First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA May 26, 2019
Acts 16:9-10 — During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
So much of the story of the Bible, the story of our relationship with God, is a story of failure.
You’d think that the story of God would be a story of success. Who, after all, wouldn’t want God to succeed? Who wouldn’t expect that, when we follow God, we will all succeed?
And yet, at least one of the truths of the Bible is that success is hard to come by, easy to lose, and not always clear in the moment. The path of following God is not even as clear as an old trail on the Appalachian Trail, where the bushes have grown up and the arrow painted on the tree faded to only vague visibility.
And, of course, we know that what exactly constitutes success is never clear.
We might think we know what success is – isn’t it having more money than we need? Isn’t it being young, vigorous, a leader in our work? Isn’t it having well-behaved children? Or, being young, isn’t success getting into the right college, getting a good job, marrying well, and so on? Isn’t it about cheering for a successful, winning team – go Patriots? Isn’t it about having the right house, with colors that “pop”, with “sleek” appliances — can’t you tell I watch a lot of HGTV? Isn’t all of that success?
But, sadly, it isn’t. You can paint every room in the house in the right color, but next year there’ll be a different color and you’ll be behind the times yet again. Chasing that kind of success is like a dog chasing its tail… always running, never catching,
The story of the people who follow God is a story of a different kind of success, not a chase after the shiniest object or the latest gizmo, but a quiet search for worth and meaning, a yearning for the pure essence of love to infuse our world. As people of God, we yearn for that which draws our world into good relationship with one another.
And that brings us to today’s lesson – because it’s a story of success and failure and more success, or more something….
Paul and Luke and Timothy were travelling together, on a missionary journey to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul had had a dream that the Macedonians wanted him to come over and be with them, and so they had travelled to Philippi, a city on the eastern (Turkey-facing) coast of the Greek peninsula. There they met Lydia, who was a prosperous merchant. Don’t miss that – this is an amazing success story, that a woman was a public success, and especially at something which required her to engage as an equal with men. Lydia was a success.
But Lydia knew that success in the world of business only took her so far, and she had been looking for something more eternally satisfying. She’d been attending the services at her local synagogue, even though she wasn’t Jewish. It was good, but it still didn’t seem right. She didn’t feel called to become a Jew, and so she couldn’t formally join the community. But then she heard Paul speak, heard his message, that in love, God welcomes everyone, God offers us all a way to live lives of value, and – on the spot – she asked him to baptize her and all her family.
And here’s the message for today. When Lydia heard Paul, really heard what he was saying, she responded. Right then. Immediately.
Her choice changed her life. No longer simply focused on making money, she was now focused on following God’s call to build a better world. No longer simply trying to please herself, now she has said that God is in charge.
This is important for us, because sticking to our choice is a constant challenge for those who follow God. The choice to follow God is not a once-for-all kind of thing. We have to renew it every day, renew it with every opportunity which comes to us.
We are going to be faced, every day, with opportunities to show forth our love of God, and opportunities to take the easy way, to continue to do what we’ve always done. And it’s all too easy to make excuses as to why we’re not going to take the time to figure out what God wants, not today, since we already know what we remember that God wanted in the past.
But the world changes and the needs of the world change as well. What helps us bring good news to our community one year may not be effective another year. Worship which is wholly satisfying to one may no longer speak to all.
When change is needed, how do we respond? Reluctantly, dragging our feet, complaining that we really don’t like that new (whatever it is)? Or with a sense of exploration, with our eyes open to what’s out there?
Or do we respond with fear, because we know we can’t do it alone?
Here’s the good news – we’re not alone. God is our guide, God is our strength, and when we follow God, we will be sustained.
And there’s more good news. it’s not about success… it’s not about failure…. God doesn’t measure us by the number of times we hesitate; God doesn’t measure us at all. God simply loves us, and calls us, every day, into a loving relationship. That loving relationship will move us forward, step by step. And when we falter, it is love that will call us back again.
So, step out in love, and follow God.