April 8, 2018 – Celebrate the Gifts of Women/Acts 16:13-15 & Ephesians 4:1-6
Women were not high in social standing in Biblical times. In the time of Abraham and Moses and the prophets, women were little more than second-class citizens. A woman thrived based on the standing of the men in her life. She depended on men for her livelihood – first her father, then her husband. If her husband died, one of his brothers became responsible for her. And if her husband had no brothers, if her father by that time was dead, then she became that most pitiful of creatures – a poor widow, left to beg for crumbs or enslave herself in order to survive.
Consider the story of Naomi and Ruth. Suffering during the famine that had struck their homeland of Bethlehem, Naomi’s family made its way to Moab in search of food. But one by one, Naomi’s husband and both of her sons died. Naomi is a woman bereft. She and her Moabite daughters-in-law set out for her native land, but as they make the journey she urges the younger women to return to their own homes.
You know the story. Orpah agrees and heads for home, but Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi. Ruth pleads with Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” Ruth’s faithfulness ultimately will bring the two women into the care of Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, who will marry Ruth and provide for Naomi as well.
The status of women had not changed much by Jesus’ time. We know that women made up some part of the crowds of people who followed Jesus. We know that at the end of his life, after all of the men had fled the scene, it was the women who stayed to give witness to Jesus’ death on the cross. It was the women who returned to the tomb following the Sabbath to honor him by preparing his body for a proper burial. And it was the women who first spread the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. In one gospel account, it is a woman – Mary – who first sees the risen Lord.
Despite the lowly station of women in his time, Jesus did not exclude them from his inner circle. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that when Paul and Silas went down by the river to pray on the Sabbath, they sat down and began to talk with the women who gathered there. Among the group was a businesswoman named Lydia. She was a dealer in purple cloth, an expensive luxury item, and she was rich. She also was a worshiper of God. This Greek woman likely had been drawn to belief in the Hebrew God, and now that same God “opened her heart” to listen to Paul.
Lydia and her whole household were baptized, and she immediately demonstrated her conversion through hospitality. Paul did not place any barriers in the way of her hospitality – not the fact that he was Jewish while she was a Gentile, not the fact that he was a man and she was a woman. Here, as in other encounters, Acts describes the “relaxed familiarity and warm hospitality between social classes in the church. Lydia is free to be hospitable, and Paul is now free to welcome her as a sister in Christ.”
Later, Paul would write in the letter to the Ephesians that all Christians should “bear with one another in love.” His admonition was not so much a call for folks in this new community to be blindly happy as it was an acknowledgement that there would be times when they would not feel very loving toward one another. He knew that “Christians will sin against each other and fail one another from time to time.” The only way the community would be able to move through those times of disagreement and conflict and dislike would be if they bore those failings in love. He didn’t mean for them to accept or ignore one another’s sins and failings. He called them “to practice truthful confession; asking for and receiving forgiveness in the same manner in which God forgives.”
Love one another, Paul urged, knowing that things would not always be rosy and perfect. In “this diverse body, believers need to be able to bump up against very different sorts of people, equally committed to the faith, whose differences are to be borne in love.” By moving toward one another in love, Paul knew that these new Christians would be able to build consensus. They would be able to engage in “careful and sensitive listening, clarifying, encouraging, suggesting, and being attentive to all voices.”
Lydia, that Gentile convert who invited Paul and Silas to stay in her home, certainly understood about differences. She opened her home to these Jewish men despite their differences. Having just met them, not knowing much about them, she welcomed them warmly, offered them a place to rest, gave them food and fellowship. In her way – and like countless women since – Lydia modeled Christian discipleship.
“Have you ever thought about the fact that we do not like to break bread with people whom we dislike or with whom we disagree?” Have you ever thought about how reluctant we often are to break bread with people we just don’t know very well? Lydia didn’t stop to consider whether she liked these men. She didn’t wait to discover if they agreed on all of the finer points of theology. She recognized that opening her home to strangers, offering them a seat at her table, was a starting point to building community. Lydia practiced radical hospitality – a Gentile woman inviting two Jewish men into her home. She didn’t worry about whether it made sense or was the correct thing to do. She simply led with love.
Ruth and Naomi. The women disciples. Lydia. These women all demonstrated the gifts of faithfulness, hospitality, and consensus. They put aside their individual needs, often sacrificed greatly, to provide for the community around them. These women led with love.
“What would our church and world look like if women committed themselves to increasing their practices of hospitality and building consensus and became role models for others, men and women alike?” We have been blessed at Providence by a long history of women who have done just that, who have led in love, offering hospitality and welcome and fostering circles of trust. Women like Betty Miller, who opened the doors of this place to welcome children from the community to what has become a thriving preschool program. Women like Pat Marshall, who gave of her time to maintain the church’s financial records. Women like Jill Campion, who greeted all visitors with a radiant smile.
Women like these are still among us today. They are ruling elders and Sunday school teachers, choir members and youth leaders. They are teaching our children, leading in worship, feeding hungry people in the community, throwing open the church’s doors in love and hospitality. They are the best of us, because they help us to be our better selves. Thanks be to God!
 Ruth 1:16-17
 William H. Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, 138
 Stephen E. Fowl, New Testament Library: Ephesians, 131
 Fowl, 132
 Judy Record Fletcher, “Women Called to Lead with Love,” March 4, 2018