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Faces of Our Faith: Lydia

Faces of Our Faith: Lydia
The Rev. Bart Smith
The 25th Sunday after Pentecost (November 11, 2018)
Acts 16:11-15, 40

We (Paul and Silas) sailed from Troas straight for Samothrace and came to Neapolis the following day. From there we went to Philippi, a city of Macedonia’s first district and a Roman colony. We stayed in that city several days. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the riverbank, where we thought there might be a place for prayer. We sat down and began to talk with the women who had gathered. One of those women was Lydia, a Gentile God-worshipper from the city of Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. As she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message. Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, “Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us.

Paul and Silas left the prison and made their way to Lydia’s house where they encouraged the brothers and sisters. Then they left Philippi.


Have you ever heard the phrase, “all-in”? What does it mean to go “all-in,” in the original sense of the word? For the answer to that question we turn to poker-king.com:

In poker, the term “all-in” means that a player has put the last of their chips into the pot. When a player is “all-in”, they can not perform another action because they don’t have any chips left.

Let’s give a few examples of situations where a player would be “all-in”:

Example #1: Joe Smith is playing in a multi-table tournament and is down to just 750 chips (50/100 blinds). Action folds around to Joe Smith on the button, where he declares himself to be “all-in”. Smith tosses the last of his chips into the middle of the table, as he has just verbally committed himself to the all-in move.

Some of our Presbyterian ancestors are rolling over in their graves right now because a preacher is going to use a concept from gambling as a guiding image during a sermon!

Example #2 of being all-in: Lydia of Thyatira.

Lydia is down by the river on the Sabbath day at a structure that’s like a prayer hut. Cities that didn’t have a large enough (male) Jewish population to form a synagogue had small structure usually near a body of running water where they could wash themselves before prayer. On his missionary journeys the Apostle Paul would usually begin his work in a new place by going to the synagogue first. So he and Silas, his companion, show up to the prayer house and begin to talk with the women.

Lydia is there because she is what they called a “God-fearer,” somebody who, like the Ethiopian Eunuch from last week’s story, is a Gentile whose very curious about Judaism, another one of those people who stood on the outside of the religion, looking in. Maybe she was attracted to the strangeness of it all; maybe Judaism had an exotic feel to it. Or maybe she was draw to the idea of worshiping one God and not the pantheon of Greco-Roman culture. Or maybe it was the moral structure the Torah offered.

So picture her, this very curious person, sitting on the river banks next to the prayer house, gathered there with the other women, of whom she was likely a leader. These two men from a foreign land very, very far away start to tell the story of Jesus. And the Holy Spirit, who is really the main character in the Acts of the Apostles, enables her to embrace Paul’s message. So she believes what they’re saying.

And not only does she believe what they’re saying, but she trusts it to the point that her whole household is baptized. A couple of things are odd about that. First of all the household is hers, not a man’s, which was rare in those days. Maybe she was widowed. Maybe she was divorced (which wasn’t uncommon in the Greco-Roman world). But the household is hers. And the whole household is baptized. When the Bible says something like “so-and-so’s whole household” that generally means not just their family, but their servants and their families, too. So what Lydia has done here is not only committed herself and her family to this new religion, but her whole house. She, a wealthy, respectable, and connected businesswoman in a cosmopolitan city has not only identified with this new, obscure sect of a tribal religion on the other side of the Mediterranean, but she has associated her whole house with it.

That’s most of the “chips” right there, huge stacks placed right there on the dealer’s table. But that’s not all of it.

As we noted, Lydia is wealthy. She’s a purple dealer. Her hometown, Thyatira, is across the Aegean Sea in modern-day Turkey, but at some point she moved to to the Roman colony of Philippi in modern-day Greece, where this story takes place. Why? We don’t know. But what we do know is that what they’re known for in Thyatira is their purple dye. Lydia is a purveyor of purple, not the kind that came from a root (that’s the cheap stuff) but the purple derived from marine molluscs. That was the kind of purple which was really hard to come and difficult to extract and therefore extremely costly. Put bluntly: Lydia, the dealer of luxury goods, is loaded.

