+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
First, I’d like to quickly wish a happy Mother’s Day to all the women here who are mothers, who plan to be mothers one day, who feel in some way like mothers, or who wish they could be mothers but for some variety of circumstances it hasn’t happened as they’d hoped it would. Some churches—not this one—make a big fuss over Mother’s Day, even though it isn’t anywhere to be found in the church calendar, and it’s a day that for some can be as bitter as it is sweet.
In biblical times as well as today, the ability to become a mother can be both a source of great joy and of deep pain. We’re familiar with a few women in the Bible who miraculously conceived male children (the gender is significant!) against all odds. Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth are the ones that come to mind. The Bible doesn’t tell us, though, about the many other women for whom this miracle simply never happened. These women sadly lived out their lives thinking that the fact that they didn’t produce children was a sign of God’s disfavor. We can safely assume that they, their husbands, and their communities thought they were to blame in some way.
For much of human history a woman’s worth has been measured by the fruits of her womb or the absence thereof. A woman who for whatever reason didn’t produce an heir, a MALE heir, for a royal spouse could be disposed of and replaced by someone often younger and presumably more fertile. It was taken for granted that the fault was all hers. Our own branch of the Christian tree famously grew out of such a quest for an heir. If a woman wasn’t defined by her children, she was defined by her husband, because by herself she had little or no significance at all.
How remarkable then is Lydia, whom we meet in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles. Listen to how Paul and his fellow travelers encountered her. “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 …” A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God. We have just met a woman in first century Palestine who has been introduced without reference to a man! We’re not told that she’s the daughter, wife, or mother of anyone. Apparently this information isn’t what the author of Acts wants us to know about Lydia. He tells us what he does think is important, that she, in her own right, is a dealer in purple cloth from Thyatira. The purple cloth trade would have brought Lydia into contact with the rich and powerful, so we can safely assume she had significant stature as a businessperson. Most importantly for the story and for us today, the author tells us that Lydia was a worshiper of God.
Please notice where our author and his friends encounter Lydia, the worshiper of God. They have spent some time inside the city of Philippi, but on this day they have gone outside the gate of the city to a river, where as the text tells us, they “supposed there was a place of prayer.” This scene is far away from any center of the religious establishment of that time and place, certainly far from the local synagogue where Lydia couldn’t possibly been one of the ten MEN required to make a minyan, the minimum number of men required to hold a prayer service. In fact, we can fairly safely assume that Lydia isn’t even Jewish, since her name is Greek rather than Hebraic.
But Lydia’s outsider status as a Gentile and as a woman who goes to pray by the river rather than in an established house of prayer doesn’t matter much to the author of Acts. What DOES matter is her openness to receive the gospel. Our narrator tells us, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Not only did Lydia listen eagerly, but apparently the Lord also opened her mouth so that she might exhort the members of her household—HER household, not a husband’s—to hear the good news and be baptized.
For Lydia and her household, baptism is not the end of the Christian life but the beginning of a new way of being and welcoming. Lydia’s heart was not the only thing that had been opened. After her baptism, she opened her home as well. She said to our narrator and Paul and their company, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” There is something about the Gospel of Jesus Christ that causes people who believe in it to give of what God has given them. Perhaps this is part of what Paul had in mind when he said in Second Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” The new creation bursts forth in what conventional thinking would consider an unlikely place, in the heart of Lydia, marginalized by her gender, worshipping far away from the religious establishment.
I’ve had some of my most profound experiences of this new creation in contexts that aren’t explicitly religious and that were just as unlikely as the one in our reading today. I’ll never forget the time I was serving pizza in a soup kitchen in Charlotte. When the last two men in the long line came up to the counter, there was only one piece left. Pizza was a valued food at that soup kitchen, partly because pizza was one of the few things that we served that we didn’t make ourselves from donated or surplus food. We served the pizza right out of the box from the restaurant that so generously donated it. It was the same pizza that paying customers ate. As these two men stood there before me, I fully expected an altercation. I was wrong. The first of the two men pointed to the man behind him and told me to let him have the pizza. The other man, he said, needed it more than he did. For a moment I felt as if we were all standing on holy ground. Who would have thought that a hungry man could have been so generous to another? Certainly I didn’t.
I’ve heard similar stories about our neighbors in our parking lot here at St. Joseph’s. Several weeks ago Colin mentioned in a sermon that the guys are known to turn their own pockets inside out and share what little they have with someone else who has a pressing need. One of the residents of the Hospitality House will bring over a pot of whatever he’s cooked to share with his neighbors who live on our grounds here. It seems surprising that those who seem to have so little are so willing to share what they have, and are often more willing to share than those who have much more.
Or is it really surprising? Conventional wisdom says to get what you can while you can. Conventional wisdom says to hang on to what you have, for you may need it for the proverbial rainy day. But in Christ there is a new creation, and whether that man in the Charlotte soup kitchen or our neighbors here on our grounds admit to having heard the gospel, their actions, like Lydia’s, proclaim the gospel message loud and clear.
Who knows? Maybe the work of Paul and company would have had similar results if they’d done their preaching inside the city at the synagogue instead of down by the side of the river. Maybe a group of men would have heard their message just as well as Lydia and the other women gathered there. But I wonder. It just may be that the margins provide the more fertile ground for the gospel seed to grow than does the center. It just may be that Lydia’s position outside the normal power structures and her location down by the river instead of in a conventional house of prayer helped open her heart to the gospel. But whatever made her receptive to God’s opening of her heart, Lydia surely knew what to do with the good news of Christ once she had received it.
My prayer for all of us today is that like Lydia, our hearts might be opened to receive the gospel, and that like Lydia, we will open our hearts and our homes to others. Amen.