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.” 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. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 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.
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. 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.
The town of Celebration, Florida was established in 1994. it was the brainchild of the Disney corporation, who used some of the country’s most well-known planners and architects to create a new community, based on the principles of “New Urbanism” – which, in a way, was actually “old urbanism.” Its design features small yards, houses built close together, and all within easy walking distance to shops, businesses, schools, library, and so on. It was designed to combat the typical suburban sprawl of most developments and minimize our dependence on cars, and to encourage walking and biking and neighborliness and community. The buildings are all of one traditional style or another; comfortable front porches to sit on and interact with neighbors are the norm on the houses. It was meant to be a showcase, a model of all the best that small-town life can be. Norton Commons, in fact, is a smaller local example of New Urbanist planning and design that follows a lot of the thinking behind Celebration. Twenty-five years into that grand experiment, there are a few cracks showing around the edges of the grand experiment; things didn’t always turn out as well as hoped, but by and large, Celebration has been relatively successful in accomplishing its goals, and it’s a very nice place to live.
In the time of the apostles, the city of Philippi was in a way the same kind of thing. It was located in Macedonia, in what’s now the northeastern portion of modern-day Greece. It was built by the Roman Empire as a colony settled mostly by veteran Roman soldiers and was a model city showcasing all the best of Roman life and culture, featuring a large Roman amphitheater and other cultural elements that you would have found in Rome.
It’s here, in Philippi, that the apostle Paul finds himself in today’s reading from Acts. Here, he meets up with a group of Jewish women who have gathered to pray and worship God along the river. One of them is a woman named Lydia. Lydia wasn’t a Jew; she was what the New Testament writers called a “God-worshiper” – a Gentile who for one reason or another never converted to Judaism, but who still worshiped the Jews’ God, and who followed most of the Jewish moral and ethical teachings. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth, which is a very expensive luxury – only the wealthiest, the “one percenters” of the day, could afford it. Just the fact that Lydia was successfully running any business, and was the head of a household, a homeowner, and apparently owned a house large enough to accommodate her own household as well as Paul and his fellow travelers, was impressive enough – and based on the nature of her business, she must have traveled in some pretty well-connected circles. She would have had to be careful practicing her non-Roman, non-sanctioned religion; it could have been bad for business, and she would have been taking an even greater risk to be associated with this new Jewish cult that these men, these foreigners, these outside agitators who had come to stir the pot and promote this new Jewish sub-cult here, in this very Roman city. Still, she did offer her hospitality to them, and she apparently laid out a very reasoned, logical, and apparently, a very persuasive argument to Paul – who we know from the writings attributed to him, had, at best, some relatively ambiguous thoughts about women in positions of power or leadership. But as the passage says, she succeeded in “prevailing upon” them to stay with her. Lydia must have really impressed Paul and the others with her words and actions; when they left the city, they left her in charge of the newly-formed church, which, we read later in this chapter of Acts, continued to meet in Lydia’s house.
The truth is that women had played a huge role in the beginnings of our faith. Of course, Mary was the first person God told about Jesus’ impending arrival. Later, when Jesus was a man, it was the Syrophoenician woman he met who helped him to understand that he’d been sent to all people, Jew and Gentile alike. Mary Magdalen was the first person to encounter the risen Jesus, and the first to report to the others that he’d risen. And here, in today’s story, Lydia becomes an important leader in the early church.
In each of these instances, the men in the story had a hard time believing the women, trusting them, accepting the truth in what they were saying. And honestly, things don’t seem to be a whole lot better today. Sadly, even now we men often have trouble hearing and accepting the wisdom in the words of female voices. We men have still been raised in a culture that in ways spoken and unspoken teach us to accept the big lie that men just know better. That when it comes to certain things, women just don’t understand, so we have to explain things to them, and to make some decisions for them, supposedly for their own good.
Well pardon me, but from the standpoint of our Christian faith – from the standpoint of the gospel as lived and taught by Jesus Christ – that’s just stupid, and in my opinion, sinful. We profess a faith that was, as I just pointed out, largely founded on the voices and experiences of women. We profess a faith that claims that all of us, male and female, are created in God’s image, including our intellectual abilities, and all having equal human dignity and value. We profess to be members of the kingdom of God, where according to scripture we are so equal that “there is no longer male and female.” So for us men to continue to not listen to the voices, the wisdom, the experiences of women – to not listen to the Lydias of our own time – when they try to prevail upon us about something, is simply not in accord with the faith that we profess.
Right now, there are millions of Lydias trying to get our attention, as in multiple states, laws are being enacted to all but eliminate, and in some cases to even criminalize, a woman’s right to choose for herself whether having an abortion is the right thing or not. Millions of women in this country – and to be clear, most of them Christians – are speaking out against these laws, trying to prevail upon us with the reality of their own wisdom and God-given right to make that decision for themselves; trying to prevail upon us that frankly, such a decision isn’t anyone else’s business but theirs.
I’m not going to tell anyone what they should believe about whether abortion is right or wrong. There are plenty of preachers in plenty of pulpits who want to do that; that’s not what I’m doing here today. I’m not here to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t believe for themselves. I will point out, though, that it’s the position of the Presbyterian Church that abortion is never the ideal, and a decision to have one is a choice that shouldn’t be made casually – but that it might still be the best of all possible choices for woman. That it is still a potentially moral choice for a woman based upon her own circumstances, her own situation, her own beliefs, and her own conscience. And that it is improper for anyone else to force their own beliefs on them, and to deny them the God-given human dignity of making such a choice for themselves.
Most importantly, what I want to suggest today is that we all might best live out the principles of our faith – the gospel as lived and taught by Jesus – if we truly listened to the truth and wisdom that today’s Lydias are trying to tell us – and frankly, whether about these new laws, or any other aspects of their being treated unequally in our society. Women know their own situation and conscience better than any man can ever know for them, so whatever anyone personally believes about abortion, we should respect women’s God-given right to freedom of conscience, and to make their own choices based on that conscience. And I say that as a man who was conceived when his parents were high school students, who dropped out of school to get married and raise me, and eventually, my two brothers. I know full well that if abortion had been a legal choice back then, I might not even be here today. Still, I’m convinced that the position most consistent with our faith is to not interfere with a women’s right to make such a decision for herself.
The women in those examples from scripture that I’d mentioned earlier did eventually prevail upon the men who didn’t originally accept what they were saying, and the women were ultimately proven to be right. I truly believe we’d all be living more faithfully if we’d follow those men’s lead, and to let our modern-day Lydias prevail upon us as well.
Thanks be to God.