Easter 6: Lydia Starts a Church
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2013
Psalm 67 Acts 16: 9-15
Our reading this morning is one of many accounts of the gospel moving outward from Jerusalem across the Roman Empire. The recently re-oriented Saul, now known as Paul, was not only propelled from his horse by a vision of Jesus but then propelled beyond Jewish circles to bring the message of Jesus the Jew to people of different ethnos and languages.
In Philippi, Paul met with a group of Jewish women gathered to worship the God of Israel down by the river. This gathering included at least one gentile woman, Lydia, known as a God-fearer. Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth. Only elite Romans were allowed to wear purple cloth. The color displayed both their high status and their allegiance to the emperor. We are told that God “opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” She was drawn by Paul’s message of Jews and Gentile believers together under the Lordship of Jesus (as opposed to “Caesar”). And so it was that Lydia, supplier of purple cloth to the imperial occupiers, became a follower of Jesus and was baptized, along with her whole household. This is a remarkable thing. Lydia, who made a good living by selling purple cloth to the Romans, chooses to cast her lot with the dominated and poor. This is quite a dramatic conversion – for it is a conversion of allegiance, from the Empire to God, and a conversion of resources, from personal benefit to the well-being of the poor followers of Jesus. Amazingly, Lydia doesn’t only get baptized she invites Paul to stay in her house – certainly a bold move. And it is because of her courageous hospitality, her willingness to put herself and her resources in service of the Jesus movement, that the church of Philippi was born.
I have called this sermon “Lydia starts a church.” I want to be clear that the church in Philippi was primarily made up of people who were poor. And no one person started it. But the Scriptures attest to several wealthy women, Lydia among them, who cast their lot with poor, dominated communities living out the gospel message. And their gift of allegiance and resources made possible the creation of identifiable churches throughout a hostile Roman Empire.
Lydia not only offered hospitality to Paul on the day of her conversion, but after Paul was released from prison and was a much more controversial and dangerous person (as story we will get to next week), she continued to open her home to him. Lydia was a major figure in the apostolic church. The Philippian church began with her conversion, and she may well have led the church that met in her home. That’s quite a legacy.
In 1664, Governor Winthrop of the English Colony of Massachusetts sent a letter and a fleet of warships to the Dutch Governor of Manhattan, Peter Stuyvesant. The letter demanded that Stuyvesant hand the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam over to England. What happened and how, is an interesting story; but the end of it is that the Dutch colony became an English colony and New Amsterdam renamed New York, after the Duke of York to whom it was intended as a birthday present.
Though it was not immediately clear that New York would remain an English colony, once it was, several families of Puritan farmers set out from the then-Connecticut settlement of Rye to make a home here. The Native tribes who had a temporary village along what is now North Broadway and who welcomed the families called the place Quarropas, meaning “white marshes” or “white plains.” It was customary at that time that when certain number of families were settled a church would be built. So on May 27, 1714 Mr. John Frost donated the land on which we worship today to the Rev. Christopher Bridges so that a sanctuary could be built to the Glory of God. Some years later several of the leading families in the area (the Purdy, Hatfield, Budd, Hart, etc.) joined together to donate land adjacent to this building so that there would not only be a Presbyterian Burying Ground but an open cemetery to serve the entire town.
Think about this: Because of the gift of John Frost and these seven families there has been a worshipping community of Presbyterians in White Plains for almost 300 years, bringing our own particular approach to education, democratic practice, and social mission to this region of colonial America and an ever changing nation. And we are beneficiaries of their legacy.
On the first Sunday of May the Presbyterian Church observes Wills Emphasis Sunday. And it is an opportunity for us to think about the legacy we will leave behind when we are gone.
First, please let me begin by saying that everyone should have a will. I know it not the most comfortable topic for many of us to think about, no more comfortable than thinking about our living will, health care proxy, or funeral and burial arrangements. But if there is one place that should be able to help us come to terms with our mortality, it should be the church. And wills are not just for older people. I remember having a conversation with a young family about a year ago who were planning a trip out of the country and were leaving their infant child behind with their parents. They were making a will to ensure that their wishes would be carried out for the raising of their child if something should happen to them. We all leave behind a legacy in the people we love and who have loved us, and we want to give them all the help we can in an ever changing world.
Your bulletin insert notes that 6 in 10 Americans do not have a will and fewer than 20% of those who do include a charitable bequest. Most of those bequests are to hospitals and universities. That means that few of us think about leaving a bequest to the church. While we are faithful in stewardship of our discretionary assets, did you know that for most families this means we’re only thinking about how to give from 5% of our net worth? Truth be told, we rarely think about the other 95% of our assets: the worth of our homes, cars, savings and investments, and how we might, like Lydia, align our resources with the work of the gospel.
The story of Lydia invites us to think more broadly about the resources we have and what purpose they will serve during our life and after we have passed on. And we give thanks for the many bequests that have helped to strengthen our church’s ministry within this community over the last 300 years. Two weeks from now is Heritage Sunday. Between now and that day, I invite us to think about the spiritual and material legacy we are offering this faith community. How are we, like Lydia, aligning our allegiance and resources for the sake of Jesus Christ who proclaimed “good news to the poor?” And how might we, like Lydia, take a courageous step further?