I want you to think for a moment about something that you do well. How did you get there? There might be some things that you predisposed to being better at than others, but to be good, you still have to commit, you have to try, you have to practice. You have to work at it.

When I was younger, I played the flute. I didn’t like to practice. I did, just enough to be ok. I was a swimmer and I practiced during the high school season and then I didn’t the rest of the year. I was also ok. I could have been better, I could have committed more time and energy. What did you practice? In this community we have musicians of all kinds from piano and flute, drums and accordion. There are runners, cyclists, and rock climbers. There are sewers, quilters, artists of all kinds.

A joke was told by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma during an interview ahead of his 60th birthday on Oct. 7. A cellist walks on a beach and picks up a bottle. A genie pops out and says, “I give you two wishes.”  The cellist says: “Wow, I’d like to have world peace.” The genie thinks for a second and says,“That’s too hard! What’s your second wish?” The cellist says, “Well, I’m turning 60 and I want to play in tune.” The genie thinks for a second and says, “What was your first wish again?” 

“What all string players have in common is that if we don’t play for awhile, we actually start from ground zero,” Ma says.

That probably applies to more than just string players.

I am sure that you have heard from someone that practice makes perfect. Maybe that’s why I didn’t practice, perfection was never my goal and honestly, seems completely un-achievable. It’s a lie they tell, that practice makes perfect. Instead, practice changes your synapsis in your brain and creates memories in your muscles to make it easier. If Yo-yo Ma, who played for presidents as a child needs to practice at 60, maybe we do,  too.

Of course, what does this have to do with being followers of Jesus and being the church? Everything. What we find in our story today are Lydia and Paul and Silas showing what it is to live as disciples of Jesus, followers of the way, practices of discipleship.

We start with Lydia. And I wish we had time today to really talk about the women in this story: Lydia is a woman of means, she runs her own business, she has surrounded herself with a community of women who care about each other, to worship God, and are seeking live more fully into what it means to be a follower of Jesus. She wasn’t new to the Jesus story, and since Paul and Silas were in town, her community and household should be baptized. And since they had no place to stay, she had room for them.

Welcoming. Hospitality. Who we are called to be is to make space in our churches, in our homes, and in our lives for everyone. It’s Zacchaeus in a tree invited back into community, it’s Abraham and Sarah welcoming three strangers into their home for a meal, it’s you, and how you are a community who welcomes newcomers, have made them feel like they are part of this family. Have you been part of Emmanuel for a long time? Keep welcoming people. Are you newer to Emmanuel? Remember the welcome you received and share it with another! Of course, that doesn’t just mean we welcome those who come through our door, or into our parking lot, but all of those we meet find a welcome in us.

We are the church, we are the welcome, we make space for each other, invite into community, grow together. Hospitality means welcoming the stranger, the sojourner, the immigrant, the marginalized, the oppressed, the neglected into community, into a family, into life together. That is what Lydia did. She was the warm and welcoming aunt you have who see all as a future friend, and welcomes them into a meal together. She’s my grandma, who is grandma to everyone, even those she just met, because she knows no strangers, just future friends who really need purse peppermints or Smarties. This is the lifelong work of overcoming fears of difference, being willing to grow and change yourself, hearing new ways of the world. Welcoming in a stranger is counterintuitive, even if it is an ancient practice, we fear and flee from what is different because our animal instincts tell us we might be hurt.

Our next few lessons come from Paul and Silas. They find a woman who has spirit that lets her tell the future. And no doubt she made bank–for her owners. And here’s a place where I think Paul missed the mark a little. She was liberated from her demon, but still a slave. In fact, now she’s a less useful slave. We don’t know what happens to her: if she was set free to fend for herself, or if she remained with her owners. It was the right thing to do, they certainly thought it was the right thing to do, but sometimes liberation is about liberating to a full and abundant life.

Our work of compassion, of feeding and clothing and setting free, which is amazing and necessary, but it cannot be done without acknowledging why people are hungry, without sufficient clothing, and what are the circumstances that lead to incarceration. Often, when someone is freed from prison, they aren’t given any resources to survive, they have no community to support them. When women around the world lifted up their voices and told their stories of sexual assault, how were they brought into freedom and wholehearted living? 30 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed with the help of the UCC and Harold Wilkes, but how are we standing alongside persons with disabilities today, when in many ways, the world remains inaccessible? How do our practices of justice and liberation lead to abundant living for all people?

