Building the Movement: Hooks
May 26, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff
Just to catch up those of you who weren’t here for worship last week, we were talking about the Christian imperative to throw dinner parties. Did anyone follow the teachings of Jesus and the model of the early church and throw a dinner party this week? We actually did have the neighbors over for dinner this week (which was lovely) but I’m still mulling over a dinner we hosted a couple of weeks ago. A couple we met recently came over with their two grade-school aged kids. I dragged out an old box of puppets and that gave the adults time for some conversation. We’re all fairly new to Albany so we talked about where we came from and how we ended up here and soon we were deep into conversations about science and research and public policy. Eventually, the woman turned to me and said, “So how did you decide to become a minister?”
I get this question so often that I really should have a set answer by now—but I don’t. Part of my problem is that I don’t have a specific, entertaining story to tell about my call to ministry—no visions on the road to Damascus. I am also aware that without exploring my questioners’ past experience of church and church leaders, I can’t frame my response in a way that would make sense to them. And then there’s the issue of vulnerability. I can feel protective of my faith when I interact with people who are definitely not religious—I don’t really want to pin myself to the wall as “Exhibit A.”
So that night I said what I often say to people I don’t know well: “That’s a story for another time.” But afterwards, I kicked myself a little. Why not talk to these nice people about the things that are most central to my life? They asked—why didn’t I at least try to answer?
Do people ever ask you why you go to church, or why you’re a Christian? Do those questions trip you up like they trip me?
When Kathy and Judy and I got together to plan worship for May, Kathy asked a question about the scripture we just read that I’ve been chewing on ever since. “What did Paul say?” Kathy asked. “What did Paul say that hooked Lydia?” The story in Acts tells us that Paul went to Macedonia in response to a dream he had. In Philippi, he met a group of women who were observing the Jewish Sabbath down by the river. He strikes up a conversation with one of the women, Lydia, and by the end of the conversation Lydia wants to join the movement that Paul is organizing. But although the text includes all sorts of intriguing details—the location of this conversation by the river, Lydia’s unusual occupation as a dealer of purple cloth, the town where Lydia is from which is not the town where Paul meets her—it doesn’t say a thing about what Paul said. It just says they had a conversation and Lydia signed up. She and her household were baptized, presumably right there in the river.
For those of us who have been to employment workshops where we have been told about the importance of having a good “elevator speech”, this is a frustrating omission. There’s all sorts of research that suggests that people only pay attention to the first 20-30 seconds of what you say to them (which means of course that I have lost most of you at this point!) So when you are trying to make a lasting impression, you’re supposed to be able to communicate your most important points in 30 seconds or less. By the time he talks to Lydia, Paul would have had plenty of time to perfect his speech AND it would have been short. Why couldn’t it have been included in scripture—at least as a footnote!
Have any of you felt the need for an elevator speech about faith? Years ago, when I was a young minister in Massachusetts, the denomination I was a part of hired a church consultant named Tom Bandy who was going to come to Massachusetts and help the UCC churches get out of what he called “the spiral of decline”. I found his trainings to be refreshing—he said things out loud that no one else was saying about how churches needed to change or die. But at the core of his training was his assertion that every member of a church needed to have an answer to this one question: What is it about my faith in Jesus Christ that the world cannot live without?
This question caused me all sorts of grief. I was raised in a very mainstream Presbyterian church in Saint Paul, Minnesota. We definitely did not spend out time talking to people we didn’t know about how they needed Jesus. In fact, we never talked about how we needed Jesus. We didn’t really even talk about Jesus that much—we talked about what he called his disciples to do and we talked about how we needed to get to work doing those things.
So I had to chew on Tom Bandy’s question for a long time. I had to have some arguments about how the question didn’t really seem like the right one to me. Couldn’t we answer a more inclusive question? Why do we need to tell people that they can’t live without Jesus? And for that matter, why does it have to be about me and my faith? It seemed extremely egotistical to suggest that the fate of the world depended on something so small and personal as my faith.
But then, I was out one night having a beer with a seminarian I knew and we decided to stop arguing with the question and to try to answer it—just for the heck of it. I don’t remember what my friend said, but I do remember that I found myself saying, for the first time ever as far as I can recall, that the story of Jesus’ resurrection was essential to my life. My friend seemed surprised, so I had to keep going. I said that story expresses something for me about how the power of God is bigger than the power of death. And that I had seen first hand how easy it is to tear things down, to criticize and mock them. And yet this story, this strange and supernatural story of resurrection, seems to speak a different language than everything else I hear. It doesn’t play by the same rules. It insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it is possible to be surprised. And it makes me feel like hope isn’t something that we have to create for ourselves—hope spring out of life like the tulips—or maybe more like dandilions, impossible to contain or control.
I didn’t even really know that I felt this way until I said it, and then I became self-conscious and aware of how weird I probably sounded. And my friend and I laughed and changed the subject and went home. No one wanted to be baptized that night. No one’s life was changed. Except maybe mine. Because I had admitted in public, in a place that wasn’t a church, that the story of Jesus Christ was something I couldn’t live without. It matters to me personally.
Let me be clear—I didn’t develop my late night ramblings about resurrection into a succinct, 20-second elevator speech. I didn’t polish it up so I could use it on my church’s marketing material. Maybe I didn’t even say it again (until now). I realized that the important thing was not really what I said. Rather, because I had to say something personal about my faith, I had to let my faith be personal. I couldn’t just talk about religion in general. I couldn’t just discuss the activities of my church. I had to let it come close enough to touch me—and then I had to let someone else come close enough to see that too.
Maybe, in the end, that’s why the content of Paul’s speech isn’t included in this passage from Acts. What he said didn’t really matter. He made a personal connection with Lydia, I’m certain, because he told a story that he was personally connected to. He didn’t pitch anything to her, he didn’t sell anything to her, he just opened his heart to her.
So is it any surprise that in response, she opened her home? Maybe, in the end, that’s why there’s this theme in the Gospels and in the story of the early church about going over to people’s houses and inviting them to come into your house. Maybe that is just a way of talking about letting people into your heart. Letting people come close. And if that’s what all of this is about, then we start, I think, by letting these stories come close. Letting Jesus come close. Letting him in, clearing off the table so he has a place to sit, and inviting him to stay for a while.