And she opens up her house to Paul and Silas, these missionaries. “Once she and her household were baptized, she urged, ‘Now that you have decided that I am a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.’” She provides hospitality to the two men, which was almost scandalous. And the text implies what her house then becomes a base of operations for Paul and Silas’ ministry in Philippi. Lydia then becomes a leader in the church at Philippi.

That’s all the chips, several stacks of them, right there in front of the dealer. That’s all-in.

All-in moments come in all shapes and sizes. They can come at any moment. And they can change our lives.

One such moment that stands out to me as I’ve reflected on Lydia’s story was in a park in Santa Fe in January of 2010. I was in my first year in seminary in a Jan-term class called “Cross-Cultural Ministries,” which was an in-depth exploration of the beautiful and complex cultural and religious landscape of Northern New Mexico and how faith communities interacted with that landscape. We were based out of Santa Fe and spent significant time in Albuquerque, Espanola, Chimayo, and even Ghost Ranch.

On one of the days we were going to get up and join a group that regularly passed out hot chocolate to day-laborers waiting for work in park. It was January in Santa Fe… 16 degrees. One of the coldest days of my life to date. We stood there in the cold passing out hot chocolate. I struck up a conversation with a man, somehow through my limited Spanish and his limited English. His name was Daniel and he was from Guatemala.

I noticed that he walked with a limp. He volunteered that he was on a home construction job and had fallen off a two-story roof, shattering his leg. He later said he didn’t go to the hospital because he didn’t have health insurance. He also was not paid for his labor the day of the accident, and was unable to seek legal recourse because he was in the country without documentation. Yet there Daniel stood in the freezing cold of winter in a park, trying to get even a little work so he could send money to his wife and two kids back in Guatemala.

I left that encounter grateful that he had shared his story, but also enraged—enraged that he had to suffer that kind of pain.

Later that day we met with some fiery immigration activists in Albuquerque. I don’t remember what they had on that power point, but I remember being very convinced and enraged again at the injustice of it all. These activists then asked each of us around the table to go around and say what we were going to do with this information they had presented us. When they circled around to me, I blurted out, “When I go back to Austin I’m going to learn everything I can about immigration and try to organize my classmates to do something.”

I was all-in.

Well, long story short, the teacher of the class was on the planning team for an immigration conference later than spring in Phoenix sponsored by the Synod of the Southwest. I raised some money with the help of my friend, Sue Westfall, then Presbytery Pastor to the Presbytery de Cristo. I went to that conference, and absorbed all that I could. At that conference I learned about the for-profit system of immigrant detention, and later befriended the nation’s expert on that whole system, who lived in Austin, and we linked up seminary students with the visitation program to the immigrant detention center north of Austin. It was also during that conference when we learned of ICE raids in Tucson and not long after that, that then-Governor Jan Brewer was going to sign into law the infamous SB 1070. More rage.

Also at that conference I met Mark Adams, director of Frontera de Cristo in Douglas-Agua Prieta. I drank Cafe Justo for the first time. I also met a student from Columbia Seminary, Elizabeth Toland, the future Elizabeth Smith.

I share all of that because I see a common thread in my story and Lydia’s story. When she was listening to Paul and Silas by the river that day, the text says “as she listened, the Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message.” The Spirit had been preparing her heart for that moment. Grace was already at work in the life of this God-fearer long before she decided to take this leap of faith. She stepped out in faith and her life changed.

Look back over your life and think of a time when you’ve thrown all the chips in.

When have you made a big step, a leap of faith, and made a choice that, looking in the rearview mirror, altered the course of your life?

Or when have you taken a huge risk, not knowing what the outcome would be?

Or when have you invested yourself totally into a cause or taken a controversial stand based on principles, consequences be damned?

As it says in Ephesians: “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Or another way of saying it: glory to God when, at the Spirit’s nudging, we are willing to go “all-in.”


Featured image: Lydia of Acts, Lisle Gwynn Garrity