Acts of the Apostles 16.16-34
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Two different stories of liberation comprise today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. One is the story of manumission: the release from demonic possession and slavery of a young woman who is being exploited by those who own her. And her freedom ironically leads to the captivity of two apostles, Paul and Silas, who are thrown into prison because they helped to free her from bondage. The second liberation comes as Paul and Silas are freed from prison as an earthquake breaks the prison cell doors and unshackles them and others.
It’s an odd tale…definitely one that fits the genre of an adventure story. Can you picture for yourself Paul and Silas, wounded from having been flogged, in a prison cell with their legs in stocks in the middle of the night? I imagine that it was dark and dank. We don’t know what their long-term prospects were, but after being beaten, they were probably awaiting execution…long-term incarceration wasn’t typical in the ancient world. What would you do if you were in their place? I imagine that I would pray fervently and quietly. How about you? Would you be singing? Maybe so…singing is one of the things that sometimes dispels fear. Maybe you would start quietly with the triumphant Welsh hymn and the words of that great preacher from the Riverside Church in New York: “God of grace, and God of glory, on your people pour your power crown your ancient church’s story; bring its bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour.” Or maybe you’d sing the words of one who suffered during the Thirty Years War in the17th century: “If you but trust in God to guide you, with hopeful heart through all your ways, you will find strength with God beside you, to bear the worst of evil days.”
One of the aspects of music in worship is that it gets us out of our heads and into our hearts. Singing has an affective dimension that employs our bodies as well as our souls and minds. And that is especially important for those of us who find ourselves in the oh-so cerebral Congregational tradition of the UCC, the church that founded Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth, along with so many other American universities.
But being thoughtful and appreciating the life of the mind is not mutually exclusive with being able to feel deeply as well. When we are in moments of crisis, it is the ability to feel our faith (and not simply analyze it) that pulls us though. That might be why those two early apostles found themselves singing hymns at midnight in a seemingly hopeless situation in a prison cell.
When I was beginning to write this sermon, I was talking over the text with Jane Anne, and she told me that she remembered a sermon her dad had preached about this passage, and he called it “Singing Hymns at Midnight.” And so, I borrowed his sermon title, though the content is different.
Milton and Bettie, my late in-laws, were acquainted with tragedy as their daughter, Jo Catherine, was killed in a traffic accident when she was sixteen. Milton was a seminary president and taught philosophy of religion and had a great theological mind. But he also had an incredibly big heart…not unlike Jane Anne. And in that sermon, Milton recalled how in the dark of the night, after learning of Jo Catherine’s death, he found himself reading scripture and singing hymns at midnight. That was the aspect of his faith that gave him strength and hope in the face of tragedy. It wasn’t theological analysis, which of course is important, but rather the affective dimension of his faith that Milton relied on in that dreadful hour. He later told Jane Anne, “As I looked into the abyss that night, I realized that everything I had been teaching and preaching my whole life was true…I believed it in the midst of tragedy.”
What about you? How would you lean into your faith at such a moment? At times like those, it is so helpful to have a spiritual toolkit that contains a passage of scripture, a prayer, or a hymn that you know by heart, even if it’s just one line. Your spiritual toolkit can help calm your mind and your heart.
One of the amazing figures of colonial Christianity in this country, Jonathan Edwards, served Congregational churches in Connecticut and Massachusetts before becoming president of Princeton. Edwards concluded that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” Edwards was writing in the 18th century before the advent of psychology, but he was able to identify that faith involved more than the head; it also involved the heart. “Holy affections” involve emotion, but they are more than that for Edwards. He lists love, hope, joy, and gratefulness as positive religious affections. And we can lean into those to bolster our faith.
It was love, compassion, and concern in our story that led Paul to keep the guard from taking his own life and to tell him that by putting his trust in Jesus he would be saved.
That word “believe” is an interesting one for many of us. For some of us believing reflects the experience of Alice in Wonderland, who said to the Queen of Hearts, “One can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Faith does not mean convincing yourself of six impossible things before breakfast. It means opening your heart and mind to relationship. Believing in someone is vastly different than simply judging the veracity of a statement. And it’s more than conjecture. If I say, “I believe in you” to my son, Christopher, it means that I have confidence in him. And the English verb “believe” has its roots in the Old English “belyfen,” which is also related to our verb, “belove.” To have faith in God is about relationship; it is more about the heart than it is the head.
So, when we say, “I believe in Jesus,” it is less about affirming his existence and more about saying that I trust him…I have confidence in him…I put my faith in him.
In our story, when the guard comes into relationship with Jesus, he responds faithfully through deep hospitality, taking Paul and Silas, his former prisoners, into his home, cleaning their wounds, and feeding them. That’s a theme: for the last five weeks, each story from the Acts of the Apostles has involved hospitality, when one person provides housing, food, or both. Hospitality essentially seals the relationship and underscores faith.
So, if you find yourself feeding the hungry or standing up against gun violence or extending hospitality to people, or even if you find yourself singing hymns at midnight, just go with it. It may be your relationship with God showing up in unexpected ways. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Acts 16: 9-15
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn't as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility [in the household of God], we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them [and us] find self-confidence and inner healing.”
