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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sermon: Open To All

by Interim Pastor Hollie Holt-Woehl
Sixth Sunday of Easter

When I was serving two rural congregations in my first call, seventeen years ago, the congregations had a tradition of a Children’s Sermon by the pastor, which was wildly popular with the youth. The reason for the popularity was that during the two year interim before I arrived, the interim pastor gave out candy at the end of the Children’s Sermon. Immediately I made friends with the parents and the mature members of the congregation when I did not hand out candy. The children, however, took a little while to get use to the idea of a Children’s Sermon without candy.

Something I did institute at the Children’s Sermon time was something called the “Sermon Bucket.” This was not an original idea. It was something I learned from a friend of mine who also served two rural churches. The idea was that the children would take turns putting something into the bucket which I would have to make up a sermon about on the spot. The Sermon Bucket was a regular 5 quart ice cream pail with a lid. On the lid were the rules, 1) it had to fit in the bucket, 2) it couldn’t be alive, and 3) it couldn’t stink. This became wildly popular during my time in that call. It was open to all of the children and it was something in which they could all participate, the adults engaged with it also. The children took it very seriously and would take thought and care into whatever they put in the bucket. The adults kept waiting for me to be stumped. I, of course, needed to be open to whatever might be in the bucket and run with it.

I don’t remember what children brought nor do I remember what I said about any of them during my time there. However I do remember the one time I was stumped. It was Mother’s Day 1996. The youngest of the Larson kids had the Sermon Bucket, she was about 4 years old. I don’t remember her name. It was her idea to purchase a purple little bear that said “Happy Mother’s Day” on it to place it is the bucket. She came forward, face beaming. When I opened the bucket and saw the bear, I began to think about Jesus as a mother bear who gathers her cubs in her arms to keep them safe, but then the little Larson girl said, “It’s for you. Happy Mother’s Day.” And all the words in my head melted away. When we are open to another we never know how that other might change us.

When the Spirit of God became open to all people after Pentecost many changes took place in people’s lives. It is odd to talk about the Holy Spirit getting loose when liturgically we have not yet celebrated Pentecost yet, however all of our readings from Acts this Easter season take place after the giving of the Holy Spirit. The main theme of the Acts of the Apostle’s comes from Acts 1:8, when Jesus, before he ascends (another liturgical day we celebrate this Thursday), says to the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And the themes of these readings have been that the God’s Holy Spirit is open to all, the spirit is poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:17).

We see that the Holy Spirit is open to all in today’s Acts reading. The Holy Spirit gives Paul a vision to go to Macedonia, this is new territory for Paul and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it is in the city of Philippi where the first convert to Christianity in Europe is a woman.

Lydia was no ordinary woman it that day, she was a business woman, the head of her household, and a “worshipper of God.” Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth. In those days a purple cloth was associated with high social class and wealth. Apparently the purple dye was obtained from the shells of an ocean mollusk, which was difficult to get and produce therefore the dye and garments of that color was expensive.

Lydia was also the head of her household, which was more than a bit unusual, for it was men who were the head of the household. Now the household included both family and servants. We are not certain if she was married and widowed (divorced?) or never married.

Since Lydia was from Thyratira she was probably a Gentile, which is why she is referred to as a “worshipper of God.” Thyratira is located in a county named Lydia in the SW Asia Minor. Thyatira was famous for its dyeing. Some scholars think her name had originally be an adjective “a woman of Lydia,” which may be why Paul never refers to her, in his letter to Philippi. Paul does mention receiving gifts from the Philippians church (II Corinthians 11:8, Philippians 4:16). At some point she moved her household and business to Philippi in Macedonia. Philippi was on a major east-west trade route.

Lydia and some other women are worshipping God outside the gate by the river because the synagogue was not open to women. Paul speaks to the women and the spirit of God opened Lydia’s heart. After her heart is opened she and her entire household is baptized and then she opens her home to Paul (and Silas and Timothy who are traveling with Paul).

When the Holy Spirit opens the heart, people are changed. But sometimes when we try to change things and/or people it doesn’t work so well. There was a certain man who as a young adult set out to change the world, but became bitter with the results. Then in his middle years he set out to change the nation, once again with no results there too he became bitter. Later he set out to change his house, once again no result followed bitterness in his life. Finally in his old age he set out to change himself. Then he realized that if he would have changed himself first, maybe he would have changed his house, the nation, and the world.

A Chinese Proverb puts it this way:
If there is light in the soul,
there will be beauty in the person.
If there is beauty in the person,
there will be harmony in the house.
If there is harmony in the house,
there will be order in the nation.
If there is order in the nation,
there will be peace in the world.

Peace is open to all because of Christ Jesus. Because the Holy Spirit is living and acting and moving it is possible to experience the peace of which Jesus speaks.

We may look around us and hear of murders, traffic deaths, diagnosis of cancer, oil spills, economic and market uncertainty and say there is no peace in the world. We hear some people say the only way for peace is through war or in the case of the country of Iran, the only way for peace is to get rid of the current president. How well did that work in Iraq?

Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is the presence of God. Peace is not the absence of pain. Peace is the presence of Jesus Christ. Peace is not the absence of suffering. Peace is the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit the Advocate, in Greek the paraklytos, who called to our side us in the midst of this world. Not only is the Holy Spirit called to our side, but the work of God is also communal and calls others to our side, like Lydia who open her home to care for and support Paul and his ministry. Or like the friend that calls at the right time, or the email or letter that arrives, or the acquaintance who listens, or the person who helps.

The peace of God may come from unlikely sources or circumstances which others may not see or recognize. The struggles may continue but the Holy Spirit will not leave you.

Dear Friends in Christ, may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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