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Lydia, The Seller of Purple

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Acts 16:6-15

There is so much in this story that I want to know more about.  First of all, it says that Paul and Timothy were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” and “the spirit of Jesus did not allow them” to go to Bithynia.  How did that work, exactly?  Was it a feeling, intuition, even a sense of foreboding that Paul felt?  Like the feeling you get in your gut when something is just not right.  Or did circumstances prevent them, and they assumed it was God?  Like the tickets were all too expensive and they had long layovers and it just didn’t work out.  Or did the Holy Spirit or the spirit of Jesus physically prevent them from going?  Like a mighty wind or a force field that actually kept them from moving.  Because if it’s the latter, I want to sign up.  I want to get on whatever list gets you that kind of relationship with God.  Looking back on my life, there are definitely some times when I wish the Holy Spirit had prevented me from doing something.  Raise your hand if you’re with me on that one!  I wish God had a lasso and could just catch me and pull me back.  Alas, that’s not how God works—at least not with me.  Of course, there are times when God tries to speak and I don’t listen.  For example, I was 21 years old and I went for my monthly haircut and my hairstylist gasped and said, “Cindy, what happened this month?  You have a whole patch of gray hair you didn’t have last month!”    And I said, “I don’t know! I mean, I got engaged . . .”  Or maybe it wasn’t God telling me.  Maybe even my hair knew that marriage was a bad idea!

So I want to know how God guided Paul and Timothy, how God prevented them from making mistakes.  More importantly, I want to know more about Lydia.  Raise your hand if you knew who Lydia was before I read this scripture.  I’ve never preached on her before, and there aren’t any sermons on our church website about her, either, so I’m guessing she wasn’t a favorite of John or Elsa.  It’s just not a familiar story.  But when I read the passage in the lectionary for this week, I immediately wanted to preach on her because she is named.  Do you know how many unnamed women there are in the New Testament?  Neither do I, but it’s a lot!  There’s the woman who had hemorrhaged for 12 years, the woman who was bent over double, the woman at the well, the widow who put her last two coins in the treasury, the women at the crucifixion and the resurrection (some named, others not).  And then there are the women who are only named by their relationship to a man: Peter’s mother-in-law, the daughter of Jairus (a leader in the synagogue).  I could go on and on, but you get my point.  So when I came across this story of Lydia, my feminist heart did a little dance: a named woman!  Yay!

Here’s what we can surmise about her from the scripture.  She is a wealthy businesswoman.  She is not married—is perhaps widowed, or perhaps never married.  It’s not clear.  But she is the head of her own household.  She is a dealer in purple cloth.  Purple cloth was difficult to make and therefore very expensive.  I watched a video of how the dye was made in ancient times.  It’s part of a series of videos on the worst jobs in history.  They would crush the mollusks and put them in water, add wood ash for its alkali, and then leave the putrefying mollusks to rot (ferment) for 10 days.  They say the smell is horrific.  Then they would put the fabric in the mixture and let it soak for half an hour.  It’s only when the fabric hits the air that the color starts to turn—first greenish gray, then blue, then purple.  It took 1000 mollusks to dye just one cloak.  It’s no wonder, then, that purple was the color of royalty or wealth.  The elite were the only ones who could afford to buy purple garments, and then became the only ones who were allowed to wear purple.

Lydia is a seller of purple garments, and is rich enough to have her own household which would have included servants.  So most likely she didn’t personally do the dyeing process, at least not at this point in her life.  When she was younger, she might have done it for the family business, or perhaps the business was all hers, in which case she would have started out doing it.  But now she is a successful businessperson, whose clients are the elite, the 1%.  To move in such circles, Lydia would know how to behave.  She knows when to stand firm and when to drop her gaze, when to flatter and when to defer.  She has connections.  She knows people.  She is Lydia, the seller of purple.

But she is not Lydia, the wearer of purple.  Lydia is a saint in the Catholic church, and she is always depicted wearing purple.  But if I’m reading the history correctly, she would not have been allowed to wear the products she sold.  She was wealthy, but she wasn’t part of the elite ruling class.  It’s one thing to sell a product you can’t afford.  A car salesman might not be able to afford the top model luxury vehicle even with his employee discount.  But it’s quite another to not be allowed to buy it.  Of course, the U.S. has its own history with these kinds of rules.  The sumptuary laws in the colonies controlled all types of behavior,   with some colonies having penalties for people who dressed above their station.

We don’t know if this rankled Lydia the way it would have bothered some of us who live in a free world compared to the Roman Empire.  We don’t know what she believed about much of anything—except that she believed in God.  She apparently was drawn to Judaism but was not Jewish, and had not converted.  Yet she believed in God, and she was spiritual enough to seek a prayer gathering by the river.  There she encountered Paul and the others, who sat and taught the women about Jesus.  We don’t know what Paul said; we don’t know what Lydia heard; we don’t know what was so compelling to her.  But on the spot she converted and she and her entire household were baptized.  Immediately she invited the missionaries to her home—not just for a meal, but to stay with her.  Her house became their home base on this new missionary tour, and it appears that her home housed the first church there in Philippi.

She gave what she had to the cause—her home, her resources, her wealth—and she took a risk to do so.  In the Roman Empire at the time, her conversion would not have been pleasing to her clients.  And she didn’t stay quiet about it, either.  By allowing Paul and the others to use her house as their home base,    even use her home as a church—well, she could have lost her client list in a flash.  And she may have—we don’t know.  We can surmise that she was willing to.

I wish I knew what brought her to that point.  I wish I knew what motivated her to take such risks with her livelihood.  I wish I knew because then maybe I could inspire us, you and me, to do the same—maybe not to risk our jobs, but to take other risks for what we believe.  I wonder if some of us are too afraid to even “check in” on Facebook, let alone tell someone that our faith actually means something to us.  There comes a time when we have to put our money where our mouth is, when we have to say “This is what I believe,” even if it comes at a cost.

I have to admit I get frustrated when people say to me, “I don’t do politics.” I bite my tongue, but I always want to respond with, “Lucky you!”  because you have the option not to get involved.  People who are being hurt by current ways of being don’t have that luxury, that privilege.  Saying “I don’t do politics” is actually saying “I’m fine with things the way they are.”

Now, we all need breaks from politics.  We all need breaks from the news which seems to get bleaker every day.  We need to rest and rejuvenate.  But as Christians, we cannot keep quiet.  We cannot be silent.  Silence is complicity.  Someone (who isn’t a member of our church) told me recently that as long as we’re not stoning or beheading people, she doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate.  Wow, that is a really low bar!  I think we can do better.  I think we must do better.

Lydia was named in our scriptures.  She was named because she played a leadership role in the early church in Macedonia.  She was named because her contribution mattered.  She was named, in short, because she was rich.  In the very next sentence, there is a slave girl who is never named.  It makes me think of all the unnamed people in history—oh they had names, certainly, but whose names were never told, whose stories were never shared, whose lives were considered disposable.

Lydia used her privilege to make a difference, offering hospitality and leadership so the good news could be shared.  She took a risk.  But it was the risk that brought her out into the air, where the oxygen could reveal her true colors.  What will it take for us?

Acts 16

6They [Paul and Timothy] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; 8so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.


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