Look, Paul and Silas did the right thing. I wish we knew how it turned out for that woman. For them, no good deed goes unpunished, they ended up in prison. The first Noble Truth in Buddhism is “All Life Involves Suffering”. I’m going to suggest that there is a practice of suffering related to being a disciple but I really need you to listen to the rest of this, too. 1: God does not cause you to suffer. 2: Being human, living among humans, being part of humanity and our systems will. It’s inevitable.

And we are part of a community, part of a faith, part of a practice that asks us to do things that are counter intuitive, that are not the way the world runs. The world would rather ignore the hungry with the sign and we are called to feed them, welcome them. The world would rather forget persons in prison, painting them in the worst possible light, and we are called to visit, to care for, to make space for. We are called to stand up and speak up for those who can’t raise their own voices and step aside for those who can in the face of injustice, violence, hatred, oppresses, abuse, neglect. And sometimes that comes with a cost. Sometimes it costs relationships, money, sometimes ridicule.

What good is it to help this one when there are so many others that need help? The way of love that we learn from Jesus cost him his life. Our practice of suffering because of doing what is right isn’t putting ourselves in a place to suffer, we’re not making ourselves martyrs or victims, it is a practice of not letting suffering hold us back, keep us from loving, not letting them succeed at making us small or insignificant. Because we are not, we are beloved by God and we are not alone.

When Paul and Silas were in prison, in the midst of their suffering, they stayed connected to God. They prayed and they sang. They worshipped, they cried out. Worship is practice. The first step in practicing anything is showing up. And I don’t necessarily mean showing up on Sunday mornings to church when we can show up together on Sunday mornings to worship. Show up to prayer. Stop, take an intentional moment to pray. Take an intentional moment of worship. Take an intentional moment of song.

Worship and prayer is remembering that we are not the center of the universe, there is a God that cares about what is happening to us. Worship is gratitude for the world around us. It is practice taking time, showing up, feeling ridiculous the first time you pray or sing or simply open your arms to the creator of the universe and believe that you will be heard.

Paul and Silas returned to Lydia and her community when they left jail, stayed with them, and together they learned and studied and taught. It seems that too often in, well the world and so churches aren’t immune, we think that education is for the young. There isn’t anything else for us to learn about unless we decide to go back to school. In churches, we often see education and learning as the responsibility of the children. But there is so much we don’t know. So much we can learn. Learning is lifelong.

Remember the last documentary you saw, or book you read, or video you watched about someone different than you. Remember the last time you learned something new or a new perspective on things or heard someone’s experience that is so different than yours. There is so much more to learn. Jesus told his disciples that there was more to be revealed but they weren’t ready yet, and Paul, in one of his letters, says we see through a glass dimmed. We are missing so much but we keep trying to learn and to share what we know with those around us. To mentor people younger than us, or just in a different place than us. To teach, to tell stories, to advise when advice is asked for. And it is a practice. We practice shutting up when someone else has something to say or share or teach, we practice being teachers and learners, as any of our many teachers would tell you.

We practice what it means to be disciples.

I was reminded this week of Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, who, on June 17, 2015, lived their discipleship, welcomed the stranger into their time of prayer and study and suffered, when the stranger they welcomed shot 9 of them dead. It’s the scariest of the consequences that could come from living as a disciples in a way that is counter to the world, or a fraction of the world. What we see in their community and in the lives of those who loved those murdered, is the living of their discipleship. They still worship and pray and study and offer grace and forgiveness. They still practice what they believe.

Because it takes practice! Because we’re going to screw it up. Because it’s going to be imperfect. Because we’re going to be learning and refining what it is to love God by loving God people-including ourselves. Because practice doesn’t make perfect, but what we practice changes our synapsis, trains our muscles, settles into our bones, changes our hearts. And it gets easier, then it gets harder again, and then easier. It’s the way of practicing and learning and doing. So make mistakes, offer grace and ask for forgiveness. But know you are not doing it alone. We are practicing what it is to live as disciples, to love God, to welcome the stranger, to fight for justice and liberation and abundance, to embrace the consequences with grace and forgiveness, to worship and pray in surrender and gratitude, and to learn, teach and grow together. We have each other. You are not alone.