Monday, 06 May 2013 00:00

"Purple", May 5, 2013

Acts 16:11-15
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 5, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Lydia:  a dealer in purple goods; a leader in the early church; a person who commanded respect, from her family, from Paul, from her community.  And yet, we hardly know her name.  We know a lot about Paul, Silas, Barnabas, Peter.  Where are all the songs about Lydia?  All we have are these few verses.  Like Mary Magdalene, a prominent figure in the Gospels, the only one recorded by all four gospel writers as being present at both the crucifixion and the resurrection, she disappears shortly thereafter.

But we are here because of the missionary work of Mary Magdalene and Priscilla, Aquila and yes, even forgotten Lydia.

She will forever be remembered by the color purple.  Alice Walker wrote in The Color Purple, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

Maybe it’s time to recognize the color purple and all of the women who bless this world.

Think about the women who bless this world of ours.  Think of the women who bless your life.  Think of the sacrifices they made for you.  Think about those who suffer in silence, who urge us on to live into our full violet selves.


You know the 1984 poem by Jenny Joseph entitled “Warning”:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red had which doesn’t go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

So let’s look again at Lydia, this merchant of purple goods and see what she has to teach us.  Let’s also see if she is like any other women we know from our lives.

The first thing we know about Lydia is that she has a name. That’s not something you can say of most women in the Bible. She is not mentioned in relation to another man.  She is not Lydia, wife of Leopold. She is just Lydia, which means that she was a woman of stature. She is a head of a household. Her name could be drawn from the town of Lydia and that she is known as the Lydian. Lydia means “offspring”. We are like her offspring.

She is a faithful person.  Luke says she is a person looking for and to God’s purposes.  That means she was a worshipper of God in a Roman colony.  She was therefore somewhat of a subversive.  I’m liking her more and more.

She is the head of a household, possibly a single mother.  Knowing how hard it is to be one of two parents, I have tremendous respect for single parents. When her heart is opened to what Paula and Silas say, she sees to it that her entire family is baptized.  There is no mention of a man.  There is no mention of her needing to consult anyone.  This is a woman who knew who she was and had bucked the patriarchal system.  She is the first convert to the Jesus movement in Europe. The early church was begun by strong women, just like it continues to be shaped by strong women.

She was a woman of means.  She was a dealer in purple goods.  Purple was created by pulverizing thousands of mollusks.  It was labor and cost-intensive.  Therefore, only the rich could afford it. Like Queen Jezebel, she was a person who had power because of this color, because only the rich ones wore purple.  But Lydia was more than that. She was a traveling merchant coming to Philippi from Thyatira.  Philippi was the only church to give Paul and his movement financial aid (Phil 4:10, 15; II Cor 11:8-9)  It was like the first Women’s Missionary Union offering.

She had her own house and she entertained the entourage of the apostle Paul. Some even go so far as to say that Paul took such a liking to her that Lydia and Paul were married.

After her baptism, Lydia invited Paul and his band of merry men to stay at her home.  I love the way Luke tells us this, “And she prevailed upon us.”  This is his way of saying she would not take no for an answer.  She would not be belittled.  She would not be snubbed.  She would not be told that she was of the wrong race, the wrong class, the wrong gender.  She was baptized and therefore equal.  “She prevailed upon us,” says Luke.   “There was nothing we could do.”  This was a dangerous thing to do, for Paul & Silas found themselves in prison shortly thereafter.

But it didn’t stop at her simple hospitality.  She was a woman of courage and guts.  I mean being a single mother is gutsy enough.  But this woman took Paul and Silas in after they had been in prison.  Chapter 16:40 says “After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.”

What do we make of this woman in purple?

The fact is, we tend to ignore this odd woman.  Even though she was central to the early church, we forget her.  We marginalize her.  We put her on the sidelines of faith discussions.  We forget who she was.  We forget her significance.  And yet she sits there in the background playing with her purple cloth.  It’s hard to ignore her all of the time.  She is there.  She is the force of the movement.  She doesn’t so much need us to remember her as much as she needs us to remember who we are because of her.

Who are the women in purple who teach us something?

Virginia Woolf wrote: “For one often catches a glimpse of women in the lives of the great, whisking away into the background, concealing, I sometimes think, a wink, a laugh, perhaps a tear.” (Room 44-45)

When I was in seminary, there was a tradition that was handed down across the years.  On Mother’s Day, there was a white sheet covering the communion table.  People were invited to write the names of their mothers and grandmothers on the sheet.  And each year, another group of students would get the opportunity to add names to the sheet, the great cloud of women’s witnesses.  This was so they would to be forgotten.

Like Lydia, they had a name.  
Like Lydia, they had a story.  
Like Lydia they offered hospitality.
Like Lydia, they made their own decisions.  
Like Lydia, we are who we are because of them.  
And so we remember them.

There is even a book called “Lydia’s impatient sisters: A Feminist social History of early Christianity.”

Who are your Lydias?
Who dares to wear purple?
Who demands to be remembered and recognized?

Anne Reed has a great song that I first heard her sing at Paul Wellstone’s memorial service, called “Heroes”:


What can I learn from you
That I must do the thing I think I can not do
That you do what's right by your heart and soul
It's the imperfections that make us whole
One life can tell the tale
And if you make the effort you can not fail
By your life you tell me it can be done
By your life's the courage to carry on

Heroes appear like a friend
To clear a path or light the flame
As time goes by you find you depend
On your heroes to show you the way

Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt
Katherine Hepburn, Sally Ride
Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman
Annie Sullivan, Gertrude Stein

Coretta Scott King, Amelia Earhart
Lillian Hellman, Eartha Kitt
Sacajewea, Ella Fitzgerald
Golda Meir, Dorothy Dix

Louisa May Alcott, Billie Jean King
Emily Dickinson, Lucy Stone
Margaret Sanger, Clara Barton
Billie Holiday, Juliette Low

Elizabeth Blackwell, Rosa Parks
Lena Horne, Beverly Sills
Barbara Jordan, Helen Keller
Indira Gandhi, Agens DeMille

Corazon Aquino, Gloria Steinem
Rachel Carson, Joan of Arc
Babe Zaharias, Marlene Deitrich
Anne Frank, Simone de Beauvoir…

Who are some of your compelling purple-wearing heroes and sheras?  I think of the UBC Shalom Award recipients: Tai Shigaki, Vicki Wilson, Jean Lubke, Harriet Johnson, Faye and Thor Kommedahl, Bob and Lu Carman, and of course Betty Shaw.

All of these are women in purple.  All of them are bold.  All of them are our spiritual mothers.  And because someone like Lydia once prevailed upon Paul, Silas and Luke, we are her heirs.

So we just might have to be women and men who wear purple from time to time.  Because of the ones who have gone before us, we have the power, the wisdom and the insight to look at the world from a different perspective.  We have a compelling message.  We have a vision for a new kind of community where we live by hospitality, and love, and mercy, and even though we are in the belly of the beast of empire, we are not defined by its rules.  We dare to wear purple and compel others to catch our vision.

We do this because it’s what a mother does.  She looks out for her young, and wants the best for them.  She wants them to grow up and be bold enough to wear purple.  Because she knows the power that results when we dare to be who we are called to be.

Thank God for the woman in purple and all of us, her offspring.

Many of whom wear purple

Many of whom compel us to sit up and listen.  Thank you and thank God for you.