240428 – Renewed Leadership

Yr C ~ Easter 4 – Acts 16:6-15

We’ve been using stories from the book of Acts to guide our reflections in this series about renewal. I love how prayer is at the center of them all, that faithful people are moved to action when they open themselves to Spirit and let it move them.

Our scripture passage today opens with failure. It’s a list of all the false starts and dead ends that Paul and his partners encountered. Isn’t it nice to see that even the great Paul ran into problems and stumbled in his efforts to be faithful! Haven’t we all run into roadblocks and problems trying to do something we thought we were supposed to do and ended up saying “ok, ok, I get the message – I’ll try something else!”?

I hope you’ve noticed over these weeks that in all these stories of visions coming to people in their quiet times, that the person of faith is always being invited to go and help a person on the edge of faith. The Spirit seems to be nudging us to be on the lookout for seekers and questioners. We get that again with Paul today.

I also hope you’ve noticed that it’s really critical for a person to catch a vision, or dream a dream, but then the scripture tells us that they immediately share their vision and draw others into it. The early church folks were not lone wolf evangelists. They were followers of Jesus’ Way striving to be faithful to the visions that they’d discerned. From the very start we’ve seen that ministry is a shared enterprise.

In today’s story, Paul receives a vision in a dream to go to a man in Macedonia, but on the way Paul and his gang get sidetracked in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman city that would not have marked a Jewish Sabbath (remembering that at the beginning the Jesus Way was centred in Judaism), so the whole scene is modestly subversive. They had to go outside the gates of the Roman city to worship. Their synagogue is simply an open space by the river that people gathered at to pray.

Philippi is in northern Greece. Near as we can figure it, this is the first time Paul (and Christianity) has entered into Europe! So now Paul and his friends are about to venture into an entirely new ministry field and bring the message of Jesus to an entirely new audience.

And who does Paul end up talking to? Not a man from Macedonia – but a woman from Thyatira. And what an interesting woman! Her name is Lydia, and she’s described as a ‘worshipper of God’, which means she was a Gentile attached to the Jewish faith – an adherent rather than a member. Lydia is a dealer in luxury cloth, which means she is a businesswoman! Not a poor peasant, not a disenfranchised widow, not an oppressed Jew, she represents an entirely new kind of Christian. She’s not unlike folks we encounter here in suburbia.

Lydia came to faith by listening to the preaching of Paul and his friends. Acts 16:14 says, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” The Message translation says, “As she listened with intensity to what was being said, the Master gave her a trusting heart – and she believed!”

I love that phrase “listened with intensity.” It speaks of a spiritual hunger and thirst. Remember that every story we’ve encountered in Acts in this series has a person of faith being inspired to go and minister to an ‘outsider’ who is hungry and thirsty for God. Lydia fits that description. Do you know anyone in your life who does?

Lydia is so inspired by Jesus’ message of dying to what was and being reborn into renewed life that she and her entire household were all baptized into the Way. And she “prevails upon” Paul and his friends to stay with her. Prevails, as in insists, as in Paul didn’t really have much of a choice.

And so we have our first European Christian – a strong businesswoman who leads her household to faith and becomes the first church leader in the new ministry field. She is a counter-cultural leader of a counter-cultural spiritual movement.

Think about how she became that leader. There’s a pattern. A person becomes inspired, then they are nurtured in the faith by their faith community (because there are no solo Christians), and then they’re propelled into mission or ministry, or in other words, leadership.

But there’s a critical piece that isn’t explicitly said in this passage. In the verses after our reading it tells of how Paul, Timothy, and Silas stayed around Philippi for a while (after they got sprung from jail for street preaching!), and they presumably stayed at Lydia’s house where Lydia would’ve been in the thick of the evening discussions, and strategizing, and reflecting, and prayers. And then the three men left. They moved on to other ministry fields leaving Lydia to lead her community of faith.

The pattern is pretty solid in scripture and pretty solid in our experience too. You are turned on or tuned-in to Spirit and it fires you up, then you are nurtured in a loving, spiritual community of faith that helps you make sense of your inspiration and build a foundation of prayer, and study, and service, and community. And then you are invited into leadership. But here’s a critical piece: for the new person to lead the leading person needs to make room for them, possibly by getting out of the way.

Faith United is a very interesting case study. You came into being 27 years ago because people had a vision of creating a church that wasn’t shackled by generations of “we’ve always done it that way,” that focused on welcoming and drawing people into a journey of faith, that intentionally made learning a core value, that came to understand and champion a blending of worship styles and traditions to attempt to speak to many different kinds of people, and that was willing to risk security for ministry. It was, and is, a powerful vision.

