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Lydia, Woman of Faith & Purple Cloth

Preached:  May 12, 2013  (Mother’s Day)
Scriptures:  Excerpts from Acts 16

From Diana Butler Bass:  In May 1907, Anna Jarvis, a member of a Methodist congregation in Grafton, West Virginia, passed out 500 white carnations in church to commemorate the life of her mother. One year later, the same Methodist church created a special service to honor mothers. Many Christian organizations picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. Finally, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother’s Day into law. Thus began the modern celebration of Mother’s Day in the United States.

Up to this point, there were Protestant women in the late 19th century who had been agitating for a national Mother’s Day hoping that it would further a progressive issues related to women’s lives. In the 1880’s & 1890’s, Julia Ward Howe (better know for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) expressed this hope in her 1870 prose-poem, “A Mother’s Day Proclamation” calling women to pacifism and political resistance:

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly… “Disarm! Disarm!  The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impression, not of Caesar, But of God –

Mother’s Day is not an official holiday in the church calendar (shock), but it is such a part of American culture that it has become a special day set aside to remember our mothers.  It is not very often that the lectionary texts for Mother’s Day lend themselves well to preaching about strong faithful women. That is why I have borrowed from last week’s texts and celebrated the Ascension last week. The text from Acts 16 is a story about a remarkable woman in a world where women held little or no social status.

 The interaction between Paul & Lydia almost didn’t happen. Europe wasn’t part of Paul’s plan. He thought he should go to Asia—but God intervened and took him to Europe instead. Paul and Silas come to Philippi on Paul’s second mission after receiving a vision of a man urging him to cross the Aegean Sea to spread the gospel in Macedonia.   Paul set off by boat across the Aegean Sea and arrived at the city of Philipi, ten miles inland, a Roman colony and military outpost. His reception wasn’t too friendly; on the entrance to the city was a posted a sign barring any unauthorized religions.

It took several days before he and his companions found a group to share the Good News of Jesus. They are directed to a group of people gathering for prayer outside the city gates beside a riverbank. It is not a traditionally religious site; not a synagogue in sight. Paul encounters and worships with a group of devout women by the river. Not a single man present.

Lydia was one of the women who regularly gathered for prayer at this spot and appears to be a leader in the church at Philippi.   Luke describes her as a cosmopolitan woman of means and a “worshiper of God”.  We are told she was from the city of Thyatira in what is known today as western Turkey.

All we know about her from the text is that she was a “seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God”. The little we do know is fascinating. She is a businesswoman in charge of her own household. Lydia was a dealer in purple dye, an extravagant textile available only to the wealthy. In the ancient world only people of means could afford buying purple, and it was worn as a sign of nobility. It took hundreds of  mashed up shellfish to extract dye for just a couple of yards of cloth.  Roman citizens were the prime customers.  Since many retired Roman soldiers retired in Philippi, it makes sense that Lydia may have moved there for her business.

Even though Lydia was a successful businesswoman she made time for regular worship. She makes the weekly trek to join fellow believers in prayer down by the river.  Perhaps she expected to meet other women there, Jewish or Gentile seekers for the living God. She came this day not knowing that she would meet a man who would introduce her to a new way of life so radical that it would change her and her family.

It seems that Lydia already knew something about God before Paul got to her. She may have learned about God from the many Jews who lived in her hometown of Thyatira.  When she meets Paul, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to his message.” Not only is she an independent woman of means, she was open to the presence of God. She sees and understands in Paul’s words the vision of what God is doing in the world. The texts tell us that she worships God and that the Spirit of The Lord has opened her heart to listen eagerly to Paul’s witness concerning the risen Christ. In that moment when she hears the words, she believes. The vision that Lydia receives that day moves her and her whole household toward becoming disciples of the risen Lord.

Through her faithfulness, and the work of the Spirit, she receives the word of God. The intersection between human obedience and divine initiative; Longing for God and Divine grace meet there on the banks of the river.

“Come, and stay, if you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord.”  Lydia has a home which she offers to Paul and his companions – her family and husband are not mentioned – and Paul accepts this woman’s bold invitation. The first act of discipleship of a Christian convert on the European continent is not proselytizing. It’s hospitality, giving of oneself. Lydia opens her home and her heart, which is the ultimate act of vulnerability.  God opened her heart and she opened her home and offers hospitality.

With Lydia as the first known European Christian, the gospel begins its journey into Europe. It is an example of how prominent a role women played in the earliest years of the Jesus movement. Paul is often critiqued about his relationship to women, and yet he address Lydia, and the other female worshippers as authentic spiritual pilgrims.

The church in Philippi becomes a favorite faith community of Paul’s.  Lydia’s material support made Paul’s ministry possible. Lydia embodied a practical hospitality and generosity.

Reminder that God’s providence lures us beyond the familiar to embody God’s life-transforming good news.  Everything we do is mission.