Friday, May 14, 2010

Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, "And She Prevailed"

Sermon 5/9/10, Acts 16:9-15

And She Prevailed

Do you know the history of Mother’s Day? Celebrations of Mothers are centuries and cultures old. Some people suggest that such celebrations of motherhood started perhaps even in Ancient Greece. In the United States, a push for an official Mother’s Day started in the late 1800s. Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, was an abolitionist and social activist who pushed for a mother’s day celebration as a call to action. She wanted women to use their influence to call for change, and was particularly upset over the carnage of the Civil War. In 1870 she wrote this Mother’s Day Proclamation: (1)  
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
In the early 1900s, Anna Jarvis worked to make Mother’s Day an official US holiday, in honor of her own mother, Ann, who was another activist during the civil war. Ann had organized groups of Mothers’ Day Clubs to provide relief to soldiers during the war on both sides – they served Confederate and Union soldiers equally. Anna, the daughter, was involved with justice-related causes herself, and within just a dozen or so years of the inception of the official Mother’s Day, was already disgusted at how commercial it had become. She lamented over greeting cards, upset that children couldn’t come up with anything on their own to say to their mothers. (2)
            I enjoyed reading about this history of Mother’s Day, but I also struggle a bit with Mother’s Day and worship. It isn’t a religious holiday, after all. And although I am blessed with a wonderful mother, I am very aware of how Mother’s Day can stir up a lot of emotions for people who have other experience – who have mothers who were hurtful or uncaring, or who have wanted to be mothers and aren’t able to be, for example. But as I was thinking about our text from Acts today, and thinking about Lydia, and thinking about women and their place in the Bible, I thought about how the full scope of our experience with mothers is reflected in all the pages, all the stories that we find in the scriptures.
            It always amuses me when people talk about family values and the Bible, as if Biblical family values were anything we’d want to copy or hold up as a model. The Bible contains stories about some of the most dysfunctional families I’ve ever seen. But the gift is that the Bible contains stories about imperfect families that we can actually see ourselves in – and yet God still uses these people. Of the mothers in the Bible, we have women who prayed to have children every day, and actually gave their children to temple service when they finally conceived, we have a mother who openly favored one son over the other and helped him trick his sibling out of his inheritance. We have a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who become closer after the death of their son and husband. We have women who became mothers in old age. Women who had to offer their servants to their spouses to have children with since they themselves weren’t capable. Women who acted as surrogate mothers for adopted children. Women whose children were killed by government decrees. And of course, a mother who gave birth to Jesus. And somehow, through all those stories, God was at work.
            And we see God at work in our reading from Acts today, where we encounter Lydia – a woman, a mother, a head of household, in fact. By this point in the record of the Acts of the Apostles, we’ve shifted focus from Peter and the rest of the twelve to Paul and his missionary journeys. In today’s passage, we hear Luke writing as if from his own personal diary, creating a vivid picture. Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man pleading for Paul’s help, and so Paul responds, convinced that God is calling them there to proclaim the good news about Jesus. They set sail and arrive in a Macedonian city, a Roman colony called Philippi – the community to which Paul will eventually write the letter we know as Philippians.
Paul and company go to the river on the Sabbath day where there was a place of prayer. In communities where no synagogue had been built, the riverside would have been a common place to meet for prayer, with the nearby water making purification rituals easier. They find a group of women gathered there, including a woman named Lydia, who is described as “a worshipper of God.” This particular identification lets us know that although Lydia was not Jewish, but a Gentile, she already was participating in some of the Jewish community life – including praying to God. She listens to Paul and Luke and the others, and we read that God “opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” In fact, her heart is open so wide that right away, she is baptized and her whole household is baptized too. She invites Paul and his crew to stay with her saying, “if you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay.” Apparently there’s some hesitation that we don’t read about. But we get the concluding word: “And she prevailed upon us.”
We don’t know a lot about Lydia, but what we do know is significant. So few women are named in the scriptures, so often designated as so-and-so’s wife or daughter or being lost in the crowd altogether without even standing out as an individual. But Lydia – we know that she’s a business woman – she deals in purple cloth, a color that would signify wealth – so she’s probably a fairly successful business woman. We hear in the text that she seems to be the head of her household: when she chooses to be baptized, her whole household, which would have meant relations of all ages, and servants, and anyone connected with her home – they were all baptized too. And we know that Lydia is persuasive enough to convince Paul, certainly a man who knows his own mind, to stay at her home. When Lydia is baptized, she becomes the first European follower of Jesus, the first disciple in the community of Christians that will be the Philippian church.
I don’t know how Lydia came to be the head of her household – to be a business woman, able to be in charge of her home and livelihood and decisions in a time when that was so rare. I found myself wondering: what if Lydia’s situation had been different? If she’d not been the head of her household, would she have ended up hosting Paul and the others? I am a strong believer that God doesn’t creates the hard situations in our lives – I don’t think God tries to punish us or test us with pain and suffering. But I believe God can take whatever messes we have, and, if we offer it to God, God uses it to do things beyond our imagination. Because I think that God finds a way to break into our world, burst onto the scene, be visible in our lives whether working with us or in spite of us. God finds a way. And I think that’s why the Bible is filled with stories of the most unlikely, messed-up people turning into proclaimers of good news – because God will use whoever says yes, whoever has an open heart, to bring God’s kingdom near, right here, right now. Think back to our Palm Sunday text, when the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to make the adoring crowds to be quiet – Jesus told them, “I tell you, if [the crowds] were silent, the stones would shout out.” God always has a way.
The question for us, then, is how do we want to be part of God’s way? Thomas Paine once said that we were supposed to “lead, follow or get out of the way.” God finds a way, and we can be part of it, or keep staying out of it if we insist, but God is the one leading, and God isn’t likely to stop moving and doing a new thing just because we won’t get on board. The Bible lets us know that God just finds the person, however unlikely, whose heart is open and uses them. I’d suggest that our smartest move is to ask ourselves: What do you have, what do I have, what do we have as a congregation that we can take and offer to God, even if it seems like a big mess to us? How can we let God use us, right here, right now, where we are, even if our situations and circumstances aren’t what we’d hoped for, or if they’re exactly what we wanted without God changing things on us? In an unlikely story, Lydia prevailed upon the apostle Paul, because she let God take her life and make it what God wanted. What unlikely story will God make of you?
Amen.  
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