Interestingly, unlike most churches, many of the people who had that founding vision are still here and still active leading us. That’s an amazing gift! And it presents some curious challenges. Faith United hasn’t really experienced a transition from its original leadership group. In many cases the same people who inaugurated ministries here are still doing them. That’s fantastic! The vision casters are still giving their all living into that vision. But that can’t last forever.

It’s kind of like Jesus and the disciples. Those original disciples caught Jesus’ vision and gave their lives to bringing it to life. But Paul was not one of those disciples. He was a next generation leader. And he in turn became a mentor to Timothy, and here in today’s reading we learn how Paul became a mentor to Lydia as well. And so on.

So where are the disciples? Where are the originators? Well, many of them were still very active and ministering at that time, but they also released others into ministry too. And so it has been from generation to generation as we come to faith, grow in faith, and share the faith inviting others into this awesome pattern.

Let me be clear – I’m not suggesting we ought to ask all of our experienced people on Council or in key ministries to step aside. Not at all! What I’m suggesting is that we need to look at Lydia’s journey really carefully and learn from it. Churches must learn to nurture the next generation of leaders.

The paid accountable minister’s calling is to share the message of Jesus and fan the sparks of inspiration and flames of faith. Your calling is to be nurtured and then to step into ministry leadership.

Every single one of you is capable of leading in some way.

Some will lead by coordinating or organizing ministries.

Some will lead by offering to share their learnings with others.

Some will lead by faithfully rolling up their sleeves and pitching in.

Some will lead by cultivating and sharing their gifts, and passions, and talents.

Some will lead by doing the incredibly counter-cultural thing of showing up most Sundays and being an example to their family and neighbours that this faith thing is important.

And some (maybe you) will lead by putting their hand on the shoulder of a Lydia (maybe the person beside you) and offering to be Paul to them.

What does Lydia look like in 2024? Well, according to our rich Christian tradition she may look decidedly unlike what you might expect. In other words, the next leaders may be unlikely leaders. That’s kind of the way it’s always been in churches. The first disciples were unlikely followers of Jesus. Jesus didn’t go to the biggest universities and recruit the top prospects, he invited people into his vision and those who caught it dove in.

Peter was constantly bumbling, doubting, saying the wrong thing, denying, and yet he became ‘the rock’ of the entire church. Paul was once the main persecutor of the early Christians. Timothy was ‘just’ a young guy. And Lydia – jeez, Lydia was a woman! An independent and strong woman who ended up representing a whole new way to look at Christian leadership.

Today we don’t think twice about women in leadership in our church, but there are still some denominations that limit women’s ministry opportunities. I’m proud to say that The United Church of Canada was one of the first Christian churches to actually formally ordain a woman. It happened way back in 1936. Do you know what her name was? Lydia. Lydia Gruchy.

(just so we don’t hurt our arms patting ourselves on the back I should tell you that like Paul with false starts it took 10 years of petitioning to get her ordained, and that while she got the Basis of Union changed and you could be ordained as a woman you couldn’t be a married woman and ordained until the 1960s)

Nonetheless, the United Church has a proud history of welcoming leadership from seemingly unconventional places, but not because you have to be unconventional to be a leader, just because our denomination has been so beautifully insistent about being open and inclusive of anyone who seeks a relationship with God through Christ as being fully welcome in any aspect of ministry. We have been on the leading edge of welcoming people regardless of their gender, or age, or orientation, or ethnicity.

Nothing is preventing you from offering leadership in this church. If you’ve been inspired and have an experience of sacred Spirit, and if you’re actively seeking to grow and nourish that experience through participation in church life, then you are qualified for ministry.

But what ministry? Everything we do here is ministry, so which ones are yours? It shouldn’t surprise you that I’m going to say that you figure out what your ministry is just like you figure out what your vision is – through prayer! That is the only way it authentically works.

Arm twisting people to fill jobs in an organizational structure is the surest way to a slow and unhappy demise. On the other hand, calling people to prayer, and encouraging them to be open to the nudgings of the Spirit, and then embracing their discernment and mentoring them or equipping them is the way churches thrive – because it’s the way people thrive.

Today we heard a story about a new ministry field being explored by new leaders sharing the abundant and renewed life that Jesus taught and lived. Well guess what? You have a new ministry field too – it’s called suburbia! And you have a fantastic crop of new leaders to share their story of how their experience of the presence and love of God has enriched their lives – YOU! You can lead in this community of faith – whether you’re youngish or oldish, and whether you’re newish or seasoned-ish. You are called to come to faith, grow in faith, and share your faith.

I pray that your passion, vision, and call to leadership will indeed be renewed this Easter season. And just like our heroes in the book of Acts, it all begins and blooms in prayer.