Sermon: “Who Knows What You’ll Find by the River?”

May 1, 2016: Easter 6 – Rural Life Sunday – Orthodox Easter

Text: Acts 16:9-15

Luke, who wrote both the Gospel we call by his name and the Book of Acts, had a taste for unconventional encounters. Last Sunday we heard the story of Peter and Cornelius, the spirit-led fisherman and the spiritually hungry centurion. Earlier in Acts we find Philip getting a ride from an Ethiopian court official, a eunuch, and their conversation leads to his baptism. Paul himself is another person of power and influence, and enough zeal for his faith that he persecutes Jesus’ followers, until he meets a man named Ananias who make the news of Jesus into good news.

Now Paul meets another of these powerful individuals, but she may be the most unique of them all. She’s a woman of means and authority. She’s the head of her household, which was very unusual for a woman of the first century, and manager of her own business as well: a lucrative business that catered only to the most powerful and the most wealthy. Royalty and the nobility got to wear purple.

She’s bold enough, in a city where she’s a foreigner, to go worship with a disregarded minority, outside the city gates. She’s persistent enough to become a success as a woman and a foreigner in a Roman city – and to talk the Apostle Paul into doing something he probably didn’t want to do. “She persuaded us,” says Luke.

As I read Paul’s letters, I get the sense of a man it would be very difficult to persuade of anything. And “she persuaded us.”

Whatever Paul might have imagined after his vision of the Macedonian man which changed his direction for this trip, I’m sure he didn’t expect to meet a person like Lydia.

Who knows what you’ll find by the river?

In fairness, I probably ought to point out that Lydia probably had no notion of meeting anyone like Paul at her accustomed place of prayer. She thought she’d be praying with this same small group of people she’d known for some time. And she finds news, good news, to fill her open heart.

Who knows what you’ll find by the river?

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews, Dean of the Amistad Chapel at Church House, the UCC’s headquarters in Cleveland, has this to say:

“The beauty of this story is how well it illustrates what Paul later writes in the famous passage in his letter to the Galatians, when he emphatically quotes the baptismal formula used by the very early, early Christians: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’”

In Paul, Lydia found a faith she’d been seeking, and had almost, but not quite, found. In Lydia, Paul finds not just a welcoming host, but to quote Jesus, a rock on which to build the church in Philippi.

Who knows what you’ll find by the river?


In Philippi: a chapel marks the site of the place where Paul and Lydia met.

My experience is that the people I wouldn’t ordinarily meet in the course of the life I’ve grown accustomed to are the ones who’ve most enriched it. Like most of us, I haven’t made it a habit to walk by the riverside. When I have, it’s those I’ve met there who’ve done great things to revive my spirit.

Who knows what you’ll find by the river?

There is an ugly movement under way in this country that would keep us in the walled city, away from the river where we might encounter someone new. You see it in the political climate, where some would build an actual wall to keep “them” away. You see it in the renewed efforts to reduce women’s autonomy. I couldn’t quite believe my ears this week when one political candidate accused another of playing “the woman card,” as if women had advantages men don’t in this society. Women still take home 79% of what men do, and there’s a pay gap in most occupations. In the current Congress, just a fifth of the members of the House and the Senate are women. It makes Hawai’i look really good at 28.9%. That’s less than a third.

And you see this ugly movement in the laws around gender identity and bathrooms. Supporters claim that it’s about public safety, but here in Hawai’i, the law has prohibited discrimination based on gender identity since 2006. Hawai’i Civil Rights Commission Executive Director William Hoshijo has said: “The Hawai’i Civil Rights Commission is not aware of any incidents of sexual assault or rape causally related or attributed to the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. (In contrast to anecdotal reports of transgender students being harassed and bullied in school restrooms when forced to use an assigned restroom inconsistent with their gender identity.)”

The Rev. Emily Heath is pastor of the Congregational Church UCC of Exeter, New Hampshire. She’s not a transgender person, but she likes to wear her hair short and she prefers trousers and dress shirts, and she rocks the bow ties. So she sometimes receives a chilly reception when she walks into a public women’s room.

She wrote this week: “I’m telling you that I’d like to spend a whole lot less time thinking about bathrooms than I do. And I’m also telling you this. I’m telling you that going into a restroom makes me afraid. I’m a former rugby player, I’ve studied judo, and I routinely dead-lift more than most grown men weigh. But multiple times a week I am too scared to take care of a basic human need in a public place.”

The North Carolina law isn’t about safety. It’s about preventing us from encountering someone different.

Let’s be clear. The apostle Paul would probably not have approved. He displays some rather set ideas about women’s apparel in his letters. But you know, he didn’t approve of Jesus to start. I would guess he didn’t have a high opinion of Gentiles earlier in his life. I suspect he found the idea, let alone the reality, of an independent woman like Lydia profoundly disturbing.

But he worked through the disturbance. That baptismal formula about neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female? In the letters we have, he quotes it not once, not twice, but three times. I wonder how many times he quoted it in letters that have disappeared with history.

He found spiritual riches beyond his imaginings in these new people he encountered by the river. They enriched him with their uniqueness: Lydia’s distinct authority, determination, and generosity.

So you and I: Let us go down to the riverside. In people of another race, or culture, or gender, or gender expression, or faith, we will find blessings we have not imagined, riches of the spirit we had not known.

Let’s go down to the river. Who knows what we’ll find there?

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on May 1, 2016

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