Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Invitation

Acts 16:9-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 

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.” 10 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.

11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 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. 13 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. 14 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. 15 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.

One of the challenges of preaching to a congregation every week is trying to figure out just how much of what the scripture reading says has to be explained.  You see, when I say things like, “You will know from your reading of Scripture that such and such whatever .  . .” I am usually speaking a teeny bit tongue in cheek.  I realize that you all are not Bible experts.    I know that some of you majored or minored in Religion, many of you at my own alma mater, Chapman University.  Some of you have read the Bible from beginning to end multiple times - maybe even including the Apocrypha.  Some of you have read most of it - although you may have skipped a lot of those boring laws and the “begats."  Some of you have only read the New Testament because someone once told you that the Old Testament is irrelevant to Christians.  (That’s not true, by the way.)  Lots of you have attended some kind  of Bible study class at some point in your lives.  And I am pretty sure that some of you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.   That’s ok.  Because that’s the challenge that makes preaching so much fun.

If you don’t read the Bible every day - if in fact the only Bible reading you do is on Sunday morning while the presider is reading the Scripture I’m preaching from - please don’t feel guilty.  In one of my seminary classes the professor said, “How many of you read the Bible every day?”  Every hand was confidently lifted into the air.  Then he said, “How many of you read something that you are not preaching on that week.”  Let me just say that the confidence level in the room dropped considerably - as did the number of hands in the air.  The only reason my hand stayed up is because that particular semester I was reading a psalm every morning for another class.  

And even if you do read the Bible every day, if you don’t also study the history and culture of the time being written about you will miss some of the context.  Lydia, it says, sold purple cloth.  Ok, so she sold cloth.  No.  She sold purple cloth, which could only be worn by royalty.  She sold cloth that was dyed with the most rare and expensive dye there was.  She was most likely the only person in Philippi who dealt in purple cloth, the only one who had access to the particular shellfish from which that dye was extracted.  Lydia was not a typical wife and mother.  Rather, she was the head of her household, because Luke says “When Lydia and her household were baptized . . .”   There is no mention whatsoever of a husband.  Maybe she inherited the business from her husband or even from her father.  But however it came about, Lydia was a wealthy and therefore relatively powerful woman.  And this wealthy woman invited Paul and whomever else was traveling with him to stay at her home.

Another reason we know Lydia was important, not just in her community, but also in the life of the church, is because she is named.  Most of the women in the Bible are not named, not even some of the important ones - like, Samson’s mother.  Most are simply wife of, mother of, daughter of.  Their entire identity had everything to do with the men to whom they belonged or the sons they bore.  Their worth and value had nothing to do with their own particular gifts and talents, but rather in their ability to have children and carry on their husband’s name.  Childlessness was the number one cause of a woman being put aside, either sent back to her father in disgrace or ignored and tormented within the household.  Sarah, Rachel and Hannah are three of the best known examples - all three were teased and tormented by the other women of the household, and even by their own slaves in some cases, because the slave produced a child for the man of the house but the wife couldn’t.   God intervened and gave these women sons, sons who were vitally important to the story of God’s relationship with Israel.  And so their names are known.  For most of the many women who never had children, however, that disgrace would continue to fill their daily lives.  When they were widowed, if indeed, they had been allowed to remain in their husband’s home, there would have been no son to care for them, and they would be out in the streets, literally.  

Several thousand years later, It’s still hard for childless women.  Days like today, Mother’s Day, make our childless state even more difficult.  There are many reasons today for not having children - we might never have married, we might not be physically able to carry a child, we might have deliberately chosen not to have children.  Whatever the reason, a common response when we admit that we have no children is sympathy.  It is, after all, what is expected of women.  My first husband used to beat me once a month when it became apparent that, once again, I was not pregnant.  As if that would help.  Childless women sometimes wonder, “Who is going to take care of me when I’m old?”  Some things haven’t changed much down through the centuries.

