Our lectio divina group, which meets on Tuesday mornings, has been going through the book of Acts, and I’m getting reacquainted with these amazing stories from the earliest days of the founding of Christianity. Actually, that’s not the right way to say it. At this point, Christianity is still very much a movement within Judaism. The rupture between Judaism and Christianity had not yet happened; it’s still decades in the future. At the beginning, these Jewish disciples of Jesus are doing what the risen Christ told them to do earlier in Acts: that they should be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the process of being witnesses, Gentiles or non-Jews are also joining the Jesus movement.
The specific context of our passage is the second missionary journey of Paul and Silas. They end up traveling throughout a good chunk of the Roman Empire, what is now present-day Turkey and Greece. You can see the map of their travels, and travails, on the front cover of the order of worship. It’s quite amazing. The distance between Jerusalem and Philippi, where our story is set, is 1400 miles— 26 hours without traffic, according to Google maps. While Paul and Silas took a boat for part of this journey, I’m guessing they still logged around1200 miles by foot to get to Philippi.
Philippi is a Roman colony. Once Rome had conquered a city, like Philippi, it would give the conquered land to veterans of its vast military. In fact, that was the promise of being a Roman solider — join us and you’ll eventually get land and become a settler in one of the conquered territories. (This also happened in the United States, although many non-military settlers also participated in the colonizing of this country, of course.) These colonies were thus an outpost of Roman imperial authority, a “little Italy.” They were places, as one Bible commentator said, pervaded by an air of Roman superiority. (From the Believers’ Bible Church Commentary on Acts by Chalmer E. Faw.) Philippi itself appears to not have had a synagogue, perhaps because of Roman dislike of Jewish customs, but there seems to be a place of prayer outside the city on the banks of the river, away from the anti-Jewish sentiment that was rife in Philippi itself.
It is at this place of prayer that the disciples are met by an enslaved girl oppressed by a demonic spirit that drives her to issue prophecies or oracles. Her owners are making a lot of money from the exploitation of her fortune-telling powers. Paul and Silas catch her eye, and she follows them around for days, crying out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Paul ends up exorcising this demon from her, which really angers her owners. There goes their revenue stream! They go to the local authorities and accuse Paul and Silas of disrupting the peace. Of course, they do not mention their real beef again the apostles, which is the loss of profits from an exploited human being. They name Paul and Silas specifically as Jews and smugly refer to themselves as Romans. They whip up anti-Jewish sentiment among the gathering crowd, naming the poor, Jewish Paul and Silas as the cultural outsiders they are. Obviously, the anti-immigrant and racist and xenophobic sentiments that are rife in our country right now — and so evident in the “replacement” theory that motivated the Buffalo shooter — are not new. Those demonic spirits have been at work for a long time.
It quickly turns into a dangerous mob scene. The crowd starts attacking Paul and Silas, and the authorities order them to be beaten and thrown into prison. There, they are put in the innermost cell — the darkest, most secure part of the prison — and their feet are fastened into stocks. Sarah Jobe, a prison chaplain, says that in these many ways Paul and Silas “looked a lot like those who get overpoliced and thrown in jail today.” She says that Paul and Silas are not imprisoned because they break a law. They are imprisoned because they are imprisonable people — vulnerable people — who threaten the bottom line of the powerful.
I invite you to imagine the hellhole that was a Roman prison. They were filthy, poorly ventilated, underground, dark. Prisoners would be chained together in different rooms, which were often very crowded. Food was not provided, unless prisoners had friends and family who could supply their needs. Prisons were designed to psychologically and physically torture a prisoner into confession. These were (and still today) places of cruelty, fear, despair, pain. And as our story begins, it seems as though cruelty and racism have won the day, with Paul and Silas locked in chains in this hellhole.
But then… (Read Acts 16:25)
In this place of cruelty and fear, in this place where the power of the Empire seeks to break the bodies and spirits of its occupants, Paul and Silas are surprisingly singing and praying — after getting beaten up and flogged. They could very well have been singing and praying the words of our Psalm that was our call to worship today, “Make a joyful noise to God; come into the Holy Presence with song; give thanks and bless our Creator’s name for God’s steadfast love is everlasting.” This is the first sign that the powers of this world are not really in charge. By two simple acts, ones we do every Sunday — praying and singing — Paul and Silas assert a different kind of power — the power of the Spirit that can enter into the darkest, deepest places of death and transform them.
