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The Color Purple

A sermon delivered by Randy L. Hyde, Pastor,  Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 9, 2010

Psalm 67:1-7; Acts 16:9-15

 

Are you familiar with the children’s pop-up books? When you open the pages, the characters stand straight up. That’s not unlike the way this woman Lydia is introduced to us in Luke’s Book of Acts. She just kind of pops up in the Acts narrative, we are given a few biographical details about who she is and what she does, then she folds back into the pages of our scriptures.

 

Here’s the story, at least what there is of it…

 

Paul and his traveling companions have made their way to the Roman city of Philippi, crossing over from Asia to Europe. As far as we know, it is the first time Christians crossed the line between these two continents in order to tell their story of the risen Christ. On the sabbath, Paul and his friends venture down by the river, evidently having heard that there was a group of people that met there to worship God and pray. Paul and his entourage encounter this fascinating woman who, as we said, just pops out at us from the pages of our Bible. A “narrative icon” is the way one commentator describes her, a “narrative icon.”1

 

For the record, that’s the way biblical commentators talk. ïŠ

 

Lydia is obviously an independent woman. How do we know? Well, first of all, she is a merchant, trading in purple cloth. There is no mention of a male companion, so we are fairly safe in assuming that she is a sole business proprietor, quite possibly unattached (which lends itself to an even greater sense of independence on her part), and coming to this place of prayer down by the river seems to be a regular thing for her to do. She may have expected it to be a gathering only of women, but in a situation like this you never know who’s going to show up. And on this particular sabbath it turns out to be Paul and his missionary friends.

 

Kind of like it is around here, isn’t it? You just never know who’s going to turn up on any given Sunday. That’s just one of the things that makes life interesting around here.

 

Perhaps Lydia is drawn to this riverside group because she is not a Jewish convert. While she believes in the precepts of the faith, and no doubt adheres to the principles espoused over in the local synagogue, she has not given herself completely to membership. She is on the outside looking in, so to speak. So, in keeping with her spirit of independence, this little gathering provides her an opportunity for worship and prayer she won’t find anywhere else.

 

Perhaps she doesn’t attend worship at the local synagogue because men and women were not allowed to worship together. That may be just one of the things that has drawn others to this group that meets down by the river. Chances are these people do not fit within the confines of what the Jewish faith prescribes, and for that reason Lydia finds no place for herself there. Instead, she has discovered this group of folk with whom she feels a real affinity. Lydia has found her place, her spiritual family, down by the river in Philippi, because she hasn’t found it anywhere else.

 

When you think about it, the same is pretty much true of Paul. He is at that point in his life when he’s pushing the envelope, so to speak. Though he is welcome at the synagogue, because he is male and is Jewish, he is seeking after a new expression of faith and an opportunity to explore where it is God is taking him. His mind and heart have been opened to the possibility that God isn’t interested in such distinctions as gender or race, so he finds the synagogue restrictions to be rather stifling.

 

And besides, as we will learn, it doesn’t take long, after Paul opens his mouth to share his convictions, that he becomes unwelcome in most every place in town. In fact, the other time where Lydia pops up in scripture is when she shelters Paul and his friends after they get in trouble.

 

So why not go worship down by the river? It is a place of prayer, they are told. And besides, Paul and his companions might meet some new friends there as well… which is, of course, exactly what happens.

 

It was during this chance encounter that Paul met Lydia, and after that their lives would never be the same. Wait a minute, did we say “chance encounter”? Hold on just a minute. It might not have been such a coincidence after all. Let’s explore that possibility for a moment. We might not get all the details just right, but we’ll have some fun trying.

 

Lydia was from Thyatira we are told, a city famous for its textile industry. In keeping with the tradition of her hometown, she is a seller of purple cloth, a fabric purchased only by the wealthy and influential. She was probably dressed in her own product. After all, you don’t walk into a fine jewelry store and find yourself waited on by someone who is wearing paste, now do you?

 

She is no doubt a woman of means who has a house in Philippi. We know that, because at the end of this little story, we are told she invites Paul and his friends to her home. Is she a transplant from Thyatira? If so, she continues a connection with her hometown if for no other reason Thyatira serves as a supplier for the product she sells. And even if she has relocated to Philippi, what’s the point of Luke’s telling us all this? What difference does it make where Lydia is from or what she does for a living? Why the seemingly minor details? Paper and pen were precious in those days and authors like Luke didn’t just provide relatively minor details like this to fill space. They didn’t have that much space to fill!

 

No, there has to be a reason for the fact that Luke gives us what may appear at first blush to be incidental details in this narrative. Not only does he provide us the traveling itinerary for Paul and his companions, but in just a few words he gives us quite a bit of biographical information about Lydia as well.