― Jean Vanier, Community And Growth
Today, friends, I want to speak with you about sharing in one household in mutuality and the Christian life together. Come and stay! Share in the love of the household of God.
Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our family and the one whom always welcomes us and all people home throughout all time and across the vast distances of heaven and earth. Amen.
“During the night Paul had a vision.” That is how our Scripture auspiciously starts this morning in Acts—the Lukan narrative of the Adventures of the Apostles. And you all thought that Game of Thrones was Epic! In the early dawn hours, we imagine Paul waking everyone up and rushing them to the seaside. The first condition of traveling with Paul, apparently, is being a morning person. “Get up! I’ve had another vision!” Early in the morning, Paul and his companions enter a new region for the first time and go looking for the people in prayer. They don’t even know who they are called to meet, but they know that they are sent. In response to a vision, Paul goes looking for a Community in Prayer in unfamiliar territory without a known destination. The second apparent condition of working with Paul is being comfortable working without a set itinerary or plan.
Paul intuitively goes down to the river where a group of women, including Lydia, worship and pray. Then in a reversal, often missed by traditional scholars, Paul and his band are saved by Lydia. She was a powerful women and merchant of the rare item of purple cloth.
She “prevailed” upon them means that she welcomed them to her home and fed and provided for them. She demands that Paul receive (reciprocal) her hospitality as a sign of gratitude and community. Blessing is not a one-way street. The Apostles are brought into her household, into her home, and they find welcome and radical hospitality in a new land.
In this passage we find a deep sense of mutuality and reciprocity that makes us ask some question: Who is really being saved here? For whom is this story more of a blessing? Do Lydia and her household save Paul and his friends, or does Paul save Lydia? I would argue that they save each other in Christian mutuality and the radical welcome of God. Importantly from a narrative/structural analysis perspective, after Lydia’s story in Acts, there is a long list of near-death and very demanding experiences throughout the Greek territory through the rest of Chapter 16 and 17. Would Paul and his apostles have been able to survive it without the service and sabbath of Lydia? The text does not say how long they stayed and recuperated at Lydia’s house. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this salvific, restorative moment is exactly half way through The Book of Acts. Does this time of rest at Lydia’s home save the whole Christian story? Read in context, I think that is a true interpretation. Lydia, perhaps, saves Christianity.
Unlike many imbalanced passages in the Bible around money, spirit, power, and gender discrimination, this short passage in Acts, Chapter 16 is a glimpse of Sacred Community called into being be a vision grounded in mutuality (the need for all people and their gifts), gentleness, and hospitality.
Lydia demanded that they accept her care just as she had received a gift of the Gospel from Paul. Mutuality. Lydia demonstrates equality with Paul here that is significant in a Feminist and Progressive Hermeneutic or reading of the New Testament. This is the leaders of two spiritual communities meeting. Moreover, the text implies that they needed each other. Paul was called over the waters to Lydia to bring her good news, but he also finds renewal and blessing from her household. Unlike the imbalanced passages in Scripture and most of Christian Tradition, here we find a moment of balance and mutual need and acceptance.
How is your giving of time and love to Church Community also a gift to you? Where do you find mutuality in your Christian walk with others? How do you need community to show-up for you today? Come and stay, friends, here in the household of God. Sustainable service requires a sense of mutuality.
With the end of Game of Thrones (a show I have never watched by the way because of the violence), there is a lot of talk about something called a Spoiler Alert. Have any of your heard of this idea? Since I have no plans to ever watch Game of Thrones, I ignore such warnings. A Spoiler Alert is an alert that the premise of a show or book will be shortly given away in the form of an overly-simplistic summary. So, *spoiler alert*—friends, here is the summary of the next 8 minutes of this sermon: Christianity is about being called to share and to receive. Christianity is about receiving hospitality from unexpected sources with grace. In offering hospitality, in sharing Gospel hope, in living in community with those whom many have rejected, we are not only giving home and household of God, but it is how we truly become Christians living in mutual need of one another. Spoiler Alert: This is so basic, but we need each other and those in need as much or more than they ever need us.
Progressive Christians like to see ourselves as the heroes, but we need the gifts of those whom we serve as much as they need us.
This reminds me of a great theologian, activist, and spiritual visionary who died a couple of weeks ago named Jean Vanier—the founder of the International L’Arche Communities. These are houses set aside like group homes for those living with developmental and mental disability, but the care providers and staff live in the houses as well and share in life and community. Unlike group homes where the service and the giving are unidirectional, this is life in community embodied. Jean Vanier believed that this was mutuality and mutual blessing. Jean Vanier was a young man studying to become a priest when a visit to an institution for mentally disabled men would change him and the world forever.
