Ancient Modern Family, V: Riverbank Faith
Bible Text: Acts 16:6–15 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
One of them, a women named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, from the city of Thyatira, a worshiper of God, listened, and the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying.
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The book of Acts is a geographer’s dream come true, or a nightmare for someone directionally challenged. In today’s story, though, geography matters, so let us begin to make peace with it.
First, geography reminds us that scripture takes place someplace instead of no place. The story of our God is an embodied story, rooted in a particular place with a particular people. This means that our faith does not come out of nowhere—like a mysterious unmarked package sent through the mail. USPS can find a tracking number for the package that is our faith—it has a place, a context, and a history. Christianity has multiple contexts, in fact, which allow us to see God.
Our own spiritual geography fine-tunes this point. As we go from place to place, meeting people from different hometowns and experiences, we can see how both our own faith as well as God’s guiding story found in scripture is not ‘set in stone’ but instead is a ‘living faith,’ shifting and changing as people encounter our dynamic God year after year.
Second, geography reminds us that the book of Acts is a travel narrative. Just like lobsters should come with a complimentary bib, the book of Acts should come with a complimentary map. The book of Acts is a travel narrative, not for geographical reasons, but for theological ones. The book of Acts begins where Luke left off—with Jesus’ final message to the disciples: be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
This would be a very disappointing story, I’m guessing, if the disciples just went around Jerusalem for a bit, and then tucked in for a long winter’s nap. If the disciples didn’t go into the Air Force’s wild blue yonder or Buzz Light Year’s infinity and beyond, then the author of Luke-Acts would have very little to report.
But, as luck would have it—luck, or faith, or wisdom, or holy urging—Jesus’ disciples did go. They gave witness to this wild story of forgiveness and freedom, life beyond life, new life springing forth from within the limits of our very mortal lives. They go, and they go, and they go to the very ends of the earth.
And, so we need a map. Phrygia and Bithynia are just as vague to us as Pontus and Pamphilia at this point. We might understand a bit better if the geography were a little closer to our own:
We might understand if, having been prevented from going up to the East Coast, Paul traveled west from New York City towards Pennsylvania and through Ohio.
We might understand if, being prevented from going south through Indiana, Paul took the northern route through Detroit and headed east towards Holland, Michigan.
We might understand if, while in Holland, Michigan, Paul had a dream about a man from Chicago saying, “Come, help us.”
And we might understand if, the next morning Paul boarded a boat in Holland and sailed past Gary, Indiana towards Chicago.
We might understand if, passing by the towering cityscape that is downtown Chicago, Paul docked his boat at Wilmette Harbor.
And we might understand if, on a Sunday morning, instead of heading south toward Chicago’s city center, Paul instead walked north, on Sheridan Road, seeking a place of prayer.
We might understand, we might not even be surprised, if Paul found a gathering of women that morning in our quaint chapel, worshiping God together.
And we might understand if, there (or here, rather), Paul came across a businesswoman, Lydia, a seller of royal purple cloth and a worshiper of God.
And we might understand if, after all that, God opened the heart of that businesswoman, Lydia, who subsequently was baptized along with everyone from her household, and invited Paul and the disciples over for post-church lunch.
Then, we might understand.
But, that’s not the way the story goes, is it? Instead, Paul is on his way through Phrygia and Galatia—smack dab in the middle of modern day Turkey—and he tries to go west. He heads towards Asia—not Asia as we know it: China or Japan or India—but what the Greek-speaking world would call Asia: coastal towns like Mysia and Troas and Lydia along the coast of Turkey.
Paul tries to go west, but the Holy Spirit does not let him.
So, Paul tries the opposite direction. He heads northwest towards Bithynia—a gorgeous forested mountain region along the Black Sea. But he is blocked again; the Spirit of Jesus will not let them go.
They can’t go west; they can’t go east. They can’t go left; they can’t go right. They can’t go up towards one coast, and they can’t go down towards the other. It reads like a cartoon, Elmer Fud or Bugs Bunny trying to go, but being prevented by roadblocks at every turn.
God says “no” to the east, and “no” to the west. What will it take for God to say “yes”?
And, for that matter, is there some poetry to God’s “no”? We know times in our own lives when God has not let us go left or right, but only straight on to adventures beyond imagining. “No” is sometimes a place of hope, but more often, it feels frustrating and lonely. Geographically, “no” is no man’s land, a lost wilderness wasteland with no way out. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. “No” means waiting. “No” means wondering what’s next. “No” means a break from the routine of going-going-going-going-going, and a painfully extended pause, in which the answer becomes wait-wait-wait-wait-wait. And, “no” is never a peaceful waiting, but an agonizing waiting.
Paul could not go north or south, east or west; the only way left is out—out onto the sea in a sailboat, out into the unknown, out. And so, Paul heads up to the port city of Troas, where at least he might be able to board a boat and head in God-knows-what direction.
Troas, adjacent to and mostly synonymous with the ancient city of Troy, where Homer’s Illiad takes place, has a reputation for being a place where adventures begin—akin to Bilbo and Frodo starting at the Shire, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley starting at Platform 9¾ or Anakin and Luke Skywalker starting at Tatooine.
And so, Paul’s adventure begins. And it begins with a dream. A Macedonian man is crying out to Paul, “help us.” And so, waking up the next morning, Paul seems to know what should happen next: he and the others will go to Macedonia.
