with questions or problems, he answers them as a pastor who knows that one size doesn’t fit all. What works in Corinth might not work in Galatia. What works in Ephesus might not make any sense at all in Philippi.

So of course he welcomes the fervent support of a rich woman like Lydia in Philippi. She is powerful and influential, which will lend some protection to this messianic movement. She is smart and committed. Who wouldn’t encourage her to lead, just as he lauds the work of Euodia and Synteche?

We don’t know why he seems to be so intent on keeping women in their place in Corinth or Ephesus. Some of it may be that culturally, in those places where women were traditionally viewed in second-class roles, it made more sense to guide the church to a place that was more congruent with the way things worked there. Maybe there was one particular woman who aggravated him – Paul does seem to get aggravated with people on a regular basis.

But again, I emphasize that Paul is nothing if he is not a smart missionary and a wise pastor. He reads the context and responds to it.

And it this point, I imagine you’re thinking “what in heaven’s name does this have to do with us? We’re past the point of keeping women quiet, and we certainly have female leadership in the church and in the secular world.”

Well, it ties to who we are, where we are, and what God has in mind for us.

 We have been in conversation about what kind of church we want to be, what kind of church God wants us to be, and how we make that happen. The implication of that statement is that we are changing in some way.

That’s not a surprise. The world has changed, and our neighborhood has changed around us. The time when church activities were the only social activity most evenings, when everyone belonged to a church and every teen belonged to a youth group and every family centered their life around the parish is past. Now children and their parents juggle sports schedules, SAT prep classes, music lessons, dance classes, and part-time work as well as church activities. Now adults fight to make time for their spiritual lives even as their bosses insist on overtime, as they try to find time to work out to stay healthy, as they struggle to find at least one day a week when the whole family will sit down for a dinner together. Even singles don’t escape the pressures to do lots of things that make church activities just one more competing force.

So what does it mean to be in conversation about what kind of church we want to be? The hard answer is that it means that the things that worked in the past will not work now. We have got to get creative, and we have got to be smart, just like Paul.

This is our context. We are standing at the edge of a different river than our parents did. 

How are we going to see the Lydias, the Euodias, the Syntoches, all those who are hungry for something that they know is missing from their lives? How are we going to welcome those who might seem unlikely newcomers, as women may have been unlikely in Paul’s day?

We pray. We listen. We try new things. We think hard about what welcome truly means. 
We get a little more humble and look for the gifts newcomers have, rather than thinking we are the ones who have something to give them.

I am grateful for Harrison’s great work in helping us start the conversation. It will be an ongoing one, and it will necessarily evolve as we learn and discern more.

But if we learn nothing from Paul’s experience in Philippi, we must learn that those who might be the moving forces behind new growth in our parish might be the most unlikely ones, the Lydias, the Chloes, the Junias…

…unlikely missionaries. Unlikely gifts to us, even more than we are gifts to them.

So welcome them and listen to them. This is a new world we live in, and while we honor the beauty and comfort of our traditions, we must – WE MUST – be prepared to partner those traditions with the new things. Like the river where Lydia was baptized, like the river described in the passage from the Book of Revelation, we are white-water rafting down a new river of life. What and see what God has in mind for us now!


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