Sunday, May 16, 2010

Purple Prose

(This is the sermon I preached last Sunday at my internship church. It explores the story of Lydia, a woman who helped create one of the earliest Christian churches. The sermon was based on two of the week's Common Lectionary readings: Acts 16:9-15 and John 14:23-27.)


I went and did it: I took one of those temporary jobs with the U.S. Census. I sat through four long days of training where the crew leader was required to lecture us, verbatim, from a massive textbook. We learned how to process all the necessary forms. We learned how to affix and protect our identity badges. But most importantly, we learned how to apply ourselves to the enormous task of counting everyone—not just the people who responsibly filled in and sent back their forms, but also the people who got busy and forgot, the people who accidentally threw them out, the people who had convinced themselves that one person more or less really didn't matter, in the big scheme of things.

As I started to travel up long dirt driveways, to grand, hidden houses, mobile homes, and even one abandoned shack, I thought a great deal about what it means to make people count—and to stand up and be counted. To the government, it means one set of things: balancing money for public programs, making sure each state gets the right number of congressional representatives. But what does it mean to a community of faith?

This week's reading from Acts introduces us to another woman who wondered: Lydia. Not Lydia the tattooed lady, but Lydia of Philippi, a purveyor of purple cloth.
Her purple cloth was beautiful-- some the colour of ripe grapes in sunlight, some the colour of the river just after the sun goes down. Sometimes a lot of cloth came out almost the colour of lapis, perfect to match the stones in a fine silver necklace or fancy finger-rings. Sometimes it was almost crimson, the colour of blood.

There were buyers waiting for all of it—courtiers seeking the blood-coloured cloth sought after by royalty, foreign buyers looking for cloth of rare quality and hue, wealthy men and women seeking a calculated splurge. Lydia counted on all these customers, for purple cloth was the ultimate status symbol, and the more deals she made, the more secure her own household might become. After all, in a colonial town, you had to make your own way. A woman couldn't count on authorities to protect her. The best course was to offer something the people in power wanted, and impress the people you needed to impress.

So Lydia learned all the details of her trade: how the sea-snails must be gathered by the tens of thousands to produce one garment's worth of dye, then heaped in vats to rot, the stench horrible beyond imagining. She learned the secret recipes and methods the dyers used: just how much sea-salt to add to the dye bath for the colour of priestly robes, and how to use two different types of snails—a double-dip in two stinking vats—to achieve the colour preferred by royalty. She learned how to keep track of accounts, who to flatter, and who to bribe. She learned which traders would give her a fair deal on fine cloth and the precious purple dye, worth its weight in silver.

Bit by bit, she made her way. She earned respect in the marketplace for her exquisite goods and she could walk freely there, a wealthy woman unchaperroned, proud, alone. She managed her business and her household with dignity and skill. Even her servants were elegantly clothed and well-fed.

But Lydia was still hungry. Something was missing, though she couldn't put her dye-stained finger on it. She found herself awake in the night, restless, anxious for no reason she could name. She was surrounded by beauty, but she had no peace. Her dreams, when they came, were full of broken shells and stinking dye vats. Though she had earned the freedom to stride through the marketplace, her spirit still felt trapped, shut up like coins in a box. And so, one day, she changed her usual route. She gathered her servants around her and headed down, past the temples and elite villas, past the glittering business of the marketplace, past the walled gardens and the city gates, all the way down to the river. She looked for a place to wash her stained hands, though she knew the stains were too old and deep for that. The other women stood and sat and kneeled at the water's edge, some of them washing clothes, some washing children or themselves. As they talked, they laughed—not the hard, cynical laughter of the marketplace, but a sound like the river itself: loose and musical and free.

They had gathered at the river to impress no-one. They were there not for trade, but for friendship, to listen to each other's stories and support each other with prayer—not prayers to the usual temple gods, but to another sort of God who seemed to care for people, actually cared for people instead of leaving them to their fate.
Something happened to Lydia, there. In the midst of her business, she began to carve out time for more visits to the river. She listened keenly to the other women's stories, her mind stirred by their different ways of life. She moved her mouth silently along with their prayers, unsure what to believe, trying out the feel of the words on her tongue.

And then, one day, some men meandered down the bank. The laughter and laundry and storytelling came to an abrupt halt. “Apostles” someone said. Apostles? What could they possibly be doing here, those hard-travelling holy men who ought to be headed for the synagogue? Lydia sized up the man called Paul with her shrewd merchant's eyes. His bearing was bold and confident. What was he doing outside the city gates? Why was he speaking to these women at the fringes? His accent betrayed a fine education and good breeding—clearly part of the fabric of society—yet he seemed to shine with untamable joy...
What happened then, the Book of Acts retells:
On 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. A 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.
When 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.

“Come and stay at my home.” It sounds so simple—almost childish. “Come and stay at my home.”--as if that means nothing more than sprucing up the guest room. But this is not the hospitality of vacation rentals and hotel chains. This is something deeper and more powerful. This is hospitality of a kind that can't be bought or sold like so much pretty cloth. Lydia opens her heart to the Holy Spirit, and her open house becomes a richly gifted Christian community—one of the first true “churches” of the New Testament. Lydia opens her heart to the Holy Spirit, and the people at the fringes are gathered into the center. Blossoms blow between the walled garden and the riverbank. The old rules of society are unthreaded and rewoven into a cloth more durable and colourful than before.

The Scholars don't quite know what to make of Lydia. Some say she was the first European Convert to Christianity and the Matron of the house church at Philippi. Others claim her name was merely shorthand for a whole group of women who helped found the earliest churches. The writer of the Book of Acts recalls her as a generous and influential leader. Later in the story, when Paul and Silas are suddenly freed from prison, Lydia's house is the loving and supportive community to which they run.

Scholars may still disagree on the particulars—after all, it is in their professional interest to do so—but Lydia still stands as a witness, holding open the door with her dye-stained hands. She stands to remind us what can happen when we look beyond our own circles, when we step beyond our own well-worn path. She beckons us to heed our spiritual hungers. She nudges us to venture to the fringes, to learn and listen and pray with those at the edge. Whether our hands are calloused or soft, manicured or stained, she calls us to reach out in welcome, daring to embrace the whole family of God.

Photo Sources: dye vats,
Gangites River at Philippi, Villa Fresco.

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