May 5th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Acts 16:9-15
When you are told that you are expecting not one, not two, but three girls, there are lots of thoughts that go through your mind. The lists that are developed are imposing. And while seventeen years helps soften the memories of those hectic and chaotic days, a few of the memories stand out with clarity.
Like names. It’s hard enough to come up with one good name. How are you supposed to come up with three? What if the names don’t fit the personality of the person the baby grows up to be? Did the Native Americans have the right idea to wait for a sign before naming the child?
There was no time to wait for signs. The list of rejected names was long. Nothing trendy. Paying homage to family names posed challenges of every kind. The names had to be strong. They had to have a timeless quality to them. We quickly agreed that the middle name of each child would be “McCormick,” so that their connection to both of their genealogical families would be strong. So, we were down to three names.
How hard could that be? We turned to the Bible. Good thing to do when two Presbyterian ministers are trying to come up with names. I suggested “Lot’s Wife,” “The Other Mary,” and “Mrs. Noah” – but they were immediately rejected. Go figure.
By and by, we settled on Abigail – meaning “fountain of joy” – who was a peacemaker between King David and Nabal; Joanna – meaning “God is gracious” – and who was one of the women to journey to the tomb on Easter morning; and “Lydia” – meaning “woman of a good mind” – and whose story is at the center of our morning’s worship.
The strange thing is that after agonizing over the names of these strange creatures, they absolutely fit! They are what their names say they are. Ab is a “fountain of joy.” Jo proves that “God is gracious” every day. And Lydia is a “woman of a good mind” – even if that mind is made all the more unique because of her autism. It is a great mind! Who knew we were prophets?
So, it was kind of fun to spend some time with Lydia this week – the Lydia from the story in Acts. Lydia was a Gentile, but was seeking the God of Judaism. She was a seller of “purple goods” – an extravagant kind of cloth that was affordable only to the wealthy. She is in charge of her own business. She is not associated with a man, perhaps sending us the message that she was in full control of her property and her destiny.
All of that makes Lydia an interesting person. There must be story upon story that will never be known about her life, the strange twists and turns that brought her to Philippi, how she connected with the women who had gathered to pray, and her encounter with the Apostle Paul, down by the river. History has not passed on much more than what we know of her from the pages of Acts.
But what happens in the story of Lydia is really the most important lesson. Paul comes down to the river and begins doing what Paul always did: talking about God’s love made known in Jesus Christ. Paul started teaching and preaching and doing it in such a way that he engaged at least Lydia. Something in what he said made sense to her – moved her – challenged her – comforted her. Something in Paul’s word resonated with Lydia. We can only speculate what that connection might have been.
But something profound happened in Lydia and she and her household were baptized that day. Whatever Paul happened to say connected with Lydia and whatever was going on in her life, and she wanted to be a part of what God was doing. The place in Lydia’s life that could be filled only by God was filled that day and she found joy and peace.
And then, having heard and trusted in the word that Paul shared with her, she responded with gratitude and thanksgiving. She invites Paul and his mission party to stay at her house, with the caveat, “if you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord.” What could Paul do? How could even Paul, who seemed to argue with lots of people – how could Paul turn down that invitation without offending the one who offered it? With an outrageous act of hospitality – and dare we use the word again, “generosity” – with an open heart and open arms, she welcomed the missionaries into her home and, in essence, becomes one of them.
It is Lydia’s story that prompts me to say, “would that everyone was a Lydia.” Would that everyone would open their heart and mind and hear what God is saying to every person on the earth – that they are valued and loved and created for more than they are even aware. Would that everyone would place their trust in that love and reflect that love into the world’s shadows and gloom. Would that thanksgiving and gratitude poured forth from our lives, instead of the bemoaning and complaining that seem to effortlessly come forth. Would that we could respond with unbounded welcome and hospitality to those who cross our paths. Would that an effervescent hospitality became the hallmark of our lives – a true embodiment of the love for our neighbors to which Jesus called us. Would that everyone responded to God’s call to share the faith with those we meet. Would that everyone was a Lydia.
Lydia’s story is one of the best examples of why the church shared the stories of those called “saints.” We miss the point if we think saints are to be worshiped and revered. Saints are to be emulated. The lives of the saints are to be patterns for our own lives and living. Their exploits are to inform how we handle similar situations. The lives of the faithful who have gone before us are there to inspire us, to encourage us, to motivate us, and to enthuse us.
And we honor and remember them because they showed us that living the life Jesus commended to us is possible – is doable – and is even desirable.
Ronald Cole-Turner, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts it this way:
Lydia is decisive because she is discerning, able to see through the events on the surface to the deeper workings of God’s Spirit. She is discerning because God has opened her heart to a new level of perception. God has given her this ability to perceive because she comes to worship. She comes to worship because she is hungering for something more in her life, something beyond the commercial success she has apparently achieved. She is hungering for more because that restless Spirit, who is surely in us all before we ever know it, has stirred up a holy longing in her soul. Every step of the way, the Spirit prompts and calls and blesses her and, through her, blesses us.[i]
Would that everyone was a Lydia. For now and evermore. Amen.
[i] Feasting on the Word, year C, volume 2, p. 478.