“And She Prevailed upon Us”

(sermon 5/26/19)

trust women

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.” 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. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 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.

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. 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. 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.

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The town of Celebration, Florida was established in 1994. it was the brainchild of the Disney corporation, who used some of the country’s most well-known planners and architects to create a new community, based on the principles of “New Urbanism” – which, in a way, was actually “old urbanism.” Its design features small yards, houses built close together, and all within easy walking distance to shops, businesses, schools, library, and so on. It was designed to combat the typical suburban sprawl of most developments  and minimize our dependence on cars, and to encourage walking and biking and neighborliness and community. The buildings are all of one traditional style or another; comfortable front porches to sit on and interact with neighbors are the norm on the houses. It was meant to be a showcase, a model of all the best that small-town life can be. Norton Commons, in fact, is a smaller local example of New Urbanist planning and design that follows a lot of the thinking behind Celebration. Twenty-five years into that grand experiment, there are a few cracks showing around the edges of the grand experiment; things didn’t always turn out as well as hoped, but by and large, Celebration has been relatively successful in accomplishing its goals, and it’s a very nice place to live.

In the time of the apostles, the city of Philippi was in a way the same kind of thing. It was located in Macedonia, in what’s now the northeastern portion of modern-day Greece. It was built by the Roman Empire as a colony settled mostly by veteran Roman soldiers and was a model city showcasing all the best of Roman life and culture, featuring a large Roman amphitheater and other cultural elements that you would have found in Rome.

It’s here, in Philippi, that the apostle Paul finds himself in today’s reading from Acts. Here, he meets up with a group of Jewish women who have gathered to pray and worship God along the river. One of them is a woman named Lydia. Lydia wasn’t a Jew; she was what the New Testament writers called a “God-worshiper” – a Gentile who for one reason or another never converted to Judaism, but who still worshiped the Jews’ God, and who followed most of the Jewish moral and ethical teachings. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth, which is a very expensive luxury – only the wealthiest, the “one percenters” of the day, could afford it. Just the fact that Lydia was successfully running any business, and was the head of a household, a homeowner, and apparently owned a  house large enough to accommodate her own household as well as Paul and his fellow travelers, was impressive enough – and based on the nature of her business, she must have traveled in some pretty well-connected circles. She would have had to be careful practicing her non-Roman, non-sanctioned religion; it could have been bad for business, and she would have been taking an even greater risk to be associated with this new Jewish cult that these men, these foreigners, these outside agitators who had come to stir the pot and promote this new Jewish sub-cult here, in this very Roman city. Still, she did offer her hospitality to them, and she apparently laid out a very reasoned, logical, and apparently, a very persuasive argument to Paul – who we know from the writings attributed to him,  had, at best, some relatively ambiguous thoughts about women in positions of power or leadership. But as the passage says, she succeeded in “prevailing upon” them to stay with her. Lydia must have really impressed Paul and the others with her words and actions; when they left the city, they left her in charge of the newly-formed church, which, we read later in this chapter of Acts,  continued to meet in Lydia’s house.

The truth is that women had played a huge role in the beginnings of our faith. Of course, Mary was the first person God told about Jesus’ impending arrival. Later, when Jesus was a man, it was the Syrophoenician woman he met who helped him to understand that he’d been sent to all people, Jew and Gentile alike. Mary Magdalen was the first person to encounter the risen Jesus, and the first to report to the others that he’d risen. And here, in today’s story, Lydia becomes an important leader in the early church.

In each of these instances, the men in the story had a hard time believing the women, trusting them, accepting the truth in what they were saying. And honestly, things don’t seem to be a whole lot better today. Sadly, even now we men often have trouble hearing and accepting the wisdom in the words of female voices. We men have still been raised in a culture that in ways spoken and unspoken teach us to accept the big lie that men just know better. That when it comes to certain things, women just don’t understand, so we have to explain things to them, and to make some decisions for them, supposedly for their own good.

Well pardon me, but from the standpoint of our Christian faith – from the standpoint of the gospel as lived and taught by Jesus Christ – that’s just stupid, and in  my opinion, sinful. We profess a faith that was, as I just pointed out, largely founded on the voices and experiences of women. We profess a faith that claims that all of us, male and female, are created in God’s image, including our intellectual abilities, and all having equal human dignity and value. We profess to be members of the kingdom of God, where according to scripture we are so equal that “there is no longer male and female.” So for us men to continue to not listen to the voices, the wisdom, the experiences of women – to not listen to the Lydias of our own time – when they try to prevail upon us about something, is simply not in accord with the faith that we profess.

Right now, there are millions of Lydias trying to get our attention, as in multiple states, laws are being enacted to all but eliminate, and in some cases to even criminalize, a woman’s right to choose for herself whether having an abortion is the right thing or not. Millions of women in this country – and to be clear, most of them Christians – are speaking out against these laws, trying to prevail upon us with the reality of their own wisdom and God-given right to make that decision for themselves; trying to prevail upon us that frankly, such a decision isn’t anyone else’s business but theirs.

I’m not going to tell anyone what they should believe about whether abortion is right or wrong. There are plenty of preachers in plenty of pulpits who want to do that; that’s not what I’m doing here today.  I’m not here to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t believe for themselves. I will point out, though, that it’s the position of the Presbyterian Church  that abortion is never the ideal, and a decision to have one is a choice that shouldn’t be made casually – but that it might still be the best of all possible choices for  woman. That it is still a potentially moral choice for a woman based upon her own circumstances, her own situation, her own beliefs, and her own conscience. And that it is improper for anyone else to force their own beliefs on them, and to deny them the God-given human dignity of making such a choice for themselves.

