Easter People: The One Who Clothed Kings: A Monologue of Lydia

Scripture (Acts 16:11-15) can be found here

When I was a little girl, my grandmother came to my mother’s room, and reached out her hand towards me. Looking down into my eyes, she said, “Lydia, I am going to show you something.”

This was unusual. She was not like the other girls’ grandmothers, always at home, filling the house with the smells of bread baking, tending a little garden full of roots and herbs. She was a woman of business, her household run by servants. It was a rare treat for me to have her undivided attention.

I looked at my mother, to see what I should think of this. My mother smiled, and nodded. With her blessing, I happily took my grandmother’s hand. I was proud to walk alongside her. She was beautiful, always dressed in elegant clothing, soft silks and airy linens, and her arms were covered with thick gold bracelets. A heavy chain hung around her neck, at the end of which was an amethyst the size of my little fist. As you can see, I’m wearing it now. I knew without asking where we were going. We were going to her shop.

My grandmother was a seller of cloth; eventually I would learn my trade from her. But on this day, I only knew that she always looked beautiful, and I assumed, with my child’s logic, that she helped others to look beautiful. I was right, in a way.

Seated on a bench in her shop, one of her workers helping the customers, she held in her arms a bolt of cloth—silk, dyed a rich, reddish-purple. She unwound a length of the cloth and spread it on her lap and mine, so that I could look at it. (I didn’t touch. I didn't dare.)

“This is my finest silk, Lydia. This is the silk the Roman officials come looking for. They need it for their ceremonial robes, and I am the only seller in Philippi. What do you think of it?”

I took a deep breath. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” I said.

She smiled. “Me too. I love it. Do you know how it is made?”

“Well,” I said, uncertain. “Worms make silk.” She nodded. After a moment’s hesitation, “Are there purple worms?”

She laughed. “No, there are not. But there are purple snails. Rock snails, with very spiny shells. They give us this color. It was discovered by a dog that belonged to a philosopher.”

At this I burst out laughing. My grandmother laughed, too.

“It’s true! They were walking together on the beach, and the dog chewed on a bunch of snails at the shoreline. When he went back to his master he had a reddish-purple mouth.”

She sighed. “It takes many, many snails to dye a bolt of silk this color. More than you can imagine. Thousands. Tens of thousands.”

I didn’t know what that number was, but I knew it was large.

“Creating this cloth, this perfect color, is my life,” she said, “and one day, it will be your life.”

I was thrilled. Though I was very small, I knew that my grandmother was giving me, passing on to me, the greatest gift she could: the secret to creating the most beautiful cloth in the world, a cloth that would clothe kings and emperors. When I was grown, I would be a fine lady, just as she was, and I, too, would be a woman who commanded respect, the head of my own household.

And, of course, I was. I am. I am successful. I do run my own household, with the help of my many servants. My daughters live with me, and not too long ago, it occurred to me that I must choose a granddaughter to carry on the family business. I knew which one: Phoebe, the youngest child of my youngest daughter. I’d seen in her a love for what was beautiful and vibrant, in the flowers she loved and the way she admired the changing skies. I had also seen extraordinary kindness, and the gift of listening carefully. It is not a common gift. I wanted to pass along to her what I knew and loved, what I had worked for my whole life. I thought of my sweet granddaughter… And then I was stricken with an unexplainable sadness. I didn’t understand it. What was it? Where had it come from?

On an impulse, I left my home, and, instead of going to my shop, I walked down to the river.

It was a warm spring day. I had often walked by the river as a younger woman, before the business had overtaken me, sometimes with my children in tow. I had marveled at the way the sounds of nature—the leaves rustling softly in the trees, and the birdsong punctuating the air with sharp and sweet notes, and the water rushing by… they quieted the children. They quieted me. They invited me to listen.

And that is what I had intended to do on this day. Simply, to listen, to nature, and to my heart. To ask it the question, “Why am I sad?” and then, to listen for the answer.

Except, as I approached, in addition to leaves and birdsong and water rushing, I heard the sound of women’s voices. They were singing.

May God be merciful to us | and bless us,

may the light of God’s face | shine upon us.

