May 8, 2016
After the horrific earthquake in Haiti in 2010, I heard a story about a prison that was severely damaged by the quake. The intensity of the quake caused the prison walls to collapse just like it did every other building in Port au Prince and the prisoners, seeing their chance for freedom, escaped.
It was certainly a worrying development in an already tragic story, because many of those prisoners were dangerous and violent. The disaster was so widespread across the city that there weren’t enough police officers to conduct a search. The need and devastation from the earthquake was so extensive, I suspect that the prisoners were probably the last thing on most people’s minds. The death and devastation we saw on television was overwhelming. How much more terrible was the reality? Too many people were hurt and dying and dead for the authorities or anyone else to worry about escaped prisoners.
I don't know the end to this story. I don't know if any of the prisoners were found. I'm ashamed to say that I'm not sure what is happening Haiti anymore. 2010 feels like a long time ago, and many other disasters and horrific events have happened since. I hope that the prisoners did not go out and wreak more havoc and cause more harm to their neighbors, but I have to admit I can’t blame those prisoners for escaping. If I were in prison and the walls came tumbling down, I probably would have taken the chance and escaped as well. Who wouldn’t?
If you were listening carefully to the reading of the Acts passage you heard the answer to my question. Paul and Silas didn't run for it the minute the jail doors opened. They stayed in jail, even though they were the victims. The two men stayed even though about midnight the quaking of the earth shook the foundations of the jail, broke open all the doors and unfastened the chains that bound them and every other prisoner. They stayed. Paul and Silas stayed, and so did all of the other prisoners who had been listening to them sing hymns. They all stayed.
This is the end of the story that began last Sunday. Paul received a vision to go to Macedonia. He and Silas did just that. They went to a place of prayer where they met a wealthy woman named Lydia. Lydia's heart was opened by God to hear and believe the full story of God in Christ. She opened her home to them. In the part of the story we read today, Paul and Silas have gone back to the place of prayer. Instead of a woman who sold expensive cloth, they met a slave girl -- a slave girl who had the spirit of divination. She could see the future, and her ability to do this made her owners rich.
When she met Paul and Silas she began to follow them. She cried out over and over again, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She did this for days. Finally, it got on Paul's nerves and he commanded the spirit to come out of her, much like Jesus commanded spirits and demons. With Paul's command the spirit immediately left her.
I understand why Paul would have been annoyed with the repetition of the girl's claims day after day. But it seems implied that Paul was annoyed with her message as well. What was wrong with what the slave girl said? Wasn't she proclaiming their truth? They were slaves of the Most High God. They did come to proclaim salvation through Jesus Christ.
According to scholars, the literal translation of this story is that this girl had the spirit of pythoness, or the spirit that spoke through the Oracle at Delphi. This was a famous spirit and anyone possessing it would be sought out. It’s no wonder then, in a land where most of the people believed in gods that someone who could channel this spirit would bring her owners a lot of money.
Perhaps that was the cause of Paul's annoyance. Maybe he worried that the people listening to her cries would perceive her words very differently. To hear the term Most High God meant one thing to a Jewish audience. But to a gentile crowd – and the city of Philippi was predominantly gentile – it would mean something very different. Most High God could refer to any Roman or Greek deity.
It’s likely that Paul did not want there to be any confusion about the God to which the slave girl referred. So in the name of Jesus Christ he ordered the spirit to come out. He freed the girl from the demon that possessed her. The spirit obeyed Paul’s command and left her, but Paul's actions brought trouble on their heads.
When that infamous spirit was departed, the slave girl's owners lost their great source of income. The girl was just another slave. What did they care that she was free from a demon that controlled her? That was what made them money. The loss of their easy income made them angry. So they brought Paul and Silas before the authorities. But instead of charging them with the crime of ruining their hefty fortune maker, the owners told the magistrate that the men were disturbing the city. They were Jews -- outsiders, foreigners, others -- trying to foist strange customs onto the population; customs which were unlawful for Romans to practice or observe.
These charges were serious enough for Paul and Silas to be stripped and beaten with rods. Once the flogging was over, they were thrown into jail and their feet were fastened in the stocks. Escape would be impossible. Impossible for humans, not for God.
