Sixth Sunday of Easter
I am happy to tell you this morning that, between mid-June and mid-November, I have been asked to officiate 6 weddings! It’s rare that this happens so frequently within such a short amount of time, and I see it as a sign of good news for our church. Love is in the air, and I am praying that each couple will be “fruitful and multiply” according to their wishes and desires. We need more children in our day school!
One of the first questions I often ask these couples is “How did the two of you meet?” As you might imagine, I have heard an array of answers over the years: “We met online. He/she was sitting at a table or the seat near mine. He/she was a waiter serving my table. I had recently moved to New York City or into the apartment building or the neighborhood, and he/she was the first person I met or who extended hospitality. We met through mutual friends, at school or work.” And every now and then, someone will say, “We met at church!” So if you are looking, keep coming because you just never know what you might find!
It is also true of other people, friends, and the like who enter our lives almost by random, having been at the “right place at the right time” and somehow, they have stuck. Others came along but were never intended to stay and were more like ships passing in the night.
It seems to me that some of these encounters are miraculous in a holy kind of way. The likelihood of it all seems slim: the right place, right time, right frame of mind, and an openness to give and receive.
My guess is that most of us have been a little awed by such matters at some point and time. I know I have. How just one turn in the opposite direction, a few minutes late or early and we might have missed each other. If I had gone that way instead of that way. Or sat there instead of there. Or simply said “no”; which would have still be alright, but saying “yes” proved far more rewarding – or vice versa – but you get the point don’t you?
In our New Testament lesson, we find what appears to be a chance encounter by the Apostle Paul and a woman named Lydia. On another day at another time, Paul and Lydia might never have met. But this day, they were there together and both their lives were changed remarkably.
We find Paul on a missionary journey in Philippi, a small colony occupied by the Roman government.
Earlier, he had experienced a strange dream that he couldn’t let go. Paul saw a vision in which a man was summoning him to come over to Macedonia and help. Believing that it was God who had called him, Paul set out along with Silas and others on a missionary journey. On the Sabbath day, they went outside the city gate – most likely where the synagogue was located. And there by the riverside, they found a group of women and began to share the gospel. One of the women gathered was named Lydia.
Now, the scriptures don’t tell us a whole lot about Lydia, and what we know of her is found in just a few verses. We know that she is a Gentile; a non-Jewish person, an outsider. She was not “supposed” to be a believer of Jesus Christ.
She is a professional woman, a business person, an entrepreneur and seller of purple dye, which would have been the most valuable of all material cloth in those days. We know that she was a leader in charge of her household, for when she was converted they all are baptized. We know that Lydia was open to the world around herself with watchful eye and spirit for something new.
This made her a prime candidate to be a faithful follower of “the Way”. She comes to the riverside (probably one of any number of times) to pray, and perhaps all she was really expecting was to meet a few other women and catch up on the news.
But she is open to the possibility that God might actually be present to her. Perhaps she was seeking inwardly, yearning for something different, not quite knowing exactly what, but when it comes along it’s like a moment of eureka!
And there were Paul and Silas and others who were also seeking someone to listen and believe, and so they meet at this crossroad of life and faith.
It was in Philippi that the gospel was first preached on European soil; and it was Lydia who was the first convert. We know that Paul did great work there and visited often. He loved this church; they had taken him in and cared for him, supporting and encouraging the work of the Gospel.
Their care was the basis for that beautiful epistle, the love letter that Paul wrote to the people: “I thank my God every time I think of you; and I am constantly praying with joy in every prayer for all of you because of your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.” What a great model of unity and mutual support for the church – for the pastor and people working together for the good of our shared work.
Paul goes on to say: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
How different the Gospel might have been had there not been this encounter with Paul and Lydia. If Paul was not open or unwilling. If Lydia had not arrived at that place or time—had she not been a seeker already on her way—things could have gone another way.
Here’s what I think: there are no chance encounters. None of it is by mistake – even those experiences and those people that we might rather not engage can be helpful to us. Perhaps there are lessons that can only come from rough places. Or some things about God and God’s way; or who we fundamentally are; and who are all desperately trying to be.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “sometimes the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.”
God opened Lydia’s heart and she saw the truth that was laid before her. In turn, she was baptized, and others followed. From there, a church was born and lives are changed.
She comes to worship because she was hungry – hungry for more. Hungry for something new; something besides her career or professional success. Something beyond what she already knows; beyond her regular routine; something more meaningful for her soul.
And when she found it, she knew. She recognized it for what it was: the holy. God’s presence. And it changed her life forever. Every step of the way, my brothers and sisters, the Spirit prompts us and calls us and blesses us. And through us, we bless others.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus promises the presence of the Holy Spirit who will be with us to teach us and remind us of who we are.
This good news is to be shared; never to be contained in one’s own life alone. Whatever our witness, our experience of God’s presence and movement is to be shared in one way or another. And when we do so, people are able to relate and are drawn into something larger than themselves. We can be confident that regardless of how things might appear, God is present with us through all the encounters of our lives. Thanks be to God.