**Originally preached for the jazz service at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, on May 1, 2016.**
16:9 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.”
16:10 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.
16:11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,
16:12 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.
16:13 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.
16:14 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.
16:15 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.
I want to tell you a story—a story I learned when I was young. It’s from a book called Amazing Grace and it’s about a girl named Grace. If Grace were real, she would be delighted to know I’m telling you about her now, because Grace loved stories. She loved stories in books and in movies and from her grandmother’s long memory. And she didn’t just like to listen to the stories—Grace liked to act them out. She was Anansi the spider and Joan of Arc. She sailed the seven seas as a peg-leg pirate and played ancient hero in the Trojan War.
When Grace’s teacher announced that her class would be doing the play Peter Pan, Grace knew right away that she wanted to play Peter. But a boy in her class tells her she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s a girl and Peter Pan is supposed to be a boy. And a girl in her class tells Grace she can’t be Peter Pan because she’s black and Peter Pan is supposed to be white. Grace went home that day sad and self-conscious, but her mother and grandmother encouraged her to ignore the kids telling her what she can’t do. “Those kids don’t know anything,” they assure her.
So Grace practiced all weekend, and when the time came to audition the next week, the whole class agreed that she was the best and should obviously be Peter Pan. And so she was. The play was a huge success, and Grace was amazing. Amazing Grace.
Grace’s classmates tell her she can’t be Peter Pan because they think they know what Peter Pan looks like. They think they know that Peter Pan is white and male and because that’s what they expect, they can’t imagine a world where Peter Pan looks different. But they’re wrong. Peter Pan looks like Grace because Peter Pan is Grace even if they don’t know it until they see it. Without her, their play doesn’t make any sense. It’s incomplete.
This week, I confess, I’ve been thinking about a lot about who is allowed to do what in our society. I’ve been thinking about this thing I heard of this week called, “the woman card.” I’m not interested here in dissecting the particular implications or context of the original statement. But it did compel me to ruminate on what it means to be a woman in this world and in the church—and the challenges and gifts that come with it.
Growing up, it never occurred to me that some people believed that women couldn’t be pastors. After all, every Sunday I showed up to my church and greeted our associate pastor, Shannon Dill. She was what I pictured when I closed my eyes and imagined a pastor—she was kind and faithful and smart.
In fact, it wasn’t until I announced that I was planning to attend seminary myself that I encountered any pushback. There were people—strangers and loved ones alike—who felt that my gender precluded me from being called to ministry. It caught me completely off guard. As far as I was concerned, the leadership of women was just another part of what the church looked like. It wasn’t hard for to me imagine. Of course, I was lucky. Plenty of other people grew up with a different understanding—a different picture of what the church looked like.
But the truth is that women have been a part of leading the church since it began. There was, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus. And there were the women disciples—Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Martha and the others—the first to encounter the risen Christ and share the good news of Easter. And today we have the story of Lydia.
Lydia is a woman from Thyatira of Macedonia—who sells purple cloth and worships God. Paul and his group encounter Lydia on the Sabbath day—outside the gate by the river where women gathered to pray. And Lydia opens her heart to all that Paul has to say and is baptized then along with her whole household. She opens her home to Paul and those with him—in fact, she doesn’t really take no for answer. And her house becomes the base for a new church in Macedonia and beyond. She and her household keep that new church going, presumably even while Paul is imprisoned.
Lydia is often credited with being the first European convert to Christianity and her encounter with Paul there by the river on that Sabbath day opened up and expanded the church in a whole new way. That is no small part to play.
How easy it would have been for that encounter to have never happened. After all, Lydia wasn’t at all who Paul was looking for. She wasn’t what he expected or what he imagined.
See, Paul had a dream—a vision. And in his dream it was a man from Macedonia who called out to him and begged him to come and help them. Paul takes his vision seriously, he trusts in it, and as soon as he is able, he sets out for Macedonia to find this man and offer help in the name of Christ.
I wonder what might have happened if Paul had only been willing to see that man from his vision. What if he had not been open to another encounter, to someone who he didn’t expect and couldn’t envision? What if he had discounted Lydia because of her “woman card?”
Indeed, Lydia is unexpected—and not just because she was a woman rather than a man. The woman card, so to speak, is not the only card she has. We can surmise from this story that Lydia was an independent woman. She was a businesswoman in her own right who had charge of an entire household of her own. She was a God-worshiper, a God-fearer—which is to say, a Gentile follower of God. And while traditional artistic depictions of Lydia portray her how we might, today, typically interpret the word “European”—that is, as white—some scholars suggest that due to travel and trade routes—there is a high probability that Lydia was a woman of color.