The New York Times remembered this moment in Jean Vanier’s recent obituary in the following terms: “Jean Vanier, who dedicated his life to improving conditions for people on the margins and founded two worldwide organizations for those with developmental disabilities, died on Tuesday in Paris….The turning point in his life came in 1963, with his first visit [as a theology student] to an institution for people with intellectual [and developmental] disabilities. He was so moved by their pleas for help that he bought a house and invited [prevailed upon them] two male residents to live with him. It was the beginning of L’Arche…Today L’Arche…has 154 communities in 38 countries…[in which] people with [core members] and without intellectual disabilities live together in a community where they can feel they belong….Mr. Vanier studied how people with mental disabilities were being treated throughout the world and resolved to create a community where they could live with one another in dignity… By living with them, Mr. Vanier said he truly began to understand what it meant to be human. ‘Before meeting them, my life had been governed largely from my head and my sense of duty. When those ingrained in a culture of winning and individual success really meet them and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.’”
That article was poorly, terrible, unthoughtfully entitled, “Jean Vanier: Savior of People on the Margins.” It was poorly entitled because Jean Vanier and the L’Arche model of Christianity would fundamentally understand it in the inverse. Jean Vanier wasn’t the savior of those at the margins at all, but he was the one who was saved. He was saved from a false sense of self and an artificial reality by those at the margins. That is how he would have understood it and how all those who live in and support L’Arche Communities (including the newest one in the world emerging now in Fort Collins) understand church.
Lydia and the women of Macedonia worshiped on their own by the river because they were on the margins operating outside of the official and formal circles of power, and it is to them and their community that Paul goes to be welcomed home into the household of Lydia and God. Amen?
The late theologian and Biblical Scholar, Gail O’Day wrote of this passage that, “This Sabbath gathering suggests that as early as the first century, women believers sought their own voices and stories in worship freed from the dictates of the male-dominated church.”
Spoiler Alert Again: It is in mutuality with those at the margins that the Church has always found its real meaning and is saved time and time again. The church is saved and renewed by the margins.
Vanier once wrote: “One of the risks that God will always ask of a community is that it welcomes visitors, especially the poorest people, the ones who disturb us. Very often God brings a particular message to the community through an unexpected guest, letter or phone call. The day the community starts to turn away visitors and the unexpected…is the day it is in danger of shutting itself off from the action of God…We are too quick to want to defend our past traditions, and so to shut ourselves off from the new evolution God wants of us. We want human society, not dependence on God…We are all in danger of living superficially, on the periphery of ourselves…Community life demands that we constantly go beyond our own resources. If we do not have the spiritual resources we need, we will close in on ourselves and in our own comfort and security or throw ourselves into work as an escape. We will throw-up walls around our sensitivity; we will perhaps be polite and obedient, but we will not live in love. And when you do not love, there is no hope and no joy. To live with “gratuity” we have to be constantly nourished. It is terrible to see people who are living in so-called community that has become a boarding house for bachelors! It is terrible to see elders in a community who have closed up their hearts, lost their initial enthusiasm, and have become critical and cynical. If we are to remain faithful to the daily round, we need daily manna…It is the manna of meetings, of friendship, of looks and smiles that say, ‘I love you’ and warm the heart.”
The household of God is rooted in mutuality of shared and unexpected blessing.
The National Pension Boards of the denomination asked me this past week to respond to a questionnaire about “the future of the church.” They asked us young clergy NGLI participants to answer the question: What does the future of the church look like? I have put some thought into this.
What does the future church look like? It looks like every local church taking the call to be a living and real household of God. It means the local congregation’s living into the freedom of dynamic mutual community like that of Paul and Lydia. The future of the Church looks a lot like L’Arche. It looks like communities living into the wholeness and the giftedness of each person in mutuality of blessing.
Perhaps this Scripture story isn’t really the “Conversion of Lydia” at all, as it is traditionally called, but it is the true and real conversion of Paul into accepting mutuality and the strengths of others. Perhaps we miss in this story a transformation that happens in Paul more than in Lydia. Maybe the one being saved here isn’t Lydia and her household, but it is Paul and the Apostles who need the saving from their busyness. There is Scriptural evidence to this effect. That is how I choose to read this story and understand Christianity. Come and stay, friends, in a truly mutual Realm and household of God.
She prevailed upon them and they were brought into her household where the one who in busyness and in power thought he was saving others… is in turn saved. Would they have made it through the remaining half of the Epic Adventure of the Acts of the Apostles without the mutuality of Lydia, I think maybe not.
Like Jean Vanier, we choose to believe that we all may and must be transformed in authentic mutuality by the gentleness of love.
 Gail O’Day, “The Book of Acts,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, edits. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 397.
 Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 161-169.
 “Jean Vanier and the Gift of L’Arche,” The Christian Century, June 5, 2019.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Poem Response to Sermon 5/26/19
by Anne Thommpson
down at the river to pray.
Then come to my home.
Who is being saved?
How do we save each other?
Equality and balance.
What needs do we bring?
What are the needs met?
We need gifts of those we serve
It is more bless-ed
That we both give and receive --
Look to the margins,
to your own periphery,
Giftedness of each
can save even powerful
from their narrowness.
Community of needs and gifts
Blessed and being blessed
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