From where does my help come asks the Psalmist.
My help comes from the Lord, is the response.
Sometimes God provides unexpected help to us. Help from unlikely sources and unusual places.
Scripture: Acts 16: 9-15
I moved this week. It was a busy time of cleaning up one house and moving to my new home. Over the past three weeks I have been packing those items in the house that need to move and purging all those items that we tend to accumulate, but don’t really need. As I approached my moving day I still had a fair bit of work to do. I had left the kitchen until last, as many of the items found there are used on a daily basis.
My parents came over to help on the Monday of the long weekend. They packed the kitchen while I took apart beds and packed other last minute items. I spent about 10 hours that Monday getting things packed, my parents were there for about half that time.
When I took possession of the new house a group of friends stepped forward and helped clean. Six of us spent a good three or four hours cleaning the house. Vacuuming, wiping down cupboards and cabinets, cleaning washrooms and washing floors.
Moving day was Thursday and there were ten people there to help empty the house, load the truck and then unload at the other end. It took two trips, but we managed to get everything finished by lunch. One house empty, another full of boxes that now needed unpacked.
The reality is that I could have done none of this on my own. Without help, I would still be working on getting the kitchen packed. Throughout the whole process there have been countless offers of help. People from all walks have offered assistance in a variety of ways, often from unexpected sources.
It reminds me a little of that line from The Beetles, ‘I get by with a little help from my friends.’
In our passage from Acts this morning we have a little bit of that going on. Paul and his companions receive help from unexpected sources. Paul travelled to Macedonia because he had a vision of a man asking him to ‘come and help us.’ So, Paul and his companions travel to Macedonia. However, they don’t encounter a man asking for help. Instead, they meet Lydia and the other women who are down by the river. I suspect that the other women were part of Lydia’s household or worked for her. They were likely collecting snails who excrete the dye that is used to make purple cloth.
The point being Paul is expecting to find one thing, but God provides another. We need to be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the ministry that we are called to take part. Nothing is ever as it seems and if we just put up blinders or maintain our tunnel vision we will often miss out on the wonderful things that God has planned for us. We will miss those opportunities to develop relationships with other followers on the Way.
Lydia is more than just a helper. She signifies the support that ministry needs in order to grow and thrive. Lydia provides sanctuary for Paul, a place of safety where he is able to minister to the people, to strengthen and support the faith of the community in Philippi.
Within the encounter between Paul and Lydia there is much room for speculation. What did Paul and Timothy say to the women when they arrived at what they thought would be a quiet place to pray?
What words did they speak that convinced Lydia and her household to be baptized?
What did Lydia say that convinced Paul and Timothy to stay in Lydia’s household?
None of these questions are answered in the text. We only know that Lydia’s heart was opened by God to receive Paul’s message.
Lydia is from Thyatira and is living in Philippi now. She knows what it is like to move, possibly to be displaced. Though her occupation demonstrates that she is probably a wealthy merchant. A dealer in purple clothes, likely dealt with the upper tiers of Roman society as their clients. Purple was the colour that nobility wore. That Lydia converts, is baptized and follows God might have been seen by the early readers of this passage as a subversive attack on the powers of empire.
If we continue reading in chapter 16 of Acts, we see that Paul and Silas are arrested. They are released from prison and they return to Lydia’s house once again. We find Lydia at the beginning and the end of this chapter, forming the bookends. Reminding us of the silent help that often exists when we are engaged in ministry, when we are doing God’s work in our communities.
Often, we look to big signs of success in ministry. We see TV preachers and we think that is successful. We hear about what the church down the road is doing and we want to be a little like that. Celebrity preachers are publishing books and pushing their particular narrative. If we aren’t careful we end up in a version of church wars or something silly, constantly trying to out do the other.
What Lydia reminds us is that ministry is often done best through silent actions. In fact, much of ministry occurs when no one else is looking. Yes, I’m up here preaching, the choir is signing, the greeters are greeting, the worship leader is reading and so on. But in order for all of that to happen week in and week out there is a whole host of other people who are working diligently in the background.
Jennifer Kaalund puts it this way, “Ministry is often equated to those individual and things that are visible — the ministers, the sacraments, the choir and ushers. However, ministry is made possible by those who often are not seen and at times are not named. Despite our tendency to want to identify a hero or personality, this text reminds us that it takes a team for the ministry to be effective. All are co-laborers. Paul was not alone, he was there with Silas, Timothy, and likely whoever it is that is recounting the story. The church is strengthened, then and now, by those who demonstrate their faithfulness in both their words and deeds and by those who extend generous hospitality. The proclamation of the word opens the heart and open hearts result in open doors. Let us welcome all who would come” (reference).
It takes a team for us to be successful at ministry and we are ever reminded that we don’t do anything for ourselves. Instead, we do it all for the glory of God.
If we open our hearts, we just might find that doors are also opened to us in unexpected ways. Be open to the leading of the Spirit. Help often comes from the most unexpected of places. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.