St. Paul’s Congregational Church
May 26, 2019 (Easter 6 - C)
Acts 16: 9 – 15, “Disciples Together”
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
What a wonderful Sunday it was last week! We gathered in worship and table fellowship to celebrate our 125th anniversary in ministry here at St. Paul’s – and celebrate we did. Ever since I got home last week, feeling exhausted yet energetic, empowered, I’ve been reflecting on our time together on this most special day. I realized I’d experienced the presence of the Spirit here in a profound way during worship – Valeria’s interpretation of the Revelation passage was breathtaking – her testimony to what this church has meant to her, her closing statement – and remember, never let fear decide the future. Then came Freeman Palmer’s sermon – delivered with passion, with an energy that was contagious. And then when our choir sang that beautiful arrangement of “How Great Thou Art” - it was a WOW moment –our choir is good every week but this was extraordinary. There were tears in the eyes of many people – Freeman and me included - one of the choir members told me after worship, wow – we never sounded like that during our rehearsals! And I’ve never felt in the presence of the great cloud of witnesses as strongly when Freeman honored Dan Caplan for his history of the church, when we honored the founding members of this church during the prayers, and when we looked through the scrapbooks and pictures on display at the brunch.
It was an extraordinary day. It was one of those all-too-rare mountaintop experiences. It was one of those times when I felt a grounding, a passion, an energy – a time of hope, a time of feeling alive with the fire of the Holy Spirit, and a determination to keep those flames burning bright. Did any of you feel that too? I truly hope so. How do we keep that flame alive? Ever since then I’ve been wondering, “What’s next.” What’s next for St. Paul’s as we look ahead to the shape of our ministry to come. Who is God calling us to be? What is God calling us to do?
Our passage from Acts gives us some clues for our journey. The journey of Paul and Silas to new and unexpected places, in ministry with new and most unexpected people – women and gentiles – is the story not only of the early church but of the church throughout the ages. As we embark on God’s mission in our day and in our own setting here as well as around the world, we are more, together, than simply the sum of our parts: we are the Body of Christ active in the world that God loves. The power of this relationship exists not just in the story of Silas added to Paul’s ministry long ago, but in the stories of all of us, women and men of all ages – children, youth, adults – in the church, in our rich diversity, our unique gifts, and our visions, too, opening our hearts to God’s leading: where we should go, even if it’s to the most unexpected places; how we should get there, even if the means come from the most unexpected sources; and who we should serve, even if we find ourselves most unexpectedly blessed by them in return.
There are for sure, times when it’s easier than others to figure out what God wants us to do and where God wants us to go. After Paul, with his new companion, Silas had completed a tour of the churches he had already founded on his first trip, they decide to strike out into new territory: Europe rather than Asia. It’s there they meet Lydia – a most unlikely candidate to be the first Christian convert in Europe – Lydia – a gentile, and more interesting, a woman, a rich woman at that.
We really don’t know much about her – we don’t hear of her again in the Bible. What we do know is that she’s a successful businesswoman who sells purple cloth, a luxury item for the very wealthy. The dyes used to create the color purple were extremely expensive – that’s why purple has become known as the color of royalty. The royals were the only ones who could afford it!
Paul and Silas go looking for devout Jews to whom they will preach the good news of Jesus Christ. They wait until the Sabbath when they’re sure to find an audience among those gathered in prayer. Is there a synagogue? If so, it’s a humble one – it’s a gathering of folks down by the river, ready to pray and listen for a Word from God. Doesn’t that remind you of new church starts that begin in unlikely places? Bars, coffee shops, karate studios, maybe even at a river’s edge where people gather to pray. Maybe we’re a new church start too, even after 125 years of ministry!
Here’s the first clue for us: Paul and Silas began by going to where the people were. They didn’t wait for people to seek them out – the passage tells us they went outside the gate – outside the gate – by the river – and sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. They didn’t stay in the synagogue, or put up a new sign outside the synagogue and wait for people to come. They went out to meet people where they gathered!
And the same is true for us I think – if we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we too must reach outside of these walls, of our established church. We can’t just open our doors and wait for people to come in – we know that, I think. We can’t simply mow the lawn or make a new sign and wait. We can’t put up a sign at the corner of Franklin Avenue and St. Paul’s Place and expect people to come. No matter how attractive our sign is, or how welcoming our website is or how informative our facebook page is, while this will reach some people, it’s just not enough. We do have stories of people who have come here because they looked at the website or our facebook page – and that’s great – but unless they find us on fire with the spirit, they won’t be back.
Instead we have to reach out – we have to look at the needs of the people in this community, the places where there is hurt, where there is need for redemption and forgiveness, where there is spiritual longing, and reach out and address it. We are called to move out of our building and go into the community. We are called to look outside of ourselves and meet people where they are. This is our calling, our responsibility as Christians.
