Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 1, 2016
"The Rightness of Making Wrong Choices”
Acts 16: 9-15 – Common English Bible
A vision of a man from Macedonia came to Paul during the night. He stood urging Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” 10 Immediately after he saw the vision, we prepared to leave for the province of Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. 12 From there we went to Philippi, a city of Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony. We stayed in that city several days. 13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered. 14 One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message. 15 Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us.
Have you ever said, “God just didn’t want it to be”? Or, “I guess it wasn’t meant to happen.” Hold that thought. First, Lydia.
I’ve always thought it would be great to be friends with Lydia. I mean, she’s a woman surrounded by purple. Can you imagine the joy of selling beautiful purple textiles all day long?! How could you ever have a bad day?!
There’s not a whole lot written about Lydia – whether she wore a red hat, slurped her soup, or wore slippers in the rain. But the few descriptions we do have tell us a lot. A purple aficionado, yes. But also, an independent businesswoman. A gracious host. And a worshiper of God.
Being described as a “worshiper of God” meant that she was a Gentile who was intrigued by the Jewish belief in God. It means that she was open to exploring such meaning for her own life. Which meant, she was open to what Paul had to say to her when she and some other women were gathered by the riverside that day when Paul was looking for a place to pray. Maybe they were praying too. Or gathered to discuss deep and spiritual ideas.
With that kind of openness, Lydia listened eagerly and became convinced. She responded and demonstrated how belief in Jesus was expanding beyond Jews to also include Gentiles. As you probably know, initially, those wishing to follow the way of Jesus were thought to first need to convert to Judaism before being considered a “real Christian.” So much of the conflict and strife in early Christianity, and much of the content of Paul’s first letters, were about how to reconcile exactly those differences.
The beautiful thing is that as Christianity developed, it was a way of spiritual life equally for men and women – including leaders in the church. Equally for Jew and Gentile. Equally for slave and free. Equally for rich and poor. I’m not sure we can adequately understand from our context how completely radical that would have been, although today, sadly we still have to ask in church and elsewhere, how often do those who are truly poor and the very rich, and everyone in between, interact meaningfully? Not as servers at a shelter or donors to a cause that helps the poor but sitting together at a banquet. How many churches are truly integrated? We have mostly black churches or mostly white churches and Spanish speaking churches or English speaking churches. We even have churches for liberals and churches for conservatives. Pentecostal, Catholic… It must have been quite a beautiful sight to see how such radical equality was practiced in early Christianity. It would be beautiful and radical today too.
But back to Lydia. Notably, upon her decision to be baptized, she actually became the first Christian convert on the continent of Europe. Later, she even started a church, which was, in fact, the first church on the European continent. Get that?! The first new-church start in Europe was led by a woman. My friend Kate Huey lamented that when she grew up as a young girl in the Catholic Church dreaming of becoming a priest, nobody told her about Lydia. Her conversion led directly and immediately to an expression of extravagant hospitality – stay with us, she urged. And generous support. She continued to support Paul’s efforts financially for years to come.
But this story is about more than Lydia’s conversion or her entrepreneurial spirit – whether starting a church or selling purple cloth. Her story starts back with my first question:
Have you ever said, “God just didn’t want it to be.” Because that’s why Paul met Lydia in the first place.
Paul’s arrival came only after repeated failures to figure out where he was supposed to go, what he was supposed to do next. Paul repeatedly failed trying to figure out the right direction to take next with his life. Just before our reading today, verses 6 and 7 tell all the different cities Paul thought he was supposed to go to, but where they kept running into road blocks… in Phrygia, Galatia, Mysia, Troas… He blamed those road blocks on the Holy Spirit, claiming that the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to pass. Imagine trying to tell your mother that – it wasn’t my fault. Which is sometimes the same as saying, God didn’t want it to be. Or, it just wasn’t meant to happen. What was really going on?
But at least he was open. He didn’t say NO. I had to learn not to say “No, I’d never go there.” The first time I visited Cleveland, I said I would never move there. I had never been in an industrial rust belt city so when I saw so many soot stained buildings and dreary gray skies, I made an announcement that gave God no choice but to make me eat my words. Four year later looking for an apartment. Not surprisingly, it was exactly the right place for me to go. And I happily stayed for 17 years.
But of course I can say that now, from the perspective of looking back. It’s harder to say in the moment that it’s good we’re being blocked from proceeding down the path we think is meant for us. Haven’t you ever thought, “This would be perfect for me.” And then it didn’t work out.
Sometimes it’s a God-thing. But sometimes it’s a race thing. A gender thing. A sexual orientation or a gender identity thing. Barriers not of the Holy Spirit but of human division. Not a “God-thing” but a “You’re the ‘wrong’ kind of thing,” maybe religion or immigration status… That kind of thing. You speak the “wrong” language. Things that aren’t fair. When whites could buy houses in Park Hill but African Americans couldn’t, it wasn’t the Holy Spirit. It was a carefully drawn red-line kind of thing. When I couldn’t get ordained in the church of my upbringing, it wasn’t a God-thing, and yet, finding the UCC was absolutely a God-thing. Isn’t it interesting how God works around what humans do to each other.
