seagull flying

Sunday, May 12, 2013

TEXT: Acts 16: 16-24

16One 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. 17While 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.” 18She 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. 19But 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.20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Part 1

At our retreat this past weekend, we explored the spiritual power of stories that connect us more deeply and engage our imaginations more powerfully.

Stories connect us—forming relationships, making communities—because stories school us in empathy.  When you are drawn into another’s life through, say, a movie or novel or your grandfather’s tale—you glimpse the perspective of another, perhaps a fictional someone who may not even exist, and thus you develop your compassion capacity.

Sacred stories also cultivate the imagination. When you are reading or listening to a story, your mind and heart gladly anticipate a reality beyond what currently exists. While reading or listening to a story, you are continuously asking the future-oriented question: “What next?” Within a story’s framework, you must open yourself to new possibilities, a requisite for hope.

Both compassion and imagination are foundational for healthy spirituality.  Thus, stories save us as they offer the spiritual gifts of love and hope. They save us from isolation.  They save us from despair. No wonder Jesus taught almost entirely through parables.

And so we turn to the story about an exploited slave girl, a story that may give us practice in compassion and hope.  I’m wondering . . .when we read the girl’s brief story just now, was your heart touched by her plight? Did your mind imagine the wretched conditions of her life?  Did you consider what it would be like to be sold into slavery—perhaps by starving parents no longer able to feed you?  If so, you can imagine this pitiable unnamed child being dragged into the market place like an organ grinder’s monkey to collect coins for her masters.  Her fortune telling had made a fortune for her owners, but as her usefulness to them increased, her chance of freedom decreased.  Her very gifts were used against her.

If slavery seems blessedly absent from our own times, perhaps that’s because we assume economic exploitation of workers ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. But just last week we learned that nearly one thousand garment workers in Bangladesh lost their lives because, at least indirectly, factory owners valued higher profits above safe working conditions and because consumers like us value a great deal on a sweater or a pair of pants above decent treatment of other human beings.

If the slave girl who traipsed after the apostle Paul seems unfamiliar to us, it may be because we don’t see the way she resembles young girls today who are kidnapped, used, and abused.  But just last week we learned that three young women barely out of girlhood had been abducted ten years earlier, three young women raped and tortured for a decade of their young lives, three young slave girls in Cleveland, Ohio, who experienced a life so horrifying I suggest we NOT try to imagine what they suffered.  But let’s not deny the reality that slave girls exist today.

I pray to God that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and the 6-year-old child found with them, will be able to heal from their horrors by becoming the authors of their own stories at last.  And I don’t mean by talking to the press or selling the rights to their stories. I mean doing the hard spirit-healing work of composing a new story they may live into with freedom and self-direction. I thank God their stories can be re-authored. May we help redeem their suffering by preventing future abuses.  May we care.

But as I read the story of the slave girl and the Apostle Paul, I have to wonder—with all due respect to Christianity’s first theologian—how much Paul cared about the girl or how much the Lukan author of Acts cared about her.  Notice that the reason Paul exorcizes the spirit of divination, according to the writer, is because the slave girl was “annoying him.”  For days she followed after Paul and company shouting to all around them that they, too, were slaves—though “slaves of the most high God.”  Maybe she meant this as acclaim, maybe as mockery, but this girl was preaching Truth.  All of us serve masters in our lives.  But some of our masters are not worthy of our devotion.

Apparently to silence her irritating proclamations, Paul commanded the troubling spirit to leave the girl.  Here the narrative itself leaves behind the slave girl, newly healed, in order to follow Paul, the hero.  So we don’t know what happened to the girl—or if Paul was certifiably heroic in this particular instance.  I used to assume a happy ending. Now I want to linger with her long enough to ask what happens to a slave who can no longer work, no longer earn a profit for her master?  I’m guessing her retirement plan doesn’t kick in. I’m guessing she can’t even draw Social Security.  In fact, I’m guessing Social Insecurity worsens.

Did Paul consider what would happen to her with this healing?  Did he think he was offering an exorcism while she was experiencing the extinction of a rare gift?  I would like to think that the girl, once she became useless to her owners, was freed by them and somehow able to find a way to support herself.  But I can also imagine pretty terrible consequences for a slave who can’t turn a profit.  Even if she’s freed, she’s lost a gift that had been unique to her.  Even if she’s freed, she may still feel the bondage of what we now call PTSD.  I want to know if her life is better or worse after she encountered a follower of Jesus.

I wrestle with these questions because this is one of those open ended stories that can evoke compassion and make our imagination work overtime.  I then start thinking about, for instance, unintended consequences when I try to help someone.  Just intending to do good is not good enough, this story makes me realize.  And sometimes when we tell ourselves we’re trying to help someone, we might really be trying to shut them up.  Stories like this one make us uncomfortable because we see there are all kinds of slavery—from the slave girl to the imprisoned Paul and Silas to the fearfully constricted way we sometimes live our lives, all tied up in the knots of our own making.  This is a more complex story than it appears, especially if we engage with compassion and imagination.