Most importantly, what I want to suggest today is that we all might best live out the principles of our faith – the gospel as lived and taught by Jesus – if we truly listened to the truth and wisdom that today’s Lydias are trying to tell us – and frankly, whether about these new laws, or any other aspects of their being treated unequally in our society. Women know their own situation and conscience better than any man can ever know for them, so whatever anyone personally believes about abortion, we should respect women’s God-given right to freedom of conscience, and to make their own choices based on that conscience. And I say that as a man who was conceived when his parents were high school students, who dropped out of school to get married and raise me, and eventually, my two brothers. I know full well that if abortion had been a legal choice back then, I might not even be here today. Still, I’m convinced that the position most consistent with our faith is to not interfere with a women’s right to make such a decision for herself.

The women in those examples from scripture that I’d mentioned earlier did eventually prevail upon the men who didn’t originally accept what they were saying, and the women were ultimately proven to be right. I truly believe we’d all be living more faithfully if we’d follow those men’s lead, and to let our modern-day Lydias prevail upon us as well.

Thanks be to God.

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But Wait, There’s More – Much More

(sermon 5/5/19)

beach campfire

John 21

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

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Today’s gospel text is interesting in several ways. First, in that it’s quite clearly an added chapter to a gospel that had already been concluded with a nice wrap-up at the end of the chapter before – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” But then you turn the page and you see “But wait, there’s more!” and the gospel continues, by telling this additional story of the miraculous beach encounter between Jesus and some of his disciples. Second, it’s interesting in the way that the disciples recognized Jesus through his repeat miracle of telling them how to catch a huge amount of fish, a parallel to what Luke tells us he’d done early in his ministry when he was first calling some of these very same men as disciples. Related to that, it’s interesting, or maybe more accurately, it’s a little odd, how Peter responds when they realize it’s Jesus on the shore, by jumping up, throwing on some clothes, and jumping into the lake to swim to shore – which everyone knows, unless you’re John Fischbach, that the best way to get back to shore if you’re sitting in a boat is to just stay in the boat with everyone else and row in – and besides, if you’re going to swim in, why do you actually get dressed to jump into the water? You can imagine the other disciples just rolling their eyes and thinking “Well, that’s Peter for you; what are you going to do?”

But I think the most interesting thing about this story is its second part – Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Now Peter, who still has to be stinging from what he’d done wrong – his denial of Jesus on the night of his arrest just over a week before, is talking with Jesus, and Jesus asks him three times if he loves him. And three times, Peter confirms to Jesus that he loves him. Three times, a mirror image of his three denials, each time seemingly erasing the guilt and shame that lingered in Peter’s mind for each one of his denials; and each one being a reconfirmation of Jesus’ having forgiven Peter for those denials. It’s Jesus’ act of giving Peter a new start, and showing his love and acceptance regardless of what he’d gotten wrong before. From Peter’s standpoint, it had to be a powerful expression of love and hope at a time when he needed just that affirmation. That’s an affirmation that we all need at one time or another, when things seem to have gone off the tracks and we’ve messed up, and this story teaches us that Jesus offers it to us just as he did to Peter in this story.

At the same time, as the preacher David Lose has pointed out, Jesus gave Peter  two other things that we all need, too: first, we all need a sense of belonging, of being accepted for who we are by a larger group that helps us have a stable identity and sense of self, and self-worth. Our society touts individualism as maybe the most sacred aspect of our culture, but the reality is that, for better or worse, most of our self-identity comes from how others see and accept us. This is precisely why the way we welcome and accept others is so very important; the way we act and the words we say have immense power to  shape others in their own minds, and to make them feel loved and worthy, or not. In this story, Jesus has let Peter know that there is nothing that he’s done that has removed him from the fold of disciples. He is still a part of the beloved community of faith.

The other thing that Jesus gives Peter is a sense of purpose as a member of this larger community that he’s part of. Feed my sheep, Jesus tells him. Look out for others. Having a sense of purpose – knowing that who we are, and what we do, matters. Knowing that if we weren’t here, if we didn’t show up for life every morning, we’d be missed. It’s a well-proven fact that having sense of purpose in life is a far greater motivator than money, or power, or fame. Understanding that we have something of value to offer to other people is the most important aspect of living a life of joy.

In this story, the risen Jesus offered grace to Peter –  simultaneously offering him forgiveness, and a sense of belonging to a larger community, and giving him a purpose to carry out as part of that community.  And the risen Jesus offers the same to us. Through Christ, here, as members of this community of faith, we have the assurance that we’ve been accepted for who we are by God’s grace alone, and that we belong to this thing larger than ourselves, and that God has called each of us to make a difference, large or small, in this world of God’s creation.

In this world, we all struggle with guilt and shame about parts of our lives, and a sense of isolation and not belonging, and thoughts that we don’t really matter. This story was apparently an afterthought, an addition to John’s first printing of the gospel, but it’s good news for us that it was added – because here, Jesus offers us the cure for all of those struggles – through Christ, we have the assurance of forgiveness and the promise of a new beginning, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. He offers this to us in a way just as real as if, just as he shared breakfast with Peter that morning, he was sharing breakfast with us each morning – and in a very real way, he is.

Thanks be to God.