A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
John 13:31-35 & Acts 16:9-15
If there is one virtue on which we can all join hands, it is freedom. Freedom is the rallying cry of the United States of America—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to enjoy the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom is the blessed treasure of the academy and the media—freedom to think, teach, and publish. Freedom is also the blessed treasure of the Church—freedom to express faith in unique ways, freedom to speak as one feels led by God, freedom to gather for worship and prayer.
And yet, even though freedom may be the one thing we can all come together around on any given day, we live in a society that is awfully locked down…unfree. We are surrounded by burglar alarms, deadbolts, security cameras, and locked drawers and cabinets. We are also surrounded by fear that keeps us locked up tightly—fear of the other, fear of sickness and disease, fear of insanity or insolvency. Are we truly free?
We Americans have built a society which has given unprecedented freedom to its citizens. I am given maximum space to aggressively pursue what I want, just as long as I don’t bump into you while you are getting yours. What we call culture is a vast super market of desires where citizens are treated as little more than self-interested consumers. I have freedom of choice, but so often that becomes a burden. We are a free, but a terribly lonely, terribly driven people. The nine-to-five grind, monthly mortgage payments, over-programmed children, and dog-eat-dog contests for the best grades or greatest rewards—I’ll ask again…are we truly free?
There is freedom, and then there is freedom. One of our problems in this matter of freedom, I think, is that perhaps we may not even know what true freedom is. The sixteenth chapter of Acts, which we’ve heard from today, tells stories about people in Philippi who were in bondage and people who were free. Today we might Lydia, a rich businesswoman and worshipper of God. Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth, a fabric far more precious and expensive than even the finest cashmere. God opens Lydia’s heart to the gospel and she immediately demonstrates to Peter, Paul, and Silas the Christian commandment of hospitality. Lydia was in bondage, then she was free, and Lydia’s transition from bondage to freedom is interesting in a few ways.
First, Lydia is a woman. And we’ve talked many times about the place of women in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Women are important to the story of God. Women were rulers over nations, judges, and they brought peace and justice to their communities. A woman was the first to hear that God was bringing the Messiah into the world; women were there to distribute the humongous meal Jesus served from five loaves of bread and two fish; two women were the first to see that the tomb was empty. And yet, for all the important and scared work that women do throughout the pages of the Bible, they were still thought to be second-class, thinking that continues even today.
Whenever we read a story in the Bible that prominently features a woman, we should be startled. We should be startled by the fact that Paul and Silas and Peter, Near-Eastern men, are seen talking to a woman in public as an equal. We should be startled that despite commonly held beliefs, Paul and Silas and Peter did not come down with an incurable disease just for talking with Lydia. We should be startled that the leaders of the early Church, and the Church itself, embraced the wisdom and leadership and guidance of women. We should be startled that the early movement of Jesus did not rely solely on prominent men, but also on those who were thought to be less because of their gender. And we should be startled by all of this because it tells us something about God: God’s gifts are showered down on all people with no concern for the labels we assign to one another.
The second interesting thing about Lydia is that she is rich. In the opening of the gospel of Luke, Mary sings a song that sounds a warning to the rich. She sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord…for he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the right away empty.” Jesus has some things to say about the rich, also in the gospel of Luke. Jesus says, “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Based on these two passages, and a few others from the New Testament, it seems as though Christian faith and wealth can never exist peacefully together.
But then there is the story of how Jesus redeemed the wealthy Zacchaeus, and how Zacchaeus was so overwhelmed by grace that he gave over half of his wealth to the poor. The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the good that can be done with the right use of wealth, as the Samaritan uses his vast resources to pay for the stranger’s medical care. So if the encounter that Zacchaeus has with Jesus has anything to say about it, and if the parable of the Good Samaritan has anything to say about it, faith and wealth are not enemies. Faith and wealth can exist peacefully in the Kingdom of God, and they do so particularly when wealth is used for the work of faith. Lydia uses her wealth, the wealth she amassed from her fabric business, to open her home to weary travelers. This again tells us something about God. When wealth is used to do the work of faith, God uses it to build bridges instead of barriers. Something that is so divisive, something that is so highly sought after, something that we kill for, God uses to bridge gaps and not widen them. Lydia was wealthy, and she and her resources were important to God’s work in the world.
The third, and probably most interesting part of Lydia’s story, is that she was set free by overhearing something we might call ‘sacred gossip’.
On the sabbath day, Peter and Paul and Silas went outside the gate of the city and found a place to pray by the river. Lydia was there, plying her trade, selling her purple cloth to the boats of merchants that floated by. While she is doing business at a good clip, Lydia overhears the men talking; what they are talking about is unknown. But what we do know is that the topic of the men’s conversation was so intriguing, so powerful, that just overhearing was enough. Something inside Lydia clicked, opened up, and the Lord sparked in her a eagerness to listen to what was being discussed. Lydia was drawn in by sacred gossip, the simple act of talking about the things of faith and life. This sacred gossip led Lydia and her husband to be baptized and open their home to the men in an act of Christian hospitality. Sacred gossip set Lydia free, truly free.
