Lydia: Representation Matters
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Acts 16:9-15
Luke is probably my favorite author in the Bible. Not in terms of writing style—the authors of Isaiah and Ecclesiastes wrote more poetically, more beautifully. And he wasn’t the most imaginative. As I talked about last week, John of Patmos with his Revelation probably wins that prize. Or perhaps the apocalyptic book of Daniel.
I love Luke, the author of not only the gospel of Luke but also of Acts, because he is constantly giving voice to the voiceless. He is constantly lifting up people on the margins. Luke’s Jesus turns the accepted social order on its head. He is constantly prioritizing people who are poor, sick, disabled, working in disreputable professions—those who the powerful, the people in charge, did not value. And then in the Acts of Apostles, after Jesus has ascended, his followers continue to do the same.
The Acts is where we hear about Tabitha, also known as Dorcas. Mary, the mother of John Mark. Also Mary mother of Jesus. Rhoda the servant girl. Damaris the Areopagite. Priscilla. And today, Lydia.
These numbers aren’t exact, but of the about 1,700 people distinctly named in the Bible, 137 of them are women. That’s about eight percent. Of the words spoken by people in the Bible, 1.1% are from women, and the majority of those words are spoken by women in the Hebrew Bible, or what some of us call the Old Testament. Judith, Esther, Ruth, Deborah.
There are few named women in the Bible, and Lydia is still even more of an anomaly. She is mentioned as a businessperson in her own right, and probably a pretty wealthy one at that. She’s a dealer of purple cloth, and only the elite—the wealthy and those who ruled—could wear purple. Could afford purple, since purple dye was hard to come by. After Lydia is so moved by Paul’s words, she and her household are baptized—which implies that she is the head of her household.
She then invites Paul and the other travelers to stay in her home with her—something a woman could never do in that time without a man’s permission. Since they all met by chance by that river, Lydia either was not attached to a man to need his permission, or was empowered enough by the man in her life to not need to ask permission, or was so moved by Paul’s words that she didn’t care about getting permission.
Every single one of these options would have been transgressive in the male-dominated world Lydia lived in.
Luke mentioning Lydia matters. By saying her name, describing her subversive status, and lifting her up as a faithful follower of Jesus, Luke empowers Lydia.
And so women like me lift up Lydia to affirm my own way of being in the world. To affirm that I can be successful, independent, the leader of my own household, AND a faithful follower of Jesus.
Representation matters. The stories we read, the shows and movies we watch, the photos we see, the people our scriptures lift up, passively teach us about who is important, who we as a culture value.
If the majority of doctors, scientists, and CEOs that a young girl sees are men, she’s going to wonder if someone like her is supposed to have those jobs.
If a black boy sees that the majority of superheroes on screen are white, while the majority of drug dealers on screen are Black, it’s going to give him certain ideas about who he is and who he’s not.
When I was a kid, I saw Ellen come out on national television. And then I saw her ripped to pieces on national television. What do you think that taught me about my queerness?
Christian women might grip tight to Lydia, that little girl might carry a picture of Marie Curie on her phone, and that little Black boy might dress as the Black Panther every Halloween. But each is keenly aware that these are the exceptions to the rule.
Representation is a picture of power. It can empower, or it can reinforce already established power.
And representation functions. When people see mostly white men in positions of power—as we do in politics, business, science, etc.—and when our history only tells the story of white male conquerors, adventurers, scholars, and rulers, we all internalize it.
People who are not white and not men see that they are not significant to the story. We wonder if we ever will be. We wonder if our ways of being matter. We fight to have our voices heard and to lift up other marginalized voices.
Some white men and boys see it and wonder if it’s okay that they’re soft-hearted, that they don’t seek to conquer or to rule. They wonder if it’s okay that they seek to love.
And other white boys and men might interpret that representation as a birthright. Power as a birthright. That’s how the shooter in Buffalo interpreted it. Because that’s what Replacement Theory is based on. And that shooter, that terrorist, wrote in his manifesto that he did what he did based on Replacement Theory.
According to Ibram X. Kendi, Replacement theorists believe that immigrants, Black people, Asians, Latino people, Muslims, and Jews are trying to replace the “native”-born and “original” white populations in their countries.
We know that people of European descent, people with white skin are neither native nor original to the land that is now the United States. But the way this man read history and saw representations of himself told him a different story. Replacement Theory taught him that any equality, any sharing of power, felt like a threat to his very existence. He wrote this explicitly.
So this man sought to protect what he thought was his birthright of power. By intentionally going to a grocery store in a largely Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, and killing Black people. Ten of them.
Roberta A. Drury, age 32
Margus D. Morrison, 52
Andre Mackniel, 53
Aaron Salter, 55
Geraldine Talley, 62
Celestine Chaney, 65
Heyward Patterson, 67
Katherine Massey, 72
Pearl Young, 77
Ruth Whitfield, 86
Representation matters. Representation functions. It’s why I say their names. It’s why we have special months dedicated to Black and Latino and Native American and Asian American and Pacific Islander history. It’s why we have Pride. It’s why we have Disability Awareness. It’s why we celebrate that our diocese is the first to choose a Japanese American woman as our bishop.
It’s why I lift up Lydia today. We are intentional about lifting up these people and their stories because for so long their stories were never told.
We say that these lives matter, because for so long we have been taught—
by omission or misrepresentation—that they did not.
Representation matters. Representation functions. Jesus knew this. It’s why he went out of his way over and over and over again to lift up people who didn’t seem to matter to those in power. He loved them. He healed them. He centered their stories. He empowered them.
And don’t all of us here seek to follow Jesus?
Source for Buffalo shooting information & Replacement Theory: The Atlantic