On weekend afternoons when I was young—especially in the summer—my family would often visit my Uncle Walter and Aunt Lydia, my mother’s sister. The North Branch of the Crow River meandered through their farm. As a kid, I loved fishing, so I would frequently go down to the river to catch my share of sunfish and crappies and northerns. Aunt Lydia and Uncle Walter never had children, which is probably why they made us feel so welcome in so many ways.
I think Aunt Lydia truly enjoyed being the host. Halfway through the afternoon, we’d have “coffee,” which of course wasn’t just something to drink. Aunt Lydia served sandwiches and homemade cookies and yummy cake. It was a full, farm meal.
Aunt Lydia also enjoyed making gifts. She knitted brightly colored yarns into mittens for me and my twin sister—the kind with a long connecting string that went through the coat sleeves, so a mitten could never get lost!
Aunt Lydia enjoyed colorful things, too. She had two blue and yellow parakeets that landed on your finger and came when she called their names. And although Lydia wasn’t an artist, she did “paint by numbers,” with those canvases that tell you exactly where to put each color—green on grass, brown on puppies, lavender on lilacs.
And Aunt Lydia enjoyed sharing her home. When her sister’s husband died, Lydia invited Jenny to come and live with them. Even after she was diagnosed with disabling emphysema, Aunt Lydia never stopped doing things for those she loved.
When I was a sophomore in high school, Aunt Lydia passed away, which felt almost like losing a parent. Aunt Lydia taught me a lot about hospitality and joy and grace.
Our lesson from Acts tells the story of another Lydia, who also demonstrated true hospitality. On his second missionary journey St. Paul dreams of a man who begs him, “Come to Macedonia and help us!” So, Paul’s team sets sail from Asia across the sea to Macedonia, in modern-day Greece, to the city of Philippi. Philippi was founded as a colony for retired Roman soldiers and their families. A city full of military men serving an oppressive Empire. Not exactly a friendly place to do outreach.
Paul’s first encounter in Philippi involved a group of women, led by Lydia, an immigrant from Asia Minor. Like Cornelius in last week’s story, Lydia was neither Christian nor Jewish. Yet Lydia becomes the first Christian convert in Europe. Some scholars suggest that “Lydia” was really a nickname, referring to her homeland—the kingdom of Lydia. Kind of like when I was in college, my group of friends (instead of calling me just “Joe”) called me, “Lars Larson, famous Swede.”
On a more serious note, during a time when one-third of the residents of the Roman Empire were slaves, Lydia’s nickname suggests that she must have started life as one. Back then, it wasn’t unusual to call a slave by a word linked to their country or ethnic origin instead of their real name. A racist strategy to make them feel less human.
Despite her upbringing, Lydia became a fascinating woman. A foreigner living with her family in a new land. A former slave who becomes a successful businesswoman.
But there’s one other thing that makes Lydia unique. Something most Christians would never consider. When I read that Lydia was a single woman and the head of her household, as a gay pastor, I also wonder, “Could Lydia have been lesbian? Did her household include a female partner?”
Which might sound shocking to some people. And sadly, because those of us who are LGBTQ are so used to other Christians condemning us with the six traditional clobber passages in Scripture, even we can fail to see the queerness within Biblical stories like this one.
Yet Queer theologians like the Reverend Elizabeth Edman (whom I met last summer) encourage people of faith to read the Bible from the varied human experiences of sexual orientation and gender identity. For by reading stories like this one in that way, it opens our eyes to new role models for faith—not just in Scripture, but also in our modern lives. As Edman writes, “My queer identity has taught me more about how to be a good Christian, than has the Church.” 1
The author of Acts describes Lydia as a merchant of purple cloth. Purple, of course, is a color embraced by our LGBTQ community, though we prefer a lighter shade of lavender. Some say that association comes from combining the traditional colors of pink for baby girls, and light blue for boys—which together make lavender.
In ancient times, the color purple that was so difficult to make, that only the wealthy could afford a purple robe or outfit. So, purple became the color of kings and queens—which I guess you could say is still true—just a different kind of queen! But unlike some rich and powerful people, Lydia uses her wealth in service to others. She turns purple into radical love.
Paul meets Lydia at a river that flowed by the city. Normally, when Paul visited a place, he started at the Jewish place of worship. But in Philippi, there’s no synagogue. So, Paul goes to the river. Where a group of womenfolk are gathered. Who went down to the river to pray. What happens next makes Lydia a model for Christian hospitality. Lydia says to Paul and his companions, “If you have found me to be faithful in the Lord, come and stay at my home.” So, Lydia opens her house to strangers. A home where they stay throughout their visit. The first of many house churches founded by Paul. The first Christian community in Europe. And Lydia is their pastor.
I believe Lydia is a model of faith for us today. Especially for us Christians here at St. Mark’s—who are looking for a new place to worship. Though, of course, I’m not suggesting that we follow Lydia’s example of worshiping down by the shore of the Red River here in Fargo. That would be challenging, especially in the winter!
Nevertheless, Lydia shows us how important hospitality is to any place of worship. For worship is not just about us sitting in pews, or singing hymns, or saying prayers.
It’s about extending a hand of welcome to those who are strangers in our midst. It’s about welcoming the foreigners in our community. It’s about trusting that God will provide a new place for us, where everyone will feel affirmation and love. A place, perhaps, where you might not normally expect to find a church, or group of believers.
Lydia shows us that being a person of faith—in a community that welcomes queer believers—means keeping our hearts open to the possibilities of what God can accomplish among us.
Lydia was a believer—who saw something that needed to be done, and dared to do it. Lydia was a Christian leader—who saw a different way to serve God’s people. Lydia made a leap of faith. And that, beloved, is our calling as Christians in this community of St. Mark’s. To welcome the stranger. To show love to those rejected by others. To try something new.
And that’s the place where the risen Christ is calling us today. A place where Jesus comes among us and says, “My peace I give to you. A peace that’s so different than what the world gives. Now, share that peace with those in need.”
Whether it happens in a chapel, or at an office building, or even down by the river. Amen.
1 Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know about Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, The Reverend Elizabeth M. Edman; Beacon Press, Boston, 2016, p. 4.
FIRST READING: Acts 16:9-15
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 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; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
GOSPEL READING: John 14:23-29
Jesus answered [Judas (not Iscariot),] “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”