During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.Acts 16:9-15
My sermon from the Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 22, 2022) on Acts 16:9-15.
So last Sunday afternoon, I managed the Tri-Boro Food Pantry’s table at Woodcliff Lake United: a day of service. We, along with other faith communities and organizations, gathered together hundreds of rolls of paper towels, toilet paper, toothbrushes, dish soap, maxipads, tampons, adult diapers, toothpaste, shampoo, and laundry detergent. Our hope was that attendees would learn which items were not covered by SNAP benefits and then pack tote bags filled with those items for the 130+ families who rely on the food pantry every week. My favorite part of the event was seeing people having “ah-ha” moments when they imagined what their lives would be like without toilet paper or soap. This event not only made a real difference in people’s lives; it also invited everyone into a deeper conversation about who calls Northern New Jersey home. Yet one of those conversations has been gnawing at me all week. Two women came to me, wondering what all the stuff was about. I explained to them, in detail, about what we were trying to do and how food isn’t always enough. They were excited to learn there was a pantry and local faith communities who actually cared. As we talked, the conversation became a little more personal as they wanted to know more about this church and about me. It’s then when one of them asked me a question I’m never quite sure how to answer. She looked at me and with incredible kindness and sincerity in her voice, asked: “where are you from?”
Now it took me a moment to respond because we were at an event called Woodcliff Lake United and so I knew she wasn’t asking about my connection to New Jersey. I had a hunch, based on our entire conversation, that she was asking about my ethnicity. She had expectations of who I was based on what I looked like. And I knew, at that moment, I needed to be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually ready to deal with whatever this conversation brought up. I hoped that at its best, we might be amazed at how so many different people from so many different places throughout the ages led us to be, together at that moment, packing bags to support all the people who call Northern New Jersey home. But I also knew, at its worst, I might be asked to prove how American I actually am. “Where are you from” is a difficult question for me to answer since my family tree is a little complicated. I can trace my ancestors back to colonial America and to people who, legend says, fought for the British in the Revolutionary war. There’s also another branch of people who were indigenous to the land and those whose nationality changed after the border moved during the US-Mexico War of 1848. I also have ancestors who were refugees who fled Mexico in 1917 as well as others who left southern Italy to make a new life for themselves in the city of brotherly love. There’s a lot of stories within my ethnicity but I chose, at that moment, to simply say I grew up in Colorado. That wasn’t what she was looking for so she followed up with another question. She wondered “if I spoke Spanish because I look like I should.” There is, in our culture, an expectation that Americans look a certain way, speak a certain way, and are always easy to see. But the idea of what an American is – is an idea that’s been contested for centuries. Way back in the 1700s, Ben Franklin said some nasty things about Germans because he thought they could never be like him. And our violent, complex, and painful history of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans show that even acting like an American doesn’t mean you’ll be accepted as one. The Irish, at first, weren’t included in the fabric of America and it took awhile before people from Italy were as beloved as the pasta dishes and pizza they cooked. It even took a Chinese-American who simply wanted to return home to the city in California he was born in to redefine our idea of citizenship. We are engaged in an on-going conversation about who’s allowed to claim the American dream as their own and this conversation is full of conflict, protest, anger, fear, joy, inclusion, welcome, and violence. This question of American identity isn’t a question limited to our past because there are some who have done horrible things because of this conversation at a grocery store in Buffalo, a Walmart in El Paso, and at a Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Who we are and who we’re allowed to be is a big part of our story. And that reality shows up in our reading from the book of Acts because when Paul went looking for one identity, he instead met a woman from somewhere else.
Up to this point in the book of Acts, Paul – a Jewish man who was also a Pharisee and a Roman citizen – had been primarily bringing Jesus to the people living in Asia Minor, aka modern-day Turkey. But one day God showed him a vision of a man asking for help. Paul and his companions then crossed the Aegean Seas because they recognized the man as Macedonian. This small group landed in the city of Philippi, the capital of the Roman Macedonian province, on the mainland of Europe. Now when Paul arrived at a new place to share Jesus, he had a pattern of first visiting the marketplace or the local synagogue. But instead, we’re told he went to a place outside the city gates that was known as a place for prayer. We don’t know exactly what Paul was looking for but we do know what he found. He came across a group of women and among them was Lydia, who is the first named person in Europe we meet. But Lydia, herself, wasn’t known as a European. She was, instead, from Thyatira, which was located in Asia minor. Lydia was a businesswoman, a trader in purple cloth which was the color reserved for emperors, kings, and the very rich. She was also known as a worshiper of God which meant she was, like Paul, either Jewish or a God-fearer, a gentile who believed in God but who hadn’t fully converted to Judaism. Since it was the Sabbath, I assume Lydia and the other women were there to worship God. And since only women were in that space, there’s a possibility that Paul wasn’t supposed to be there. But Paul didn’t let other people’s expectations get in the way of Jesus. He, on that holy day, shared how the divine and human had come together in a way where neither lost its distinctiveness nor became something it wasn’t. Jesus was fully human, fully divine, and had an identity big enough to hold all other identities within the limitlessness of the kingdom of God. Lydia, even though she lived in Philippi, was still known as someone from somewhere else. She knew what it was like to be asked if she belonged. Lydia, because of her career, her wealth, her status, her gender, her background, and her ethnicity, lived with an identity that was often contested. Yet when Paul showed her Jesus, she saw her place in Him. Through faith, grace, and baptism, Lydia gained a new identity as a publicly declared child of God. This identity did not replace who she was but invited her to become something more.
In the words of Professor Jennifer T. Kaalund, ”Paul [set] sail looking for a man to share the good news with in Macedonia. Instead, he encounter[d] a group of women.” His expectations were modified and replaced because Jesus’ story is a story meant for all. The question – “where are you from” doesn’t just impact those whose identities are contested by others because who we are and who we are allowed to be matters to us all. Yet through Jesus – you are always more than what others say about you. And that’s because you are the body of Christ. When we find ourselves face to face with sinful, heretical, and unChristian ideologies like “the great replacement theory” or any other belief that draws boundaries based on hatred and fear, our Christian response starts by noticing our place within the body of Christ. We, through Jesus, are part of something more; a more than includes a Macedonian man, a woman from Thyatira, a Pharisee from Tarsus, a person who recently discovered what isn’t covered by SNAP benefits, those families who rely on the Tri-Boro Food Pantry to survive, and all of us gathered in worship right now. When we have Jesus, where we’re from is not limited to where we were born or where others think we belong. Instead, we’re first – and foremost – with God and we’re part of a love which, even on the Cross, kept its arms open to all.