Seeing Macedonia on our map, we can sigh with relief. Knowing the geography, we are not too surprised that Paul is having visions of Macedonia. It would be like having visions of Chicago while being docked in Holland, Michigan. In part, it is the obvious choice. And, maybe this can give us a little hope when we hear “no” as our answer. Sometimes there is an obvious answer to the question of, “if not this, then what?”
I mean, Paul could turn back completely. Or, maybe he could sail off into the far reaches of the Mediterranean Sea, going where no man has gone before.
But, if you are in Troas, why skip by the Macedonians. Looking back at the geography from Acts chapter two, no one was from Macedonia on the day of Pentecost. Maybe no one has yet heard the story Paul has to tell. Why not go there first, before going to the far reaches—the “uttermost parts of the earth” as the King James Bible says?
And so they go.
They stop over for the night at Samothrace, which I mention only because it sounds like an amazing place we should all visit—an unforgettable volcanic island in the middle of Mediterranean Sea with a mile high mountain jutting out towards the sky. Then, the next morning, they set sail for Neapolis, dock their boat, and head out on foot towards Philippi, the very easternmost city that is still officially within the District of Macedonia.
And, so it goes, they arrive. God, having said “no” to every other direction of travel finally says “yes” to Macedonia.
And it is here, in God’s “yes” that our story really begins.
Having been called to Macedonia, I love the fact that their first story is of Paul and the disciples heading outside the walls of the Macedonian city of Philippi to find a place of prayer.
Have you ever had this kind of experience? When you have been told “no” several times, and finally, when that “yes” comes, even that “yes” makes you shy and hesitant, makes you tip-toe away just a bit, maybe to find a place of prayer, but maybe just to have a private little freak out before you are willing to trust this new “yes.” Sometimes, we need to walk away for a moment of prayer before we can roll up our sleeves, get down to business, and head in the direction towards which we have been called.
And yet, seeing the truth of Paul’s story, it is while Paul is walking in the opposite direction of the Macedonian city that God’s “no” becomes a “yes” right before his eyes. God’s “yes” is no longer just a vision of a nondescript Macedonian man crying for help, God’s “yes” is now embodied in the person of Lydia who is, in every way, not who we might expect.
Lydia is, in God’s confuddling way, not a Macedonian, and most certainly not a Macedonian man. She is already a person of faith. She is seemingly in no need of help. She is independent and wealthy, in charge of her own household. She is prayerful and even open to God’s change of heart.
Lydia is a seller of purple cloth—the reason we invited you to wear purple along with us today—and from the purple-cloth-making region of the ancient near east—a town called Thyatira in the district of Lydia, her namesake. Lydia is from Lydia, back in the opposite direction, back in the area called Asia where Paul was originally trying to go. By saying no to Lydia’s hometown, God was saying yes to Lydia. God’s “yes” and God’s “no” meet in her very presence.
And, in the same way, God’s “yes” and God’s “no” meet in the very purple cloth that she sells.
On the one hand, Lydia would have known that purple was reserved for royalty. And selling purple cloth was serious business. Julius Caesar, for example, prohibited anyone but royalty from wearing purple and later, much after Lydia’s time, King Nero prohibited anyone from even selling purple, it was so valuable.
Purple was a high luxury, a visible symbol of wealth—more luxurious that even the most luxurious car, or watch, or technological gadget. It was made from the shell of a hard-to-procure Mediterranean sea-snail, and according to the folklore surrounding ancient purple dye, it took more than twelve-thousand sea-snails to extract barely enough dye to color one royal purple toga.
Lydia would have been a wealthy businesswoman, unique in and of itself in her day—a woman of such wealth and class that she did not need to be accompanied by a man—and, she would have been accustomed to dealing with the richest of the rich and powerful—the kings and queens of the kingdom of Rome. And yet, being that close to power and wealth did not puff up her pride. Lydia was a woman of faith, even before Paul met her.
On the Sabbath day, there she was, at the riverside, at a humble place of prayer, not some city-center house of worship, but at the side of the river among other women of faith, praising God.
Yet, here’s the rub. Here’s the other thing that Lydia would have known about purple cloth. Purple is not just a symbol of wealth and royalty. Yes, we use purple cloth at Kenilworth Union Church during the season of Advent—a season signaling that we are awaiting Christmas, that we are awaiting our King of Kings to be born in that humble manger. But, alternatively, we hang our purple cloth during the season of Lent, a season of repentance that prepares us for the journey that Jesus takes into Jerusalem towards his death. Purple is also a color of mourning and sorrow.
Lydia’s purple cloth gives us a glimpse of the dual realities of God’s “yes” and God’s “no” —the royal dignity and promise of purple held up alongside the melancholy of purple as a color of sorrow.
When the answer to our hoped for future is “no” we experience loss. What we hoped for cannot be. We grieve. Often in “no” we experience true, deep heartbreak. The misery of “no” can be long-lasting.
But, when we hear “no,” what is the other vision God has for us? Is there not a new ‘someplace’ to which we might go? Is there not a new future for us, too, a future with dignity and hope into which God calls us? In Lydia, with her purple cloth and her open heart, we catch a glimpse of God—the one who holds us in the joy and the sorrow, in the purple grief of “no” and the royal celebration of “yes.”
Yet, it is often only in looking back at the journey, retracing our steps, reexamining the geography of our lives, that we can see the promises of God at work with us and in us, beside us and beyond us.
May God make our geography holy so that we might see God’s promises unfold in our midst. And, may we live like Lydia and like Paul, with riverbank faith.