The rose that grew from concrete, is phrase that we use to speak of an exception to the rule. Generally speaking, things don’t grow from concrete. If, per chance some small weed manages to sprout and poke its head up between the cracks in the sidewalk, it is the exception that proves the rule that things do not grow from concrete. But sidewalks in New Orleans, are a little bit different. Here the weeds and the tree roots are putting up a real fight against the sidewalks. In many places it would seem that the good money is on the plants, not the concrete. Sometimes it is hard to tell here, if a weed sprouting from concrete is merely an exception to the rule of the sidewalk’s dominance, or the beginning of the end for that sidewalk.
Throughout this Easter season we have been reading from the book of Acts, a book which was produced in the first Century AD, under the rule of the Roman Empire. The Hellenistic and Roman Culture of the time was extremely patriarchal, even misogynistic. Weakness and infirmity were identified with the feminine and Virtue and strength with the masculine. Nearly all cultures, certainly the Jewish culture of the time, share this patriarchal bias towards men and the male, but it was especially marked in Ancient Rome. In such a context it is not surprising that most of the characters in our New Testament Stories are male. Men wrote, men ruled, and men were the only people considered real subjects, with their own agency and importance.
The pattern of males being the center of the world, is unfortunately reproduced within our Gospel texts. The man character, though not meant to be considered like other men, nonetheless has a male body. All of the Gospels are attributed to male writers, and the lists of the 12 official disciples are all male. But within these male dominated religious texts, there emerge women characters who poke through the cracks. One notices it most especially in Luke and Acts, where from the beginning it is Elizabeth and Mary who speak while Zechariah is struck dumb. And then there are the records of Jesus teaching women, touching women considered to be unclean and praising them for their devotion and adoration of him. There are the stories of the women who washed his feet as he would command his disciples to do, who did not abandon him at the cross as the men did, and the women who first preached the resurrection to a crowd of scared and doubting male disciples.
Our reading from Acts this morning speaks of yet another woman whose story has poked through concrete of our male dominated religious texts. Her name is Lydia. Paul, on a mission to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles had a vision of a Man of Macedonia who invited him to preach and convert believers there. This vision led him to the Macedonian city of Phillipi. When he arrived he went to the river, a traditional place of prayer to begin preaching, but there he did not find any men from Macedonia. Instead, there were a group of women praying there.
Now Paul might have decided not to speak to the women. For one, it would have been a little inappropriate in his culture to strike up a conversation with a group of strange women. Also, women were not the source of power and influence in this culture, so they weren’t likely to be as helpful to him as men. And finally, in his vision he had seen a man, he was looking for man from Macedonia.
But Paul did go and speak to these women about what he considered to be the most serious religious matter there was. Following in the example of Jesus, Paul took women seriously as religious subjects. He reached out to them, he valued them, their lives and their souls and their service to the church. And so before speaking with any men in Macedonia, Paul first preached the gospel to these women.
Only of them women is named in our text: Lydia. We are told that Lydia was from the nearby city of Thyatira, that she was a seller of purple goods and a worshipper of God. Now there is a lot of significant information in that sentence. First, Lydia was a successful businesswoman. That’s right, businesswomen are not a concept invented in the 1950s. No Lydia ran a successful business selling purple goods on her own in the first century AD. As hard as it is for women to make it in business today, you can be sure it was no easier then. But Lydia’s business wasn’t just a local mom and pop shop, she was traveling to Phillipi to sell her goods, she was a wholesaler or a regional retailer. Furthermore, Lydia didn’t travel to Phillipi alone, she came with HER household. Lydia was the head of her household, she was in charge of her business, her family, and her servants. It is safe to say that such an independent and successful woman would intimidate most modern men, that she would likely produce in them feelings of inferiority and even possibly inspire a lecture on the proper place of a woman. In fact, that lecture would probably cite Paul as a justification for women knowing their proper place.
But, when Paul was actually faced with a successful, independent businesswoman like Lydia he did not scold her for her independence, for her talent, for her presumption of equality with men. Nothing of the sort. Rather Paul preached to her the same Gospel of Love that he preached to men. When she responded to it, Paul offered to baptize her and her household, with the same baptism that he offered to men. Lydia accepted this baptism and thus became the first member of the church at Phillipi. As evidence that she had indeed received the Holy Spirit in her baptism, Lydia immediately extends hospitality to the Paul and Silas. Lydia takes on the usual male role of host with confidence and Paul and Silas accept her generosity.
