United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“The Work of Listening”

Rev. Rebecca Migliore
May 26, 2019


       Anyone who knows me, knows I love the color purple.  Now maybe this is because it is a flashy color, or because I think I look great in it, or because I know that it was a royal color in days of old (and I want to claim my royal status), or that as a Gemini baby I love the combining of the cool blue with the hot red. 

       And so, I’ve always had a soft spot for Lydia, the woman from Philippi who meets Paul down by the riverside.  For Lydia is a “dealer in purple cloth.”  Purple cloth was a luxury item.  It was expensive to make purple anything and this was why it was considered a royal color.  So people have suggested that Lydia is a wealthy woman (she deals in an expensive product, she appears to head her own household, and eventually she becomes a financial lifeline for the emerging church). 

       So we might imagine Lydia living a life of privilege, being able to leave the city proper on the Sabbath day, and hang around the river, talking and praying and reading and thinking.  Sounds nice.  But I think Lydia might have been a small business woman (like many before and after her) who was involved in all aspects of the business. 

       And here we come to the meat of the story that isn’t in the Scripture.  Purple, that beautiful, deep, royal, expensive color was made from a dye that took lots of work to produce (this was why purple was so expensive).  Because until very recently, dye was created naturally, and the only things that produce a deep purple were marine snails (Bolinus brandaris  if you want to be specific).  And it took tens of thousands of snails to make enough dye.  You caught the snails and then you boiled them in huge vats FOR DAYS.  It produced a terrible smell, but when exposed to heat and light, the slime from the snail turned into a beautiful purple.

       So from this very messy, unpleasant, hard work, came something important, something of worth, something lasting.  I want you to hold that thought.

       Now I want you to remember a time when you were asked to listen to someone.  I’m not talking about allowing the sound of words to pass around you as you check your Facebook page, or make a “to do” list in your mind, or dream of your next vacation.  No, I mean really listen to someone.  Watching their face for clues to how they feel, looking into their eyes to assess how true what they are telling you is, hearing their breath—its pace, its studders, its sighs--catching their tone.  I don’t know about you, but I find it hard work to do what they call “active listening,” or what we might just call actually listening.  It requires putting ourselves on hold and focusing our attention, our energy, our self, on another.  It takes a lot, and it means a lot.  One could even say that in the messy, sometimes unpleasant, hard work of listening, something important, something of worth, something lasting can happen.

       Now what does any of this have to do with our lesson, or with us?  Well, listening is the unspoken character in our story.  Paul (who was made to listen to God’s voice and change his life on the road to Damascus) had been travelling around talking about Jesus.  In verses just prior to our reading, Paul and Silas and Timothy, were in Phrygia and Galatia, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.  When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them… so… they went down to Troas.  And during the night Paul had a vision …”

       I don’t know about you, but this is very active listening to God.  Somehow Paul and Silas and Timothy heard the Holy Spirit tell them NO, you can’t speak in Asia.  And Paul and Silas and Timothy heard the Spirit of Jesus tell them NO don’t go into Bithynia.  I don’t know if this was handwriting on the wall, or the sky, or interpretation of events that happened or how this listening was occurring.  But I bet that is was hard work, messy, and maybe even caused a few arguments about who was hearing what! 

       But then Paul has a vision, and listens to it.  “Come to Macedonia and help us, says a man.”  And they do.  Interestingly, when they go to Macedonia, to the big city, Philippi, they go to the place where people might be praying, and there they meet, not a man, but Lydia and other women.  And they sit down and speak with these women (which was a messy, and for a Roman man maybe unpleasant, and hard thing to do!). 

       Lydia also engages in listening—she listens to Paul and Silas and Timothy tell their story and the story of Jesus.  She listens and hears that she and her household can be baptized.  She listens and must hear that Paul and his friends need a place to stay, and asks them to come and stay at her home.  [And we can surmise that her listening becomes communal in Philippi, and creates a strong church, one which helps to fund Paul’s work in the future].

       For this community of listeners would receive one of Paul’s beautiful letters.  A letter that exhorts them to continue their own work, to not be fearful about Paul’s ministry (now that he is in jail), and to see and listen for God everywhere.  I think some of Paul’s words to the Philippian church help make my point about the hard work of listening, of the hard but important work of being a community, of the hard, important, and lasting work of following in Christ’s footsteps.

       This is from Philippians Chapter 2.  “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … ”(Phil. 2:1-5)

       Knowing what I know now, purple is even more precious to me.  It is something that can remind us that out of the messy, ugly, hateful, rude, greedy, self-serving world, can come beauty, and goodness, and love, and caring.  But it takes hard work.  It takes putting up with the smell, and the heat.  But living life, being of the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, is important, is worthy, is lasting.

       Knowing what I know now, truly listening to people takes on added weight.  And I know that that not every story is true.  Not every story is honorable.  Not every story is just.  Not every story is pure.  Not every story is pleasing.  Not every story is commendable.  That is the hard work of listening.  To shift out the dross, and find the excellence, the things worthy of praise, the sparkles of hope and faith and love.  And maybe, in the words of the feminist Nelle Morton, to help others “hear themselves into speech.”

       Knowing what I know now, knowing what we know now, we as a community, have some assignments. 

--We need to tune our ears like Paul to be able to listen for the word of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Jesus.  I’m hoping we don’t have to have a Damascus road explosion to pay attention.  But do we even know what that listening would look like?  How would we discern what the message was?

--We need to prepare ourselves like Lydia and the others: finding places to gather, to pray, to read, to converse, to share our resources.  I know that the summer is coming.  But we need to find a way to stay connected.  Try catching our stream on Facebook.  Try using the Living the Seasons suggestions.  Try starting a conversation over a cup of coffee. 

--We need to find our place in the work and service of reaching out to others.  There are so many opportunities to listen, to provide, to put our bodies to good use.  There is the First Friday Meal at St. Andrews on June 7th (and making the sustainable lunches we will hand out); there is the Food Drive on June 8th; there are the pantry days starting June 18th; there is Christine’s Kitchen on July 13th; there are gatherings planned to celebrate Juneteenth and our get-away to Tomahawk Lake.  There are bound to be others.

As Paul said in his letter to those in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil 4:4). 

May we find ways to listen, to love, to rejoice in Christ’s name.  May it be so.  Alleluia.  Amen.