May 22, 2022
Rev. Stephen Milton
Today’s reading comes again from the Book of Acts. This time we are with the Apostle Paul, who is going from town to town spreading the new Christian faith. He is guided by the Holy Spirit, not his own sense of mission strategy. He has spent the last few years evangelizing people in what is now Turkey. But the Spirit tells him to go further west, into the virgin territory of Europe. So, he and his companions head into what is now Greece. He arrives in the city of Philippi.
It is a pagan city, where there are not enough Jews to support a synagogue to pray in. So, when the Sabbath day arrives, Paul and his companions decide to go down to the river to pray. Jews at this time needed to wash themselves before praying, so it made sense to go down to the river. It would also be safe because they would not attract attention there. And it is here that they meet a few women, including Lydia.
We’re told that Lydia is a worshipper of God. This means that she is not a Jew by birth but has become attracted to the Jewish faith as an adult. She was probably raised as a pagan, worshipping the Greek gods, but has found Judaism’s faith in the one God makes sense to her. She is not a full convert to Judaism, however, or else Luke would have called her a Jew. This means that she is what we would call a seeker – someone who is on a spiritual journey. She has left her parents’ faith and is now a fellow traveller with the Jewish women who have gathered at the river to pray. It is estimated that up to 10 percent of the Roman Empire’s population were Jews and people like Lydia, followers of the Jewish God.
And on this day, she is about to start another stage in her spiritual journey. She hears what Paul has to say about Jesus, and she is intrigued. Paul must have been a man in whom people could sense the presence of the Holy Spirit. In his letters he tells us that he is not very articulate when he speaks – he is not a smooth talker. (2 Cor. 10:10) But he is fiercely faithful, and like Lydia, he never met Jesus in the flesh. He had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3–9 ), but everything he knows about Jesus of Nazareth he has learnt from others. This makes him a good ambassador for the faith – if I can have a relationship with the Messiah, so can people like us who never met Him.
Lydia is convinced. She asks to be baptized along with the members of her household. The fact that Luke tells us her name, and does not mention a husband, suggests that she is a widow who is the head of her household. She must be a woman who is used to acting and giving orders, for she invites Paul, Luke, and their company to her house after the baptism. Her spiritual journey has just taken a new turn.
Have you been a seeker? Are you like Lydia, someone who has become dissatisfied with the faith you inherited from your parents? In the time I have been at this church, I have heard lots of stories about the churches people grew up in. Some of you were children in the Salvation Army. Others grew up Catholic or Pentecostal. Some came here after being Anglicans for many years. Mark Toews, our Music Director here for 30 years, had grown up among Mennonites out West, and in his adulthood turned to the United Church. In fact, when this church was created, the founding families were made up of Anglicans, Presbyterians, United Church people, and a few Jewish families. Religious diversity is in the DNA of this place. That’s one of the reasons I like it here. There’s no expectation we will all agree, or that we are all towing one line.
Personally, I identify with Lydia because I was a seeker, too. I grew up in a household that was Christian in name, but we didn’t go to church or talk about faith much. When I got older, I felt no great loyalty to Christianity. I had learnt to meditate as a teenager, and I liked it, so in my twenties, I dabbled in Hinduism and Buddhism. I took a yoga course at one point, and some Zen meditation classes when I lived in Boston for a year. Like many seekers, I bopped around, reading all sorts of books about non-Western religions, inspired by their apparently non-judgemental approach to faith – no popes, no orders to follow, just the invitation to sink into a relationship with the sacred universe. Or at least that was what it sounded like to me.
Today, there are a lot more people who are seekers. Among people under the age of 40, 30% say that they have no religious affiliation at all. This number keeps growing. But what’s surprising is that even as these younger generations stop going to church, about half still believe that there is a sacred force in the universe. Many Gen Z and Millennials have lost interest in the institution of church, but they are still seeking a relationship with the sacred.
Often, when we talk about seekers, we say they are spiritual but not religious. They are like Lydia, looking for a faith they can call home, which will speak to them. But often what happens in practice is that seekers are like hummingbirds, going from flower to flower, getting a taste of something good in a book, or dropping in on a session, then moving on. The desire to be in charge of our spiritual life is very strong in our culture. It is part of the cult of individualism which seeps into all of us. We are told every day that we should make all of our own decisions, that we should stay independent, that we should never give up our individualism. Translated into spiritual terms, which can become a credo for never settling down. That would clip our wings. So, we can spend a long-time reading books about other people’s spiritual traditions, but never settle down anywhere. Seeking becomes a kind of religiosity in itself.
In my case, I decided to try Christianity because of something the Dalai Lama said. I had read many books about Buddhism. I attended one of his lectures at Convocation Hall at U of T. He has a very deep, gravelly voice. In one of his books, the Dalai Lama said that Westerners don’t understand Buddhism very well, because we can’t tell the difference between Eastern culture and what is unique about Buddhism. We may think it is Buddhism that tells us to sit in a certain way, but in fact that’s just a traditional way of sitting in the East. * The Dalai Lama said we would be better off just getting to know our own Western faith, where we can tell what’s religious, and what’s just part of Western culture.
