Easter 7C – May 29, 2022
St. Paul’s, Bellingham – Easter 7C – May 29, 2022
The Rev. Rachel Endicott
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Remember how last week, we talked about vision and particularly looked at Paul’s vision which urged him to go to Philippi where he met Lydia. But all is not done. Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles continues on with this journey. In the longish section of this text, we find two paired segments, the first about the interaction of Paul and Silas with a slave girl and her owners and the second, the recounting of the events as they are put in jail as a result of the first encounter.
Part of me is – and has been in previous years – intrigued by this encounter, intrigued that we have another (this time unnamed) female who is central to the encounter, intrigued that God shows up as an active participant in what occurs, intrigued in the discussion and implications about freedom.
And yet, part of me finds this passage challenging as it incorporates most of the topicsour society says should be kept out of “polite conversation” and often preachers are told to avoid. It has at least three of the four no-nos; perhaps not sex, but certainly politics, religion, and money.
In his writing about this episode, William Willimon writes extensively as he sets the scene. “Paul and Silas were going to the place of prayer and were accosted by a slave girl. Because this girl could tell peoples’ fortunes, she made money for her owners, who hired her out to read palms and provide entertainment at business conventions. She was possessed by a demon; mentally unbalanced, we would say. She took to following Paul and Silas around, shouting at them, saying things about them. Here is a picture of enslavement – the grip of mental illness…which holds the victim in bondage.
Paul has enough of the young woman’s raving and in the name of Christ cures her. Thank God, she is free! Yet no, she is not free. She is a slave, someone who is not a person but a piece of property. … Here is a young woman, chained her whole life to the hell of demon possession, and now she is free; there ought to be rejoicing. But no, her owners are not free enough to do that. It was fine to give a dollar to the Mental Health Association drive this fall, but this is another matter. Religion has somehow gotten mixed up with economics here, and so her owners do what the vested interests always do when their interests are threatened.
The girl’s owners say to the judge, “We’re not against a little religion – as long as it is kept in its place.”… No we do not come right out and say that our financial self-interest is threatened; we say that our nation is threatened. “These missionaries are foreigners.” Buy American!”1
And, as noted, the populous falls into line with the powers that be and both beat Paul and Silas and put them in jail.
And thus, so far in the story, we indeed have encountered decisions made because of politics, religion (or perhaps veiled xenophobia and/or financial interests), and money! We have the slave girl who – while free from her illness, from the demon – is still a slave. And from this Paul and Silas become imprisoned, put into bondage because of their helping the young woman from her imprisonment.
And two things are important in the story about Paul and Silas’s time in jail. First is the way in which the text mentions about the appropriately-timed earthquake. While the text does not ascribe it to God, all that follows has a sense of the miraculous. The earthquake itself frees the men (doors flung open and everyone’s (not just Paul and Silas’s) chains come loose). But they don’t run off. Instead, the jailer is told that “Hey, we’re all here. Don’t worry.” So the jailer himself is saved from the text says actually going so far as to kill himself!
And this, miracle upon miracles, allows him and his household to be saved. So, not only last week did we hear of Lydia’s household being saved, but now the jailer (whose name we are not told) is brought to freedom from suicide and to new life through baptism.
In Godly Play, our children’s program, some of you might remember from when we heard a sample story done in church that it was followed by wondering questions. One of the questions often asked in many Godly Play programs is, “I wonder where you are in this story or what part of this story is about you?
If we are part of the story, which character are we? At some level, are we the slave girl who has been freed from illness? Are we Paul or Silas trying to spread good news wherever they go? It would be easy to stop there, but I think it would unfair not to consider ALL the characters. Are we those in jail who have done wrong, yet don’t take the opportunity to escape when they could? Are we the jailer who is so despondent at not doing his job and perhaps fearful because of that that he is on the brink of killing himself? Are we the owners of the slave girl, who put financial gain about the well-being of the human that they own? And let’s not forget the magistrates or all in the crowd who physically attack Paul and Silas. I keep thinking about parallels in the U.S. with beatings or lynching carried out by “helpful citizens” against blacks in the south (and elsewhere), Asians on the west coast, and others in different times and places.
In Debby Irving’s book, Waking Up White, she shares about her journey of exploring her own white race and the racism of the country in which she was raised. In it, one of the thing she emphasizes a number of times is the way in which her family didn’t want to talk about “disturbing history” or “upsetting truths” and striving – above all – to live in a culture of niceness.2
But I would encourage us to follow in the footsteps of Paul and Silas and to risk something. To risk something in speaking the truth, in setting people free, in being willing to go against the grain. And perhaps to journey into the unknown. We must not let our fear of being upset or upsetting others stop us from doing what is right, for working for peace, working to dismantle racism and other -isms and promote justice, and to bring people from death, slavery, illness and so much more into a place of true freedom\. And – remember – God is there, whether in response to our prayers, whether in direct intervention, or whether at the most basic as part of the community of the believers.
1 William H. Willimon, Acts, Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1988, p. 138-139.
2 Debby Irving, Waking Up White, Cambridge, MA: Elephant Room Press, 2014, pp. 19 & 167.