In contrast, Paul didn’t have those barriers. He was able to move around freely because there’s a little detail in the text. Paul was a Roman citizen. If he needed it, he could appeal to the occupying force for help. As one commentator noted, if he were found in a ditch, he wouldn’t be just another Jew in the ditch. He was a Roman citizen who could expect help and demand respect.
Many of you know how much I have love travelling, especially around Southeast Asia for the last few years. But I am fully aware that I go with a tremendous amount of privilege. As an American, I can show up at the border and enter without proving I have a certain amount of money in my bank account first. The friends I’ve made can’t just show up and visit the U.S. Though I’m in their country, I move around freely on my own because so many signs are in both English and their language, whether in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia. I can expect a certain number of people to speak English. I’m a man, so I don’t worry about sexual assault. And I’m white, and so for whatever and for many reasons, I’m given deference and privileged to have people come over to help me when I look confused, for example, trying to figure out the subway.
The only time this wasn’t true was in Laos, where instead of expecting the police to treat me extra nice, I knew I was their target as they waited for me to do something wrong so I could be arrested, taken to jail, and fined. It was quite the contrast – driving while white, walking while white, being followed while white.
One day you’ll have to ask me the story of how I avoided going to jail by sleeping with a man I had met earlier in the day who had taken me to a nightclub, which due to our inability to understand each other very well, I didn’t know we were doing. (Not “sleeping with,” by the way!)
Some things never change, and so Paul, the Roman citizen, was privileged to move around wherever he wanted. And, apparently Lydia was pretty privileged too. She was from Thyatira, in modern day Turkey, Asia, but was living and selling her purple textiles in Philippi, in Macedonia, today’s Europe. Her wealth granted her privilege in ways that being a woman might have limited. I relate all of this because saying “God didn’t want it to be” or “It wasn’t meant to happen” doesn’t apply equally to people who face barriers because of discrimination.
And yet, even so, surely most of us at some point in our life must have asked, “Why didn’t that work out?” and then in hindsight find that something did come of it, something beautiful and amazing; sometimes because we were able to make it work. Always because we kept trying. Because remember, after each failure, Paul kept trying until he found Lydia. He remained open – if not this, then what else, where else, am I supposed to go.
When a door closes, in the moment, we all know that it feels more like punishment than an opportunity. Yet looking back, how we can say, God was in that. God was in that because God was with us the whole time, even those times we may blame God for blocking the way or keeping us out.
As people of faith, we live with the tension of believing in a God who would close doors for our own good while at the same time saying that we don’t believe in a God who acts directly in the affairs of the world. I mean, God doesn’t literally step in our way.
I know I live with this tension. Believing in – and experiencing – God actively working in my life. I know this in my heart. While at the same time, knowing in my head that God isn’t a deity that spares my house while flattening my neighbors. What does it mean when we say “God saved me”? It’s that tension of “yes” and… but that’s not how it works. I don’t believe in a God who puts food on my plate but doesn’t in a different neighborhood in Denver.
I will say, however, I know what it’s like when Paul felt blocked by the Spirit from going where he thought he was supposed to go, and yet how he ended up exactly where he was supposed to be. You know, that “God-thing.” I know what it feels like to be frustrated by something I can’t control or fully understand. Blocked for simply being who you are. And yet how sometimes that leads to a beautiful “God thing.”
When things didn’t work out, how did Paul finally find his way? Paul finally found the right destination because he listened to a man calling out in need. He had a vision. And Paul responded. Now, funny enough, there’s no indication that Paul ever found that man, or that the man actually ever even existed, but responding is what put Paul on the right path to meet Lydia. He listened. He was open. And that’s an important interpretive clue. One commentator wrote, Paul’s arrival in Philippi “wasn’t the result of a carefully executed strategic plan.”
I laughed when I read that because it comes just as we carefully consider the next step in our planning as a church! But as Burt Burlson noted, Paul wasn’t following a strategic plan. He simply demonstrated an openness to making a few wrong decisions. His right arrival was the result of a few wrong choices. His right arrival was the result of a few wrong choices. Remembering: Nothing takes us beyond God’s ability to help us find our way – no matter how many wrong, or bad, choices we make.
And so just at the moment we begin considering the next step in our long range planning – adopting a new vision – we can reflect on the six years since we adopted our last plan. It’s true that some choices didn’t work and maybe even God closed some doors. Frustrating at the time and issues still to address. But it’s amazing to read our previous document and consider how far we have come, how much we have accomplished together.
Again, not everything worked. So for the past couple of months, our leadership teams have been meeting to articulate a new vision upon which we can build. Asking, Where is God calling us next?
A copy of our four ideas, priorities, can be found in your bulletin:
I have to tell you: Each one of those statements has a closed door behind it – or two or ten. Which simply means openness to trying another door. True for each of us too. I mean, if Paul’s arrival at Lydia’s house wasn’t because of a carefully executed strategic plan, what was it about? Paul tried and failed and tried and failed. What’s the quote? “If you fall down seven times, get up eight.”
Each of us in our own way can do the same thing as we seek direction for our lives, until we find the place we are meant to be. And we’ll know that our being there is a God-thing. Paul demonstrates the rightness of making some wrong choices.