A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
May 5, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Recently I happened to meet some women who meet spontaneously for Centering Prayer, at various places in San Antonio. I joined them this last time, when they met under the Fringe Tree. We had to time it just so, as the Fringe tree’s bloom only lasts for two weeks or so, and we were compelled to pray under its blooms. I had only met one of the women before that day, but here we were, gathering for prayer and the deepest kind of kinship underneath God’s magnanimous sky and the white blooms of an exotic tree.
This is the kind of fellowship I picture out by the river where Paul went and spoke to those who were gathered there. These women were sharing in the strange and sacred communion of silence, perhaps a redundant way to describe it, seeing how “strange” and “sacred” are fairly interchangeable terms. The cliché we are used to hearing is that “Holy means set apart,” but another way to say it is that sacred means strange. Sacred means an interruption of the norm, or just a new way of seeing the norm; sacred means something distinct and different from the clutter and clamor, chatter and chaos of our frantic living.
And so I imagine these women gathered at the river, searching for the sacred. I do not know if these women yet knew anything about Jesus; I do not know if they had any names for God or if they simply sought something strange, something beyond their understanding, something beyond the city gates, something wild and winsome that drew them to the waters and to each other, on the watch for holy. But the point is, whether or not they knew the object of their affections, they were seeking, and that was enough for the Spirit to work with.
Oddly, Paul and his helpers knew to head to the river, the text says, “expecting to find a place of prayer.” How did they know where to go and what to expect? The lectionary passage begins in the middle of the chapter, but if you begin at the beginning, you find that twice in this chapter, the disciples have tried to go elsewhere—first Asia, then Bithynia—but the Holy Spirit redirected them. God has a way of redirecting our steps even before we know why or where it is we’re really headed. Because of all the confusion, the stops and starts, the disciples ended up in Troas. It almost feels like a treasure hunt, one clue here, one clue there, or maybe a maze—“No! Not this way. Try that that way!” Anyway, it’s in Troas that the last clue/path is opened. Paul received a vision from a man urging them towards Macedonia, “Come and help us!” and after that the disciples got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God has called them to preach the Gospel to them.
But, once they got there, how did they know to go specifically to Philippi, and once in Philippi, to leave the city and head down to the river? Maybe there were more visions, or more details to the one vision that aren’t included here. Maybe it was all just a happy accident. Maybe it was an intuitive knowing that directed them from that point on. Maybe they knew from Scripture that rivers were good places to talk and preach and baptize. It’s often a challenge, in the spiritual walk, to point to just what it was that got you right here, to where you are today—it was so many things, really. Little twists and turns along the way, like the butterfly effect over and over.
Anyhow, however it happened exactly, it happened, that Paul and his disciples met up with this specific group of women on this specific day, right when they were ripe for receiving the Gospel. When the women picked the river as a place to meet for prayer that day, they could not have known that by the end of the day they’d be wanting to be baptized in it. The disciples could not have known when they headed out the city gates who it was they were meant to meet. But two parties open to the promptings of the Spirit found each other and the rest is history.
Were the disciples surprised to find a group of women, apparently meeting on their accord? If they were surprised, they did not show it. They just plopped right down as if with old friends and began to tell the good news. Everything about this meeting was unconventional, and why shouldn’t it be? In those days, the Holy Spirit was in the business of blowing up boxes, expanding borders, upsetting expectations, filling the world with a presence that could not be shut out.
One of the women that day was Lydia, a seller of purple cloth, and she responded enthusiastically to the Gospel. She was already a worshipper of God before they arrived, and the text says, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” It sounds as if her heart had been open and ready for quite some time, attentive and prepared to receive as soon as the message of Jesus reached her ears. And once her heart started opening, it didn’t stop. It expanded and expanded until her heart became a home of hospitality for others. Her entire household ended up baptized, so great was her influence, and then she turned and invited Paul and his companions into her home to stay. This wasn’t just a timid gesture of politeness or gratitude. The text says, “She prevailed upon us,” as if she was determined to make them her guests.
It is remarkable how decisive and strong Lydia is. You never detect any sense of hesitation in her demeanor; it makes you wonder if those women gathered at the river in the first place at her initiative. She was that kind of woman.
The men in Paul’s company exhibit no reservations whatsoever in accepting Lydia just as she is. This passage evokes praise, not rebuke, of her forthright manner and unapologetic initiative. Lydia was like one who trusted her own heart to lead her, and where she led, people followed. She opened her heart and it drew people to her, drew people to the Lord. She had no shame, just open curiosity and the heart of a worshipper.
I wonder why it wasn’t her that showed up in Paul’s vision, since it was her and her friends they seem meant to find? The text says it was a man of Macedonia . . . perhaps it was her, but Paul was a little embarrassed to tell the others he was dreaming about a woman and they should all try and find her!
I have a sister named Lydia who shares this kind of spunk with her namesake. Knowing her, she’d absolutely disguise herself as man of Macedonia if that’s what it took to get Paul’s attention, so that’s what makes me wonder what the biblical Lydia had to do with that vision. Whether or not she knew about it, I think she influenced it, don’t you? There was some sort of collusion between her passion and the Holy Spirit that got the disciples all the way from Galatia down to her river.
These days, unless you’re a Pentecostal or a Charismatic, the Holy Spirit tends to be rather absent from the liturgy and language of most the church. “God and Jesus, God and Jesus,” those are the names we hear all the time, as if we’ve adopted a two-part trinity. Something about the Holy Spirit is just a little too strange for our modern sensibilities. Like demons, magic, miracles, and werewolves, Spirit is the stuff of fantasy, not the stuff of day-to-day life. But perhaps that’s just the problem. We think of the Holy Spirit as too fantastical, and we do not look for the Spirit in the average strange moments of a given day. What if we dared to believe in a working, present, moving Spirit? What if serendipitous encounters, synchronistic events, surprising occurrences, and happy accidents were more than just coincidence? What might it be like, if we sought God and expected an answer? Not a big, fancy, writing-in-the-sky answer, just small, subtle, almost imperceptible answers. What if we followed the gentle promptings of Spirit, though we may not be accustomed to such spontaneity? Are we even open to that way of living, of seeing, of moving through the world? What if the things that move us aren’t just things but manifestations of Spirit? What if there’s more to this life than meets the eye? What if it’s okay for your passion to explode past convention in collusion with the Spirit, what if, WHAT IF, there’s a river where your longings can meet up with their fulfillment?
What if, like Lydia, we opened our hearts wide, and then, opened them wider? Would we be surprised?
Yes. I think we would.