9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10When 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.
11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and 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. 13On 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. 14A 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. 15When 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.
This is the Word of the God. Thanks be to God.
Something that strikes me about this passage is that the storyteller, Luke, says almost nothing about the content of Paul’s words to the women down by the water. It’s possible that I’m struck by that because, as a preacher, I’m a little nosy. I’d like to know if Paul shared some amazing sermon that led to Lydia’s conversion since I’ve been preaching for a bit now and I’m sure we can all agree that I could use some fresh material. But mostly I think it strikes me because there are so many people in my life I’d like to convert to the good news for all of creation. And maybe if I can just repeat Paul’s words of logic and reason and argument, I’ll convince that relative I’ve been debating on Facebook that climate change is real and that we are called as God’s people to divest from fossil fuels. Maybe I’ll persuade that elected official to start using our collective resources to care for people’s basic needs. Maybe I’ll be able to convince every person I love that in God’s kin-dom, wealth is not hoarded, but shared. Bodies are not controlled, but liberated. Walls are not built up, but torn down.
Witnessing to the world we know is possible with God is part of our calling as Christians. And – I wonder if our storyteller today, by leaving out the content of Paul’s words to the women, wants to invite us to think less about how to convert others and more about how we can follow Lydia in being converted ourselves to the good news. Maybe Luke slows down here to tell us about how Lydia – a woman with wealth and some status in her community – is radicalized to become a part of this emerging liberation movement of the Holy Spirit. How can we follow in the way of Lydia, swept up by the Spirit in a movement of good news for all creation?
The first way is to open ourselves to the visions of oppressed communities who are speaking out about the new world God is building. Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us that “Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to [Paul and his friends]…The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Given that Lydia was a woman with a household supported by the wealth generated through her business success, it is safe to assume that she is a person with class privilege, likely a Gentile, part of the mainstream culture. It would have been easy for Lydia to sit back in that privilege, but instead, it seems that she has cultivated a regular practice of worshiping by the water with an occupied Jewish people as they resist the ways of empire in this Roman colony called Philippi. I wonder if the Spirit nurtured in Lydia this regular practice of listening (not speaking!) to oppressed people, which is what opened her heart to this conversion moment with Paul.
What does it look like in your life to engage in a regular practice of listening (not speaking) to the visions of oppressed communities? How have you (or could you) make listening deeply to oppressed communities an at least weekly habit, like Lydia? We see here a conversion moment, but what brought Lydia into a movement was her regular pattern of showing up to learn from those harmed by systems of oppression, week in and week out. What new habits do each of us need to form to do that too?
The second way we can follow in Lydia’s path is to notice that she does not wait to respond until she can offer something big and grand and impressive to this fledgling liberation movement of Jesus. Instead, she offers what she has right now – her home, her direct sphere of influence. “…she urged us,” the text says, “saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.” Lydia doesn’t hesitate, saying, “Well, I don’t have the right skills, the right background, the right xyz to get involved.” Instead, she trusts the Spirit enough to offer what she does have without delay. As theologian Willie James Jennings puts it, “This exact dynamic has been at the foundations of so many social movements in the world where women of wealth have turned the full power of their resources toward insurgent endeavors that would facilitate a day of liberation… The Spirit is leading her to act out of the social order and into the new order.” (Willie James Jennings, ACTS: Belief – A Theological Commentary on the Bible, pgs. 158-9.)
What hesitations about your own skills, background, or ability to be useful do you need to let go of to be available to the Spirit’s movement like Lydia? How can all of us offer up what we have – our time, our talent, our relationships of influence, our vocational training, our bank accounts – to go all in on the movements led by those on the margins of society?
For the last few months, I’ve been participating in a course called Land Justice Futures, which invited me into the journey of the Nuns & Nones group, an “intergenerational, spiritual community dedicated to care, contemplation, and courageous action in service of life and liberation”. (Nuns and Nones) Led by Catholic sisters from all over the country, this course invited me into the conversations of everyday, religious folx, like me, who have started listening deeply to Indigenous, Black, and other communities of color about their visions for a future where land is shared collectively to nurture everyone, especially those who have been made most vulnerable by the historical theft of their ancestral lands and the exploitation of their labor. Bradley and Brittany Koteles, founding members of Nuns & Nones, put it this way: “The people who are best positioned to model a healed relationship with the Earth” — Indigenous people and other regenerative stewards — “are oftentimes the least likely to be able to do it because they can’t access it… We need to build pathways to land equity, land tenure and land stewardship for those groups of people.” (Soli Salgado, “Nuns and Nones project teaches sisters how to create land legacies for justice,” April 21, 2022.)
In these conversations, I learned about everyday religious people like me who are returning land to BIPOC farmers, who represent 70% of those growing food and cultivating land but only 2% of those owning land (the rest of the owners are white). (Ian McSweeney, director of Agrarian Trust, quoted in ibid.) These everyday religious folx are listening deeply to historically oppressed communities and then looking honestly at the resources they have – recognizing that their property is only called “property” because it was stolen and exploited in the name of greed. They are following in the way of Lydia, surrendering their resources to a movement led by those with a vision of a world where the earth is treated like a relative, where resources are shared, and where justice is a way of life.
It’s not lost on me that Lydia’s conversion, her participation in this vision of liberation cast by the oppressed people near her, happened next to the water. The first time water is mentioned in our Bible is when the Spirit of God hovers over the water to create something new. And I can’t help but think that that’s why these folx made it a habit to gather by the water there, living as oppressed people under Roman occupation – because they were clinging to the promise that their God was in the business of creating something new in a place that felt impossible.
We are also people who gather by the water. If you came in the sanctuary today, you passed the water of the baptismal font on your way in. Touch that water as you leave today. Water is here to remind us as often as we drink it, bathe in it, see it from our window, and feel it rain on our head that we are created in God’s image, invited to join God in making all things new, even when it seems impossible. Let the water remind you of Lydia this week, the disciple who opened her heart, her home, all she had to a new way of being in the world. Ask yourself how to start following in Lydia’s way, allowing your whole self to be swept up in the Spirit’s movement of liberation. Amen.