“Encounter”

Growing up, I was a shy, serious kid who was completely oblivious to popular music and culture. This history of mine has a profound impact on me still; I regret my ignorance pretty much every day. I do a lot of nodding and smiling and hoping people don’t realize I have no idea what they are talking about! Then I go and Google it—Google is my friend. I do remember everyone raising their eyebrows when Prince decided to identify with a symbol instead of a name. But in no way did Prince’s music, or life, register with me at the time, as being, about me, about the values I hold close or the faith that guides me. It’s ironic, since the pressure to conform to gender norms was such a painful thing for me for so many years. It took Prince’s death, and the tremendous outpouring of public grief, for me to look back on my younger self and see this disconnect. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve just begun to reach out and truly encounter this remarkable, and complicated, artist. For instance, the lyrics in the song “I’d Die for You,” strike me as both personal to Prince descriptive of his understanding of God: “I’m not a woman/ I’m not a man/ I am something that you’ll never understand.”

I can’t help but link the Prince of Purple Rain with Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth in the book of Acts. This connection is about more than the coincidence of purple, as a color. It’s about purple as a metaphor, a deep symbol that stands for the freedom and authenticity God intends for creation. The main character in the Book of Acts is not Paul or Peter or even the church. It is the Spirit of God. The Spirit, in Acts, is the dimension of God who carries us, like a tide, out into the messy, chaotic territory of encounter.

The missionary journeys of Paul began with his own conversion. As Paul traveled toward Damascus to arrest Jews for following Jesus, a bright light blinded him. Jesus himself appeared, and demanded to know, why do you persecute me? From then on, Paul became a follower of Jesus and a leader of the church. Through the lens of thousands of years of animosity between Christians and Jews, Paul’s conversion may look like a definitive break with his Jewish faith and identity. It may appear that he took off one label and put on another. He gave up being a Jew and became a Christian, and that was his great awakening. But what if Paul’s transformation was not a call into a new religion so much as a new way of being religious? Jesus himself was a Jew; he did not set out to found Christianity. Early Christians called their community “The Way,” because, for them, following Jesus was a journey of encounter, not a settled religious doctrine.

In today’s passage, the Spirit sent Paul and his companions to reach beyond the Jewish community for the first time, to go to the Gentiles, to proclaim the good news of Jesus “to the ends of the earth.” In the verses before today’s story these evangelists kept hearing God say, “No, don’t go there,” and “Not over there.” Finally, Paul felt the Spirit calling them toward Macedonia. And they set off, making a bee-line for Philippi, a leading city in that region. But after they arrived, they just waited there in the city for “some days.” Was it a week, a month, or a year? However long it took, they paused until they sensed the leading of the spirit again. The spirit said, go outside the gates of the city to the river where there is a place of prayer. A place of prayer… what was this place? It was not a synagogue. It was not a church. It was not a shrine to the emperor. I imagine it as a grassy space along the river where people held ritual honoring the earth and its seasons, where they appealed to the gods of the water, with its currents and waves. In this place, Paul and his companions met a group of women praying. Lydia, who was apparently the leader of this community of women, broke all the rules that constrained her gender in those days—she was wealthy and independent; she was apparently the head of her own household, and the CEO of her own purple cloth business. It must have been a bizarre moment, as they encountered other there beside the river, in a world in which men and women, Jews and Gentiles, just didn’t mix.

Lexington Commons is a housing development for people who have recently experienced homelessness. For several years, members of our church have gone there on the last Sunday of the month to share a meal with the residents. Those who envisioned and have sustained this ministry have tried to avoid the mindset of charity—the “helping” paradigm that says some of us get to give while others can only receive. They look for ways to understand the giving and the receiving as mutual. Church members who bring food also sit down and eat with residents. One time, a year or so ago, the residents took a turn bringing the food for everyone. Listening, learning, laughter, vulnerability and support is always present in the table conversations. There is no preaching at Lexington Commons, some say, and that is true. But there is a way of being together that preaches to all us all, preaches without words or dogma. I was moved to learn that last week, at the meal, there was a memorial service. One of the residents who had regularly attended the monthly gathering had died, and the wish of her family and friends was to celebrate her life in that setting, with us. And so, they shared some stories, sang a song or two, and had a prayer. The meal at Lexington Commons is a powerful space of encounter, with each other, and with the good news that is God’s message to all creation.

There was something about Paul’s preaching at the riverbank that captivated Lydia. She was so moved by his proclamation that she decided to be baptized, to give herself, her life, to this message fully. It was such a great gift to her—this wealthy woman who had everything she could possibly need—that she insisted on welcoming Paul and his companions into her home. I don’t think this was an invitation to come over for dinner one night. This was Lydia desiring to share a life, build a community, with these travelers. She was providing her financial and material support to their ministry. She was making an investment in Paul and his companions. So what was this most excellent preaching that prompted such a generous and heartfelt response? The author of Acts doesn’t provide a sermon manuscript. Maybe that’s because it wasn’t Paul’s words that particularly grabbed Lydia, but the presence of God’s Spirit leading him, God’s Spirit opening a space between them for true and transformative encounter.

Recently, I watched the film, Boy Meets Girl, for a second time. I realized, this time around, that every other character in the story is drawn to Ricky, a transgender woman, because of her hard-won authenticity. She has left behind the safety of labels and check boxes and become fully, ambiguously herself. Her friends and lovers suffer because they are confined to images of themselves shaped by society’s expectations. They are all freed by their encounters with Ricky, as she reveals to them an affirmation that is deep and real and a wholeness that is complex enough to encompass all our human contradictions.

In 1987, when we took the step of formally welcoming gay, lesbian and bisexual people into our life together, we were first UCC congregation in Minnesota and the third in the nation to do so. Gender identity was not yet a part of the conversation. So today, we will update our Open and Affirming statement, making clear our community’s full and explicit welcome to people of all gender identities. As our nation engages in a struggle over whether or not there is room for everyone in our public spaces and in the heart of our common life our voice of affirmation and demand for inclusion is crucial. But let us understand that we are doing more than welcoming people who publically identify as transgender or who refuse to conform to gender norms. We are welcoming each of us in our fullest humanity. We are receiving the Spirit of God who leads us into genuine, and transformational, encounter with one another and with all creation. We are claiming liberation from the tyranny of norms and expectations around gender, and from all the inadequate binaries, confining check boxes and diminishing labels that keep us from the authenticity God intends.

What we are really doing, today, my friends, is affirming our Baptism into the Way of Christ: the river of fluidity and freedom, the tide that carries us out beyond the face of our fear, the wind that loves our back. Amen.