Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
Chance encounters. They are rare, but when they happen at the right moment, with the right person, honestly with the Spirit at work, they can change a person. A story was shared on the TODAY show about Helen and Deborah, complete strangers who became friends, all out of taking a chance ofnoticing a stranger who needed comfort.  Helen was in the park, taking a picture of her friend by a fountain, when she noticed Deborah, a stranger, sitting on a park bench. Helen observed that Deborah looked like she was wearing the weight of the world on her shoulders that day and Helen was right. Deborah was not herself. She had been in an unhealthy relationship and at the lowest point of her life. Deborah felt lost in the world and needed advice, any helping advice, and a hug and a friend wouldn’t hurt as well. Deborah looked up and with tears in her eyes and met Helen’s curious face. Helen went over to her, held her hand and they sat there and talked. Sometimes it’s easier to unload the burdens of our life on a stranger, right? After they talked for a while, they exchanged information, gave each other a giant hug and remained in touch for years afterwards. Deborah got out of the unhealthy relationship, her whole trajectory and world view had changed, and she called Helen her angel that day.  Helen noticed her and saw more than just a sad woman, but a woman who needed a friend, a shoulder to lean on, someone who could see strength in Deborah, even if Deborah couldn’t see it in the moment. Chance encounters. They can change a person.
Several Biblical scholars call Lydia’s and Paul’s meeting a chance encounter, and it certainly did change the trajectory of their personal faith. It also established a completely new direction of the church, both geographically and in leadership. Let me explain. Leading up to our passage, Paul and his companions, have the travel bug. The author of Acts fast tracks us through the regions that Paul visits and there’s no time for us readers to keep up. Just know that Paul is all over the map! He wants to go into the province of Asia, around Turkey today, but the Spirit of Jesus, as it says, wouldn’t let them go. So they had to change directions. A few days later, Paul experiences a vision of a man asking him to come to Macedonia. And so they leave for Macedonia, concluding that this is the path God is calling them towards. They end up in Philippi, home to the Philippians. Yes, the same people in the letter from Paul. And you should know, this is Paul’s first visit into Europe. Europe, home of the Roman Catholics, the protestant reformation, and of course, John Calvin’s institutes. And none of those well-known historical events would have happened without our story of a chance encounter with Lydia by the river. A new direction for the church geographically.
The leadership of the church is about to change as well. When the Sabbath day arrives, Paul and his companions, head down to the riverbank, hoping for a place of prayer. When they arrive, there is a group of women and Paul conversed with them. And in just two quick verses, we are introduced to Lydia. We don’t know a lot about Lydia, but she’s a character in our Scripture that leaves us wanting to know more. Ronald Cole-Turner, a scholar, writes about Lydia. He writes, ”We know almost nothing about Lydia, but what we know fascinates us. Who was this woman making her way independently in a world run by men? Who was this Gentile who sought the God of Judaism? The text only tells us that she was a “seller of purple goods (so wealthy because only royalty and the rich wore purple) [and she was] a worshiper of God.” However, in just those two phrases, Scripture with its stunning brevity shows us that work and worship both had their place in the life of this remarkable, busy woman. So she rises from the text and stands before us even today as a kind of narrative icon, contemplative Mary and active Martha in one, her heart set on God even as her work gets done. She came to the riverside, to a secluded place of prayer. Perhaps she expected to meet other women, Jewish worshipers or Gentile seekers, for prayer together. Perhaps she came regularly. What she did not know was that on this particular day outside the city gates, she would be met by Paul and his companions, missionaries looking for anyone who was seeking God, in this hidden place of prayer. There at the riverside, Lydia found the God who was finding her.”
Paul and his companions, they were not expecting to meet Lydia as well. In fact, they had planned days before to go in an entirely different geographical direction. And now, the church is about to take off. Our Scripture tells us that Lydia, an independent, wealthy woman, is the very first European conversion as the church begins its new direction on a new continent. And Paul, Paul has said many things about women in leadership, not always good things, but he also wrote these famous words in his letter to the Galatians. He writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And now, Paul, is not only writing these hopeful words to churches, Paul is now inviting Lydia, a woman, into leadership. He embodies the new direction of the church. Last week we learned that gentiles are now a part of the church, well today, women are included as well.
