May 1 Sermon

Date: 1 May 2016
Text: Acts 16:9-15
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS

I’m not sure many of you know or care about the process United Churches use to select our Ministers. We believe in every step of the process the Spirit is at work guiding potential applicants and Search Committees as they discern God’s will. But culture is culture and every region of our country has its own unique way of framing questions (the Committee) and placing expectations on the table (the applicants) to help the Spirit make the right choice.

Over these 26 years as a Minister I have been interviewed by many church Search Committees. And while each experience was unique one in particular stands out in my mind. Kim and I were flown out to Calgary and there we were wined and dined, taken to Banff, taken on a hike through several parks, and finally interviewed by the Committee. (A realtor in a pink Cadillac showed us three houses!) The least important but most noticeable difference was the dress code. All of the Committee members wore jeans. This was no indication of limited income as the vehicles in the parking lot clearly demonstrated! The interview was informal but the tone was direct and clear. The Committee dispensed with the usual set of questions I was used to and instead focused on the specific needs of their church. They had a clear vision of who they were. They wanted to know how I was going to help them get there.

In most interviews the Search Committee introduces themselves, often referencing their vocation. This interview was no different. Except that while many of my interviewees in the Maritimes had been teachers, nurses, and civil servants there in Calgary everyone on the Committee was self-employed. They were not interested in my style of preaching, what my approach to pastoral care was or how I intended to increase attendance. Instead they laid out for me the vision they shared as a congregation, their identity, and the challenges they were facing living out that identity. They wanted to know if I felt their vision was a fit for me, how I could help them live out that vision, and whether I was a “risk taker”.

Now no Maritime church had ever asked me if I was a “risk taker”. In fact I feel fairly confident that if I shared with those committees at the outset that my greatest passion as a Minister was to be a “risk taker” the Committee members would likely have put their pens and pencils down, put their note pads on the floor and filled out the remainder of our time with questions about my plans for the rest of the week.

The Apostle Paul, the author or inspiration for the earliest recorded and most numerous books of the Newer Testament, was a kind of quasi Bishop to the early churches sprouting up all over his region. Each church had its own set of challenges and strengths and Paul was a master at building up and challenging each faith community to be the faith-filled witnesses to Jesus that he believed they could be. Paul would often use himself as an example of how falling short was no impediment to full discipleship, Paul called himself the worst sinner who with God’s help had made him a leader of the Jesus movement. And in our text for today Paul made a convert in someone with the gifts necessary to expand the reach and effectiveness of the early church.

Lydia was a wealthy businesswoman, a merchant of purple cloth, who used her gifts and resources to open up her home to new converts like her. Paul sets the scene by laying out what being a believer in Jesus could mean to a person’s life. Lydia, who had everything, gave herself to this vision and set out to use whatever talents she had to bring that vision to others. The author of Luke-Acts was particularly interested in women, mentioning that women were among the followers of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 23:49,55) and were the first disciples to witness the risen Christ (Luke 24:9).

But while Jesus and the early church were very enthusiastic about women as leaders in this new movement their feelings about wealth were mixed. In Luke 18:25 Jesus is given these words, For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Yet Jesus redeemed the wealthy Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and as a result he gave half his wealth to the poor. William Willimon reminds us that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is at least in part a story about how the right use of wealth (Luke 10:30-37) can bring Good News. The Book of Acts records over and over and over rich members of this new movement sharing their wealth with those members who have little material possessions (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35). Cornelius, the first gentile convert, is described as a philanthropist (10:2). So while Jesus is expanding the definition of who matters to God he is taking care to include the wealthy, provided their purpose has a generous spirit.

But keep in mind that there is a place at the table of Jesus for the businessperson, the wealthy, and the entrepreneurs. Why? In my experience working on non-profit Boards and committees with people from the private sector there is a dynamic can-do attitude that entrepreneurs bring to the table. I remember a friend of mine, the most NDP UCC Minister I ever met (more than Gary!) who was trying to get a low-income housing project off the ground in his area. The Outreach Committee was deeply committed but no one knew how to get it started, recruit new people, donations, energy, and public goodwill. The project struggled and nothing happened. Finally, an initially skeptical high-ranking employee at the local Irving Company bought in, she was a tough sell, and when she did everything changed. The entrepreneurial spirit this disciple brought to the table was a game changer and suddenly many very poor citizens were living in affordable and dignified housing.

It’s not the money. Rather, it is the spirit of possibility that permeates an entrepreneur’s heart. In our United Church of Canada, with shrinking numbers, dwindling resources, and empty buildings there is a palpable malaise that has set in our spirit. We need more than ever a spirit not so much of abundance but of possibility, energy and risk taking. My pride in the United Church’s spirit of inclusivity (gender, orientation, race), call to social and ecological justice, remains firm and entrenched. But to get there, to harness the resources and will of our people, of people yet to join us, we need at our table disciples with an entrepreneurial spirit like Lydia.

Let’s offer radical hospitality. Let’s offer radical discipleship. Let’s be risk-takers, people prepared to try to accomplish life-long dreams in dynamic and creative ways that provoke passionate living and giving in others. Amen.