Preached on May 5, 2013 at the Church of the Epiphany
My senior year in college, I was pretty convinced I wanted to be a priest, and so I took two Religious studies courses each semester at Yale. The most transformative of those was one on Early Christianity, taught by Bentley Layton, a specialist in Gnostic Gospels. I loved reading the extra-canonical texts—the Gospels of Mary and Thomas and James and hearing a different tradition of stories than the ones I had grown up on. I especially relished the images of women leaders in the early church—because in the few Sunday School classes I went to (usually I ditched Sunday School to sing in the choir) all the stories seemed to be about men. And I bought into the idea that according to the Bible, women were supposed to be subordinate to men, at least in the church—and we didn’t have any women clergy at St. Francis to break me out of that during much of my childhood. There was always a second narrative from my mother about how women in the church were just as capable as men, and that when “men” was used in the Prayer Book, it was a gender-neutral term for all people. But the Biblical stuff was hard to wrap my mind around.
But what Professor Layton also pointed out was that there are—if you look at them—phenomenal examples of women leaders in the church in the canonical scriptures. And we get perhaps the best example of those today in the reading from Acts: Lydia.
Lydia, we are told, is a God-fearer—that means she is a Gentile, not a Jew, but a Gentile who worshipped with Jews, and believed in the one God, even though she didn’t fully convert and follow the law. She has gathered with a group of mostly women outside the walls of Philippi to pray and worship, and Paul has come to that group of women to share the good news about Jesus. She is a householder, a dealer in purple cloth, and from Thyatira, although she clearly has a house outside the walls of Philippi as well. Thyatira is in Asia Minor, and Philippi is in Macedonia, so her business has taken her a long way. Lydia is a fairly upper class woman, independent, not unlike many of the people in this room right now.
And the Lord opens her heart to hear what Paul has to say.
That’s one of the things I love about Lydia—I picture her strong, confident, independent… well dressed in purple… and yet you can see in her story some kind of interesting spiritual journey. Why is this Gentile woman praying with Jews? What about her worship of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses was unsatisfying? What kind of hole did she feel she had in her heart that started to be fulfilled when she met a community that worshipped only one God, and followed some perplexing laws to govern daily life. And what kind of community did she find among this group of women who come together to pray; it sounds so very modern: “the Ladies Prayer Group will meet near the river on Thursdays at 8am.” She must have been seeking something, and then Paul arrives and she finds what she’s been looking for all along.
The note about having her whole household baptized is a little shocking to us. God opens her heart, and then all her household—so any children, servants, extended family, or slaves—are brought along with her. My sense of independence and autonomy gets a little squeamish with that sentence… why should anyone else have to convert to Christianity just because Lydia does? We are so biased toward the individual today—and for some good reasons. But there’s also something compelling about a household being a unit—a “we” instead of a collection of “I”s. The Lord opens Lydia’s heart… and maybe through that, the hearts of the rest of her household are opened as well. What happens to one, happens to all. That’s surely a much more idealistic and romantic view of 1st Century household politics than the reality—but I think it’s good to suspend our 21st Century American notions of idealism to open ourselves to the story. From the moment Lydia believes in Jesus, she is an evangelist and a leader who knows the Gospel has enough value to make it worth sharing with the people she knows and loves.
So Lydia’s heart is opened, she receives the Gospel, is baptized, and then she opens her home. “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home,” Luke records her saying, and you also get the sense that it took some effort to get Paul and his companions to stay, with the final comment: “And she prevailed upon us.” Lydia understands that it is in the day to day fellowship of Christians that her life will be formed, and she also understands that the life of an itinerant preacher like Paul needs the support of people like her.
Lydia is the icon of hospitality for Christians. She opens her home and it quickly gets risky—Paul is arrested, then miraculously freed from prison, and then comes back to stay with her. But she’s on her way, and whatever she was part of in building the church in Philippi, it had an effect: all the people Paul names in his letter to the Philippians are women (though Lydia herself is not one of them). Wow.
That’s why Lydia’s the patron of a relatively new “dinner church” in Brooklyn. St. Lydia’s is an experimental group of 20 somethings that offers radical hospitality to their congregation. As their website puts it: “Our congregation is looking for an experience of the Holy that is strong enough to lean on, deep enough to question, and challenging enough to change us.” They describe three pillars of their life together: Sharing the Meal; Telling Our Story; Working Together.
I really like their idea of community: shared around the table, so that communion with your neighbor and communion with God is fully integrated; a community that is comfortable sharing their personal and spiritual stories with one another; and a community that expects is members to work—where everyone shares in the responsibility, even if it’s their first time there.
St. Lydia’s was founded by Pastor Emily Scott in 2008, and is thriving enough that they are adding a Monday evening meal and service to their current Sunday schedule; I’m never able to go on Sundays because of our 6pm service, but I would love to find a Monday to attend with some people from Epiphany in late May or June.
How can we be Lydias at Epiphany? How can we show incredible hospitality, and build a community that has enough convictions to bring in our friends and families to grow the church? What else can we do to open our hearts to God’s word—even if we’re strong and independent and business-saavy? She has good news for us—what can we learn?
One of the things the Vestry will be considering at our upcoming retreat later this month is how to reach out to more people and grow this congregation. There was an interesting blog post I saw this weekend titled “We will no longer be a welcoming church” by a Lutheran pastor in Colorado. At first, I was shocked—what could this possibly mean? But upon reading it, what the pastor was doing was distinguishing between being a welcoming church and being an inviting church. As he pointed out, being a welcoming church is passive—we can have great greeters, and a fantastic coffee hour and a really easy to read bulletin—but that only works if a newcomer happens to wander in the door. He is working with his congregation—which sounds not too different from ours—on becoming an inviting church. Being an inviting church is active—and Lydia is a great role model for being an inviting church. She invites Paul into her home and doesn’t take no for an answer. I want Epiphany to be an inviting church like Lydia—where we know that the Gospel has such value that it is worth sharing, worth inviting with everyone we know.