Acts 16:16-34 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
Vacations are interesting. Some are exciting. Some are full of adventure and exploration. Some are really R&R – rest and restoration. Some are weird. That was what this last vacation felt like to me. In some ways this was more like a staycation – I was reacquainting myself to my house in Sedona after an 8 month absence. The peace and quiet in the house and location cannot be beat and that nourished me for several days. Spending time with my sister was wonderful. But, of course, if you are staying home there is always work that needs to be done – dusting, vacuuming, dishes, laundry, yard work. Not quite a hotel stay in a resort.
Then, in addition, I had an unexpected trip to Cleveland come up to weave into my time away. Why Cleveland? That’s where the national offices for the United Church of Christ are located. Barb Doerrer-Peacock and I had been invited to a two day conference of experienced clergy boundary trainers to gather together. While there were no particular new learnings, there were several new insights gained by this gathering of seasoned trainers. The room was the most diverse room I have been in for a while with the exception of the NAACP gathering in February. Sisters and brothers of color spoke from their experience and that was eye-opening for me to gain insights on race and privilege as well as gender and privilege. There is always something new to learn.
During this time away I also made new friends and met with old friends. This does a heart good. But there was one friend who did not respond to invitations to make contact or to join us in gatherings. Lack of contact had been worrisome for a time even before this trip, and no contact during the time I was home made it even more so. We recently learned from a relative that she is now in a deep depression. No one can truly understand the deep pain she must be experiencing, but as friends, we feel in freefall and helpless. She is one person of many who struggle with depression.
I find it sad that the stigma of mental illness is still with us. We can sympathize with those who are dealing with physical illnesses like cancer and diabetes, but we seem quick to judge those with mental illness as if it were their fault.
I ask for your prayers for my friend and for all dealing with dark suicidal feelings – to move from despair to hope – even if precarious – just one step away from that edge is a good thing. There is one person in our reading this morning who also was convinced that the only way out of a bad situation was to take his own life. The unnamed prison guard woke to prison doors being opened during an earthquake and felt the only way to save face was to kill himself. His job, after all, was to keep the prisoners in their cells – no matter what. Yet, astounding to him was hearing the voice of a prisoner who chose not to escape but to stay put, and in that simple act of compassion this man’s life was changed.
Paul seemed to understand the situation immediately and provided relief to the jailer who came to faith because of Paul’s hand in stopping his death.
This passage in the book of Acts is just chock full of so many characters and situations. In my minds eye I see this as an action adventure movie, as it has come to life for me this week. I wonder, is there a person or situation that you may connect with in this story? What about the slave? She is a young, nameless girl who had a gift of divination that was seen more as a problem by Paul than a blessing. She was annoying because she would follow Paul and Silas around and share with others what she understood about them – that they were slaves of the Most High God who proclaim a way of salvation.
She was a slave girl and used by those who have figured out a way to make money with her. Paul was annoyed by her and his hand in removing this gift from her was not a blessing to her or to the Roman colony community in which they lived. I am not really sure I understand why Paul felt the need to silence her except that he was annoyed with her and maybe she beat him to the news he wanted to bring to this community. But he sure missed an opportunity to face the issue of slavery. Maybe this was because he was so focused on his mission to bring the news of Jesus into the world that he just couldn’t see what was before him.
We are not told of her fate following this story. Already vulnerable as a slave child, once this gift was removed, what good was she to her owner? How much more vulnerable was she because of this change in her life? Removing her gift left her in precarious position – perhaps in harms way.
I cannot help but read this story in light of today’s human trafficking stories that exist with vulnerable children being captured and enslaved by adults. The only thought that comes to my mind is evil-doing – people causing harm and damage to children for their own gain.
Perhaps you are aware of the training that has taken place in Las Cruces recently to help churches and organizations recognize the signs of such activity that make children vulnerable to such goings-on within this very community? Human trafficking is nothing new – obviously, but it has never gone away either. A hard aspect f life we should all be aware of.
Another note on this passage is the sense of antisemitism in its words. Xenophobia has always been a problem – but in the Middle East the concept of hospitality with strangers coming through one’s land has always been an important key to peaceful co-existence. So here are Paul and Silas, bringing the Good News into a part of the world with a culture and customs they are unfamiliar with and they get beaten up for upsetting the status quo and disturbing the peace.
These missionaries are brought before the authorities with the claim that “they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” (vs 20-21) Paul and Silas were stripped of their clothing and flogged and thrown in the innermost cell and their feet fastened in stocks.
I think that sometimes in our reading of scripture we become so familiar with passages that we don’t always see or understand the prejudices people faced in their day, or neglect to understand how some of these passages have led to current day antisemitism and deep fear of the stranger looking for refuge. The challenge for all of us today is awareness of how the past has paved a way to the present time of such deep prejudice and divide in our own country, and what seems to be a ripple effect around the globe.
Another observation this morning is actually my first observation when I read this passage several weeks ago to prepare for this sermon. It is breaking chains in our own lives – therefore the cover picture, and this question: What keeps us bound?
Kathryn Matthews’ (UCC.org; sermon.seeds) commentary reflects that “There is another thread to this interpretation that focuses on the many ways we humans are captive to forces seemingly more powerful than we are. There are powers that keep us bound – old prejudices, systemic injustice that we don’t even see but certainly benefit from, a need for security, fear that makes us strangers from one another, resentment that grips us and keeps us apart . . . perhaps we don’t call these ‘demons’ or even ‘spirits,’ but they are powerful indeed and we need to be set free from them.”
Lawrence Farris (Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts) observes that everyone in this story needs to be freed, not only the slave girl but also the men who used her (possessed by greed), the men who judged Paul (possessed by fear and a hunger for power), the jailer and, most surprisingly of all, Paul and Silas themselves, who need to be freed from their narrow way of thinking.
Intrigue and adventure and danger certainly played a role in this story. As Matthews notes “we don’t just read a story; we are part of that great story, that great adventure. Throughout the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and even today, two thousand years later, in the church that claims to follow Jesus in our day, and in a world still captive, we live in a world still hungry for good news. Just as we read the stories – the adventures – of these apostles and teachers, we might turn an attentive ear to the stories of those around us, and the amazing and holy moments in our own lives as well, when God has been most certainly at work, bringing freedom, new life, new possibilities for the world God loves.”
A final note: I wonder about what happened to the jailer after Paul left the area. After the earthquake he took Paul and Silas home, cared for their wounds, fed them, learned about Jesus and was baptized by them. Then what? Matthews suggests the following for us to consider: “It would be wonderful indeed to know what happened to the jailer after Paul left, but perhaps we get a hint of that in our own day, every time we hear the rest of the story from those who have found their way to faith and healing, especially because of the kindness and mercy of another.”
May God continue to bless us and give us the courage to show kindness and mercy to all we meet – for they will know we are Christians by our love and actions. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2019