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"Welcome In" -- Acts 16:9-15, Acts 9:36-43 (6th Sunday in Easter)

We are accustomed to talking about the season of Lent as a “journey” – a journey toward Holy Week, the Last Supper, the cross – on toward Easter morning. This year, we’re also talking about our journey through the season of Easter – the seven Sundays of Easter. This year, we are undertaking an Easter journey – a journey, continuing on into Resurrection – following the life that flows out from Easter morning – through the Resurrection experiences we find, again and again, in Scripture – and in our own lives.

We started on Easter morning with the women at the tomb, as we experienced with them life bigger than we ever imagined – an entirely New Creation – Resurrection not just as a promise for tomorrow, but as a present reality – a future we can live from right here, right now. We joined Thomas in his disbelief – the Risen Christ offering himself to Thomas – inviting Thomas into a Resurrection life of relationship and deeper intimacy – a new way of seeing and living. Then, the disciples came to life in our midst – on a fishing trip – as they experienced Resurrection embodied not only in Jesus’ body, but in their own – in their own embodied lives – a breakfast of broiled fish on the beach with Jesus – the smell of love cooking.

Then, we turned to Revelation and its larger than life vision written for people living through larger than life struggle – Christ in the midst of our suffering, wiping away every tear – a vision of Resurrection life more powerful than everything that does us harm.

And then last week, we travelled alongside Saul/Paul as he experienced Resurrection in a blinding vision of the Risen Christ, and in the face of Ananias, reaching out to Paul, calling him brother, baptizing him – Ananias and Paul seeing each other as God’s own beloved, both of them in Christ, transcending every separation and boundary.

This Easter season, we have been journeying on into Resurrection.

And this morning, we come to these two scriptures from the Book of Acts. They aren’t as flashy – we enter into more-everyday moments – as the pulse of Resurrection is lived out in the daily life of community. So, let’s take our time; let’s walk into and around each scene, and see what we see.

In the first scripture, we meet Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. Paul has been transformed by his experience of the Risen Christ and Ananias, and now he’s on the go. He’s taking the good news of Jesus Christ as far as he can – to as many people as he can. He’s in Troas, modern day Turkey, and he has a vision – a man in Macedonia saying, “Come, help us,” and so Paul goes. They go to Philippi, and then on the Sabbath day, they go outside the city, down to the river, where they expect to find a place of prayer. Perhaps there wasn’t a synagogue in the city, so they go where people might be gathering outside the city gates.

And they find – Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth, leading a group of women in prayer. Notice a few things about Lydia.[1] First, she is a woman leading and prominent in a patriarchal world. That’s no small thing. Lydia is from Thyatira (not originally from Philippi) – she, like Paul, is “not from around here” – both of them strangers in a strange land. Scripture says Lydia is a “follower of God,” meaning she’s drawn to the Hebrew faith, but not likely Jewish. That would have put her outside the mainstream of Roman culture, and as a non-Jewish follower of that tradition, she would have remained an outsider looking in.

Lydia a women and an outsider – and yet – and yet. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth. She is a business woman, and purple cloth is expensive, so she is likely a woman of means – all in her own right – there’s no husband mentioned here. The Scripture speaks in terms of “Lydia’s household,” which is unusual. In their patriarchal culture, a household would usually have been identified in relation to the male head of house. But it’s Lydia’s household. And, she’s the leader of this community – this community of women, outside the city gates, down by the river, praying.

That Sabbath, Paul and Silas head out of the city looking for a place of prayer, and they encounter Lydia. And look what happens. Paul is invited to sit down, and they begin a conversation. Paul shares with the gathered women the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul invites Lydia into an experience of the Risen Christ, of Resurrection. Lydia listens and responds. She and her household are baptized by Paul – just as Paul was baptized by Ananias. And then Lydia invites Paul to come and stay at her house.

Such a quiet scene. And so much going on. Look at all the boundaries that are being transcended. Gender and patriarchy. Ethnicity and the relative privilege that comes with citizenship. Lydia is a woman and a resident of Philippi, but not from there; she’s also a woman of wealth. Paul also is not from there, but he’s a Roman citizen, a member of the Jewish community by birth; and he is a not-wealthy itinerant preacher, living hand-to-mouth. In this moment, as they talk and share the good news of Resurrection, those boundaries fade away.

Look at the relationships of mutuality that emerge. They talk with each other. Paul shares his message. Womanist scholar Mitzi Smith says, as Paul spoke in this community Lydia led, “maybe Paul was blessed to hear Lydia preach, too” – this moment, “a mutual sharing of the Good News.”[2] And Lydia welcomes Paul into her home. Lydia’s home will actually become Paul’s home base while he preaches in Philippi. And then, throughout his ministry, all the way to his imprisonment in Rome, this community in Philippi will continue as one of his major financial supporters.

Have you heard the phrase “welcome in?” I’ve just noticed it in the past year or two. When I walk into a store, more often, the folks working there say “welcome in” – not just “welcome,” but “welcome in.” Now, after I got past my grandmother’s grammatical voice in my head noticing the dangling preposition – I wondered about that: “Welcome in, welcome in.” I’ve googled it, and the usage isn’t new – it carries with it a sense beyond a general welcome. It’s a particular welcome – a welcome from the outside in, into a place of shelter – “welcome in.” A welcome from the bigger world, a stormy world, into the nurture and conversation of this place, this circle, this community. Welcome in. Lydia and Paul welcome each other in – in to the Good News of Resurrection, in to baptism, in to Lydia’s home, in to relationship, in to community, in to life in Christ.

