I was dreaming when I wrote this. Forgive me if it goes astray. But it always delights me when seemingly disparate current events, and the scripture lessons decided upon long ago, all come together to form a unique and meaningful message. Is it coincidence? Is there a divine hand at work calling our attention to something? I don’t know, maybe. But there’s good news to be found in the conjunction of things today.
The first thread in this conjunction comes from Acts, where we find ourselves in Philippi, where Paul meets “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, and a dealer in purple cloth.” Purple cloth is kind of a big deal. The resources for purple dye are easy enough to come by but processing them is anything but easy. It’s not like other dyes. That makes purple a uniquely valuable item. It’s expensive, and only the elite in the empire get to wear it. It became a marker of royalty. When it comes to clothing the royals, purple reigns.
Lydia, the proprietor of this purple cloth business, is also kind of a big deal. She’s not like other women. That makes her uniquely valuable to us. We know that the role of women at this time rarely included business practices on the scale of international trade. More women in the Bible are unnamed than named, and only the most significant are identified on their own terms, rather than as the wife of someone. Lydia is all of these things, and likely more.
Lydia had the gift of entrepreneurship. She had the skill set to compete at a very high level with other traders and business owners. She was savvy with finances, and had a strong managerial style that afforded her the time to spend with Paul and the others. She had access to domestic resources that allowed her to open her home up to Paul and his travelling companions to stay – for a while.
This purple woman is honoured because she fully lives into all the gifts she was given. She honored God by using all those gifts. Not only does she herself prosper by being her authentic self, but so too do all the people around her. Putting her gifts to work benefits others as well. That’s important. Putting her gifts to work benefits others as well.
As I was reading the lectionary selections for today, I was struck by the coincidence of a dealer in purple with the next part of the conjunction. I’ve been listening to the Prince tribute station on the radio in my car. Prince: another purveyor of purple, if you will. I always liked Prince, and purple happens to be my favourite colour too. But to me, Prince was important for more than just his singing. His iconic use of elaborate purple outfits, and his bold expressions of himself were important to me in my formative years, as I was beginning to discover how God created me.
Prince refused to conform to fashion standards and the expectations of his industry. He expressed who he was in his own way – which was always a little eccentric to say the least. But to me he was brave. He didn’t care what other people thought. God gave him really awesome gifts and talents. He didn’t diminish them around others. Rather, he magnified them and shared them with the world. Because of his generous sharing of himself, he honoured God in his being; and he made my life better in the process.
My high school years, were probably like everybody’s high school years: there were certain types everybody was expected to fit into – the jocks, the gearheads, the nerds, the dweebs, and so forth. If you didn’t choose your box, one was chosen for you. Now, daring to step outside those modes meant unwanted attention, and I didn’t always fit neatly into any one of those modes of being. But to me, I thought if Prince can put himself that far out there, and show the world his authentic self, then I could too. In those formative years, we all needed whatever we could get to get through this thing called life.
As I listen to the tribute station, a certain song comes up from time to time: 7. 7 is Prince’s take on the Book of Revelation. His song rests on the confidence that all the bad things in the vision will fail to overcome love. The seven plagues, the seven scrolls, the seven bowls of tears, trumpets, angels, and so forth, all will fall leaving only love for all space and time. I always thought it was a cool song. But recently when I started listening more carefully to the lyrics. And haven’t we been immersed in the Book of Revelation for weeks now.
The Book of Revelation is a tricky book. It’s hard to read. The imagery in John’s vision is so bold and detailed and often disturbing, that it’s easy to get carried away with them and miss the finer points.
It seems for the past two or three years, at about this time of year, there’s been really broad advertising for a course on the Book of Revelation. I’ve seen several billboards between here and Grand Rapids advertising it. The catch lines say something about the end times, and what secrets Revelation reveals to us, and how we can hope to survive the coming armageddon. The course focuses on the imagery of systematic disasters that befall our world prior to the end of the world. One-to-one comparisons are frequently made to prove that the wars have begun, that the antichrist is among us, and that the seven seals are already being opened. For those who read this book in literal terms, Revelation is a literal script for the end of the world. That’s not the only way to read Revelation.
The excerpts that we follow highlight the places where God’s love comes through the tribulations – a perspective not unlike Prince’s read of Revelation in the song 7. We start out with the salutation, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” Spoiler alert. Then we read, The Lamb at the center of the throne will be the shepherd that guides us to the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. We read, “the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new; and I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.’” Whatever happens in this crazy world of ours, we can be confident that God’s love outlasts it all, and that we are included in salvation. For every plague, bowl of tears, and trumpeting angel, we are assured that God is greater. All these bad things eventually burn themselves out, while God’s love remains. This is not a read that seeks out harsh judgement and tribulation. It’s a vision of the kingdom of heaven where you can always see the sun, day or night. If the Book of Revelation were not ultimately good news, why would we be reading it in Easter?
So where does this conjunction of impressive fully enlivened people, purple, and Revelation bring us? Why to the Gospel of course! In this section of our lectionary today, we get to see ourselves interacting with Jesus. Where the Holy Spirit once came down upon the likes of Lydia and Prince and the Apostles and all those who inspire our faith journey, and energized in them the courage to live fully into all that God made them to be – now in the Gospel we get to see ourselves on the receiving end of the grace and love of God. We get to decide if we will accept the gift of courage to be fully who we are, and, if we will share that gift with those around us.
Dig if you will the picture: of a man waiting by a pool of healing water. The question isn’t: won’t somebody please let him in? The question is: why won’t he take the last couple steps to his goal? He’s waiting for others to give him permission to take what is rightfully his for the taking. Like those kids in high school: he’s been put in his place, because he didn’t make the choice to enter the pool when he had the chance. The people he’s waiting on to help him, are busy helping themselves to what is rightfully theirs. The man doesn’t realize he doesn’t need anyone to help him in. He needs the courage to take what’s his. That’s when Jesus walks in.
Jesus says, be bold. Get up! Claim what is rightfully yours, and be the full, whole, and authentic person God created you to be. Allowing others to get between you and your fullest self does nothing to honour God. We have already been given permission to be all that God wants us to be. We’ve already been through those waters – in our baptisms. But we all forget that part sometimes. Jesus gave the man at the well the push he needed, in the right direction, to become his full, authentic, and complete self so that he could accomplish all the things God created him to do. His being himself and using the gifts God gave him will be the gift that he gives others.
Throughout our lives we are each given people who push us in the right direction. Maybe it’s a person from a Bible story who exceeds expectations. Maybe it’s an inspiring figure in history. Maybe it’s a rock star that you never actually met. By their example, they show us how to be fully ourselves, to be whole and authentic and complete. We are not here to live in to the wills and whims of others who would be happier if we stayed down, grovelling, needing their sanction and approval to enter some healing water. We been through the healing water in our baptisms, and were marked as Christ’s own, marked to be unique, authentic, and bold to proclaim the good news in our very being.
Being a disciple to Jesus Christ means we live with our eyes turned toward heaven, our feet planted on the ground, and our arms open wide to the experiences of everyday living. The conjunction of all these things meets us at our hearts, the dwelling place of love for all of it. That love is what gets shared with all those around us, when we fully embody the gifts God has given us.
Each and every one of us has been created to glorify God in all that we do, and in all that we are. So be a woman who uses all her gifts to their fullest potential. Dare to trade in imperial purple. Be a man with the courage to express himself – even if it’s different than the other guys. You don’t have to be cool. When all these gifts come together in you, with reckless spiritual abandon, you can be sure that others are inspired to glorify God in their being too.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to be the good news for those around us.