Sunday, July 21, 2019

Speaking to the heart—a sermon on the gifts of hospitality and communication

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Speaking to the Heart
Acts 16.11-15, Acts 2.1-12
21 July 2019, spiritual gifts 6 (Hospitality and Communication)

From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’

Conventional homiletical wisdom says that preachers should always include a story that will be memorable for the hearers, so that perhaps one day in the future, they’ll recall the story and also the point of searing biblical insight it was meant to convey. I have heard many a sermon that began with a story that never seemed to get to the point, of course...and I have even been known to check my watch to find out what percentage of a sermon has been taken up with a story whose connection to the biblical text was tenuous at best. 

I don’t get the sense that either Paul or Peter used the kind of illustrations that are so common in modern preaching. They tell the story of what God has done in Christ, and encourage people to become part of that story themselves, and people respond to that. It’s a gift they both had, to communicate the gospel in ways people could understand and enter into. 

When Paul and his companions turned up on the river bank outside Philippi, they hoped to find people who might listen to their message, but they were by no means certain—either of the existence of a community nor of their reception. The fact that they had to go outside the city gate to the riverfront, rather than to a synagogue, suggests that there was no synagogue within the city walls—perhaps an indication of the status of Jews in this important Roman city. So they made their way to the literal margins, hoping to find a place of prayer. When they encountered the community of God-worshippers, they were gentile women—and so on the margins of the Jewish community as well. This is the edge of the edge. 

And yet, Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth—which was expensive stuff. She would have spent most of her days rubbing shoulders with the elite. She had her own business and she was the head of her own household. It must have been quite a shift for her to make, from being in the midst of the great and the powerful in her day job, to the Sabbath when she found herself at the edge of the margins for her faith. 

Perhaps it was that ability to move between worlds—to be adaptable and resilient is a gift in itself!—that made her quicker to receive the message that Paul offered. The Lord opened her heart, it says in the scriptures, and she and her entire household were baptised.

Then something fascinating happened.

Lydia, this Gentile businesswoman who worshipped the Jewish God, who had just become the newest convert to The Way of Jesus, invited Paul and his companions to her home. Not just for a meal, but to stay. She opened her home to them, saying “if you consider me a believer along with you, then accept my hospitality.” Almost as if hospitality is the natural and expected response to receiving the gospel. She had been ministered to, and now she was ministering to them in return. And Lydia’s house would grow to become the church’s headquarters in Philippi, as more people were added to the Body of Christ. The community met in her house for worship, prayer, meals, and meetings. 

Lydia definitely had the gift of hospitality. The Holy Spirit obviously looked at this situation—no synagogue, only a gathering place by the river, a community that was about to grow rapidly, and a woman with a lot of grit and adaptability—and thought the gift most needed for the time and place was hospitality, the gift of welcoming people, making them feel at home, and seeing opportunities for ministry in every knock on the door. And so the Lord opened her heart and her home, and the church had a place to thrive and grow, through her ministry of hospitality. That same gift is still needed, not only because God has plans to grow the Body of Christ, but also because there are people who are being forced, by violence or by climate change, to leave their homes and make their way to new lands, and we will need to be able to see ministry in every conversation, and be ready to welcome people that God brings to us, without fear and without pressure. 

Meeting new people and making them feel comfortable enough to be able to hear the good news is the connection I see between the two spiritual gifts illustrated by the two stories we heard from Acts today. Lydia, with her gift of hospitality, obviously had the capacity to welcome strangers and friends into her home and provide space, support, and care that helped her place become the house of the whole Church. And in the other text, the one we more often hear on Pentecost, the disciples are sent out of the house where they are staying, blown out by a wind, and they speak to people in the streets in their own languages, talking about God’s deeds of power to anyone who will listen.