 

Yet, he doesn’t tell us everything, that’s for sure. It certainly doesn’t seem that he tells us enough. Does Lydia live in Thyatira and keep a second home in Philippi for her conveniences during her travels? Or has she relocated to Philippi, perhaps because there is more business opportunity there? As we said, she must have been a woman of means. She caters to the elite. That’s what sellers of purple cloth do. She has invited several people to come to her home, and it would take a place of some size to accommodate them all.

 

Little clues, that when taken into consideration, give us a composite picture of this woman who has popped up for us out of the pages of our Bible. Yet, even with all of Luke’s details, don’t you wish he had filled in the gaps just a little bit more when it comes to Lydia?

 

It is quite possible that she was not in town every sabbath, that her business ventures did require her to travel. We know that Paul didn’t stay in one place very long. So what’s the cause for this convergence, this meeting, of these two people on the river bank in Philippi? Let’s sparse that for just a moment, shall we?

 

It took a vision from God in the middle of the night for Paul to be encouraged to hit the missionary road. Otherwise, he might have stayed right where he was in Troas. In other words, Paul would not have been in Philippi had he not disposed himself to the guidance of God’s Spirit, and Lydia would not have gone down to the river to the place of prayer had she not been devout in her worship of God. Two people, drawn together by the Holy Spirit. It has been called by one commentator as “the intersection between human obedience and divine initiative.”2

 

See, I told you Bible commentators talk like that… “Narrative icon,” “the intersection between human obedience and divine initiative.” But wade through the depth of these big words, however, and it really makes sense. “The intersection between human obedience and divine initiative.”

 

The more I thought about this story in Acts, the more I began to realize that this prayer group down by the river in Philippi is a lot like our church. We’re filled with Pauls and we’ve got our share of Lydias in these pews. Here’s what I mean…

 

By the time Paul and his traveling companions land in Philippi, Paul is at the point in his life that, as we said, he is really pushing the envelope, stretching beyond the boundaries of his former life and faith, seeking new expressions of faith and exploring fresh ways of doing what he considers to be God’s will. He finds himself being driven by visions of where it is he perceives God wants him to go. His life consists of traveling from one place to another, sharing his newfound faith and starting churches composed of those who believe what he has to offer them in the way of testimony.

 

This means he has turned his back on his former life and is forging new ways of expressing his faith. He admits that his past existence, as meaningful as it may have been at the time, is nothing compared to what he is experiencing now… even though it is bringing him difficulty and conflict just about every place he goes. Paul is something of a misfit, but he would have it no other way. In fact, he calls himself a fool, but he would rather be a fool for Christ than a wise man in anyone else’s court.

 

Lydia is something of an anachronism herself. While making her way in life, searching for ways and relationships that will enable her to be what she feels God intends for her to be, she plies her trade and makes her own way. Yet, while her livelihood is obviously important (otherwise, why would Luke tell us what she does for a living?) it does not define Lydia of Thyatira. What defines her cannot be seen with the naked eye. There is an inward quality that emerges only as one engages her in conversation, looks deeply into her eyes, listens to the pleadings of her heart.

           

One day she meets this man named Paul who, she quickly comes to believe, was sent by God as an answer to her prayer. Luke puts it this way: “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”

 

Let me ask you a scary question. What if we closed our hearts and did not listen eagerly to what Christ says to us, whether it’s through Paul or someone else? What would happen to our church? More importantly, perhaps, what would happen to you?

 

No matter who you are, whether you view yourself more like Paul or Lydia or someone else, an open heart is an avenue to the great adventure of becoming in Christ what God wants you to be. These two people serve as great examples of what God can do when we open our hearts to new possibilities, and are willing to come to the intersection where human obedience and divine initiative meet. And so, for these two people, that prayer meeting by the river in Philippi becomes just that… an intersection where their will and God’s will come together.

 

I’m wondering if that could define our church. Is it possible that we could be a place, a people, an intersection, where human obedience and divine initiative come together? A place not defined by denominational label as much as a place where the hearts of those who gather here are open to the leadership of God’s Spirit? A place where others are accepted, even and maybe especially those who, like Paul and Lydia, are not all that acceptable elsewhere, a place where those searching for identity find it here, not because of us so much but because of the One in whom we place our faith and life and purpose? A place where human obedience and divine initiative intersect, and because of that, children of God, who may not even know they are children of God, can come and find their purpose in life?

 

Are you willing to open your heart to hear eagerly what God’s Spirit is saying to you? If so, come to this intersection and find God as you’ve never found God before. Let your obedience and God’s initiative converge, and I think you will discover that you’d not want to be anywhere else in all the world.

 

 

At this intersection of life and faith, O Lord, may our obedience meet your initiative, and may our lives not be the same because of it. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

NOTES

 

            1Ronald Cole Turner, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 474.

 

            2Ibid.