I think of the story Karen told of her ancestors, singing and praying in jail. They sang and prayed a different Spirit into those places. I think of the people of the civil rights movement, thrown into jail after sitting at a lunch counter, or after being attacked by dogs or people. They sang and prayed a different Spirit into those places… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4RQoQaVggQ (through 36)
Read Acts 16:26
Now, earthquakes are common in this area of Greece. And, of course, it’s going to be hard for many of us to truly believe that such a miracle happened. In fact, this is the third divine jail break recorded in Acts. No matter what you believe about the literal truth of this story, freeing people from Roman prisons symbolizes the power of a God that can shake the power of Empire to its foundations, the power of a God that breaks the chains of those who are enslaved by that power.
Read Acts 16:27-28
The earthquake wakens the jailer, who may have been living above the prison. He rushes downstairs and sees the doors flung open. He assumes in an instant that all the prisoners have escaped. Notice, how quickly he moves to trying to kill himself. Rome was not only cruel to outsiders; its was cruel to its own. Any Roman jailer who allowed his prisoners to escape had to suffer their same punishment — that is, torture and death. Rather than suffer that fate, he decides to end it quickly.
I wonder if, just for a moment, we can imagine what it must have been like to have been this man. Imagine the bleakness of his life, living on top of a prison, hearing the cries and moans of those calling out in pain day and night. We don’t come into this world capable of bearing such cruelty easily. We have to be socialized into it, day after day, moment after moment. Imagine everything that had to happen to this jailer to crush his spirit so that he could do his job. He, too, was enslaved to the powers of death.
And then, Paul says words that I find so incredibly tender: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” They didn’t run when their chains were released and the doors opened! They stayed in that place of darkness and death. Did they do this because they knew what would happen to the jailer if they ran? Did they do this because the love that had liberated them could not leave behind even one person enslaved to the powers of death? Even when that person was the one who had thrown them into prison, the one who would have killed them in a heart beat if they had tried to escape? Talk about love of enemies.
Read Acts 16:29-34
Forget the earthquake. This is the real miracle of the story. This man forged in the cruelty of Empire trembles before the disciples. No one has ever done for him what they have done. No one has cared for him in this way before. He recognizes they know a power far greater than the power of Rome. He pleads with them to tell him how he can become aligned with this power, how he can be saved — set free — from the enslavement of Empire. And then, this man forged in the cruelty of Empire brings them to his house and washes their wounds. Can you see him with his cloth, dipping it into the bowl of water, gently dabbing at the gashes across their backs? Saying “I’m sorry” when he unintentionally causes them pain? His whole household sees this miraculous transformation and want to become aligned with the power of this God. They are all baptized. And then, they sit down together to eat.
Let’s take a deep breath together.
The question we ask ourselves in lectio divina, as we hear the passage for the last time, is “What is the invitation coming from this passage? How is Spirit speaking to you through it?” I want to offer three invitations to ponder:
Often in Scripture and in Christian imagination, the power of God is associated with “mighty deeds of power.” For instance, God is depicted as wielding the elements of nature — rain, storm, lightning — to punish the unjust. Kind of like a big, angry Sky God. But, in this story, the power of God is so tender. It is summoned through singing and praying in places of darkness and death. It is expressed through love of enemies. It is embodied in the washing of wounds, and the sharing of food together around the table.
This feels so within reach to me! It feel simple, in a powerful way. Which leads me to the invitation: Where are the places of death that we are called to show up to and do simple things together there, like sing and pray?
Two, this story invites the question: Who is captive here and who is free? The jailer, who has the might of the Roman Empire behind him, certainly is not free. In fact, he is enslaved to that might, which keeps him chained to places of cruelty and fear in himself and in the world. Those thrown in prison, who are “slaves to the Most High,” in the words of the enslaved girl, are actually truly free, for they are aligned with the Spirit of Life, the power of the Creator. In our world, who is truly captive and who is truly free? In my own self, to what powers am I held captive, and where do I experience “godly”freedom?
