First Congregational United Church of Christ

 Acts 16-15 “Breaking the Mold”

May 10, 2015

Rev. Diane K. Hooge

The Church Calendar calls this day the Sixth Sunday of Easter and the Hallmark Calendar knows this day as Mother’s Day.  I’m well aware that for some families, this is a great day of celebration, while others grieve what was and is no longer, or perhaps grieve what never was. I invite us to look at this day as the day we celebrate the women in our lives who have made a difference.

Before I left my position as Senior Pastor in Minneapolis, MN, I had the opportunity to participate in a Lily Grant which was designed to bring clergy together in order to create and deepen collegial relationships while also studying a book on transformation. My group consisted of eight clergy men and me.  Our leader was a UCC pastor who had just recently retired.  During our time together, our grant paid for us to go on a retreat.  I clearly remember that stormy morning as I made my way to the castle like buildings of the Villa Maria retreat center, outside Red Wing, MN.  Our retreat was about sharing our stories.   Carl Walker was the first to tell his story.  I followed up with him to get his permission to pass on his story. Carl is one of the founders of Walker West Music Academy in Saint Paul.  Walker West is a place where music bridges racial and economic divides and students are encouraged to develop and bring forth the musical gifts that reside within them.  He can tell story after story of the lives of children, youth and adults who have found a place of belonging because of being involved at his music academy.  Carl is also the pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist church which resides down the street from his music school.

Carl began his story by telling us that he is the fourth of twelve children born in the South.  For years he longed to play the piano—one could say that he was driven. Having heard Carl play, I assumed, that I would hear that he had learned to play as a preschooler.  What I learned is that he had two cardboard boxes on which he had painted the keyboard.

He was 13 years old when he vividly recalled the day that his father and some other men carried an old piano into the family home.  However, with 12 children, it took a long time before Carl’s turn finally came, and then he had to wait another long time for his turn to come around again.  It was his grandmother who taught him to play chords.  And, it was a visiting pastor who gave him the dollar bill that was needed in order to provide him with his first lesson at the home of a woman who would become his first music teacher.

In an era when Carl was not allowed to sit down at the lunch counter because of his color, Miss Olive was preparing him for a future that he could not fathom. She was demanding musically, and she held high expectations for his conduct, appearance, and dress code before even sitting down at the piano.  She taught him how to carry himself.

Years later, when he won the Tommy Dorsey scholarship for college, it was Miss Olive that Carl gave credit to for having helped him with developing the habits, the discipline and the skills for practicing the piano.  It was the piano that opened the doors for him in so many worlds and has allowed him to be a bridge for others.  It was the piano that was the tool used by the Divine for transforming his life, and he has passed on that gift.

Our text today is about a group of bridge-builders.  It’s also about transformation. Things had not been going particularly well for the Apostle Paul.  We are given the information that Paul and his colleague, Barnabas, have had a falling out.  They had a major disagreement over staffing.  Since they could not resolve their differences, they parted company.  Paul chose Silas to join him for the next segment of the journey.  After a few shared educational events, Paul decided to diversify the pastoral team by adding Timothy. Timothy’s mother, Eunice and his grandmother Lois were Hellenistic Jewish Christians, and his father was a Greek gentile.

Paul, Silas and Timothy had been on the road for some time working as consultants for new church development.  I suspect that they were beginning to get a sense of rhythm as they offered encouragement while keeping in touch with the apostles and elders who were back in Jerusalem.  And, our text tells us that the churches benefited; they grew in faith as well as in numbers.

The team had been debating which route to take into Asia when Paul woke up having experienced a powerful vision.  In the dream there appeared a man who stood before Paul asking him to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  When Paul woke up, he was convinced that the Spirit was leading them.  They tucked away their maps of Asia, packed their bags and bought their tickets on the next boat out of Troas.

In the meantime, Lydia was living in Thyatira which was one of the Macedonian colonies.  The city held an amazing cross section of immigrants of different cultures who found their place of belonging in that cosmopolitan like setting.  The city was well known for the color purple.  Lydia was a sophisticated woman who was in the luxury purple cloth business. Her professional dues supported the Dyers Guild.  Lydia’s role appears to have been in the marketing end of the business.  As a seller of purple, her clients would have been the elite of the city.  As a purple merchant she would have been selling to her peers at the very top of the social strata; the movers and shakers of the community.

The purple dye had to be gathered drop by drop from a certain shell-fish.  It was such a tedious, labor intensive process that it resulted in only the very wealthy having purple in their wardrobes.  Lydia was a gentile synagogue worshipper.  She was a seeker who was part of a support group that met every Sabbath for prayer down by the river.

I suspect that when Paul was sent to Macedonia, he had no clue that he would be dealing with Lydia and her friends.  In an age when Jewish men prayed a prayer of gratitude that they had not been born a woman, Lydia was in a unique position to help educate Paul, while at the same time benefiting from being an equal with whom he shared his faith. She was not a victim and she didn’t need fixing.