Once a teller of fortunes for others, but now the most unfortunate, does the slave girl herself have a future? If you have begun imagining some scenarios that offer a glimmer of hope for her, then the sacred story is operating within you to cultivate your capacity for relatedness, to heighten your powers of imagination.  Compassion plus imagination, you see, leads to righteous action.  And your best response to this story printed on a page is to live out freedom in your own life and in the world.  Of course, there is also a Spirit of domination and oppression that has great influence in this world.  But today’s reading from Acts can engage you to oppose that spirit of bondage—as first you recognize exploitation and slavery—from which you may suffer or in which you are complicit.  And when you hear a young girl from the 1st century or the 21st century courageously defying her oppressors, crying out despite her fears, and perhaps recognizing in strangers “a way of salvation” . . . well, the rest of the story is up to you. . . .

Acts 16: 25-34

25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly 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. 27When 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. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He 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.

Part 2

So Paul and sidekick Silas are thrown into prison because they messed with an exploitative economic system and local customs.Those are high crimes still today, unofficially.  But economic, cultural, and legal systems, however powerful, are not unassailable. On a dark night and in a dark situation, Paul and Silas manage to sing and pray to reassert their authorship of the unfolding story, and an earthquake reminds us that the Holy Spirit can open up new possibilities we can’t predict.  The doors fly open, the chains fall off, and freedom awaits.

In this case, Paul does think about the consequences of his actions. The jailer is terrified, assuming these high profile prisoners will escape. The jailer is, after all, a small cog in the empire’s machine and so in some ways more enslaved to the system than are the prisoners. Ready to take his own life rather than face the wrath of those who hold power over him, he picks up a sword.  But “Paul shouted in a loud voice” (v. 26).  (As opposed to shouting in a soft voice?)

And immediately the jailer bows down and asks what he must do to be saved.

I’d always been taught this was a “how-to-have-your-soul-saved-and-be-sure-you-go-to-heaven lesson” right here.


But in this context it seems that the jailer initially desperately wants to be saved from his fate at the hands of those who’ve put him in charge of the prisoners and who gave explicit orders for him to guard these two especially carefully.  He wants to live. But death by his own sword is a better alternative than what he can expect from his superiors.

“How can I possibly be saved from what they’re going to do to me?” he seems to be asking Paul.

“Quick, run out the back door!” Paul does not say.

“Quick, disguise yourself as a drunk who wandered in by mistake!” Paul does not say.

“Quick, hide in the laundry basket!” Paul does not say.

Paul says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, and your whole household.”

What does that mean in this context?

“Quick! Believe certain facts about a man named Jesus!” Paul does not mean.

“Quick!  Let me catechize you!” Paul does not mean.

It is Paul who redirects the jailer’s concern to one about how he will live his life.

“Believe on the Lord Jesus” here suggests reorienting one’s life and values in Jesus’ direction. If you call Jesus “lord,” that means you start telling yourself a different story about life.  Others to whom you’ve sworn allegiance are no longer your lord. The focus is on how to live, not how to avoid suffering or dying.

And the jailer is saved.  How do we know?  Because he lives into a fresh story.  He immediately invites Paul and Silas to leave the prison with him and enter his own house, thought it puts his family at risk. The former tormenter washes the wounds of the former prisoners, a sign of completely upended relationships, a foreshadowing of the baptism that Paul will offer the jailer and family that signals in Christ there’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, master nor slave. Further, the jailer sets before Paul and Silas a midnight feast with his family, a Eucharistic celebration if ever there was one.  The jailer’s story has changed because of the compassion he has received and then is able to offer.  The jailer’s story has changed because he has imagined a new way of being, a new system that breaks chains of oppression. The sign that someone has been changed by the words of Jesus is in their risky hospitality, in their real life rites with water for healing and food for community formation.

While the slave girl’s story ends ambiguously, the imprisoned jailer’s story ends with the whole household rejoicing as a bold new trajectory of their story begins.  And then this final scene with a twist right out of a Hollywood movie:

35When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.”   

Ah.  That would be happy ending enough.

But Paul has the hutzpah not simply to walk out a gratefully free man but to rub the magistrates’ noses in the injustice, to create political protest, to utilize Jesus’ teaching of a nonviolent third way that shames the oppressor into doing justice:

37But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” 38The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; 39so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.

What an amazing turn of events!

God’s story of liberation is one in which prisoners and jailers alike are released from the systems of oppression, and one freed person helps the next.  That’s how we get saved—the masters and the slaves, the prisoners and the jailers.  God loves us all.  And trusting in this way of Jesus is a saving story for all.

Category Prayer, Scripture
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