Though Paul knew that women were a crucial part of Jesus’ ministry, this independent Macedonian businesswoman of color was probably well beyond what he could imagine when he thought of the church. But that didn’t stop him from talking to her and it didn’t stop her either. It’s worth noting that this text makes a point of saying that God opens Lydia’s heart to hear Paul’s words. God was at work in her too, already.
Sometimes, we talk about there being both a visible and an invisible church. The visible church is what we picture when we squeeze our eyes shut and try to imagine. It’s the old buildings and the structures and the worship services and the hymns. The invisible church is beyond our own ability to picture and imagine. It’s everywhere God is at work and everyone whom God is at work within. When we encounter the invisible church in new ways—the visible church takes on new life too.
Lydia is already a God-worshiper. God is already at work in her life just as God is at work in Paul’s life. They both open themselves up to one another. And though we talk about this story as the beginning of the European church, in truth the church was already there—it just hadn’t yet been fully recognized by Paul and the others. When they do recognize Lydia and the invisible church that is already there in Macedonia—new life begins.
All these centuries later, the world and the church look a lot different than they did in the time of Lydia and Paul. And, in some ways, they don’t look so different. It’s not quite as unusual as it was then for a woman to be an independently successful business owner. Certainly we are more in touch with those from other cultures and other places around the world. And the church is expressed, even visibly, in myriad and diverse ways.
On the other hand, we are still a world and a people inhibited by our own expectations of what and who is normal. We still struggle to accept and celebrate those look or live differently than we do. We are still debating—emphatically—in our society today about who can lead: in government, in business, and in churches. Who is entitled to equality and justice. Who is indispensable and who is disposable. We still fall into the trap of believing we know how things are, how they should be, and what (and who) they’re supposed to look like.
The false certainty that this world can and should only ever be the way we picture it when we squeeze our eyes shut—that is a deception of our brokenness. It is the reason why, in a world that is more diverse and more connected than ever—we are still plagued by barriers of distrust and discrimination. We are still bound up by the limits of prejudice: racism, sexism, heterosexism—it goes on. It is costing lives and hope and so much possibility for goodness and healing and growth.
Lydia’s story finds us in the midst of the complicated, messy, brokenness of our own myopic vision and offers us a different view. A reminder that God’s church is bigger and broader than we expect. It is built and served by and serving those we might overlook or discount if we rely only on our own understanding. Whether we are like Paul struggling to follow God’s call past the limits of our own dream or like Lydia—called to serve and speak to a world that does not always fully see us: this story is a promise that the Holy Spirit is alive and at work all over this world and she is not contained by the limits of our humanity or own imagination.
In a world often defined by fear and shored up defenses and privilege and prejudice and injustice—the church is called to be a prophetic witness that something bigger and broader than we can imagine is binding us together. We, as the church, do not go out into the world simply because the world beyond needs us—but because we, the church, need the world beyond. The church is there too—visible to us or not. Beyond the limits of our knowing and our expectation—there are people we are incomplete without.
Lydia was the first. That’s what we say. The first European convert—the follower of God who made her house into a gateway for a broader church. She was the first, and then—God alive in her and made visible—many others followed. Perhaps precisely because she wasn’t what was expected—she was a woman, an independent, faithful woman of color: the understanding of what and where and how the church could be grew and was never the same. There have been other firsts too in the church and beyond. The first person to cross the ocean. The first person to walk on the moon. And others. The first LGBTQ pastor, the first black president, the first woman on an American bill. These first and many others teach us that our knowledge of what can be is not the limit of what should be or will be.
In this Easter season, we remember that our entire faith is built on the unexpected and unimaginable. A God who meets us in humanity—in the form of a tiny child. A God who preaches a world of justice beyond any that had been or has been known. A God who, having met us in human life, dies to meet us in death so that we might know that even there we are never alone. And a God who overcomes death, returns to new life and offers new life to us—with the incredible promise that there is no limit to God’s goodness or love—whether we can imagine it or not.
It is in this promise that we place our faith. It is to this promise we cling on the days that we fear injustice and prejudice might have the last word. In the moments when we squeeze our eyes shut and still cannot picture a world that is not broken—a world that is good and healed and whole. We trust in God to open our hearts so that we can see what God sees. We trust in Jesus Christ—the one who, above all and always, is first and last and guides us beyond what we know, expect, and understand and into the wonder and boundlessness of grace. Amazing grace. Imagine that.