The women of Macedonia, in that era, were often known for taking leading roles in society even before the time of Alexander the Great.  Lydia, dressed in her purple finery commanded respect.  It was the Spirit of God that brought Paul’s teachings into her life.  Something resonated deep within her. And, she chose to become a follower of the way of Jesus.  The outcome of her decision resulted in her re-defining her life.

The text tells us that she chose to be baptized and our scripture lesson informs us that her household joined her into the waters of baptism.  We don’t know if she had a family in her home, or if the term “her household” referred to her servants. It is clear that her home environment reflected the transformation that had taken place within Lydia.  Lydia felt free to go against Jewish custom not only in speaking to Paul in public, but also in inviting Paul and the rest of the leadership team to her home to stay with her as long as they were in Macedonia.  The gospel freed her to find wholeness in her life.  She in turn took on a new leadership role as the founder of a Christian house-church.

Elizabeth Shussler-Fiorenza, in her book In Memory of Her, informs her readers that wealthy women were notorious, in the first century, for opening their premises and houses to oriental cults and their worship celebrations.  Her point is that the Christians were neither the first nor the only group to gather together in house communities for religious worship.

The house-churches were a decisive factor in the missionary movement in that they provided space, support and leadership for the community.  It was within the intimacy of a welcoming home that people chose to become more deeply involved on their own faith journeys.  It was the hospitality in these homes that opened hearts and provided a place of belonging for those choosing to explore their faith.  It was in these homes that the early Christians celebrated communion and where the stories of the life of Jesus were told and retold.

The name Lydia means “bending”.  She was an accomplished woman who brought business skills and leadership to her newly found faith community. In an era when women were considered chattel, she was a woman who clearly had broken the barriers in her own society and with the healing power of the Spirit in her life, she became part of the leadership group by welcoming Paul, Silas and Timothy into her home. I suspect that her success in her business allowed her to be a bridge from the faith community to the needs within the city. Her gifts changed and expanded the house church movement.

When I was in seminary, there was a movement of church growth guru’s that talked about how church growth is best done through homogeneity.  Clearly those folks didn’t benefit from the stories of Lydia and the riverside gathering.  That early house church welcomed people from all classes of society.  They represented the various cultures of that day, Roman, Greek, Hebrew, African and Arab.  Their leadership was male and female, old and young.  They came from various religious traditions—all of them searching and choosing to be followers of Jesus.  They celebrated their diversity.  The key to the strength of the movement was hospitality—which was Lydia’s gift.

As Paula and I sat with Gail Price last Wednesday in the Ashland hospital with Gail’s family by her bedside, we let Gail know how much she is loved by our church. There was a sense that we were on sacred ground as we listened to Gail’s mother tell how shocked she was when at six months a doctor informed her that her daughter, Gail,  was Mongoloid, the term that was used in an era that believed the best place for the child would be placing it in a care facility. Gail’s mom and dad determined that they would raise her.  We heard the painful story of how Gail’s mother took Gail to church until it became clear that the teachers and children were not comfortable with having her as part of the group, so they discontinued their attendance. We heard the painful stories of neighborhood children who played with Gail until Jr. High, and then she was left out.

As Paula and I shared about Gail’s involvement in our church, and how she often shared during Sunday morning…the family was clearly stunned.  To know that Gail was welcomed in this community was, I believe, the greatest gift we could offer her mother and her sister as they sat with Gail in the last hours of her life.

My friend Carl is pastor of a traditional African American Church in Saint Paul, but his Walker West Music school is where he teaches during the week is a modern day version of the House Church.  In that run-down neighborhood, the music school stands as a beacon.  This is where kids of various races and economic strata come to find a place of belonging. This has been the house that has a faith foundation and has promoted self-esteem and has fostered the discipline and presence that was built into Carl through the teaching of Miss Olive, who provided the building blocks that has taken Rev. Carl to the place of being a bridge between the house church of the Walker Academy and the traditional church down the street.

On this Mother’s Day morning, I give thanks for Lydia and her modeling of hospitality that is at the heart of every faith practice.  I give thanks for the gift of Miss Olive’s foundational role in Rev. Carl Walker’s life, and I give thanks for this community who continues to seek to be a wide welcoming presence as well as a bridge to the larger community beyond our doors. It is your unconditional love that allows Gail’s Mom, on this Mother’s Day, the gift of celebrating how her Down’s syndrome daughter found a place of belonging in a church where she felt respected and welcomed.

So, what woman are you celebrating being a part of your life this morning?  Who has embraced you and made a difference? Who is it that you can count on to laugh with you? Who has been a model or mentor for you during your life?  And what woman has made a difference in your faith journey?

Like Lydia and the early church, we are called to continually ask, “Who is not in our midst?  Who is left out?  Who do we need to invite to share the journey with us?”  We have a mandate to be an inclusive body of folks who are called to pass on the story of our faith just as Lydia shared with that eclectic band of seekers that met down by the river.  My we grow in our capacity to develop and deepen our hospitality so that we continue to welcome and make room for those who seek a place of belonging.

May it be so.  Amen.


“Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. “  (Henri Nouwen)