Lydia isn’t a biblical superstar. She is mentioned in Acts, almost in passing. Strangely enough, she’s often passed over. She was from Thyatira and she dealt in purple cloth. If she hadn’t encountered Paul, we might not know anything about her at all. However, her meeting with Paul was significant. Yes, it’s important that she and her household became a followers of Christ based on hearing Paul. Yet, given the current debates over abortion and women’s reproductive rights and the rape culture we live in, it may be far more important for us to notice that Lydia was a business owner in the first century. A woman owned a business in the decades after Jesus’ death. Why does this not get the attention it deserves? How have we let the later notions of the church patriarchy dismiss this information? Seriously, what if women in business was more commonplace than we have been led to believe? What if Paul and other early apostles treated women as respected equals and not as property to be used as they wished? What if we have spent the last 2000 years systematically smothering the value of women in our society?
I don’t know about you, but I feel the need for more purple cloth right now. Alabama criminalized abortion which puts women’s lives at risk. That’s bad. In lesser news, last week I spent a couple of days in Washington D.C. at a meeting to discuss mental health with other faith leaders. While the variety of mental health ministries across faith traditions inspires me and fills me with hope, the way many of the men treated me and the other women in the room was extremely disheartening. I was interrupted, talked over, ignored, and dismissed. The validity of my call to ministry and the decades I’ve spent serving the church were questioned and the implications for my soul were assumed to be dire. It’s been a long time since I have felt so personally dismissed and invalidated by a group of supposed colleagues. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate men at all. It’s the social and religious elevation of them and the devaluation and dismissal of women that I would like to end.
With these thoughts I read the account of Lydia’s conversion in Acts. Not only did she become a follower of Christ, she also offered Paul and his companions a place to stay. She was a person of significant means. She may have been one of the earliest gentile converts and, clearly, a financial support for the growing Christian movement. Yet, how often have we lifted her up in the church? How often have we held her up as an example of a strong, Christian woman? You know, the one who housed Paul and his fellow travelers and also gave them a place to stay after they had been to prison. Somehow her story remains untold. It makes me wonder if early manuscripts might have told more about her and whether they were intentionally left out by the men who decided the canon.
What might happen in the world today if we highlighted Lydia as much as some denominations lift up Mary? Lydia wasn’t someone to be trifled with. She had money and power and access to the very wealthy (no one else would have been purchasing purple cloth). She wouldn’t be easily silenced or dismissed. How different the church might be if we recognized the value of a woman who sold purple cloth. Might we not realize that women are valuable, that women are created in God’s image just as men are? Might this realization lead to the recognition that all people are valuable because we are all created in the image of God? All people.
As I think about Lydia and her purple cloth and how different church culture could have been and still could be, I realize once again how tired I am of having to defend myself or justify myself or protect myself just because I am female. I’m also tired of rapists, child-abusers, perpetrators of violence against women being excused, justified, and practically rewarded because they are men, generally white men at that. Surely, we can change this. After all, there is no indication that Jesus treated women differently than he treated me. Paul, apparently, didn’t either. Why do we? Isn’t it time we recognized the value of all human beings, including women who sell purple cloth and house former prisoners? Think of all the energy and resources we could put toward feeding the hungry, housing the poor, caring for the sick, welcoming the immigrant and refugee if we recognize the equality of all people, regardless of gender identity.
Maybe we should make purple the color of equity and wrap ourselves in purple cloth until the church and society stops believing in the superiority of men, especially white men…
RCL – Year C – Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 26, 2019
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9
2 thoughts on “Listening to Lydia”
Thank you for your powerful reflections. As I prepare my sermon on Lydia and wrestle with my own anger about women’s bodies being seen as something men can legislate, I agree that we need to lift up Lydia and all the women who have been called by God to lead.
We are in this together; the Body of Christ needs us especially when there is so much fear-filled foolishness going on.