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  • Writer's pictureRev. Nick Reed

Listening Partners

Acts 16:9-15

“It takes two to speak the truth…one to speak and another to hear.” I share this quote by Henry David Thoreau as I give pre marriage counseling to couples who desire to begin a journey of being a listening and life partner with one another. It is a reminder that in order to speak truth to one another every couple must find a healthy balance of when to be assertive in what you need to say and when you need to be an active listener of what is being said to you.

To be honest Thoreau (who some say was an early trend setter of being someone who is spiritual but not religious) is not someone pastors often quote in sermons, but his words echo so many stories of scripture when God’s faithful were striving to be a faithful listening partner to God’s truth.

The Presbyterian Church uses different words to explain what it means to be a faithful listening partner of God’s truth as we follow Christ. In our Presbyterian book of order it proclaims that as a reformed church we believe that, “In the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ draws worshiping communities and individual believers into the sovereign activity of the triune God at all times and places. As the Church seeks reform and fresh direction, it looks to Jesus Christ who goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him. United with Christ in the power of the Spirit, the Church seeks “not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect”

As a reformed church we believe God is both assertively speaking to us, and God has given us the gift of the Spirit to guide us in our active listening for what is the will of God.

Today’s text is one of the many stories of scripture that are a powerful reminder that God is our great listening partner assertively speaking to us and actively guiding us towards fresh perspectives and new experiences that will speak God’s truth to us.

I want to share a little refresher on the book of Acts because there are some important things to remember that happening leading up to today’s passage. As Acts opens up the church receives the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the church and its leaders find themselves in a great debate. Where do we take the gospel and to whom? At first they stick close to Jerusalem and mostly share the good news to those gathered in Jewish synagogues, but slowly and surely the Spirit reminds them of Jesus’s calling to proclaim God’s love through Christ “to the ends of the earth”.

Paul then goes on a missionary journey throughout the middle east and visits cities and towns and preaches in synagogues. As the story continues to today’s text we learn that the Spirit is guiding Paul to keep seeking fresh direction and experiences and seek new listening partners. That is where we meet Paul in today’s text. He has a vision of a man of Macedonia pleadings with him saying, “come over to Macedonia and help us.” I do not know how your global geography is, but Macedonia is not in Asia, it is in Europe. Paul has only preached on the continent of Asia, but feels the spirit guiding him to new place.

Up to this point whenever Paul came to a new town or city he had always sought out a synagogue or place of worship because it was a place he felt he could seek out people who grew up just like him, people who were Jewish.

Yet as we heard in the story he had to seek a new approach to how he spent his sabbath. He went outside of the city center, outside the gate by the River supposing this would be a good place of prayer. It was there that God’s spirit would lead him towards fresh direction and new perspectives that would reveal God’s truth and purpose for Paul and for everyone gathered. Instead of encountering a man from Macedonia, Paul encountered a woman from Macedonia.

Lydia, a women who was there to worship God listened to what Paul and his friends were telling a group of women about the Gospel. We get a few hints that Lydia was someone who was in command of her own life. She was a dealer in rare and expensive purple cloth, and an owner of her own home and property that was not associated with a man. This context might be lost on us today, but in the first century this was exceptionally rare for a woman. She held her own economic status and in her community had influence that others sought. Lydia is a person of privilege and Paul was the foreigner and the outsider. She could have easily chose not to listen to him, yet in this setting of worship Lydia finds herself actively listening to God through Paul, and is led to her own fresh direction and transformation in her life.

After encountering this new listening partner and experiencing God’s truth Lydia and her whole household are baptized. She then offers compassion to strangers and welcomes this foreigner and outsider and his friends into her own home.

Today’s text is reminder that God is actively guiding us to be listening partners with God in all times and places. Worship is a time and space when we join God as a listening partner. Every Sunday we have prayer for illumination asking God’s spirit to open our hearts and ears that as we hear God’s word proclaimed we hear God’s truth of God’s love for us through Christ. Worship and prayer is a way we active listen and discern how we will go forth into the world living a life following Christ that seeks to do justice, love with kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Paul and Lydia’s story also is a powerful reminder that our relationships with one another is a way the Spirit guides us to the gospel truth that God’s love endures all things through Jesus Christ. God through the gift of relationship has provided us with listening partners in all times and places who will offer us fresh perspectives that will renew and transform our minds towards God’s will for us to love God’s creation.

Sadly our human nature finds itself conformed to a world where we think we should only listen to people like us. To be conformed to this world is to allow the worldly boundaries define how you interact with others. There are so many worldly boundaries present in today’s text that could have easily stood in the way of Paul and Lydia becoming listening partners for God’s will. The boundary of gender, ethnicity, economic status, race, and religious status all could have caused either Paul or Lydia to choose not to listen to the other. In doing so they both would have missed the clear opportunity to discern together God’s will.

This text gives us hope, wisdom, and courage because it proclaims to us the Good News that God’s love and God’s Spirit is one that does not seek exclusion but inclusion. God’s love and spirit transcends beyond the economic, racial, religious, and gender boundaries in our lives and guides us to a new beloved community where we are surrounded by listening partners who nurture us, challenge us, and point us towards God’s truth to love God’s creation.

I was reminded of this truth this past week at a presbytery meeting. Our Presbytery (which is made up of Presbyterian churches in middle Alabama) planned a Racial Justice Pilgrimage to various locations in Central Alabama. A group of lay members and pastors of different backgrounds, races, and perspectives pilgrimaged together to Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery to listen and experience both historical perspectives and fresh perspectives. As they began their pilgrimage together to hear the painful past of racial injustice and discern what we as followers of Christ need to attend to make progress in addressing racial injustice they prayerfully asked themselves this question, “what can I learn by paying attention to the other people who are walking here with me?”

As they pilgrimaged to sites, places like Kelley Ingram Park, 16th Street Baptist Church, Edmund Pettus Bridge, Equal Justice Institute, they actively listened to informed presentations from local voices, and participated in group reflection as they sought to learn about and address the historic, systemic, and individual racism found within middle Alabama. Their hope from this pilgrimage was for all participants to inform themselves of the “expansive Gospel definition of ‘our neighbor’ so that they could all become better equipped to meet Christ’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

As someone who could not make this inaugural pilgrimage, I am grateful the Presbytery hopes to continue this pilgrimage in the future and even create ways for churches and people from all over the nation to join this pilgrimage that is seeking racial justice and discerning how God is calling us to a new beloved community. I was inspired hearing them share their own experience of a pilgrimage that sought out new listening partners to discern how God is guiding us towards God’s truth of justice and love revealed through Christ.

Maybe our charge and take away from today’s story of Paul and Lydia is there are always new pilgrimages we can seek as we follow Christ. There are always new voices and new listening partners that will guide us towards God’s truth and love through Christ. As we worship God this morning and actively listen to God may we discern what place, experience, and voice God is guiding us to next.

Maybe the pilgrimage God is calling you on next is not a far away land, but to a neighbor in our community who might seem different to you because the boundaries and barriers the things of this world have tried to put up between you and them. The good news of today’s text is we can find courage as we seek out listening partners because God’s spirit will be us to transcend those boundaries and assertively speak God’s the truth that God’s love reigns over all things.

As we go from this place and surround ourselves with listening partners who have fresh perspectives that will nurture us, challenge us, and point us towards God’s truth to love God’s creation may we remember that “…in the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ draws worshiping communities and individual believers into the sovereign activity of the triune God at all times and places.” Alleluia Amen

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