Rev. 21:10, 22-22:5

Acts 16:9-15

I visited our “Mother Church” on Thursday, for a Presbytery of Northern Waters meeting in Tower. The Rev. E. N. Raymond founded the Presbyterian church in Tower in 1884 and the Virginia church in 1893. (The Virginia church later passed Rev. Jamieson on to Eveleth and Mountain Iron, so if that’s your history, you could say “Grandmother Church.”) Rev. Raymond seemed to have an apostolic (now you might call it entrepreneurial) call to gather congregations in new towns, places without churches. HCPC is the first Christian congregation in Virginia, but not the oldest religious place. Our building dates from 1922, but the Episcopal Church’s structure is older.

Our scripture readings talk about two cities without religious places, for different reasons. One is a city before the church, the other is the church in its spiritual perfection. The first place was Philippi, a Roman city in Greece. Philippi was like the Range in the 1880s-90s, with no one of “our” faith and nothing “we” would call a religious place. That’s not true, of course: Philippi was a center of commerce and culture, not a backwoods/frontier boom town. And it’s doubly untrue: there were religious places all over this northern landscape. The Ojibwe built sweat lodges and nurtured their awareness of the Spirit around them before the Presbyterians ever heard of them. Similarly, Philippi was filled with Greek and Roman religious sites, which were as imperfect as “our” religions but no less real.

Paul, though, was in foreign territory. He was only just becoming the great apostle to the Gentiles, and he was still more at home with Jews. There was no Jewish temple in Philippi, so Paul goes to the “place of prayer,” an informal synagogue outside the city where religious people (like Paul) gather without a building. Paul was in the habit of sharing his story at Sabbath worship, and at this meeting, Lydia was receptive to his story and professed her faith. She was a bold, powerful woman, and she became the mother of the Philippian church. She was the head of the first household baptized, and she invited the apostles into her home.

This story is remarkable enough for being about a powerful, well-connected woman; they weren’t easy to find in first-century Rome. What’s really remarkable is that Paul found her at the fringe of the world. Philippi was an important city, but the Spirit led Paul outside it. Whatever religious places were in Philippi, there were none for Lydia and the other worshipers of the Jewish God, and so they made their own place. The Holy Spirit made a place for them. God followed her daughters and sons out past the city gates to be with them there. So later in the story, Lydia followed the Mother we call God by gathering God’s children into her house. That’s what God does.

God was already doing it, living out by the river with her children. This religion was denied a legitimate place to be, but it endured anyway. Christianity endured that way for 300 years of the early church. There were no church buildings because it was suspect or illegal to be Christian. But the Mother doesn’t ask if her children are legal, she provides for them regardless in houses and underground crypts. The Holy Spirit will live under a bridge, in a shelter, on friends’ couches, to be with her children wherever they are. She lived that way with the early church, with immigrants, with refugees, with people who have no homes – God is always there.

God has lived like that forever, in saints like Mother Teresa, Jane Addams, Mary of Bethlehem, and Lydia of Thyatira. They were all led by the Holy Spirit. Teresa was led into the streets of Calcutta, seeking (and finding) the image of God in the sick and poor who lived in gutters. Jane Addams was led into community housing in Chicago, to share life intentionally with people outside her social and economic class. Mary was led into a sheep enclosure late at night to find a space for the birthing of God’s new reality in Christ. Lydia was led to make space for God’s reality to live on in the church. God indeed makes a home with her children.

That’s the second city in our readings. John has a vision of the new holy city; like Philippi and the early Quad Cities, it has no religious place. Now we see how that can be. John lived in a world with temples. The Roman and Greek gods had temples all over the place, and Jerusalem used to have a temple of the one God. With all that competition, you would think that the Christian lack of religious space would be a problem, but people were still drawn to this relationship with God. In the spiritual Jerusalem, John sees how it can be. When he says he sees no temple in the city, he means that Christianity truly lacks religious sites.

That’s a strength. Our tradition proclaims that God is with us wherever we are; there is no temple to be lost, because we’re the temple. God dwells within us. The Mother, who made her home with us in any place, is at home with us in every place. No matter where you’ve gone, her warm, firm embrace is all but wrapped around you. But she’s not holding on for her own sake: sometimes she’s picking you up and guiding you into new territory. Wherever we wander, wherever we are led (and we’re usually some of both), God’s eternal presence is with us, making us at home.

Amen.

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