The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Have you ever experienced a trip that has not gone as planned? A few years ago, Phil and I were invited to join friends for a week in Ecuador. I think it took me less than 30 seconds to reply. Let’s go! I discovered that where we would be staying was near El Cajas National Park a fantastical land of glacial lakes and the famed polylepis tree. There were Incan ruins to explore in the area and a host of other sites to see.
Phil and I arrived in Guayaquill and made our way by bus to the highlands of Ecuador and the next morning found ourselves in trapped in the city of Cuenca as the country went into a state of emergency due to issues with the International Monetary Fund. All roads going in and out of the city were blocked (including the Pan-American highway) and within a few days, armored vehicles and the army arrived, protests erupted, schools were shut down and tear gas was employed—and Phil and I, and our friends, we had a balcony view of it all as we were located right downtown in the center of the action. Suffice it to say our itinerary had to be left behind.
St. Paul and his companions also knew the experience of trips that do not always go as planned. This morning we find ourselves in the ninth verse of the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Acts. It’s a rather strange place for the lectionary to begin—mid paragraph in the middle of Paul’s second missionary journey. If we go back a few verses, we learn that Paul and his companions had been attempting to make their way to Bithynia, a Roman province in Asia Minor in present day, Turkey, but as the scriptures tell us “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them,” so, instead they went to Troas, a Greek city situated on the Aegean Sea near the northern tip of Turkey’s western coast. And this is where we find Paul this morning.
Paul is sleeping, not knowing what he’s supposed to do. He’s been prevented from going where he intended to go, so—where to next? And as he sleeps, he dreams. And in his dream he sees a man from Macedonia who says: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Now, the region of Macedonia encompasses present-day areas of Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Greece—it’s not Asia Minor, it’s Europe. That’s a pretty big shift in geography. It’s not what Paul had planned, but as other options were closed to him, he goes.
The missionary group sets sail from Troas and heads for Samothrace, Neapolis and finally landing in Philippi, which, according to Luke (who wrote the Book of Acts), was the “chief city of Macedonia” and a Roman colony. Today, Phillipi is in ruins, today—but at the time, it was an important city in the ancient world and was described as a “miniature Rome”. It was a prosperous, privileged place—having the backing of the Roman Empire.
Paul arrives and, as was his custom, he looks for the local synagogue. But this proves challenging—for Philippi doesn’t have a synagogue. Instead, what Paul finds is a gathering of women who had gone down to the river outside the gates of the city to pray. Surely, none of this was what Paul expected to find—not a gathering of men, studying the torah, but a group of women assembling to pray. But Paul is not daunted. He goes to the women and shares the Gospel with them. And here he meets Lydia, who the Bible tells us is a worshipper of God (a Gentile, a non-Jew) who has learned of the Jewish faith and has embraced Judaism without fully converting.
Now, about Lydia. She’s something special. Lydia is a businesswoman—and she’s successful. She’s a dealer in purple cloth—a luxury commodity of the time. Think Gucci or Hermes—that kind of cloth only was sold to nobility. So, she is also wealthy. Lydia listens to Paul, and her heart is stirred. So much so that not only is she baptized, but her household as well. Which tells us something else about Lydia, that she is a leader. What’s more, she possesses the gift of hospitality. She says to Paul and his companions: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And he does.
So, a few words about Lydia. The Bible doesn’t record any heroic deeds—this woman, she doesn’t slay a giant like David, she doesn’t perform miracles like the apostles, we have no speeches attributed to her like Peter, she doesn’t walk on water. Instead, Lydia goes about her life, praying and listening, selling her wares and leading. She helps where she can—she plays a pivotal role in bringing the Gospel to those around her. She is both ordinary and extraordinary—like those of us here. And because of her receptivity to the Gospel and her gift of hospitality, the church in Philippi grew.
Research supports the idea that Lydia acted as a benefactress of the early church in line with the Roman model of patronage. In the first-century Roman culture female patrons were active and influential in the community’s public life. Think of Lydia as part of the new order that belongs to the new creation which we heard about this morning in the Revelation to John. She was a congregational leader. As such, she is inspiration to us today.
But, back to Paul—who has had to lay his plans aside for a missionary journey to Asia. He’s now in Europe rather than Asia. He hasn’t located a synagogue with learned men—he’s found women by a riverside. Nothing, I suspect, that he has imagined has gone as planned—yet, it’s all perfectly in tune with the Spirit of God.
I find myself wondering if this might be more similar to the working of the Holy Spirit than we realize. Well orchestrated plans might come undone. We might find ourselves with a trip whose itinerary changes, with circumstances we would never have chosen at the outset—but if we follow the leading of the Spirit we discover experiences and challenges that are, in retrospect, blessings—blessings we would never have imagined as we packed our bags to leave.
I never did see the polylepis trees on our trip to Ecuador. I didn’t get to Alausi to ride the train known as the Devil’s Nose or see the outstanding Incan ruins. These are but a distant dream. But I walked the streets of Cuenca, and as the city shut down, we, and our friends, dined in the most excellent restaurant in the city—just ourselves, one other couple and the owner’s family in that normally packed establishment, to one of the most outstanding and memorable meals of my life. We met and talked with people we would never have known, saw corners of Cuenca we would never have seen and learned about the kindness and the generosity of the Ecuadorian people, as well as the challenges they were facing. It wasn’t what we planned, and goodness, it had its harrowing moments, but it was a blessing—and left us with some wonderful stories to tell, a broader understanding of world economics and the desire to return. Isn’t that what some of the best journeys we take in life are like?
The challenge we are given today is to follow where the Spirit leads—whether that has to do with travels we take; or ministries which come our way which we may support. Paul and Lydia both have a great deal to teach us—key being our receptivity to the Spirit of God. May your travels, whether they are on land, or in the heart, be blessed and led by the Holy Spirit of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.