Lydia listened, as the Greek says, eagerly to all he had to say about God and faith and the church. And Paul knew Lydia, an independent, persuasive, wealthy business owner could take this information and transform her communities. I mean, immediately after their conversation, her household was baptized and then she lived into the faith she had just accepted and welcomed Paul and his followers into her home. Lydia was going about her life, heading to the river to pray like any other sabbath day and this chance encounter changed the direction of the church and who is welcomed into the church. We’ve seen it throughout this sermon series that Steve and I are doing. Now women, the wealthy, the poor, the gentiles, the differently structured families and lifestyles. All of them are welcomes into the body of Christ.
Recently, a member shared a five-part op-ed piece from the New York Times with me. I won’t share it all, we most certainly don’t have time for that, but I encourage you to look it up. The last piece is, I think, particularly hopeful considering it’s talking about the declining numbers in the church. It’s titled, “What Churches Offer That ‘Nones’ Still Long For.” Not “nuns” – N-U-N-S – like in the catholic church, but “nones” – N-O-N-E-S – a words that has been established for folks who were once affiliated with a religion, but no longer feel like they belong or the institution is no longer serving a purpose in their life. They have no formal religious affiliations. In Jessica Grose’s research and honestly, it didn’t need much research, we know it without wanting to talk about it, “nones – N-O-N-E-S” are on the rise. Yes, more and more people are less affiliated with institutional religion. Grose, the author of this series, writes that after hearing from almost 7000 people, who responded to her questions and prompts, that she finds while “nones” are being served in other ways by our new developed society, they are not being served in community.
Grose “asked every sociologist [she] interviewed whether communities created around secular activities outside of houses of worship could give the same level of wraparound support that churches, temples and mosques are able to offer. Nearly across the board, the answer was no.” While friends are being developed. While diversity in sports create fun times on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. And bonding is happening. Most of these groups do not provide the same spiritual comfort in the face of death. They don’t call people into action to care for those on the margins. There’s less of a generational connection to heritage and tradition. That’s what institutional religion, church, provides.
Grose goes on to say, and this is hard to hear, “Every demographic group in the United States is becoming less religious, but groups that are overrepresented among people with no religion in particular are those without high school diplomas, who are single, who don’t have children and who earn less than $50,000 a year….32 percent of those who did not earn a high school diploma identified as nones — the highest percentage of any educational level.”
“What this suggests to me,” Grose writes, “and to the scholars I’ve spoken to over the past few months, is that there’s a substantial group of Americans who are grappling with societal pressures on multiple fronts. Americans who are “further down the socioeconomic ladder” are lonelier. And those are some of the same Americans who feel alienated from religious institutions, even if many of them still believe in God.”
Now this is just one article, one opinion with lots of statistics, I haven’t named. And not the whole truth as to why folks are not in church. But what this article does tell me is that there is a group of people, how I read it mostly as my generation and younger, who have not stopped looking for what the church can give them, that they virtually are unable to get anywhere else. It’s hopeful because while the author says the NONES are on the rise, the church, we believe in, still extends and won’t stop extending a sense of belonging, a community that wraps around an individual in crisis. The church we believe in, validates and loves all of who we are, the good and the bad. The church we believe in is hospitable and knows how to truly welcome someone into its midst. It’s what the church does. We are evolving, changing, heading in a direction we may have never expected. But I believe this about the church, even in this strange time where we have “nones,” and lots of fear, and of course, doubt, I believe the church is here for people to feel like they belong. That they can believe whatever they believe and doubt whatever they doubt and ask questions and still be church. That we can be in community and worthy of the love that we can’t help but give, and iis still church. That’s church for me. That’s church for everyone. People haven’t stopped looking for community and we’re a place that just naturally gives it.
Lydia was outside of the cookie cutter structure, much like many independent, single, child-less young people today. And that day, with Paul, the church changed. It headed in a direction that was more inclusive, widespread, courageous in willing to try something new and different and to not be afraid. How could they be afraid when God was with them? How can we be afraid knowing God is with us? Don’t be afraid to try something new. The community isn’t going anywhere. It’s just who we are. We’re church.
 Alex Portée, “She Met a Stranger on a Park Bench Who Changed Her Life. They Reunited After 8 Years on TODAY,” NBC New York, April 12, 2023, https://www.nbcnewyork.com/entertainment/entertainment-news/she-met-a-stranger-on-a-park-bench-who-changed-her-life-they-reunited-after-8-years-on-today/4235214/.
 Ronald Cole-Turner, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 474.
 Jessica Grose, “What Churches Offer That ‘Nones’ Still Long For,” New York Times, June 28, 2023https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/28/opinion/religion-affiliation-community.html?smid=nytcore-android-share.