From this story, and others like it which poke through the cracks of the patriarchal culture in which they were produced, I believe we can be sure that the early church followed in Jesus’ example of treating women as equals in the eyes of God. However, as the church spread and grew, and became more accommodated and accepted by the Roman Empire and culture, the early church fathers had to decide if such stories relating the equality of women were meant to overturn the patriarchy of the time, or if they were merely exceptions which proved the rule of male dominance. The fact that it was the early church FATHERS who got to make this decision is a good example of the patriarchy of the time, and good clue as to what decision they were to make. The patriarchy of Rome and of the past were adopted and given the shiny veneer of God’s blessing. Soon household codes regulating the behavior of women slipped in to letters attributed to Paul, and quotes forbidding them to speak in church were inserted into his own letters. The same Paul who preached to Lydia, and accepted her invitation into her home. The acceptance of patriarchy as divinely ordained was nearly universally accepted in the Christian Church for centuries and it has had disastrous consequences for women: that astonishing rates of violence against women across all cultures must have more than a passing connection to the widespread Christian belief that God loves men more.
In the last century, there has been a revolution in our understanding of gender and a questioning, even an unraveling of some aspects of patriarchy. Women have entered the workforce in huge numbers, they now outnumber men in institutions of higher learning. Women gained the right to vote and to decide what was best for their own bodies. For the most part, the Christian Church, has not been supportive of this revolution. Even today, the majority of Christian Denominations forbid women from ordained ministry. The vast majority of modern Christianity has taken the same view as did the Early Church Fathers, that women who express their independence and equality with men, are exceptions to the divinely ordained rule of male supremacy.
But just because the church made a mistake before, does not mean that we must go on repeating that same mistake forever. There are Christians, ministers and lay people, congregations, and denominations and seminaries even that are actively seeking to undo this colossal injustice. There are devoted and dedicated followers of Jesus Christ who believe that independent women expressing their equality with men are the divinely inspired weeds that will overthrow the oppressive concrete of male dominance. For these people the equal dignity and worth of the genders is a religious truth testified to in the Old and New Testaments, in the actions of Jesus and of Paul, and of the True Christian Church whenever She has stood against misogyny.
Over the last three weeks we have read two stories about independent women converts from Acts. One with the name Dorcas and one with the name Lydia. And we, a church bearing the name of St. Paul, have members named Dorcas and Lydia. Now I’m not one of those minister’s that hears the voice of God speaking to him at night, but I do know how to take a hint, and more than a little inclined to interpret this coincidence as gentle nudging from the Holy Spirit. How will we at St. Paul’s treat our Dorcas and our Lydia, how will we treat our women and our girls? Will follow the example of Paul in this story? Will we see them as full and equal children of God sharing in all the rights and privileges granted to men? Or will we follow the early church fathers and many of modern churches in insisting that God has decreed that our Lydia and our Dorcas are somehow not fit for ministry? That they are somehow less than? We will have to decide whether we think the concrete of male supremacy is divinely ordained, or if God is actually growing weeds like our little Lydia to overturn the heresy of patriarchy.
As may me obvious from this sermon, I’m firmly on one side of this fence. For others that are less sure, I want to end by suggesting the criteria for full Christian discipleship which is given in the stories of Dorcas and of Lydia. We are told that Dorcas is a believer at the beginning of her story, but later evidence for this claim is given by citing her charitable works, her making dresses for widows. If you are curious about our Dorcas and her call to Christian faith and ministry, speak with her about the beauty of the dresses she makes and the charitable works that she performs. The evidence of Lydia’s successful baptism and conversion is given in her invitation to Paul and Silas to join her in her home. One of my first visits to the Chappell’s home, our little Lydia, invited me into her room, into her tent, for a tea party. She couldn’t have been more than three, but there was she was acting out the role of her namesake, demonstrating her fitness for Christian ministry. My prayer is that we will learn from Lydia and from Dorcas and that we will work with God to be the divinely inspired weeds that overturn the concrete of male supremacy that has so harmed our people, and our church. May it be so.