That made sense to me. When my first child was born and was baptized, I decided to try Christianity. And I have stayed ever since. What I have found is that our faith is actually very confusing. It sounds like a highly judgmental religion, but when you really get to know Jesus in the gospels, you find the least judgmental person ever. It takes time to peel away what you expect to see and find what is really there.
It also takes time to be willing to listen. The first rule of any major faith is that you need to give something up – your certainty. Faith begins where ego leaves off. No faith is needed if you are already right about everything. If you have all the right answers, you don’t need spirituality or religion, you are already living in harmony with the universe.
But the fact is, no one really lives that way. In real life, we all find life confusing and challenging. It never fits neatly into the boxes we have drawn for it. As children, we think that adults have it all figured out. As adults we wonder if we are failures since we don’t seem as confident and all-knowing as the people we admired when we were young. I have news for you – no one fully gets life. It is always confusing; it is always more than we expect and often more than we can deal with. We all need help, and the only way to get help is to admit that you don’t have all the answers. We need to be willing to dial down our ego and realize that when it comes to spiritual matters, we are all students. And that takes humility.
This is not unique to Christianity. The word “Islam” means “submission to the will of God.” In Buddhism and Hinduism, people spend years meditating to calm the ego, and make room for an awareness of a more sacred identity. This goes by various names, such as the Buddha nature. Indigenous spirituality is based on practices like the sweat lodge where your try to strip away your self-centered consciousness so you can be open to the spirits. Judaism seeks the spiritual through Torah study and the rituals of a community which sees the individual’s needs as secondary.
The modern impulse to be in charge of our own faith is a sign that the ego fears letting go. The spiritual journey cannot begin until we are willing to take some risks. There is a Buddhist story about a university professor who goes to visit a wise Zen monk. The professor has read all the books and is quite knowledgeable about Buddhism. He is flattered when the monk invites him to tea. The professor is explaining his credentials as the monk pours tea into his cup. But soon the cup is full, but the monk keeps pouring, so that tea spills all over the table, and still, he keeps pouring. The professor says “stop, stop, the cup is full already!” To which the monk replies, “if the cup is full, then there is nothing more I can put into it. How can you learn from me if you think you know everything already?”
Spiritual enlightenment comes when we have room inside us to be filled. We need to keep an empty space within us where the sacred can enter and be present. Often, we feel much too harried for that. We have many things to think and worry about. No doubt. But that’s true for everyone, including people of great faith. The promise of spirituality is that when we make space for the sacred, the rest of our lives will benefit. That’s why so many spiritual traditions recommend taking time every day to pray, meditate, slow down, read some scripture, be empty and be ready to receive some wisdom or sacred presence. The key is to be willing to be surprised, to be taught, to be open to the sacred. That openness is key. Without it, we are like the university professor who has come to be certain, but not to listen.
When Paul goes down to the river to pray, Lydia’s cup is not full. She is seeking, but she is ready to hear what Paul has to say. The scripture says that the Lord opened her heart. She is ready to learn more, ready to receive this holy spirit which Paul is offering. She gets baptized and opens her house to these strange men. In a town that has no synagogue, her house becomes a church for this new faith. She is a woman who has known pagan religion, Jewish faith, and now has become a student and follower of the Jesus Way. Her faith and spirituality will not be simple. In her head, she will be constantly comparing the Gospel message with what she already knows. She is not here to be brainwashed or pretend she has amnesia. Faith is complicated, we never stop seeking answers and perspectives. How we interpret what we hear, and how we apply it makes every faith different in each person. But it starts with settling down somewhere. Dipping our toes in many rivers won’t work. You have to decide to get in, to be surrounded by the sacred river, to be filled by it.
Lydia was baptized in that river, she settled down. The fact that we know her name suggests she remained a Christian, and even founded the first church in Europe. Her search was over, but her spiritual journey continued. And to this day, her name is remembered, and we recall her time by the river.
 He was in Derbe and Lystra, which are what is now Turkey: https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780195139174.001.0001/isbn-9780195139174-book-part-37 https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?t=h&hl=en&ie=UTF8&msa=0&ll=41.01235299999998%2C24.284178999999995&spn=0.00285%2C0.005708&z=6&mid=1C7Vo8RFXQen-6mYSUbtfYA3HS5g  https://margmowczko.com/lydia-and-the-place-of-prayer-at-philippi/  https://margmowczko.com/lydia-and-the-place-of-prayer-at-philippi/  https://www.aitzhayim.org/jewish-life-in-the-late-roman-empire/  https://www.cmacan.org/religious-nones/  https://www.cmacan.org/religious-nones/  Jane Hope and Borin Van Loon, Introducing Buddha: A Graphic Guide, p.99.