Let your way be known | upon earth,

your saving health a- | mong all people… ~Psalm 67:1-2

I crept forward, as quietly as I could. There, seated on large boulders about a dozen yards from the river’s edge, were six women. They were as… different from one another as they could be. Judging by their clothing—you understand, that is my life’s work—I saw, before me, two women who were probably wives to day-laborers; one woman who was certainly a servant in a grand household; one shopkeeper—probably spices or some other imported goods; one wife of a Roman official; and one wife of a Jewish merchant; you can always tell by their head-coverings. In other words, these were women who, for no reason I could imagine, were together, singing songs to some god or other.

But the song stirred me. It invited me in. It invited me to listen, harder. And so I did.

I stood still until they were finished, and then, sad to hear the singing come to an end, I turned to go.

“Is that Lydia?” I heard one of them call out. I turned. It was the woman I’d thought might be the wife of a Roman official; I’d seen her in my shop. Her head was tilted in a quizzical manner. I nodded.

“Join us,” she said, and she reached out her hand, inviting me in.

And so I did. For the next six months, in every kind of weather, I walked down to the river on what I learned was the Jewish day of rest and reflection, the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. This, as it turns out, was what bound this group of women, now, seven of us. We all sought to find a place of quiet, and reflection, and to sing songs of worship to the Jewish god, whose name we never spoke out loud, but which means, “I AM.”

I listened. I listened as I sang. I listened as the other women spoke. I listened hard, as if I were that little child sitting once more next to her grandmother, hearing the most marvelous thing in the world. I still don’t entirely understand why I felt so powerfully drawn there… or, I didn’t, until the day the travelers came.

Into our circle of women, one day, walked three men. One was young, still a youth. One was old but sprightly—he had the look of those philosophers who sometimes stand in the middle of the city to give lectures; I learned later he was a doctor. And one was not young, but not old. A balding man, thin and small in stature—I was probably a bit taller that he was. And his coloring was all red—red hair, and a red face animated by eyes so dark they were nearly black. But they shined. All three of them carried an air of excitement.

Honestly? This felt like an intrusion. I wondered what time it was. I wondered whether I ought to get back to the shop. But then, a small voice somewhere near my heart spoke.

“Listen,” it said. “Listen.”

The small man spoke about Jesus. He told us that Jesus was the son of the God to whom I had been singing songs those last six months. He said that Jesus had come among mortals for one purpose only—to show us God’s kindness, so that we might change our hearts: to invite us to walk with him, his Way of life. He said, too, that Jesus had died—a terrible death, the capital punishment meted out by the Rome. But that he did that so that we might know his love, and live.

And not, simply live, but live with purpose. Live with joy. Live with love. He said something that pierced me, straight to my heart: He said that, in the end, there are only three things that will last… faith, and hope, and love. And the greatest of these, the one Jesus showed us, is love.

I listened to him with every fiber of my being. My ears were listening. My heart was listening. My will and my strength, my whole being: all of me was listening.

And for the first time since that day, months earlier, when I had pondered passing my trade along to one of my granddaughters, my sadness lifted. This is why I was here. This is what I had been waiting for. It was as if the words had broken out of that very first song I’d heard my friends singing, and lodged in my heart:

May God be merciful to us | and bless us,

may the light of God’s face | shine upon us.

Let your way be known | upon earth,

your saving health a- | mong all people…

Please don’t misunderstand. I love my work. I’m good at it. It gives me pleasure and joy… but, it’s the kind of pleasure and joy that keep you seeking, after the next sale, and the next; the next customer, and the next. It is here, and then it is gone. And… I wanted to give that to my small granddaughter, but I also wanted to give her more, a deeper wisdom, a better way. A way for life.

And now I have found it. I have found the Way, the way that binds together and makes sense of all the other bits and pieces of my life.

I still meet with my singing companions down by the river. It has become for me the river of the waters of life, for that little man, so full of the fire of God it made his face red, baptized me there; and, later that day, baptized my whole household, my whole family, including Phoebe. I invited the three men to stay with us, so that my daughters and their families could all listen to the words that had given me such hope, such life, that had invited me along the Way of Jesus.

Maybe you, too, would like to hear about the Way? It’s quiet now in my shop. We could talk. I have all the time in the world.

Thanks be to God. Amen.