Sermon
May 17, 1998
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture


Acts 16:9-15 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. (NRSV)

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Sermon: Lessons from Lydia

This morning we had the joy of celebrating the sacrament of baptism and sharing with the children and their families the faith, hove, and love we cherish in Jesus Christ. And this morning is also the occasion of our Spring meeting, the meeting where we elect new leadership for our church.

The people we vote into various offices will have the responsibility of organizing us to carry out those promises we made in the sacrament of baptism: To love and trust God completely. To resist the temptation of evil -in what we do, in what we say, in what we choose to ignore. To love our neighbor as ourselves; to live a new and holy life. We also pledged ourselves to a life together in God's forgiving and healing love. We accepted the responsibility to help each other grow in the Christian life. We welcomed those receiving the sacrament of baptism into the fellowship of the church and offered them our support, care and nurture in the love of God and in faithfulness to our Lord.

That’s quite a job description we agreed to today, and our new officers and committees will be responsible to see that we do what we promised we would do. I’m sure none of us wants to get laid off or downsized from the Church of Jesus Christ.

Because of the meeting I want to keep this sermon short, and so I want to turn to the text we just read which describes a critical, pivotal moment in the original up-sizing of the church through the work of the Apostle Paul.

I say critical because Paul is making his first turn into Europe. Paul did not particularly want to go in that direction - in fact he was looking to travel East instead of West from Troas. East would have led him along the southern coast of the Black Sea and who knows where? He could have ended up in Bombay instead of Rome - that would certainly have put a different spin on the development of the church.

But Paul has a vision of a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." And so he sets sail West over the Aegean Sea and sets foot in Europe and begins his work in the city of Philippi, a city famous as the site where in 42 BC Anthony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius, the murderers of Caesar.

Paul’s strategy in a new city was first to find the synagogue, but there was none in Philippi. So Paul travels outside the city and finds a group of women who have gathered for prayer by a nearby river. Among these women is the focus of our sermon today, a woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God and a dealer in purple cloth.

Knowing that she is a dealer in purple cloth tells us that Lydia was well-to-do, a person of means and position. That she was a worshipper of God who had to travel outside the city for her prayers tells us that she was not afraid to go against the grain of convention or public opinion.

Roman religious life was deeply interwoven with civic and business life. This would be especially true in Philippi where many Roman army veterans had settled. It would no doubt have been to Lydia’s advantage if she had gone to worship in the temples in the center of the city, where the gods of Rome would be on display and where she would have rubbed elbows with the establishment of Philippi. But she is in prayer on the outskirts of town, where the religions that were considered strange cults were forced to go because they were prohibited within the city proper.

Lydia does not let the lack of a synagogue, church, temple, or peer approval keep her from her prayers and her gathering with others for the worship of God. Lesson 1 from Lydia.

The second lesson we can learn from Lydia concerns her openness to the message of Paul. Wherever Paul traveled he encountered people with closed minds. Quite often these were the religious leaders in the communities where Paul preached. The leadership, it seems, did not want their dogmas and beliefs stirred up, and they often caused a great deal of trouble for Paul.

Lydia was among those who search for the truth was more important to her than clinging to old certainties. Rather than resist a new idea, a greater truth, she opened herself and her heart to it and embraced it. She and her whole household were baptized, the first Christians in Europe. This openness to truth is lesson 2 from Lydia.

The third lesson I would gather from Lydia concerns her humility. I have been reading a number of books about helping churches grow, and many of them suggest understanding the community as your customer and tailoring your worship, songs, and programs to the demographically tested needs of your target audience. And while I find a lot in these books to agree with, I think in the back of our minds we have to remember that the person in the pew - that’s you - is not the customer for worship which is served up by the people in front - the choir and the ministers. Worship is something that we together are serving up to God. God is our only customer, and you can sense this basic orientation in Lydia’s words to Paul: If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.

I don’t mean to deny the reality that people shop for churches until they find one that fits their temperament or tradition or maybe simply their schedule. I’ve done it myself. But once inside the door of any place of prayer, the most important thing is that we assume the active role of worshipper and not simply sit passive waiting to be entertained or even enlightened. Lydia gives us a lesson in the humility necessary if we are to come before God in worship.

There are two more lessons Lydia gives, and they both have to do with her generosity. First, she extends her hospitality to Paul and his companions Luke, Silas, and Timothy, and invites them to stay in her house. In other places Paul is forced to earn a living as well as preach the Gospel, but in Philippi, thanks to Lydia’s hospitality, he can concentrate completely on his missionary activity.

And, although it is not in the passage we read this morning, we know that by the example of Lydia and the work Paul was permitted to do, the church in Philippi takes on a very important role in the future missionary work of Paul. At the end of a later letter to the Philippians Paul wrote:

You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once…. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent… a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.

Lydia and the church in Philippi did not quit their generosity to Paul once he left their city, but they continued to support him in whatever way they could, right up to the time he was put in prison in Rome. When they heard that Paul was in prison they took up an offering and sent Epaphroditus to Rome with their gifts. Epaphroditus stayed on in Rome to offer his own personal service, but then got seriously ill. After his recovery, Paul sent him back to Philippi with a letter of thanks - the letter which has become the book of Philippians in our Bible.

Philippians is a letter from prison. Yet it’s dominant themes are gratitude and rejoicing. Paul can offer these themes because he has faith in God and faith in the loyalty of Lydia and his fellow believers in Philippi. And this is our last lesson from Lydia - her loyalty. It was such loyalty that sustained Paul in his darkest hour and allowed him to write to Lydia and his friends in Philippi:

Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Lydia’s attributes of independence, openness, humility, hospitality, and loyalty became the catalyst for the spread of the Gospel into Europe. The work of that small congregation which began in her home has given us a rich heritage and a wonderful example. She truly was a mother, model, and guide for the church in her time and her lessons can inspire and guide us today. As we go about our work together as a church, may we accomplish something worthy of the faith and sacrifice of Lydia and all who have opened their hearts to the Gospel of our Lord.

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Let us pray:

We rejoice, O God, in the wonderful stories of men and women whose lives have been touched by the Gospel. We thank you for those early Christians who braved persecution and prison to bear witness to the love you shared with the world in Jesus Christ. And we thank you for those who have gone before us in this place, who have given generously of their time and talent and treasure to establish and build up this church that it also may serve as a witness and a house of prayer and fellowship. May our hearts also be open to the teachings of the Gospel and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that we might be formed into the body of Christ for a good and useful purpose in our time.

We thank you for the ebb and flow of life in this congregation. We rejoice in the baptisms celebrated here today and ask your blessing on the families who came forward to declare their faith and trust in you. And we ask your blessing to be with the friends of Helen Nearing who passed from this life and has entered into her heavenly reward. Be with them and with all who mourn the loss of those they love, especially the family and friends of Fred Daniels, in whose memory the flowers are placed on our communion table this morning on the occasion of his 72nd birthday.

We also pray for your power of healing to be with those who are struggling with illness and those who are recovering - especially Erin Loya, Clarence Burden, Mary Ellen Lanigan, Gail Bradle, Doris Blackman, Barbara Holsten, ….and those we name in the quiet of our hearts.

Remind us in the week ahead, O Lord, to daily pray for ourselves, for one another, for our church, and for all people. Help us to remember that you listen more to our hearts than to our words, and simply bring to you an offering of repentance, love, and openness. Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.