Generally, I love this story, until this week. I was excited when I looked ahead in the lectionary and saw that it was the passage from Acts for today. But the more I've studied it, and the more I've read other scholars who have studied it even more than I have or ever will, the more disturbed I am by it. I'm disturbed by what happened or did not happen to the slave girl. She was seen as a disposable commodity by her owners, and an annoyance by Paul. Paul may have freed her from the spirit that possessed her, but that doesn't mean that she was freed. In truth, we don't know what happened to her; she is never mentioned again. But I doubt she was given a "You're Free from the Demon Party."
The second aspect that troubles me is what the girl's owners did in response to her being freed. I'm not surprised that they brought Paul and Silas up on charges. But what reason did they give? It was not, "These jokers just messed up our money making scheme, our cash cow."
No, 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."
They took it from, "We're angry because of what they did to us," to "Look at what they are doing to our city! Look at how they are bringing their foreign ways into our midst. See how they are trying to change us and make us do what is unlawful."
Paul and Silas were not just men who thwarted a couple of peoples' profit, they were scapegoats. They were scapegoated because of their religion, their practices and their status as outsiders. It seems to me that you don't have to look very far back in history to see that if you want to incite people's anger, you give them a scapegoat. You tell them that they are a danger to all of the customs and values that the people hold dear. You use bigotry and racism, subtly and explicitly, and then you stand back and watch what happens.
What happened to Paul and Silas? They were beaten with sticks. They were flogged. They were thrown into prison, bleeding and wounded, perhaps hardly able to hold themselves upright much less walk. They were not charged with a crime, they were scapegoated. And it would seem that scapegoating them was much more effective than just pressing charges. They were scapegoated, and this insidious tactic is alive and well today.
As a preacher I walk a fine line. I believe with everything that I am that it is wrong and unfair to bring my own agenda into the pulpit. If I do that it becomes a bully pulpit. Those of you at the other end are unable to respond -- at least not immediately.
But at the same time, I also believe with everything I am that I have a call as a minister, as a Christian, to call out bigotry and racism and scapegoating where and when I see it. I see it growing and flourishing in this country that we so proudly boast as being the land of the free. People are being scapegoated in our country. They are being scapegoated because of the color of their skin and because of the religion they practice. The person doing this has tapped into a seemingly deep chasm of racism that we have pretended for a long time did not exist. But it does exist. And it's wrong. I know that I am treading on dangerous ground, but I am going to say it over and over again. What is happening in our country is wrong. It is wrong. WE are called, as people who are trying to follow Jesus, to stand up and say, "No!" "Not on our watch!" It is wrong. It is opposite to the kingdom of God. It is opposite to the love of God that was made flesh in Jesus, his Son.
This is Mother's Day, and I wish that I had a sermon that was a little more sweetness and light. But as a mother I have to speak for all the other mothers who cannot. I don't want my children living in a country that would continue to allow this kind of vicious scapegoating to happen. I don't want any child to live in it. How many mothers have lost their children to violence and hatred because of it?
The foundations of that prison were shaken, the doors were flung open. But Paul and Silas would not leave. Even after the jailer came and believed and was baptized, they would not leave. The lectionary stops this story a little short. But in the verses following ours we read that the morning after the earthquake, after all these things happened, the magistrates sent the police to tell Paul and Silas they were free to go. But Paul said, "No!"
"They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now they are going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves."
The foundations of that prison were shaken. The foundations, the beliefs, of the powers-that-be were also shaken. God shook those foundations, not just to release Paul and Silas, but to free anyone trapped by hatred and fear. I sense that the foundations we base our lives on are being shaken right now only in a different direction, and I am scared. I am scared for what may come if we don't raise our voices in protest. But I also trust that God is still bigger than those who find power from wealth and fear mongering. I trust that God's love is more powerful than hatred. I trust that God's light can never again be completely extinguished by the worlds' darkness. So I must do my part to proclaim that love and that light; not just to those who believe as I do, but to those who would rather live in the darkness -- especially to them.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"