The book of Acts is all about what the disciples and apostles of Jesus did after Christ’s resurrection, so it is likely that the sacred gossip that drew Lydia in was focused on this miraculous event. Peter and Paul and Silas were likely gossiping amongst themselves about how Jesus had spoken openly about his death while he was with them, how he would be handed over to sinners to be crucified. It is likely that they were gossiping amongst themselves about how Jesus said that he had come to give abundant life to all people, and how his death would unchain all people from bondage to sin and death. It is likely that they were gossiping amongst themselves about how, after three days, two women went to the place where Jesus had been buried, only to find that the tomb was empty. It is likely that they were gossiping amongst themselves about how Jesus had given them a command: go and make disciples of all nations. And it was likely that they were gossiping amongst themselves about the many ways in which the good news of Jesus was spreading throughout the world, to all people, regardless of station, class, or social condition.
It was not a powerful sermon. It was not a highly interactive website. It was not well-argued theology, or a smartphone app, or the promise of a great reward or prize. Lydia came to faith in Jesus Christ, gave her life to the Lord, by overhearing sacred gossip. For all the time and energy and money people of faith pour into coming up with the newest and most effective methods of evangelism, it turns out that just talking about our faith is enough.
Sacred gossip set Lydia free, truly free, by bringing her to faith in Christ. It set her free with the good news that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, because all are one in him. It set her free with the good news that Christ came and died to draw all people to himself, the poor and the wealthy, sinners and the self-righteous, and victims of every ‘ism’ ever invented. It set her free with the news that she was created in God’s image, filled with the breath of life, and set in the world to do the good work of God. It set her free with the good news that there was nothing she could do to earn, and nothing she could forget to do to revoke, the deep love of God. It set her free with good news of salvation for those who repent, redemption for those who have been brought low by the circumstances of life, and justification for those sins that seem to be unforgivable.
This is true freedom, and it is available to you and me today in the same way that it was available to Lydia. It has nothing to do with deadbolts or security cameras or locked drawers and cabinets. It has to do with God’s love for us, Christ’s saving death and resurrection, and the ways that the Holy Spirit brings us to faith and inspires us to holy lives and acts of service to one another and the world. Lydia received it by overhearing sacred gossip…maybe the same will happen for you today.
Let me share some sacred gossip with you. In love, and for the purpose of bringing glory to God, the Lord created you out of the dust of the earth and filled your lungs with the breath of life; before you even took your first breath, God knew you and claimed you and called you by name. Through long generations, and years that are too many to count, God sent faithful men and women into the world to teach you about God, to call you to do justice, and to urge you to be workers of peace. When the time was right, God sent Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of all human longings and hunger, to show you the way to true life, true justice, and true peace. This Jesus was not well-received by his community, to the point that many wanted him dead. Jesus did not shy away when he was wrongly accused and sentenced to death, though he was afraid. He took his cross, walked a lonely road to a hill on the outskirts of town, and died there with his arms open wide to the world. The world thought that he was dead and gone, heard from for the last time. But three days later, when the two women went to pay their respects, the tomb where he was buried was empty. This Jesus, the fulfillment of all human longings and hunger, rose from the grave, triumphing once and for all over the powers of sin and death.
This means that you are a beloved child of God, called and claimed and named from the moment you were knit together in the womb. This means that your life is not a long chain of coincidences, but a journey that has been laid out by a loving God. This means that you need not war against your enemy, shut yourself away in fear, or resign yourself to the ugliness that is present in this world. This means that you can have true life, do justice in the community around you, and work peace in and through all things. This means that Christ died for you, and for me, a death that we were unable to die for the wrongs we have committed. This means that you have been crucified with Christ and raised to life with him. This means that there is nothing on earth or above it, below it or on it, in heaven or in hell, that can separate you from the love of God. This means that from this day forward, you are a new creation—you are not your job, your accomplishments, the judgments placed on your by others, or your shortcomings or your failures—you are a new creation, a new creation of God.
Hear this sacred gossip today. Hear it and take a firm hold of it and allow it to open you once again to God. Hear it and recommit to your faith in Jesus Christ. And you will be free, just as God intends. Then keep it going. Repeat this good news to everyone you meet and in everything you do. Become sacred gossipers. Gossip about the hope you have as a child of God. Gossip about the good news you read in the pages of the Scriptures. Gossip about your experiences in worship, about your experiences at this table, about your experiences in this community. Gossip about how much love you have to share and how you are willing to share it with all people. Be sacred gossipers. And when others overhear you, they too will be free. May it be so for you and for me and for all creation. Amen.