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1 John 5:6-13

Show and Tell

Our show and tell today is a picture I took at a shamanist shrine in Korea. When I travel, I’m always drawn to religious sites – Christian and non-Christian – because I like to feel and understand how people in a given place have recognized and connected with God. The same thing happens in our reading today: the apostle Paul is invited to travel far away from his home, and when he gets there, he seeks out a place of worship. Let’s listen for what he finds when he gets there.

Acts 16:9-15

What does he find? He finds somebody else – Lydia – who is open to God, open to what God is doing in Paul’s life, and open to sharing her experience of God with him. I think he learned something new about what God can be doing, through that encounter with Lydia. Let us give thanks for everyone who teaches us about God’s presence, and especially for those ways that are surprising to us.

Meditation

Paul has just traveled a long way from his comfort zone, all the way from his home in Tarsus and his reality in the Jewish world. So when he gets to this new town, Philippi, the first place he goes is to a Jewish place of prayer. Now, Philippi was a Roman colony, like a little piece of Rome in eastern Macedonia. It must not have had an established synagogue, a regular building like our church where the Jewish community would go to worship. Where the Jews went was to a little place of prayer by a river outside of town.

When he got there, he started to preach to people a lot like himself. We’re going to follow Paul for a few weeks, and we’ll watch him develop into a farther-reaching apostle, because his encounters with people like Lydia are going to change how he sees what God might be doing in the world. But he’s started here with a group of people he would have felt relatively comfortable with, the Jewish community of Philippi.

One of these people is a woman named Lydia. We’ll have to imagine a few things about Lydia’s back story and how she feels in this place on this morning. What we know about her is that she’s from Thyatira, a city back in Asia Minor where Paul just was. This region was known for its textiles, and especially for the purple-dyed fabrics that Lydia trades. That’s important, at least for the way we’re imagining her. Acts tells us that the is a “worshiper of God,” a Gentile who worships the God of Israel. She’s not Jewish – she doesn’t keep the ritual law – and because of that, I’m imagining that she’s kind of on the margins of this community. What probably keeps her on the edge of the Jewish community is that she’s a purple-cloth merchant, which probably would have put her in a trading guild. Being part of a guild would have come with its own religious-type practices, specifically the worship of certain gods who were invoked to bless the trade of these merchants. So there is Lydia, worshiping the God of Israel among people who understand that deity to be the only true God, and she knows that during the week she’s implicated in the worship of these other gods as well. What’s more, the rest of the community probably knew it too.

The Spirit opens her heart to hear and receive what Paul is saying, which is great, right? Well, I’m imagining her history because of the way she responds. She issues Paul an invitation that sounds more like a challenge: “Come and stay in my house if you have decided that I am a true believer in the Lord.” If you can imagine that I’m truly faithful, why not come and be my guest? I suspect there were other members of her community – prominent, faithful people – who wouldn’t be caught dead in Lydia’s house, because they knew what kind of God-worshiper she was. Now, this story is a lot like Peter’s story from last week, when he was invited into a home like Lydia’s. Paul was off the scene at that moment, but presumably he’s been clued in on the story. So Paul is willing to go into that home with this… worshiper of the Lord, because that’s all that matters.

In his great big journey – now crossing over into Europe itself – Paul learns and grows in big ways. First, he learns that God is there, even beside the river at Philippi. God was there, certainly in the worship of these faithful people, and more specifically on this day when God prepares Lydia’s heart to receive a new kind of good news. And Paul will continue to learn that God is always active in the world, that there is nowhere he can go that God has not already been, because God is there, transforming lives through what Paul is doing.

And he learns, through these encounters, that people he didn’t know or understand are yet God’s children. They’re claimed by God and able to receive God’s love. Just like Lydia, who challenged Paul’s imagining, there are so many who are ready for those who understand themselves to be on the inside to recognize them as God’s children.

Through those encounters, Paul learned a third thing: that there is nothing we can set up to get in the way of relationship with God, whether our own or someone else’s. He learns that even the things that help us understand and relate to God – the forms our relationship takes or the practices we engage in – are not requirements for having a relationship with God. So my particular ways of praying, important and meaningful as they are, are not required. You may benefit from learning what I have to share, and I’m very glad to share it, but you don’t need to pray like I do. You may find that my prayers speak your prayers in a particularly meaningful way, but you may well find that they don’t. Your relationship with God is its own thing, and that’s wonderful.

Anything that we may try to hold up as the “only way” you can encounter God is missing the point. Any time we exclude someone else from the circle of God’s love, we’re selling God short. Anyone who tells you about the “only place” God can be experienced, is telling less than the truth. God is always surprising us.

There’s something remarkable about this congregation, because here there is an assumption that we each see and experience God in a particular way. Because of that, we go into relationship with each other under the assumption that somebody else’s experience of the Spirit makes sense in its own terms, even if it makes no sense to us on the surface. We assume others have the same quality of relationship with God as we do (even if not the same style), because we assume that God is present in the world in ways that we can’t even recognize. So we welcome each other. You have even welcomed me, with my crazy, abstract, philosophical ideas about who God might be and what God might be doing. And you’ve kept pushing on me, especially in the context of worship, with the idea that it matters that God is present among us when we gather. Of course, there’s the extra blessing for me of the place you’ve allowed me in this community for five years. You’ve given me extra access to your experiences and ideas, and I’ve been greatly enriched.

So my hope is that you’ll continue to share those ideas and those experiences with each other. That you’ll continue to welcome others and to learn from them as well, and that God will continue to be active and be revealed among us. So thanks be for this expansive and loving church.

In Jesus’ name: Amen.

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