Sermon: Set Free

Acts 16:16-34

I’m reading a book in which the author, Cheryl Strayed, talks about working with poor, white middle school girls who were deemed not just “high risk” but “highest risk” by the school they attended. These girls had had the roughest of lives before they were even technically teenagers. Poverty, incarceration, missing or drugged-out or abusive parents. They girls told her, as Strayed put it, “ghastly, horrible, shocking, sad, merciless things. Things that would compel me to squint my eyes as I listened, as if by squinting I could protect myself by hearing it less distinctly… Endless stories of abuse and betrayal and absence and devastation,” many of which were still happening.  She told the girls that what was happening to them was not okay. It was unacceptable. It was illegal. And that she would call someone and that someone would intervene and this would stop. It never did. Not once did a police officer or a child protective service worker ever come and help any of the girls during the year that Strayed worked with them. Finally, Strayed asked a child protective services worker why no one came, and she explained that there wasn’t enough money to go around and so they had to do triage. They would intervene quickly with a child under the age of 12, but for those over that age, they put their name on a long list of children whom they hoped they could check up on someday when there was enough money to do so. The woman told Strayed that it would be better if the girls ran away from home, because there was more funding for runaways.

I wonder if something like this is what happened to the enslaved girl in our story for today? Was she a runaway from abuse, betrayal, absence, devastation? A girl who ran into a worse fate, into  the hands of men who see her only as a commodity off of which to get rich? Or was her family so poor they had to sell her to feed enough mouths? Or was slavery the reality she was born into?

We’ll never know. The enslaved girl doesn’t have a story or even a name when we meet her, as she follows Paul and Silas for days, shouting loudly that they are “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim a way of salvation.” You’d think Paul would appreciate the free advertising but he doesn’t. He’s annoyed, enough so that he ends up exorcising the enslaved girl of the spirit of divination that enables her fortune telling. There’s no compassion her for her plight here; this isn’t one of the heartwarming healing stories of the Bible. Paul simply wants her out of the way. She was young, enslaved, female — intersecting categories that would have allowed a man like Paul to normally not even notice such a person, much less care about what happened to her. In fact, Paul may have been endangering her by exorcising the spirit that allowed her to tell fortunes. Of what use was she now to her owners? What happened to her after she was no longer useful to them in this way? We have no idea, for the enslaved girl isn’t mentioned again in the book of Acts. 

I find myself haunted by this girl — one more anonymous child, one more victim of adult cruelty like those middle school girls deemed not worthy of being saved, of not having enough value to spend money on in the richest country in the world.  And I find myself intensely disliking Paul, who acts with such bias and disregard for her.

And then, the tables turn on him.  When the owners of the enslaved girl realize that Paul and Silas have robbed them of their profits, they haul them before the authorities and quickly label them the “other,” the non-Roman, which is ironic because the Jewish Paul is actually a Roman citizen, as we find out later in the chapter, but no matter. Mob justice works too quickly for Paul to even state his case. “These men are disturbing our city,” the enraged slaveowners say, “they are Jews advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans.” Notice that the accusers don’t mention the real issue — their fury that they can no longer expropriate the labor of the enslaved girl to make money off of her. Instead, they rely on something they believe will more reliably turn bystanders into a furious mob:  ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Paul and Silas are Jews, marginalized people within the Roman Empire, and it doesn’t take much to stoke the flames of hatred for them. Worked in that Empire, works in this one, right? “Those people are taking our jobs; those people are rapists, criminals.”  

Before the authorities can even pronounce sentence, the mob commits a hate crime against Paul and Silas, beating them mercilessly. Branded as dangerous to others’ way of life, they are physically restrained, put into the innermost cell of the detention center — I mean prison — the cell furtherest from the door, from light, from air. The place least likely to be able to escape from, the darkest place in an already dark place. If that isn’t a metaphor for where ethnocentrism and xenophobia and racism and sexism puts us, I don’t know what is. 

The story could end here. So many stories do. There we are — trapped in our devaluation of each other, imprisoned by ignorance, bound by bias. Not even the “good people” — the followers of Jesus  — are exempt from this trapped place. 

So how can we be saved? It starts with a song. As Paul and Silas sit there in the darkest prison, the blood from their wounds sticking to their clothing, still in great pain, they sing hymns to God. In that darkest of places, they sing and everyone trapped there with them listens. “Here in this place, a new light is streaming, now is the darkness vanished away.” 

As they sit in the dark, singing to the God for whom no place is so dark, so full of pain, so bound that it can not be transformed by love, there, in that place, the Spirit of God enters and shakes up their world. A earthquake occurs, one so violent that it shakes the foundations of the prison. Within seconds, they are freed. That freedom is literal — their chains come off, the prison doors open. But I like to think that their freedom went way deeper than that. Sitting in the dark, wounded and trapped by the very devaluation he had inflicted on another, Paul is set free by the Spirt from his own foundational bias, his own trapped way of seeing. From that place of freedom, Paul sees that in God there is no male nor female, nor slave nor free— that we are all one in Christ Jesus — words he would write in the letter to the Galatians.

From that place of freedom, Paul can see even the jailer as one with him in Christ. How easy it would have been for Paul to see the jailer as the enemy, beat him and march past him to physical freedom. Instead, Paul sees someone trapped by the violence of that society, too. You didn’t become a jailer back then unless you had to, unless there was no other way to make a living. For it was an occupation of enormous risk. Roman jailers were personally responsible for their inmates. If one of their inmates escaped, they would be executed by their higher-ups. A life for a life. The jailer in our story decides that dying by his own hand is better than being executed, and he’s about to kill himself when Paul stops him. “Don’t harm yourself,” he shouts, “we are all here!” In that moment, Paul — set free by the Spirit of God — decides that the cycle of violence and devaluation is going to stop. 

We are either one in Christ Jesus, one in God, or we’re not. And if we are, then we need to act like that’s true, no matter the personal risk. Paul stays in that jail (after the jailer took him into his home, bandaged his wounds and fed him) — but he is free. 

The personal risk for Paul was continuing incarceration, as it is for those of us today who believe that we are all one in Christ Jesus. I learned this weekend of a man named Dr. Scott Warren, who was mentioned at our Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference Assembly yesterday. Dr. Warren is a volunteer with a group called No More Deaths that provides food and water and shelter for migrants coming over the border, people who might die in the deserts south of Tucson if they are not given these things. For these crimes of compassion, Dr. Warren has been charged with two felony crimes by the U.S. Government that could land him in prison for 20 years. Many people see this as the government’s escalation in the war on undocumented people. But who is truly free here and who is imprisoned? 

The personal risk, for most of us, may likely be something other than landing in prison. I think of Cheryl Strayed, who opened her heart to those middle school girls to really hear their stories, even though she had to close the door to her office after they left and sob, even though her heart was broken by these girls’ stories, even though she knew no one was going to come and save them. That kind of willingness to face another person’s suffering — or our own — and not recoil or shut down or numb out is a personal risk. It will break us before it makes us whole. It will trap in the world’s suffering and brokenness before it sets us free. But we are either one in Christ Jesus, one in God, or we’re not. And if we are, then we need to act like that’s true, no matter the personal risk

May we continue to be set free by the One for whom no place is so dark, so full of pain, so bound that it can not be transformed by love. May the Spirit of God continue to shake the foundations of our world.

Some of the insights from this sermon are from this article by Ann Lindemann Allen.