Mother’s Day is a rough day for a lot of people. It’s particularly difficult for families who have lost their mother, who may be living through their first Mother’s Day without her this year.   After decades of gathering around to celebrate her on the 2nd Sunday of May, suddenly the day is bereft of its reason, and grief replaces the celebration.  For others, listening to the celebration of motherhood when their own experience of being mothered is not pleasant, who live with physical and/or emotional scars from their own mother, or who never knew their birth mother, Mother’s Day is a good day to stay home.   I sometimes wonder why we continue. . . and then I look at the faces of families gathering together on this day to celebrate and I understand. 

Lydia was well known in her community, and in the church as it grew up in Philippi.  And the church growing up in Philippi was a direct result of the invitation she extended to Paul and his companion.  “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.”   Her home quickly became the center for Paul’s work.  Believers came there to listen to the Good News and share meals.  It’s where they gathered when ever there was important news or something going on that concerned them all.  It became the first of the house churches in Philippi - the place Paul and Silas returned to after they were released from prison later on in the story, and the place where Paul most likely sent his letters later in his travels.  The church in Philippi grew up because Lydia said, “If you find me faithful to God, come stay at my home.”   

In case you were wondering where this is going, it’s all about the invitation.  At the time of this story it was common for Jewish people to gather for prayer someplace outside of whatever city they lived in if there was no synagogue there.  Often they would find a place near a river or some other water source so they could wash themselves - hands and feet - before settling in to pray.  In many cities they were able to have a particular spot designated for their use by the leaders of the city.   Visitors to the city would know this, as it was a quite common practice, and would seek out the place where Sabbath prayer was held, as Paul and the others did.  Because Jews stand to pray, when Paul sat among the people there, it was an indication that he was prepared to preach. And so he told those present the Good News of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  He spoke of God’s great love for humanity and God’s forgiveness, and God’s desire for all people to be reconciled to Him . . . and those present wanted to hear more.  Lydia was so greatly moved that she was immediately baptized, and her entire household with her.   Now, chances are excellent that Lydia was not, in fact, Jewish, but a Gentile believer like Cornelius, because Jews had been expelled from Rome and from Roman military outposts by this time but Gentile believers would have remained in place.  So when she extended her offer to Paul, knowing that Jews generally did not enter the homes of Gentiles, she wasn’t entirely confident that he would accept it.   As we know, he did accept her offer, and as a result the Good News spread out from Lydia’s home all through the city. 

We go out into the world all the time.  Some of us even tell people about our congregation and invite them to come visit with us.  In a couple of weeks some of us will be staffing a table at a Block Party put on by Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life.  We’ll have brochures and invitation cards to hand out, maybe even refrigerator magnets so people will remember us.  I was telling someone from one of the congregations that’s been part of the Block Parties before how excited I am to have a table for the first time, and she said, “How will you get people to stop at your table?”   I still haven’t figured that out.  I really don’t think Chalice shaped lollipops is the answer, even if there was such a thing, but hopefully some of the creative folks around here will have better ideas.  Preferably ideas that are inexpensive. I’m not sure how big our evangelism budget is . . .  What I do know is we will tell people who we are, and what we do, and we will extend an invitation to them.  We will say to the people who visit our table, if you find us faithful to the Lord, please come stay with us.

But the real question is, how will we show others that we are faithful to the Lord, so that they will accept our invitation?  How do we do that in our daily lives?   When people think of First Christian Church, what do they think?  Do they know anything about us beyond where we are located?  And most people in town do know where we are located, ‘cause that big, red, neon cross on top of the building does sort of stand out at night.  

In Biblical times, hospitality was of the utmost importance.  It was expected that visitors would be given a place to sleep, and something to eat, and water to wash with, whether the family hosting them was rich or poor.  The hosts might have to give up their own dinner or their own beds. It didn’t matter, only that every guest who came was treated with equal honor.   Here at First Christian Church we try to live that way.  We say that every one is equally honored here, and we try very hard to be faithful to that statement, so that everyone’s ideas and gifts and talents are celebrated and put to use the best way we can.  

When we go out from this place, let us behave always in such a way that anyone who knows we come from First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Selma will know we practice what we preach.  Let us live faithfully, so that people will be glad to accept our invitation.  And let us be sure to extend that invitation - not just to come worship with us, but to join us in living in such a way that Christ himself would feel welcome among us. . . to join us in working to heal our community, our world . . . to join us in bringing this fragmented world back to a place of wholeness, through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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