The second scripture brings us into another community – a community of widows, who have just lost their beloved leader Tabitha. It brings us into that all-too everyday experience of death and loss and grieving. We’re now in Joppa. Here’s what we know about Tabitha (or Dorcas). Scripture tells us that she was always doing good and helping the poor. What a lovely way to be remembered.

Tabitha has lived in this community of widows. She gets sick, and the widows send for Peter, but she dies. And when Peter gets there, the widows surround Peter in their grieving – showing him the robes and other clothing that Tabitha had made for them. “See these clothes she made for us.” Peter is moved. And he goes into the room where Tabitha lays, and he says to her, “Tabitha, get up -- arise.” And she gets up – and Peter brings her to the widows, and shows her to the widows alive. He shows her to them alive, just as they had shown him her life – the life she had brought to their community, in her loving acts of tender mercy.

Resurrection in this story doesn’t wait for Peter to revive Tabitha from the dead. It’s right there at the beginning, reaching back before the beginning – as the women surround Peter – “See, these clothes she made for us” – robes and coats – the life they lived together, fully present – fully alive – in that moment. Welcome in. The women welcome Peter in to the life they have lived with Tabitha, and Peter, moved, presents Tabitha to them alive. They welcome each other into an experience of Resurrection – life and love stronger than anything that does us harm, more powerful even than death.

The first time I preached this story of Tabitha and the widows was in April of 2007 – not long after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. This scripture comes up in the lectionary (the church’s cycle of readings) every three years. I’ve noticed, over the years, far too often, it happens to come up not long after another mass shooting in the United States. In 2018, it was the school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This year, we are one week after the shootings in Buffalo and Southern California. Now, that could be coincidence – I used to think maybe it was. But I’ve come to realize that actually, we are almost always living life not long after another mass shooting in the United States.

This past week, there have been two – folks doing their daily shopping at Tops Grocery story in Buffalo, and folks gathered for prayer at the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church.

What I noticed then and what I notice now is that, in the wake of these crimes of hate, the trauma, and the loss – one of the first things we do is tell the stories of life.[3] Like the widows in Joppa, who surround the Apostle Peter, insisting, “See these clothes she made for us,” those who mourn, lift up for all of us the lives cut short.

· See the life of Ruth Whitfield, who was heading home, after doing what she did every day, spending time with her husband at his nursing home, her son saying, “She was the glue that held our family together.”

· See the life of Aaron Salter, a retired police officer, who was doing what he did every day, working security, working to keep folks safe, that day risking and giving his own life to protect others.

· See the life of Katherine “Kat” Massey, 72-year-old civil rights activist, who had worked her whole life to improve life within the Black community of Buffalo, remembered by her friends who labored alongside her in a group called “We Are Women Warriors.”

· See the life of Heyward Patterson, a taxi cab driver, known for giving rides for free when folks were out of money and down on their luck.

· See the life of Dr. John Cheng, who lived his life helping people, and gave his life helping people.

Even in the depths, we lift up the life we live together, the love we share, and it somehow, somehow propels us forward – we hope, with a deeper appreciation of what it means to live life with and for each other. Even as we grieve unspeakable loss. For all of us who participate in the systems that helped create this harm, we see our work to never stop tackling the pernicious evils of gun violence and the violence of American racism – now, more aware, of the poisonous resurgence of the white-supremacist so-called “replacement theory,” and our responsibility to dismantle that too.

“See these lives they lived for us and with us” –

May we live our lives so that others don’t have to know pain like this.

In this morning’s Scriptures, in everyday moments of prayer, in welcoming, and tender mercy, and sorrow, and loss – in the fullness of life – we experience Resurrection in depth of belonging. We have said that on Easter morning what happened was nothing less than a New Creation. The old order had had its say on the cross, but the old order no longer has the last word. Resurrection – this New Creation – changes everything. In this New Creation, what we find is a belonging to God and each other and all creation, deeper than we have ever known.

Presbyterian Pastor Kara Root – writing about love, and loss, and life in a community she knows and loves – says this: “We are each born Beloved, Child of God, and we each die Beloved, Child of God – still, always, and in between, we journey together, connected inextricably. Our humanity, at its core, is this: We all belong to God, and we all belong to each other [in Christ]. This is our primary identity, our ongoing purpose, and our ultimate destination. This is the deepest belonging.”[4]

In just a few moments, we will welcome new members into this community – and we are so excited. Like, Paul and Lydia and Ananias and Tabitha and the women at the river outside the city gates, and the widows in Joppa, we welcome each other in to the life of Resurrection. We see each other (and the whole world) created in the image of God; we name our shared identity in Jesus Christ; we extend hospitality to and welcome all whom Christ welcomes; we live lives of tender mercy; and together, we engage the work that is ours to do in the world.

In life amidst the death-dealing ways of the world, in the life of community, what we find is the life of Resurrection, pulsing in our bodies, in our lives – Resurrection, this New Creation, come to life in us. And so, we gather to pray, we tend the needs of the vulnerable, and we work for a world of justice, healing, and peace – saying to each other, and the whole world: “Welcome in.”

© 2022 Scott Clark

[1] See Mitzi Smith and Yung Suk Kim, “The Acts of the Apostles,” Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018); Mitzi Smith, Commentary on Working Preacher at ; Eric Barretto, Commentary on Working Preacher at . For general background on both texts, see Robert W. Wall, “The Book of Acts,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002). [2] Mitzi Smith, Commentary on Working Preacher at . [3] See [4] Kara Root, The Deepest Belonging: A Story about Discovering Where God Meets Us (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2021), p.279.

Photo credit: Analuisa Gamboa, used with permission via Unsplash


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