A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 3, 2015
Text: Acts 16:16-40
This week we have a long and powerful passage from the book of Acts to use as our text. Thanks to everyone who helped with the reading. Originally, I thought I would focus on the beginning of Acts, chapter 16, in which Paul and Silas wend their way toward Macedonia, led by the Spirit. Once in Philippi they seek out the other Jews and “God-fearers” living there to share the Good News. Here they meet a wealthy merchant named Lydia who not only responds positively to their witness but also takes them in. It’s a great story of conversion and hospitality. But in Bible study, Thelma suggested the title for this sermon – “A Night Well Spent” – and Doug noted that the text talks about prison and prisoners, a topic that is very much in the news today, so the sermon and service took a different direction.
Let me be clear from the outset that I am not suggesting a one to one parallel between this tale of Paul and Silas and we are seeing in the news today, but I do see parallels, if you will indulge me. Now I do have a few questions about this story we read. We know something about contemporary legal process through following the news and watching crime dramas. There is always right and wrong in these stories, someone is clearly innocent and someone guilty, right? In this story, as recounted by Luke, who are the bad guys and who are the good ones? It’s conflicted, isn’t it? Paul is our hero but he gets arrested. Isn’t the one arrested supposed to be the bad guy? In our own time we are coming to see that those arrested aren’t always the villains and those in power are not always righteous, are they?
What have Paul and Silas done to get themselves in trouble with the law? What exactly is their offense? Again, it’s conflicted, isn’t it? They were just minding their own business, walking their daily route to the place, down by the river, where their new community gathered to pray. But this strange girl kept following them and yelling at them. How do you think you might have responded if you had been in their sandals? It’s not difficult to imagine Paul’s annoyance. I think I would be annoyed if someone followed me down the street, calling me out.
“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Actually, that’s not so bad, is it? She wasn’t calling them nasty names or making false accusations, was she? She was telling the truth. She was really lifting up their Good News, assisting them in their witness, helping to make their case. It must have been the loud way she was crying out that irritated Paul. The text says she was a fortune teller, she had an ability to read people and predict the future. What do you make of that? Was it a good or bad thing? Again, a conflicted situation. Apparently Paul decided it was an evil spirit that needed to be driven out of her. From Luke’s perspective, any such spirit was likely to be demonic. We don’t so much believe in “evil spirits” these days. We think more in terms of mental and emotional illness. But, whatever the label we put on it, Paul drove out that Spirit, he healed the girl, he liberated her, or did he?
After all, she was still a slave, wasn’t she? But now she was a slave without the gift that had made her unique and valuable. Luke’s story doesn’t say any more about her. You will have to complete the tale for yourself. Maybe she found some freedom, at least freedom and peace in Christ through the Good News of God’s Beloved Community. But I worry that her lot in life got worse, just because Paul was annoyed with her for telling the truth. Yes, I know that exorcism was common practice in those days; Luke and Paul are following Jesus’ own practice in liberating people from these “spirits.” I hope she was happier and healthier from that day on, but we just don’t know.
Moving on, what happens next? Are the girl’s owners thrilled that she has been healed, freed of her demon divination? Hardly. They are really ticked off. They have lost their lucrative prize, the source of their wealth. They are not happy at all. They grab Paul and Silas and drag them into the market place to appear before the local magistrates. In their anger, do they tell the truth? “These two fellows have taken our source of income. They have robbed us of what was rightfully ours.” That’s not exactly what we hear, is it? Instead of being honest about what has made them mad, they start slinging every angry allegation they can think of, a whole list of dubious and dishonest charges.
“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.” What do you see as problematic about these charges? In first place, they were not disturbing the city. They were strolling down the street, attending to their own affairs. It is true that they had this subversive message they were trying to spread around, this Good News of the Beloved Community of God, but they really weren’t disturbing the peace at the moment they were seized – except, perhaps, for the peace of a couple of slave owners. What they were disturbing was the exploitative scheme of these so-called business men to make money at the expense of a poor girl who was mentally and emotionally vulnerable. We never encounter a thing like that today, do we?
