Anytime someone comes back from a trip, there is a desire for them to share what they experienced, and maybe even a cursory interest of other people in seeing what they saw. While the old trope of pulling out the at-home projector and watching slides of the family vacation is a little bit lost on me, the experience of someone holding their phone out at arm’s length, flicking through photos as they share what they saw and tell stories is certainly something with which I am very familiar.
In our Acts lesson today, we get a bit of the first century version of this. As Luke writes, Paul and the team travel all around the Mediterranean, and the journey is important, because as we come to see, this missionary journey is one that is led by the Spirit as God calls the apostles to meet the needs of the world.
Before our lesson for today picks up, Luke recounts that the Spirit had not allowed Paul and his compatriots to go to another place, and then Paul had a vision that a man from Macedonia was pleading with him asking Paul to come help them. After the vision, the group discerned and together decided to go to Macedonia, responding to what they saw as God’s calling them to go there.
The missionary journeys of Paul are fascinating to me, not just because I’m a Bible nerd, but because they don’t always make the most sense. The missionary journeys of Paul recounted in Acts don’t follow a clear and strategic plan, but it’s clear that certain choices and movements were led by spiritual insight and where they might most meet the needs of the world. When Paul has the vision of the man from Macedonia, it is unclear if it was a dream or a waking vision, but it matters little, because the group, once they heard from Paul what he had seen, they discerned that it was where they were called to go next, even though Macedonia was viewed outside the bounds, a Roman colony, there wouldn’t be much hope of evangelism in that part of the world. But what we hear in this part of Acts is the first shift of St. Luke from “they” to “we” – after the vision of the man from Macedonia, it is clear that Luke is part of the team, and together they discern where God might be calling them next, even if it is viewed as outside the bounds of where they might think that they need to go.
When they get to Macedonia, they went outside the gate by the river on the Sabbath day where they thought might be a place of prayer and spoke to a woman there, but she wasn’t the only one who heard the word of God that day. Lydia was also listening in; Lydia was a successful seller of purple cloth. The method to get purple dye was to crush a specific and hard to find snail, when crushed up, yielded a purple dye. The process to get this ink was a complicated and expensive, so Lydia was likely very wealthy and successful to be a known seller of purple cloth. Paul and the crew didn’t necessarily seek her out, but when God opened Lydia’s heart, the charismatic leader and preacher fade into the background.
Once Lydia’s heart is opened and she hears the good news of God in Christ, it is not the power of Paul’s rhetoric that gets the attention, but the faith that comes from God, and the power of those who respond to this faith. After Lydia’s whole house is baptized, and there’s all sorts of commentary on what it meant for Lydia’s household to be baptized: was she married? did she have children? St. Luke doesn’t tell us what Lydia’s household looks like, but he does tell us that the moment she hears the good news, she gets to work in bringing others into the light as well. Often women, especially women that get named in our Holy Scriptures, get diminished in their works of faith, but what matters about Lydia’s conversion isn’t her relation to other people, as a wife, mother, or sister; what matters about Lydia’s conversion is how her faith is transformed into a powerful action of bringing others along.
My sisters and brothers, I’ll be honest, our holy scriptures are complex, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; they are written by a specific person, in a specific time in history, with their own baggage of life attached to it, they are translated, often multiple times, and when we read them we have to wade through centuries of other people’s projections and interpretations. But our sacred, inspired, and holy scriptures have survived because they point us to the greater truths in life. Throughout my life, I’ve had an interesting relationship with scripture, but it’s always remained important – sometimes it’s felt heavy and burdensome, sometimes outright repressive and the root of my own subjugation, and still other times it has been my freedom and it has reminded me of what humanity can do at it’s best.
And in a passage that features two components that are often the source of contention for me in scripture: St. Paul and a woman called by her very name, I’ll tell you why I love this passage. I’ll tell you why I love this passage and it isn’t because Lydia is clearly a woman of valor; I love this passage because so often the busyness of life keeps us from seeing where God might be calling, and this passage pushes us toward the light of Easter. This passage pushes us to see the world imaginatively, in a way that we never thought we could. Likely Paul never thought he would meet a seller of purple cloth who would play such a significant role in his second missionary journey, but that is where we find ourselves today.
I love this passage because the story moves where there is a need and where there is openness; I love this story because it moves not just where there is a need or an opening, but it moves with a strategic plan and spiritual insight held in tandem. I love this story not just because it’s the story of Paul’s second missionary journey or because it’s the story of Lydia’s powerful conversion; I love this passage because so often the busyness of life keeps us from seeing what is right in front of us, and this passage pushes us to pay attention to where God might be calling us to go and to meet the needs of the world.
My sisters and brothers, God is calling us to meet the needs of the world, and it is our job to respond in faith like Lydia and those on the second missionary journey, and I’m not sure where that is for you or even us as the people of Christ Church, but I do know that what we see in this passage from Acts today is that it requires prayer, it requires community, and it requires us to go out into the world. So in your prayer, rest in the knowledge that God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, and in our work together as a community Christ’s servants, believe that God has gifted us all we need to respond to this call. And as you go out into the world, pay attention to where God might be calling us to meet the needs of the world, and may we be continually inspired by the light and hope of the resurrection.
A sermon delivered on May 26, 2019 to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Easter 6C on Acts 16:9-15.