Acts 16:9-15‘receiving, inviting and following’

Reflection by Anne Stewart

Did you notice in the story of Lydia, that when she is first mentioned, she is listening?  The text tells us that she was already a worshipper of God, and she was listening to Paul, Silas and Timothy (the ‘we’ referred to in the text today) as they preached the good news in her area.  The text doesn’t say that she heard them speak, but that she listened.  We can hear a lot of things by accident but when we listen, we are consciously attending to what we hear; listening is an active intentional exercise, hearing is more about what we receive, whether we engage in it or not.  We are told, the Lord opened Lydia’s heart and she began to listen eagerly.  The ability to listen eagerly is understood as the Lord’s work rather than something she was able to do in her own strength.  May we all be receivers of God’s help in the work of becoming good listeners! 

Lydia was well-known in her community and she knew her community well, because she was a good listener.  She was a woman who, interestingly, given those times, had her name recorded.  She was the first recorded European convert to Christ.  She was a businesswoman, a seller of purple cloth, so it is assumed she was a woman of means.  With all of this, I can’t help wondering why there aren’t many churches called St Lydia’s!  She was an important woman in the history of our faith.  In our area alone, there is a St Paul’s, a St Silas, and a St Timothy’s but the one who listened to these three and then pushed aside convention to show them radical hospitality, remains largely forgotten.  Her believed status as a woman of influence is backed up by the fact that she invited Paul, Silas and Timothy to her home, where there is no mention of a man.  In those times a woman’s status was dependent on the men of the house but Lydia was known and named without any such attachments being recorded.  There is mention of Paul going to her house later in Acts and it is understood that her connection with the followers of Christ extended beyond conversion and the baptism of her household.  It is assumed that she maintained a lifelong connection and involvement with the emerging church.  By inviting Paul, Silas and Timothy to her home, she had listened to, and understood, the needs of those in a travelling ministry and she responded with generosity and openness.  We learn from Lydia that relationship and community matter.  It’s important to note, I think, that Lydia didn’t respond to her faith by coming up with a policy or a plan; she acted personally by issuing a personal invitation into her personal space.  There was no talk of professional distance here, this was a real person-to-person encounter.  Nor did she ask them to meet her at the local coffee shop or whatever the equivalent was back then, she took the bold step of inviting the three men back to her house.  This would have been radical hospitality then and often still is, even today. 

This was also one of the first instances in the early church where the church (in this case, Paul, Silas and Timothy) was being invited to go to where the people were, rather than the church inviting the people to come to them, in order to have an authentic engagement with the faith.  Somewhere along the line over the centuries the church has found itself pulled into the idea that the community coming to us is the only and right option.  That connection with the community is something we are having to re-negotiate and return to in these dislocated times, and it’s not an easy task, even now.  Some of the ways the church relates, now as much as in the past, builds barriers rather than builds faith.  In Lydia’s case the cultural barriers that had existed had been removed by Jesus; now it matters not whether you are Jew or Gentile, man or woman, slave or free and so on.  Old conventions were cast aside as she responded to God opening her heart and listened to those who God had sent.  Don’t you find it odd that even now some people seem to want those old divisive conventions reinstated?  Don’t you think its time to let go the racist tendencies that lead anyone to call a chef and entrepreneur with some Asian heritage, a piece of Eurasian fluff?  And please don’t start me on the silly cleavage talk!

We can learn from Lydia.  We can learn to be intentionally listening to our communities.  We can listen to hear their struggles, their triumphs, their needs, and their desires.  Our engaging in our communities is part of what the Community Centre at The Village is all about.  The connections that the Community Centre has enabled, attune our ears for listening to what is said and what is unsaid, in our communities.  

The foot clinics, the pre-school music and music moments, the clothing shop and Creative Nest, the market, Burnside Primary School etc.; they all provide moments of connection, they enable possibilities for relationship and they create spaces in which to listen to the people we live among or near to.  If we don’t listen well then we risk falling back into a sort of colonial approach where we decide that we know what people need or how their lives actually are.  These are all things that it is almost impossible to know from the comfort of our own spaces and our discernment is never as reliable as getting alongside real people.  I think of some of the characters we have met through the Community Centre and who we have walked with over the years, many with little to no obvious church connection yet, often they are so open to conversation, company, and care.  At The Village they were met by people with generous hearts, who give their time, care and love as an expression of their faith, rather than any 1,2,3 guide to being saved or lectures on the right and wrong way to live.

I think this is what it means to show generosity of spirit.  I saw a great demonstration of this kind of generosity here last week, at Sunday worship.  The table was full of contributions offered for the care of others.  The recipients of what was given will find it difficult to thank us but I can do it, so thank you!  I know your gifts will mean a lot to them.  Sometimes I think things are tight at our place, but I have never had to go outside of our bubble to ask for help.  I can’t even imagine what that must feel like.  I think I would feel like I had failed somewhere along the line.  Yet, interestingly, I don’t think that about those who find themselves in the position of needing our help.  Their plight makes me feel like the rest of us have failed, if not personally, then in being part of a system that leaves some people so much worse off than others.

Josh O. and I were talking the other day about the parable of the feeding of the five thousand which he is preaching on today at Redwood.  We were pondering the contagious nature of generosity.  We also noted that the word contagious, while topical, is not generally a welcome word at present.  Our world is dominated by doing all we can to avoid a highly contagious virus, but highly contagious generosity is a virus we shouldn’t be vaccinating against or trying to avoid!  There is something contagious about being on the receiving end of generosity as well, you can be inspired to pass it on, or to make something happen for someone else.  Or, even watching something generous happen can spur you on to create opportunities for generosity elsewhere.  Generosity breeds generosity and its opposite stinginess does something similar, it breeds even more stinginess.  Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (9:6) mentions this where he talks about one who sows sparingly reaps sparingly and the one who sows bountifully, reaps bountifully.  I see generosity as a ‘spirit’ thing, it comes from God and manifests in a way of being that can include a willingness to help, to encourage, to give of your time, your expertise, your presence – I say this because we tend to jump straight to money when the word generous comes up, but that’s just one of the many ways in which we can express a generous spirit.  My father had a generous spirit, it was the thing I admired the most about him.  It showed in his eagerness to help, his enthusiasm for, and encouragement of, anyone having a go at something.  Generally speaking, he had a positive, expansive outlook on life.  You will know people like this and what it feels like to be around them. 

I believe that giving is really good for us because it is a way of ensuring we get some rest from the feverish work of gathering up stuff for ourselves.  A sabbath rest from self-focus, we might call it.  In our consumer-istic culture we are encouraged at every turn, to buy more, and own more.  With some folk it seems to be all they do with their spare time.  With some others it even seems to be what they do for a job!  But when we turn what we do for ourselves around, into what we can do for others, we can take a break from the relentless accumulating of more, for ourselves.  Putting a stop to the ‘gathering for me’ routine and sharing what we have with others, is a counter-cultural act of rebellion.  I like this sort of rebellious behaviour, and I love that we follow a truly rebellious character in Jesus, who time and time again was, and is, involved in turning our conventions on their heads.  What we think should be one way, Jesus promptly turns around and says listen up, it’s like this…but are we really listening, or have we become deafened by the noise others make around us?  Generosity undoes the impulses of much in our culture, it also changes the giver.  I wonder if it is an essential dimension in a God-shaped life.