Oh Lydia, oh, Lydia, say have you met Lydia. The Lydia I’m talking about probably didn’t wear any tattoos, but if she did, they would be etched in purple ink.
There is a reason why the Church asks us to read The Acts of the Apostles during the Easter season. The stories on those pages are so full of Easter life; they are so full of stories about new chapters in the life of the church of Jesus Christ. Two weeks in a row now, I find myself drawn to the reading from Acts. In that reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, St. Paul has a vision of a man pleading with him to come to Macedonia because the people there need help.
It probably isn’t surprising to us when we hear a cry for help in the New Testament. After all, most of the people who call for help from Jesus or his disciples are either sick, oppressed, impoverished, humiliated or all of the above.
I think most of us have formed a composite picture of these people in our mind’s eye, lining up in huddled masses, waiting and hoping just for their daily bread or a touch of healing. But we are given a very different picture in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning. Paul and his associates have followed the call to help and set sail, finally making their way to the Macedonian city of Philippi. When they arrive, Paul finds a very proud Roman City with a thriving economy. In fact, Philippi was a city where many Roman military and civil officials went to retire. It was, in many respects, the Palm Beach of the Roman Empire in the first century.
Now Paul’s practice is like that of Jesus. He always looks straightaway for a Synagogue. But in this region, synagogues are not found at every turn. They ask around, and they find out that some folks meet for that “Jewish kind of prayer” down by the river just outside the city gate, and so Paul and Luke head to the river.
As it turns out the faithful Philippian version of the Episcopal Church Women just happens to be meeting down there for prayer and praise. And it is there that Paul meets an all-too-often forgotten biblical character, one that does not resemble our usual composite picture. This time it’s not a man with a withered hand, or a blind beggar along the road. It’s not a curious Pharisee sneaking out to see Jesus in the dark night or a tax collector climbing a tree. It’s not a Centurion with a dying daughter or a poor, impetuous fisherman walking along the Sea of Galilee. This time it’s not an outcast woman drawing water from the well in the hot sun. No, Paul meets a merchant woman named Lydia, and as such she comes the closest anyone can in the First Century to what we might call the Middle Class. She deals in PURPLE, a dye that was rare and difficult to come by.
Purple dye was extracted by the drop from a small Mediterranean shellfish, and apparently it took 8,000 of them to obtain enough purple to dye one pound of cloth. The dyeing process required considerable amounts of water which might explain why Lydia’s household was located near the river in Philippi. But she isn’t peddling purple when Paul finds her. It’s the Sabbath and she is at prayer with other women who formed a Synagogue in there.
Last week this marvelous Book of Acts gave us a glimpse into the opening of the Christian Church to all people of all ethnic backgrounds and all persuasions, and this week we are given a rare glimpse of a synagogue that is led by women. Imagine that!
Luke tells us it’s the Sabbath, so it was a Sabbath Worship complete with readings from the Torah and the Prophets that Lydia and the other women were leading down by the riverside.
You don’t hear very many stories like this except in the writings of Luke and Paul. The setting for this story is at odds with the prevailing social pattern of life. What I think we have here is a story that portrays an independent woman as the first convert in a new stage of the Christian mission.
Lydia and the other women who belonged to this Synagogue founded a church in Philippi that was not going to be solely patriarchal, and St. Luke’s recounting of her story, much to the chagrin of the Vatican, shows that women’s leadership in the life and worship of the church was intended from the church’s earliest history.
In addition, Lydia shows us more than just about anyone in the bible that God not only refuses to draw lines between Jew and Gentile and between Woman and Man, but also between rich and poor. She shows us that we don’t need to be an ascetic and move far out into the desert to live a good and faithful Christian Life. Lydia is not the patron saint of the monastic lifestyle, or of those who would retreat from the world to find TRUE religion. She shows us that when we do our work of daily living, we are indeed doing the work of God; we can even worry about money and worry about getting ahead and still be very close to God. Lydia represents God meeting us where we are, and her story serves to remind us that if our church is on the cutting edge of the societal comfort zone, that’s probably a good thing! She did this ministry while she was working in the purple cloth industry. It is a living reminder that ministry is done around the water cooler or wherever people gather, and not just places where holy books are kept and holy words are spoken. Lydia is a powerful reminder that the ordinary is exceptional in God’s sight.
Most of the time “God doesn’t call you AWAY from where you are and from what you are doing . . . Most of the time God calls you WITHIN where you are and WITHIN what you are doing.
Lydia and the other women down by the river in Philippi didn’t have a New Testament to read and inspire them; they took up the challenge of actually writing the Bible each day by their very lives! I’m so thankful for this ministry that I’m tempted to write a prayer of thanksgiving:
Gracious God, we give you thanks for Lydia and the brave women who formed and nourished your church in Philippi. May their good example encourage us to form and nourish your church wherever we move and live and have our being, and this we pray through Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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