Maybe it’s the pandemic talking, but the spicy chicken sandwich from Popeye’s is tears-to-the-eyes good. I tried it once and now I’ve had it…more than once. The last time I drove through and ordered one was on the way home from officiating a graveside service: “You’re a, um…?” the man at the window said, gesturing at my clerical collar. “That’s good. Thank you, ma’am.”
He thanked me twice more before I drove away, and gave me a discount on my order. Something about the symbol of God-and-church drew out gratitude and generosity from this man.
I like the little story we have about Lydia in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s not much, but the details are layered in. Paul and his companions are in Philippi, seeking out the Jewish community for worship on the sabbath. It was a small enough cohort that there was no synagogue in the town, but rather a congregation of worshipers gathering by the riverside for prayer and ritual. Sounds like it was a gathering mostly of women, and included some gentile “worshipers of God” or people who had drawn near to Judaism but were not fully converts to the faith. Another way I think about that is open-heartedness: people with a spirit of goodwill curiosity toward another’s testament to what is good.
Lydia is mentioned as being a seller or a dealer in purple cloth. Textiles dyed purple were expensive, and thus a marker of wealth. It’s reasonable to expect that a merchant dealing in these finer goods may have been a person with resources. Some say Lydia’s name could suggest she had once been a slave, since she hailed from Thyatira (a place known for its purple dyes) in an area called Lydia. Elsewhere we know of women of status bearing the name, so we can’t draw certain conclusions either way. Had Lydia come into wealth by her family, by a turn of good fortune, by a giftedness in the skills needed to work with dyes and relate to clients?
I wonder how long had Lydia been joining that sabbath gathering at the water’s edge. What had moved her about the community or the mysteries of the Divine, so that she was in that place on the day Paul and company arrived?
We’re told that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to the things spoken by Paul, and she and her household were baptized. The household is “hers” — we have no indication that there was a spouse or other male figure in that role, as would have been common in the patriarchal social order of the time. She invited Paul and his fellow missionaries to her home, to be provided for out of her hospitality. Given that what was then Philippi is now considered part of Europe, Lydia is thought of as the first European convert to the faith and a patron of that Christian community.
What we know is this: Lydia drew near to a community that worshiped God. She received a gift of open-heartedness to hear and receive the good news that Paul shared about a loving Way in the world. She committed herself and those in her household to this pattern of self-giving love, of death and resurrection, as they sought and received the sacrament of baptism. And she wanted this mission and her role in it to grow and be strengthened, as she made her home a resource for the furthering of this community.
Now that online worship is a regular thing for many communities, I’m aware of the open-hearted people who have come near and been moved to gratitude and generosity in various ways. People bump into opportunities to pray when they are scrolling in a social media feed. Or they see the church doing its work boldly or slowly or earnestly in areas like mental health and civic engagement and reckoning with racism. The enduring goodness of the Way of Love gets expressed, streamed, given, and received.
I think of that kind man in the fast-food window who saw a sign of God’s community and responded with gift-giving and gratitude. There are people with curiosity and goodwill who want to be drawn more nearly into a community that will receive their gifts and allow for the centers of leadership to shift.
There’s plenty to ponder in the story of Lydia: the effect of the gospel on her life and her life’s effect on the gospel community. I’m going to share this little story with my children. Blackberries and blueberries and pickled beets they’ll eat without hesitation. We’ll talk about Lydia while we enjoy a snack-time feast of shirt-staining purple things. We’ll see that rich juice on our plates and we’ll remember how God’s church needs the gifts of all of us to make their beautiful mark.
How have you recently received the gift of open-heartedness?