Oh, yes, they were Jews alright, but what does that have to do with anything, except to appeal to the bias and bigotry of their fellow Philippians? Paul and Silas are simply singled out for appearing different. Antisemitism, along with racism and any number of other “isms” we might name, should not be legal arguments, should they? This charge smacks of “racial profiling” on the streets of ancient Philippi, something we almost never see on our own streets today, right? And what of these “unlawful customs” they are supposedly advocating? The charge is brought without a shred of evidence that anything inappropriate is being done. They were just walking down the street, minding their own business. Was it that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? We never see anyone busted on those grounds, do we?
By the time the “businessmen” have stopped slinging their slanderous charges, they have whipped the crowd into a frenzy, appealed to all the prejudice and stirred all the anger they can. I imagine the crowd becomes a mob, not unlike those who shouted, “Crucify him!” or “Burn, Baltimore, burn!” We know something of how anger and pain, frustration and fear can evolve into mob mentality, whether the cause is just or not. No one wants to listen and so eventually people lash out, right or wrong.
We don’t know exactly what motivated the mob in Philippi , but we do know that in this case, no one is interested in hearing Paul and Silas make their case. The magistrates have made up their minds, swayed by the mood of the mob and their own bias and bigotry. Our friends are simply whisked off to jail without another word. Is this justice? Is this a fair trial? I ask again, who is right and who is wrong here? Who is really guilty and who is righteous?
Whether or not this story is literally true – there were no reporters on the scene or video at 11 – it is still a telling tale, powerful in its witness to wisdom, truth and the grace of God to make a difference in human life, in partnership with faithful followers who are willing to take the Good News anywhere and everywhere. Though the situation may not be as grim, Paul and Silas, singing and praying in the bowels of a horrible prison, reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s observation that those who find meaning in life, who have something to hold on to, can survive the most horrific circumstances and eventually transform the world.
In this story, Paul and Silas bring the house down, quite literally. I don’t want to romanticize the earthquake, given the awful earthquake in Nepal last week. This shaking seems like a sort of deus ex machina in that chains are broken and doors opened but no other destruction is reported. Still, the idea that God holds real power to liberate is essential to the Good News. In this passage, we see God’s desire to liberate life wherever it is bound, in whatever circumstances. The liberation may not be realized perfectly in one particular moment, but the way is cleared for freedom as chains fall, doors open and spirits flee.
Something about this story that Paul and Silas come to share, the Good News they bring, the Christ to whom they bear witness, the God they serve, partners with the Spirit to bring about change. By rights, the prisoners ought to have fled, but they are all present and accounted for. Whether they are justly or unjustly imprisoned, they do not flee, all – the story says – so their jailer may find his own liberation. Improbable as this seems, it also tells a tale of compassion and grace, prisoners caring for the jailer and his liberation from his own binding. To make time and space for another, even at one’s own expense, is the sort of partnership that turns the world right side up.
A night well spent? You be the judge. I imagine Paul and Silas would say it was. Oh it was painful. The jail was rotten and their wounds ached, but somewhere, deep inside, they believed that the God who had liberated them and transformed their lives could work the same wonder in the lives of others. They gave their lives over to living out what they believed. The challenge for us is to do the same in our own time and circumstances. Will we give ourselves over to working for liberation, for justice, for peace, for the well-being of sisters and brothers everywhere, to bearing faithful witness to the coming of God’s Beloved Community in our lives and the world around us?
Can we practice emancipation and resistance?
Listening and seeing?
Hope and healing?
Can we weep and pray together?
March and sing together?
Organize and mobilize together?
Until we forge and formulate together
The balm of peace and right relationship.
The salve of opportunity and self-determination.
The ointment of community and love.
Make it so, we pray.
Let us make it so. Amen.
(Michael-Ray Mathews, Disinherited: A Prayer of Lament, Longing and Love)