Sunday, May 15, 2016

sit-com life

I spent this past Thursday, Friday, and Saturday smiling. My friends Taylor and Stuart, who currently live in Algiers, were staying with our friends Chris and Kendra whose house is across the street from Lovely Apartment. Chris, Taylor, and I were close in college thanks to the United Methodist campus ministry at our alma mater, and I've stayed close with each of them in the intervening years, but it's been more than a decade since I've hung out with both of them at the same time.

Thursday evening, Chris and I were cooking (mushroom pasta and peach crisp, respectively), Taylor was hanging out with us in the kitchen, Chris's kids and Taylor's daughter were playing on the patio, Kendra was at work, and Stuart had gone to his agency's DC headquarters.

Taylor: Kate! Where are the girls?
me: Well, Sofia went to a friend's house after school. We should see her soon. And I just ran into Anna on the sidewalk on my way back from the grocery store. She's taking the bus to ballet, and she'll take the bus home later.
Chris: Running into your kids randomly on the sidewalk is one of the coolest things about having you in the neighborhood.
me: I know, right? They love running into you guys, too. I love our pedestrian life. You know, this is the life I imagined all of you living when I was in Michigan and the rest of you were here, and I was sad when I learned that it didn't exist. I'm so happy to be a part of it now.
Taylor: You're living the sit-com life.
me: 0.o
Chris: o.0
Taylor: Friends close by, babysitting, shared meals. Someone just opens up the front door and walks in. It's like a sit-com.

Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory, all of these shows hold up the model of a friend group who don't all live together, but are together all the time anyway. Most of us, I think, experience that kind of living in each other's back pockets in our college dormitory years, if we're lucky, but it's more rare after graduation for a variety of reasons. There were, for example, friends who would open the kitchen door and walk into Rambling Farmhouse, but physical distance and the necessity of driving made those moments rare.

I'd never thought about my current life in these terms, but Taylor is right. Chris and Kendra's kitchen is like the main set of a sit-com where friends gather to live life, to celebrate, and to solve problems. I'm privileged to be a part of the cast in this moment.

There's one way we've surpassed the sitcoms: We've got a next generation. And they already love each other.
Here we come...walking down the street...
we get the funniest looks from...
everyone we meet...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Purple is Hard

This sermon was presented at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church's 11:00 AM contemporary worship, the way (Arlington District, Virginia Conference). The revised common lectionary text for Year C, Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 1, 2016 was Acts 16: 9-15. 

16:9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."
16:10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
16:11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,
16:12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.
16:13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.
16:14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
16:15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