If we are to once again become on fire with the gospel message, we too must not limit God by defining the people we are called to reach. We can seek and touch the unexpected person who might be longing for the transformative message of God’s love – we are to risk sharing the gospel message. Are we willing to take that risk? Can we overcome the hesitation, the fear to take that risk? And who among us can say, especially in today’s world, that there isn’t a need to share the gospel message, that there isn’t a crying need, a desperate need for the hope and joy of that message? This is a good time to be church.
If Jesus came to proclaim good news and the year of the Lord’s favor, and we carry this good news, like Paul, to all the ends of the earth, wouldn’t those on the fringes, those outside the gate, outside our building, be hungry to hear what we have to say? And could it also be that God has surprises in store for us about our own yearnings to be a vital, loving community of faith, filled with the passion, the fire of the spirit?
Once upon a time there was a woman named Samantha, a good and faithful Christian. She has attended church most Sundays for years. She volunteers when needed and she’s even served on a variety of committees. She always attends church events, adult education offerings, meetings of the congregation – special worship services like Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday – she’s what we would think of as a pillar of the church.
But somehow, Samantha comes to feel that something is missing. She’s feeling as if she isn’t growing and changing despite all her church activities, despite her commitment, despite her faith. She somehow senses that her life is not much different from her friends who don’t attend church at all. Maybe they have sports activities – musical activities – or just sleep in on Sunday morning instead. She reminds me a little of the confirmands whose major question so often, whether it is spoken or not, is what difference does all this church stuff, this faith stuff make? How do I know?
The reality is there are people like her in many congregations, people who aren’t experiencing the spiritual transformation for which they hoped. One person remarked, “They came to us seeking God. And we gave them church instead.”
Many congregations, despite their best intentions, seem to have lost focus and give those seeking Jesus a listing of church activities rather than ways for spiritual growth that can be truly transformational. We can get so caught up in the details of being church that we forget why we’re here in the first place.
Maybe we here at St. Paul’s are a little sad that we don’t have a long list of church activities these days – we spend time fretting about the furnace, the needs of the building, looking inward, that maybe we have forgotten why we’re here – to serve God and neighbor. Maybe we wonder why new people would come here anyway. What do we have to offer anyway?
How do we fan those flames of the spirit that we know is around us – that grounding, that passion, that energy - a time of feeling alive with the fire of the Holy Spirit, nurturing a time of hope, with a determination to keep those flames burning bright? In my reflections this past week, I realized how much I yearn to experience all those things again – I guess it’s an occupational hazard for clergy to get caught up in the details of church life – but I do suspect it’s true for some of you as well.
Then I remembered an email I once got from a woman, entitled “Evidence of God” – intriguing for sure. She wrote about a challenge she had been presented with that day at work – she was working on a project and was aware of some real ethical problems with the way the work was being done. It was bothering her terribly and she was having trouble deciding her course of action. She’d come up with three different options but the solution was still not becoming clear. Then as she was taking the subway to Penn Station, still struggling with what direction to take and trying to think of who she could ask to help with the dilemma, she looked up, and there in bold, colorful letters was a poster in the subway that read, “God knows your struggle.” She said a huge smile came over her face – and she says, I was reminded about asking God for guidance – I don’t know why I forget that at times but I do. I’m glad for the reminder I get each week in worship. She reports she didn’t immediately get an answer to her dilemma, but she knows she’ll have help.
Has that happened to you? Have you felt the unmistakable stirring in you that God is leading you? How did it feel? Did you feel the wind rushing through you? When and where has the light dawned for you? Yes – even in the subway on the way to Penn Station – it’s not just possible but probable that our open hearts will be touched by God.
Friends, God knows our struggles too.
Maybe that’s our calling now as we begin a new phase in our journey here at St. Paul’s - we’re called to be ready and open everywhere – in school, in business, here at church, at home, everywhere we travel. Maybe the first step is to let go and let God! To open our hearts and to be touched by God. To be grounded in the love of God. And once we’ve experienced that love again, we want to share it! That love fans the embers, those flames of the spirit we all have inside of us.
Then we are empowered to reach out beyond our church walls as we seek to proclaim this awesome message. We can and we will help people like Samantha transform the burning embers of her faith into brilliantly burning flames. And our flames will burn brighter and stronger too. Imagine the power of those flames!
Lydia shows us the way – my hope is that each of us will worship and learn and feel that wind of the spirit rushing through us as well – and that we will go forth confident and sure of our Lord’s presence with us, wherever we go, whatever we do. May we continue our journey in ministry as Lydia and so many others have done and are still doing – we can walk this road together, experiencing a joy that energizes us, that sparks our passion, and increases our energy to share so that others may experience that same joy. We may even generate big smiles on the subway. So may it be! Amen
Let us pray:
Gracious God, come now and dwell with us as we seek your presence. Let the fresh wind of your spirit fall on us. We thank you for the example of the disciple Lydia. May we learn from her journey and may we lead others to worship you, to love you, and follow you all the days of our lives. Amen.