(A sermon preached on Acts 16:16-34 at All Saints' Episcopal, Littleton, 5/16/2010)
Well, as many of you know, I spent the weekend, not mention considerable rehearsal time, with students from Littleton High School and their production of Annie, directed by our own Deb Steinhour.
There were a number of reasons I agreed to do this. I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet some of the Littleton High students, I’d be able to help them out, not to mention help Deb out. Also, I do love theater, and I was offered a part I couldn’t pass up. How could I say no to being the president, FDR? A Facebook friend of mine said that she didn’t see the resemblance between me and FDR. I told her that the "resemblance" in this case is being loud and optimistic. (Some would say being a ham or being a big personality, but I wouldn't say that...)
I will admit to you all that I was also hoping to get a sermon out of the experience. One day, I might, but clearly not this week. I spent hours trying to weave a sermon from this week’s texts and from my Annie experience. It just didn’t happen. These texts just don’t lend themselves to any of the Annie ethics (or even the ethics of working with teenagers).
Such is the life of a lectionary preacher, who doesn’t get to choose his texts.
As it was, I could not get away from this week’s reading from Acts. There’s something about the books of Acts that seems to draw me into using it for preaching. Perhaps the thing I like about the Book of Acts is that I don’t always like the Book of Acts, and I’m often uncomfortable with the things that happen in it.
I’m not referring to the violence that happen to the disciples, like the beating and imprisonment of Paul and Silas. I don’t enjoy those moments, but I understand that being disciples was dangerous, and a lot of them were beaten and killed.
The uncomfortable parts of the Book of Acts for me are the many moments where the disciples do things that are questionable, or even unethical. Take this morning’s account. The second part of the Acts reading finds Paul and Silas in prison, in chains, praying and singing to God. There is this divine intervention, they are freed in dramatic style, and then follows the surprising interaction with the jailer. This part of the story is well known. The disturbing part of the story happens earlier, and often gets little attention.
How exactly to Paul and Silas get into this mess? Is it some bold proclamation about the risen Jesus? Not at all. Is it a selfless, gracious act of justice and hospitality? Hardly. Instead, it happens because Paul gets annoyed...
We are told that a slave girl, who had a spirit of divination, followed Paul and his companions around, crying out: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Perhaps this was actually helpful at first: someone known in the city was drawing attention to the disciples, leading to potential engagement and discussion concerning the path of Jesus. However, when she kept doing this for many days, Paul finally became upset with her constant cries. Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.”
If you think about it, this account should bother us. Paul and his followers don’t seem at all concerned with the fact that this girl is a slave: used by her owners to make money, and to a spirit that possesses her. For days they do not help her. I guess one can suggest that Paul does what he does in response to her entire situation, but it seems to me that his primary motivation is that he’s simply tired of hearing her cries. Freeing her of the spirit, but not of her slavery to her owners, likely will complicate (and perhaps worsen) her state of life, but Paul seems either unaware, or that he doesn’t care about this. Ronald Cole-Turner writes that Paul frees her from possession, but does nothing to free her from being a possession. (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., 2009, p. 522)
This does not paint Paul and his companions in the best of light. Upon reflection, this is a good thing for us to hear. I think it is helpful for us to witness the human struggles of the disciples, and to realize that these struggles continued in post-resurrection, and in Paul’s case, post-conversion accounts.
There is this tendency to think that those who began the church knew exactly what they were doing, and that everything that they did was always in the right. This simply wasn’t so. Those in the church at its infancy were a lot like those in the church of today: trying their best to be a faithful community, but still struggling with their limitations and rough edges. Sometimes, their choices were poor ones.
Their actions are not without consequences. 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 anti-Semitic claims are sadly persuasive, for the crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. They are thrown into prison, in the innermost cell, and they are bound in stocks.
Thankfully, this is not the end of Paul and Silas’ story. As they were praying around midnight, there was suddenly an earthquake: the doors are opened, the chains were unfastened, and Paul and Silas are free to flee. The jailer, who somehow managed to sleep through all of this, woke up, wakes up to find the prison doors open. Realizing that he has failed in his task to keep them secure, is ready to take his own life.
The surprise comes in that Paul and Silas are still there. This time, they realize that actions to save themselves would cause harm to others, and they choose a responsible path, even though it endangers their lives.
The final interplay is now set up. The jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?” The disciples’ answer is “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
I think it’s critical to understand that this points to what God is doing in the world, and not to some singular action for the jailer to take in order to be in the right. Cole-Turner writes that believing “...means becoming decisively aware that our small lives are swept up into a great drama, God’s story line. God is indeed reaching out to us in Jesus Christ, taking our lives into the gospel story of transformation and redemption. Trusting in this truth means that we give up efforts to save ourselves by solving our problems.” (FOW, p. 526)
We’re still called to engage the problems of the world: to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. Sometimes we are aware of these things, and we are able to help the cause. Other times, we hinder the process or even make it worse. No single issue, however, fully represents the entirety.
We are called to remember that we are all part of a very big picture: God, who created us all, is now working in and through us to redeem the whole world.
Next week, Pentecost, we get to talk about God’s sign of cleansing and rebirth: fire and spirit. This morning’s story, however, ends with water, a more human sign. The jailer washed Paul and Silas’ 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.