Last, as Karen put it during lectio divina on Tuesday, the story invites us to be with those in places of darkness. Don’t avoid those places or run away from them. As one Bible scholar put it, “Being the servant of God does not mean escape from difficult, dark places but the opportunity to be the voice and the hands of Christ there.” Karen knows what of she speaks. Ask her sometime about her work in the prisons and how she experiences them as places of transformation — for herself and others.
I invite you to take a few moments in silence to think about the invitation you may hear in this story.
May the Spirit continue to speak to us through the story of Paul and Silas. Amen.
Many of the insights in this sermon come from this article on the Working Preacher website.
Children’s Time by Karen Kreider Yoder
“Good People Who Go To Prison“
When our son, Luke, was little, he heard about good people who had gone to prison. For awhile, every night at bedtime, Luke would ask me to tell him another story about “good people who have gone to prison,” so I would tell him stories of civil rights leaders, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, people in the Bible.
Here is one of those stories. It’s a story that my family tells. It is also a story that my brother-in-law’s family tells.
Joseph Shoemaker lived in northern Illinois in the early 1900s. He was a Mennonite pastor, and he was a pastor to pastors. They called him a bishop— Bishop Shoemaker. He was like a conference minister. He went from church to church, preaching about the Bible and how to understand Jesus’ teachings.
This was a time when the US was entering into the Great War, later called World War I. Most everyone in the US thought it was a good idea to fight in that war. But Joseph Shoemaker taught that we should follow Jesus when he said, “Love your enemies.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.“
In those days, if a young man did not join the military, he was sent to prison.
One of the young men who listened to Joseph Shoemaker’s message was Harley Nofziger. When the draft board said he needed to fight in the war, Harley Nofziger said, “No, I will follow Jesus, not the government.” And so he was sent to Leavenworth Prison– along with many other young men from the surrounding Mennonite, Quaker, Church of the Brethren, Hutterite, Amish churches. He was a conscientious objector to war.
In prison, (let’s imagine that we are here in prison with Harley) Harley counted the days and weeks and months and years. When his time and his fellow conscientious objector friends’ prison time was just about finished, it was odd that the prison guards were not making any plans to release him. The guards decided they didn’t want to release these conscientious objectors.
So one night, Harley and his friends talked. They had an important decision to make— how are they going to get released from prison? I imagine that they sang songs together. All you prisoners listening in, you’re welcome to join in singing, He Leadeth Me, Oh Blessed Thought.
He leadeth me, Oh, blessed thought
Oh, words with heav’nly comfort fraught
What ev’er I do, where e’er I be
Still ‘tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
And they prayed together.
Dear God, we know you are with us, even here in prison.
Please help us be brave
And may you show us the way to freedom.
As soon as everyone opened their eyes, they saw Harley with his hand raised. “I’ll leave tonight and go and get help.”
After the guards were dozing off, found a loose window, crawled out, he scaled the wall, jumped out over the wall, and ran as fast as he could through the cornfields to the nearest farmhouse.
He called the person he knew would be able to help—- Joseph Shoemaker. Bishop Shoemaker agreed to come the next day to negotiate their release from prison.
When Harley hung up the phone, he thought, “I’m free! But I can’t just stay outside the prison. They might capture me and put me in for an even longer time.” So he ran back across the cornfields, climbed back over the prison wall, and joined his conscientious objector friends inside the prison. I imagine that when the guards heard a little scuffle upon his return, Harley Nofziger called out, “No need to worry, We are all here.”
Soon after, Joseph Shoemaker came as he promised. He convinced the guards to release Harley Nofziger and his friends from prison so they could return home.
I know this story because Joseph Shoemaker was my great grandfather. My brother-in-law, Bill Eash, knows this story, because Harley Nofziger was his grandpa.
Remember: Good people go to prison. For lots of great reasons. Ask your parents about stories from your own family or friends of your family—of good people who have gone to prison.
Thank you so much!