Finding Life by the River by Pastor Leah Rosso

Acts 16:11-15; Revelation 22:1-7

This week at Vacation Bible School we heard stories from the Bible that were about finding adventure, finding acceptance, finding joy, and finding peace. And our story this morning about a man named Paul and a woman named Lydia, has all of those things as well.

Paul, along with his friends Timothy and Silas, are on an adventure. They are sailing around the Mediterranean Sea sharing God’s love. But what’s so amazing about Paul’s adventure, is that he’s listening to the Holy Spirit the whole time. Did you catch at the beginning of the story, how Paul actually had to turn his boat in a different direction because the Holy Spirit wanted them to go to Philippi instead of Bythinia? I don’t know why, but I do know that good things happened when they went to Philippi.

I kind of think of the Holy Spirit like the ocean in the movie Moana. If you haven’t seen it, Moana is about a young woman who is going to become the Chief of her village, which is on an island in the Pacific Ocean. She has always wanted to go out into the ocean beyond the reef and explore; but her father, the current Chief, has done everything he can to convince her that her role is to stay on the island and that there’s nothing for her be-yond the reef. The ocean, however, seems to think otherwise. As a toddler the ocean calls her to come and explore; as a girl the ocean beckons to her; and then as a young woman, when bad things start happening to the crops and to the fish, the ocean calls to her that the answer she is looking for is right in front of her, and whenever she tries to ignore that call, the ocean does something to remind her of its presence— sometimes even dropping her back into her boat repeatedly.

The Holy Spirit isn’t always as obvious in our lives, but it does call to us to follow God’s love. And sometimes, it can be very obvious. So many times when I have heard your stories of how you came to this church or how you got to St. Cloud or how you got up enough courage to walk in these doors looking for God’s love, I hear and see all of the ways in which the Holy Spirit has brought all of us together in miraculous ways so that we can be the body of Christ in this world this morning.

Paul has that same experience. The Holy Spirit calls to him— through the wind, through his dreams, through the people around him— and sends him to Philippi where he goes down to the river to pray and finds a group of people already there, already praying. Did you notice that Paul doesn’t bring God to the people in Philippi? God is already there. What Paul does is share what he has experienced as a follower of Jesus, and the people, who have already been praying, combine Paul’s experience with their own, and amazing things happen.

For instance, Lydia finds acceptance. Lydia is a business woman who is an outsider— she’s not Jewish and she’s not Roman. Her name, which is also a place, signifies that either she is a freed slave that now makes her own trade, or else she is known by where she is from because she’s an outsider. Either way, she’s not from Philippi, which is where Paul finds her. But she has been going down to the river to pray with a community of people. And when Paul comes and shares with them what he knows of God’s love in Christ, she chooses to be baptized and to baptize her whole family into this love and acceptance that she is experiencing because she wants to follow Jesus too.

And what does Lydia do the moment she commits to following Jesus? She invites Paul and Silas and Timothy over to her home.

Lydia has found joy. And like Zachaeus and Cornelius and so many others in the Bible, when they experience God’s love in Jesus, they respond with generous hospitality— because they realize how much God has been doing in their lives. And it is this joy that frees Paul and others up to empower new leaders in this Jesus movement instead of trying to control what happens.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he says that “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ.” And the best thing about writing that, is that he shows us what it looks like. When Lydia asks if she and her whole household can be baptized, Paul does not hesitate. He doesn’t wait to make sure she has all of the qualifications. He doesn’t tell her that they aren’t really taking non-Jewish people into the faith at this time. He doesn’t tell her to go find her husband— that women can’t lead in that capacity. He lives out what he knows about the Gospel— that love comes first and that anything is possible— and so even though Lydia is a foreigner; even though she is an outsider to the Jewish faith; even though she is a woman; even though she may have once been a slave—and perhaps because Paul’s smart it’s actually because of all of those things— Paul immediately baptizes her and her whole family and accepts her invitation for them to stay with her— and later, as we keep reading the story— see that her home becomes a kind of base camp for the Christian movement in Philippi.

Do you see what is happening here? In the book of Acts, as those early followers of Jesus are following the Holy Spirit and sharing what they know of God’s love, amazing things happen.

Let me go back to Moana for a moment. Because the crucial part of the movie comes when Moana’s Grand-mother, her father’s mother, shows Moana the opening to a cave on their island that Moana hadn’t known about before. And when Moana goes into that cave, she sees that there are massive boats hidden in there. She begins to realize that even though her father has been telling her that no one ever goes beyond the reef, that their ancestors were explorers— that in fact they had found this island that they now call home precisely by exploring the ocean. And Moana realizes that the ocean has been trying to tell her who she is— who her people are— so they don’t forget this crucial part of their identity— that they are explorers of the world around them.

So often I think the Holy Spirit is trying to remind us, the church, of who we are as we read these stories in the book of Acts. That we are people who listen to the Holy Spirit first and foremost before our own agenda— finding adventure in following that Spirit. That we are a people who share God’s love with others and do so knowing that God goes before us— we aren’t bringing God to people, God is already there! But by sharing what we know of God’s love, and listening to where others are experiencing God in their lives, great things can happen. That we are a people who keep partnering with those around us— empowering others to follow God’s call in their lives and realize that the more we share ministry, the more we work together in our community, the more that God’s love can shine through and bring joy and peace.

And all of this relies on us being rooted in prayer— connected to God in the same way that Moana felt con-nected to the water. If you aren’t sure how to do that or you’re feeling stuck in your prayer life, I invite you to come back next week because we’re going to be talking about prayer and how to start having a prayer life and how to deepen one if you already have one and what it means to open your life to God in prayer. In the mean-time, I invite you to pray with me now.

“God of us all, we yearn to follow you. We yearn to be like children— to be open to where we already see you and to recognize you in our daily lives. Help us to follow your Spirit. Help us to let go of control so that amazing things can happen as we share power; as we share our gifts; as we open ourselves up to what you can do in our lives. Amen.”