A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 1, 2016 (Easter 6, Year C)
Carnivorous sea snail mucus. That was the source of the highly prized purple dyes used in the ancient world. The process of turning the carnivorous sea snail mucus into a usable dye was, not surprisingly, slow and arduous. And expensive. It’s the reason the color purple became associated with royalty. Kings and queens were among the few who could afford to have clothing and textiles dyed purple.
We see vestiges of this in our own liturgy as the color purple is used during the season of Advent. Purple vestments may no longer be seen as luxury items, but during the period before Christmas in which we await the birth of the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, we dress the altar in royal purple.
But why am I talking about this? Partly it’s because I’ve always wanted to utter the phrase “carnivorous sea snail mucus” from the pulpit. And partly, with this week’s premature death of Prince — true music royalty — the color purple has been in the news.
But the main reason is to highlight a fairly obscure Biblical character named Lydia. She only appears once in all of Scripture and we hear about her in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. She was a wealthy merchant, a woman who made her money as a dealer in purple cloth. But just because you’ve perhaps never heard of Lydia, or at least skipped over her brief Scriptural mention, doesn’t mean she was insignificant.
She’s featured in just four sentences and yet we can glean much from them. Paul writes, “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. 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.”
From this we can tell that Lydia was a faithful Gentile woman who worshipped the Jewish God; that she eagerly listen to the preaching of Paul; that God opened her heart to Paul’s message about Jesus; that she was wealthy, as a seller of purple cloth; that she lived in present-day Greece in a town on the Agean Sea — she needed access to those sea snails; that she was likely the head of her own household, as no husband is mentioned; that she was baptized by Paul; and that she was hospitable, as she opened her home to Paul and his companions.
In a culture that rarely mentioned women by name, or that only did so in relation to a husband or father, Lydia stands out as a powerful force in the early church. She is recognized as the first documented convert to Christianity on European soil and it is through this encounter that the church in Philippi was born. It thrived, likely with Lydia’s passion and financial support, to the point that Paul wrote to the community, and we have his beautiful Letter to the Philippians to show for it.
In his earthly life, Jesus so often brought women and others marginalized by society out of the shadows and into the light. He broke convention by conversing with women in public places, entered their homes, listened to what they had to say. At his death it was the women at the empty tomb who first learned the good news of the resurrection and Mary Magdalene is proclaimed as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” And now we see this same movement of the spirit continuing in the early church as Lydia became a prominent member and driver of the budding Christian community in Philippi. And yet, how many of you had ever even heard of Lydia? We as an institutional church and as a society still have much work to do.
As a case in point, there’s been another woman in the news recently who has similarly been kept in the shadows. The shadows of slavery and racism and sexism. Harriet Tubman, who will soon take her place as the first woman represented on U.S. currency.
Putting Harriet on the $20 bill hasn’t been without controversy. Whether due to simple resistance to change or darker forces isn’t for me to know or judge. But I will say this: if you know of anyone opposed to Harriet Tubman on the $20, please encourage them to get rid of these bills by sending them to the church. We’d be more than happy to convert Tubmans into ministry here at St. John’s.
But what’s not often discussed is what allowed Harriet to live her courageous life: her deep, abiding faith. Like Lydia, Harriet was a strong, smart, able, and passionate woman. Nicknamed “Moses” for her work in leading slaves from captivity to freedom as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she was also profoundly faithful. It’s what kept her going as a freedom fighter throughout her varied life as an abolitionist, suffragist, nurse, spy, soldier in the Union Army.
In addition to everything else, Harriet was a woman who persevered in everything she did. One of my favorite stories involves her doggedness as a fundraiser for her work on the Railroad. It’s said that one day she approached a well-known abolitionist in New York, and informed him that God had told her that he “had twenty dollars to give her to free the slaves.” The man was not convinced. So Harriet staged a one-woman sit-in in his office. She sat down, and calmly continued to sit throughout the day, as the man went about his business. People came and went, wondering about this determined black lady sitting in the corner. By the time it was over, the man had given sixty dollars to Harriet. Or the equivalent of three Tubmans.
Of course women like Lydia and Harriet Tubman don’t do what they do in order to be publicly recognized. And yet by lifting up the saints among us, we are able to draw deep inspiration from their lives and from their devotion. We can learn lessons from how to follow Jesus amid challenging circumstances.
Harriet’s challenges are well-known but being a woman of means, Lydia also had a lot to lose by following Jesus. It would have been safer not to. There’s a reason most business owners don’t advertise their religion or put campaign signs in their store windows — why risk offending paying customers? But Lydia saw the bigger picture and her hospitality amid the persecution of the early church never wavered. Soon enough Paul and his companions would be arrested, jailed, and beaten but they headed back to Lydia’s home to be fed, welcomed, and tended to.
I may never again utter the phrase “carnivorous sea snail mucus” during a sermon. But the next time you order escargot in a fancy restaurant or pay for something with a $20 bill, I do hope you’ll consider the life and witness of these two incredible women. And consider how you, too, can follow Jesus in new and life-giving ways.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck