The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 26, 2019
It was one of those sweltering, muggy, summer days in Arlington, Virginia. My sister was working for a congressman in D.C. and I had gone to visit her and to be a tourist. As we made our way through Arlington National Cemetery I watched with admiration at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. If you’ve seen them, those guards, in their black wool uniforms, stoically guard the Tomb. I had worn polyester marching band uniforms before, so I knew what it was to be hot.
It’s telling, isn’t it, that the most somber place in that whole cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. In a way, the unknowns command more respect than all their named counterparts strewn across that cemetery. Though they are just some nameless soldiers, they play a pivotal role in our remembrance of the war dead. As we prepare for Memorial Day tomorrow, my mind goes back to that sweltering, muggy, summer day and the Tomb of the Unknowns. The unsung heroes, the ones whose names will be forever forgotten.
My life has been full of the unsung heroes. I think about the guy in college that spotted me a couple of bucks when I didn’t have the money for my breakfast. The kind soul that gave me a tow when my truck got stuck. The women who have cleaned hotel rooms I’ve slept in and the men who’ve dragged away my trash. The thousands upon thousands of people nameless people that have made my food, sewn my clothes, and answered my cranky customer service phone calls. For them, I thank God; the unsung heroes.
The unsung heroes make their way into the Bible, too. Minor characters who play major roles. Today we read a little passage about a woman named Lydia in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and his companions are in what we now call, Turkey. That’s what they called, “Asia.” They are proclaiming the gospel, baptizing converts, setting up churches. Then Paul has a vision, he has a vision in which he is called to cross the Aegean Sea, to go into a new land, and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Macedonia; to the people of Europe. Now, if you or I were to do this, we would seek out and find the most reliable, the most obvious, the most esteemed people to preach to first. If we were to start a campaign, we would announce it with a flashy video and a big stage, we would get the best Macedonians to give their endorsement.
But God has prepared an unsuspecting, an unexpected, vessel for the grace of the gospel. When have you ever known God to do the expected thing?
And so God prepares Lydia. A woman who is not a Jew. This is crazy. First of all, she’s a woman. Second of all, she’s Greek. Why would God choose someone like that as a vessel of grace? Because God does not take gender or ethnicity into account. All God wants is an open heart. So the Lord opens her heart, she hears the good news of Jesus Christ, is baptized, and welcomes Paul into her home.
Granted, Lydia is a minor character. But Lydia plays a major role. Lydia is a minor character that plays a major role. As is commonly noted, Lydia is the first recorded Christian from Europe. Hear that, a woman is the first recorded Christian from Europe. The great heritage of the churches from Greece, Italy, Germany, France, Switzerland, even our very own beloved Church of England, owe Lydia a debt of gratitude. In some corners of the church, Lydia is given the title, “Equal to the Apostles.” Why it took the Church two thousand years to ordain women is ridiculous. And that’s the theological term for it.
Now, the story of Acts continues without giving much more information about Lydia. But we must note, that without her, without the Lord opening her heart, Paul and his companions would not have had a place to stay. They would not have a base of operations for preaching the gospel all throughout Macedonia. Perhaps there would have been no church in Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, or any of those Greek cities. The Lord opened her heart, she opened her home, and a new land was open to hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the always the unsung heroes, the unknown saints that have made all the difference in the world.
Much has been made about how Lydia was obviously a successful business woman; because purple dye was so expensive to manufacture. Much has been made about her power; because the story notes that she has an entire household. But that’s not the point of the story - the point of the story is that the Lord opened her heart and that the Lord did a new thing for a new people. The point of the story is that the good news of Jesus Christ is for all people, regardless of their ethnicity or gender. Sure, Paul goes on to plant churches all across the ancient world. Yes, we have Paul’s letters and his witness to the gospel. But it was Lydia, the unsung hero, with an open heart and an open home who made that ministry possible.
And you, chances are you will never be as famous as Saint Paul. Hate to break it to you, but in two thousand years they probably won’t have named any churches after you. Chances are you will never go out on some missionary journey preaching the gospel to new people in far away lands. But for every Paul there must be thousands of Lydias, the minor characters, who but for a brief moment in time, play major roles. Let me be clear - this is not a gendered thing. This is a character thing. And chances are, you are more like Lydia than you are like Paul.
Which only makes your call even more crucial. Because you have a major role to play, even if it is only for a moment, even if you are only a minor character. Don’t tell yourself, “oh, I’m just a little old so and so.” “Oh, I’m not good enough for that.” “Oh, God should choose someone else.” Do not deny the Holy Spirit’s work in your life. Do not come up with all the excuses you could think of for why God would not call you. Because I believe God does not listen to our excuses. God choose Lydia, the least likely of all, to be the vessel of grace.
I firmly believe that God has prepared you as some vessel of grace. The Lord God is preparing your heart to be opened so that you, even you, have work to do for the Lord Jesus. Truly, the work of the church, the work of gospel proclamation, is only possible because of the thousands upon thousands of unsung heroes.
Do not back down from the call that God has upon your life. Do not shy away from even the smallest task our Lord Jesus Christ has for you. You may not be a major character character but you do have a major role to play. For truly, you do not know what God will do with even your smallest deeds. Lydia opens her home, and because of that open door Christianity spreads throughout Europe. Saint Andrew starts following Jesus and he invites his brother, Peter, to come along; which changes the world. The newcomer you welcome at church might become your next bishop. The child you teach at Sunday School could go on to teach other children about Jesus. The neighbor from whom you pray might go on to a leader among nations, a leader for kindness and decency and good. They may be Paul, and you may be Lydia. Who should we say did the greater work for God?
In other words, treat everyone you meet as a possibility from God. A possibility for ministry, for mission, for gospel proclamation. Treat everyone you meet as sacred, because in so doing you might just be setting the world on fire for the good news of Jesus Christ - the good news that everyone is lovable. And at the end of your days if you go down as one of those unsung heroes for God, one of the thousands upon thousands of Lydias, that is enough. And though you may not have soldiers guarding your tomb, your soul will be safe in the heavenly city. And you, well, the Lord will have opened your heart.