The passage we heard from Acts this morning opens with Paul feeling called to leave Turkey where he  had been traveleing to cross the Aegean Sea to Macedonia. The few times I’ve heard sermons on this passage, they’ve focused on Paul’s response to the call. The theme of those sermons is that Paul’s obedience to God’s call should be a model for the way we live our lives. Then we sing some “Go Where I Send Thee” and some “Here I Am, Lord.” It’s a great plan for worship!
That’s not the plan I’m following this morning.  I’m not preaching that sermon because Paul is not the only person named in this passage. I want to focus on the second half of this passage; I want to focus on Lydia.
Acts doesn’t give us a lot of information about Lydia, but the details provide three personal attributes, and three things that Lydia does.
            First, Lydia is a named woman in the Bible. You might be thinking, “well, that’s obvious,” and it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Most of the people we meet in the Bible are never named. They are labeled: the leper, the paralytic man, the Samaritan woman, even Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopts Moses, is not named. A personal name in the Bible is a signal that this person is important, and we should pay attention. Lydia is in good company: Biblical scripture is full of powerful, named women: Esther, Ruth, Mary the sister of Martha, Miriam the sister of Moses.
            The second attribute Acts gives us is that Lydia is not Macedonian. Verse 14 tells us that Lydia is from Thyatira, which is another city in Turkey, the place where Paul had been prior to coming to Macedonia. The beginning of this passage tells us that i
n his dream, Paul was called by a man from Macedonia, but when he arrives in the city of Phllipi, there is no synagogue because there is not a minyon, the group of ten Jewish men who constitute a quorum for formal worship. So, Paul has come all this way, following a call to this city, and although “they had been there for some days,” the events that occurred on those days are completely glossed over. The first meeting about which Acts gives any details is with another foreigner, a person who is from the place where Paul had just been.
            Okay, third attribute: Lydia is a worshipper of God. Verse 14 also tells us that Lydia is a worshipper of God, and that “The Lord opened her heart to to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” So, Lydia is already a religious person who has a relationship with God. Paul is not introducing her to faith generally, he is converting her from mainstream Judaism to following the way of Jesus.
So, that was three things that Lydia is: a named woman in the Bible, a foreigner in the land, and a worshipper of God. Now, for three things she does.
            First, Lydia speaks with her own voice. There’s a popular myth that women before the modern era were powerless chattel without voices. One of the things I’ve found in my academic research about medieval and early modern literary texts is that often women’s voices are present, but not in ways that we modern readers understand as powerful. We let our ignorance of the dynamics of power in other times and places blind us. We fail to recognize the differences between our context as readers and the context of the writers. If, however, we pay close attention to the details, we can see the dynamics of power that are present in the text. The last two verses of today’s passage tell us that Lydia listened, she chose baptism, and then “she urged [Paul and his companions], saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon [them].”  She does not apologize for speaking while female. She directly and clearly issues an invitation, which Paul accepts.
            Second, Lydia leads a household. Not only is Lydia herself baptised after her conversations with Paul, her household is baptised, too. Acts doesn’t tell us how big Lydia’s household is, but in mentiontioning a household at all, this text makes us aware that Lydia does not come to support Paul alone. Acts also doesn’t say that this is Lydia’s husband’s household or Lydia’s father’s household. It is her household.
             Not only does Lydia have a household, Lydia has a business. Lydia deals in purple cloth, which is arguably the most important thing she does. Cloth production is a laborious process. Lydia’s cloth was possibly wool, maybe sometimes silk, but most likely either linen or cotton. For argument’s sake, let’s say cotton. The process of creating cotton cloth starts with growing the plants, so Lydia needed someone to be good at gardening. Cotton is usually a low-growing bush, so someone has to bend over again and again to harvest the bolls from the plant. Only the soft fluffy part is good to use, so someone has to remove the stem and the seeds, which are tiny and like to hide.
Once the cotton had been harvested, Lydia needed someone, probably many someones, actually, to spin the cotton fibers into singles. They needed a tool for that, and spindles in the Mediterrannean during the first century probably looked something like this. Once the spindle was full and no more could be wound on, the singles needed to be plied together with one or more other singles, which requires another spindle. It's a lot of work.
 Once the thread had been spun, Lydia needed someone to weave it. Looms in the ancient world commonly consisted of a large frame with two parallel rows of wooden pegs laid out on the ground. The warp threads were carefully measured and stretched from one row of pegs to the other.  The weft threads, wound on a shuttle, were passed back and forth, over and under the warp threads. Changing the sequence of overs and unders changed the pattern of the finished cloth, and the possibilities ranged from simple and relatively quick to intricate and time consuming. Did anybody else have one of those pot holder looms as a child? The plastic square with teeth around the edges, and you stretched the fabric loops from one side to the other and then used the metal hook to pull other fabric loops through? These looms were kind of like that. How long did it take you to make a potholder? Now imagine weaving enough cloth from fine thread to cover your body.
So that takes care of how Lydia got her cotton cloth. But how did she get purple? In the world of natural dyes, the easiest colors to make are browns and yellows. Lots of plants make yellow, and lots of tree barks and nuts make brown. Red comes from the roots of the madder plant, blue from woad. A true, vibrant purple is hard. Mixing madder and woad doesn't really work. Archeologists tell us that the people of the ancient Mediterranean extracted purple dye from sea snails, like the murex family (Barber 113). In her book Women’s Work: The First Twenty-Thousand Years, Elizabeth Wayland Barber notes that “We have their shell heaps from the early second millennium on to prove it. Each little mollusk produces only a single drop of the splendid dye, so purple-dyers had to catch and slaughter hundreds [of snails] to tint a single piece of cloth” (113-4). This color was so precious that it became the royal purple that Roman emperors reserved for themselves. In the church, purple has become the liturgical color of our seasons of fast. During Lent and Advent, the textiles in the sanctuary, some pastors’ stoles, and, here at Mt. O, Pastor Kathleen’s shoes are purple. Purple time in the contemporary church associates the color with the introspection and discomfort of fasting and with the anticipation of Christmas at the end of Advent and Easter at the end of Lent.
It’s such a small phrase in the passage, “and a seller of purple cloth.” We almost read right over it, but Acts is really telling us more than we hear. I actually love the way that the King James translation renders this, calling Lydia a “seller of purple” because the cloth matters less than the color. As a dealer in purple, Lydia is a dealer in her society’s mark of prestige. She interacts with both the legion of (mostly) women textile workers who produce her purple cloth as well as the elite who consume it. Lydia is well-connected in her world, and her extension of hospitality to Paul and his companions brings them into her network. Note that the end of today’s passage doesn’t say that Paul accepted her invitation gratefully or that he was happy to have a place to lay his head. It says, that “she prevailed upon them.” The King James version is interesting here, too. It says, “she constrained us.”
Because of my own experience with textile production and my academic work on women who make their voices heard through textiles,  I am fascinated by Lydia because it is textiles that make her powerful. Her textile business produces sufficient wealth to support a household and to welcome a party of strangers into her home.
That’s not true of most textile workers in the twenty-first century. Synthetic dyes mean no color is inherently more expensive or prestigious than any other color. Mechanization of spinning, weaving, knitting, and sewing means that most clothes are mass produced in factories at a far faster pace than in Lydia’s day. Globalization means that these factories move around the world, chasing in search of the workers who will accept the lowest wages and the loosest regulations for personal health and safety.
Acts doesn’t tell us how Lydia treated the gardeners and the spinners and the weavers and the dyers in her production network, but it does tell us that she extended hospitality to the wanderers in her community. Even as she participated in and benefitted from the business world of her day, she opted out of participation in Roman religious rituals. Rather than worshipping with the powerful elites who purchased her cloth, she was by the river with the Jewish women, and she joined the fringe group of believers following Paul.
And I think that’s a powerful lesson for us. We have the choice to opt out.
The more that I’ve learned about textile production over the last ten years, the more carefully I’ve looked at the clothes my family wears. Where did the cloth come from? Where did the raw materials come from? What are the working conditions in the facotry where the clothes were assembled? The questions can be overwhelming, and the answers can be hard to find. These days we are purchasing fewer things and keeping them longer, we are looking for quality and durability more than trendiness or low cost. I’m still not sure we’ve changed our habits enough, though. I would like to clothe my family without exploiting my brothers and sisters in China and Bangladesh. My discomfort with the twenty-first century commercial textile production, has become my own ongoing purple time of discomfort.

Today is May Day. In many countries around the world, today is a national holiday that celebrates workers, like our labor day on the first Monday of September. I think it’s fitting that the lectionary gave us Lydia on May Day.

For more on textile production in the ancient world, see Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Women’s Work: The First Twenty-Thousand Years.
For more on the issues related to textile production in the twenty-first century, see The Ethical Fashion Forum.