Jerusalem, of course, had the opposite situation from Philippi. Rather than having to go outside the city to a marginalised location, the people would instead stream into Jerusalem to visit the Temple for the feast day. It was the feast of Weeks, a pilgrimage festival, and people would have come from all over to worship, which is why the city was fuller than normal, with “Jews from every nation under heaven” staying in town. 

All of these people lived in the Roman Empire, though, and many of them would have spoken Greek, as it was the language of commerce and the language of their occupier. They would also have known Hebrew, because it was the language of the scriptures.

And yet, when the Spirit blew the disciples out of the house into the streets, they spoke to people in their own native languages. They were still Galileans, and everyone could tell—Galileans were stereotyped for never being able to shed their accent or learn proper grammar. People often assumed they were uneducated and unable to speak anything but their native Aramaic. But here they were, in the streets of Jerusalem, communicating God’s love and power in the language of every person they met, whether they were Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamian, Cappadocians, Egyptian, Cretan, or Arab. 

Remember, all these people already shared a common language. They would have understood if someone started preaching a sermon in Hebrew or Greek. But instead they heard the good news of God’s grace in their mother tongue, in the language of their heart, the language that would put them most at ease, even if it came with a Galilean accent.

If you have ever traveled to a place where you aren’t fluent in the local language, you may know how disconcerting it is to suddenly hear your own language coming from another table at a restaurant or across the aisle on a bus. I have sometimes said that one of my favourite parts of traveling to foreign countries is that I can’t eavesdrop, because I don’t understand enough of what’s being said, and so I’m better able to hear myself think instead. When I unexpectedly hear English somewhere, it’s like a magnet drawing my attention—I hear more clearly and am more likely to take to heart what the person is talking about, even if it was just about the wine list or a slow bus service. And if in the middle of the trip I encounter a waiter or hotel staff or a bus driver who speaks my language, it’s like an oasis in the desert when I need help. Imagine then, traveling for days or weeks, speaking always in your second or third language, and then suddenly at the heart of the holy city, hearing your mother tongue in the street. No wonder that when they heard the wonders of God proclaimed in their own languages, they were amazed and perplexed and asked what it all meant! And no wonder, too, that when Peter then seized the chance to preach about Jesus, thousands of people took his words to heart and joined the way of faithful life that would later become the Church.

The gift of being able to communicate across boundary lines is one that I hope the Spirit is still giving out, though it may look different today. Christianity is one of the few faith traditions that insists on translation—both of our sister religions, Judaism and Islam, insist that the sacred text must be read in its original language, while we have been busy translating scripture into every language we can learn. But beyond the actual written human languages, there are plenty of communication barriers that still stand, that we need the Spirit’s help to overcome if we are to speak people’s mother tongues, and so put them at ease enough to receive the depth and breadth of the good news of Christ’s love for us. The gift of communication may now look like the ability to get the message across to digital natives, people who have grown up with the internet and social media, or across barriers of race and class and generation and politics that seem so entrenched. To speak someone’s mother tongue is also a gift of hospitality, to make them feel welcome in a strange place.

At the end of the reading we heard today, just before Peter gets up to preach and three thousand people are baptised, we hear the people asking “what does this mean?” All these people who heard about God’s love and power in their own mother tongue, from a bunch of Galilean disciples of Jesus, asking what it means....well, at least one thing it means is that the Holy Spirit is not the private property of an elite few or a particular nation or race. Over and over again the story says “all”—all of the disciples were filled with the Spirit. All the people heard them speaking their own languages. God’s story is out there among the people, not confined to one language or one institution or one person—it’s meant to be shared across every barrier and boundary, so that each one of us hears it in the language of our own hearts. When that happens, then just like those who joined the Body of Christ that day, and just like Lydia and all those who came to the community of faith in Philippi, we too will come to participate in the story of God’s creativity, God’s love, God’s power, God’s hope, and God’s future, made known in Jesus. Because the Spirit isn’t just for some, it’s for all, in every language and every land, at the margins and at the centre, bringing good news that we can’t help but share.

May it be so. Amen.

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