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Acts: 16: 16-34
Thank you for this kind invitation, and hospitality – I have so enjoyed the sights and sounds of Singapore – this is a beautiful country! It is an honor to have the opportunity to visit with you. I am very impressed by the story of Free Community Church, and thank you for your fellowship and friendship with Metropolitan Community Churches. In particular, I bring greetings from Rev. Elders’ Troy Perry, Darlene Garner, and Pat Bumgardner who have all had the opportunity to visit with you in the past.
It is Mother’s Day, and I give thanks for my own mother, in her 90th year. In one of your videos for “Pink Dot, AJ said, “Mum’s are a reflection of God!” They are, indeed.
Today we hear two stories in this reading from the Book of Acts — Paul and Silas get in trouble, and, then, what they do with that trouble . . . The Book of Acts is the story of an “unhindered gospel,” a “gospel of the heart set free.” These stories are emblematic of those themes. All of us, all of our churches, are a collection of stories. . . .those videos for Pink Dot are all about how people got into trouble, and how they reached out to their heroes, to get through that trouble with grace and hope. The first story involves a woman. She was a “slave-girl,” one who was being trafficked. She was exploited by her owners through her “spirit of divination,” in which she brought them money through fortune-telling, a kind of entertainment.
We know nothing about her. She is nameless, and, though she speaks, it is not even her speaking, presumably, but this “spirit.” We can assume that she was separated from her family, abused in many ways.
She becomes the reason Paul and Silas are thrown into prison. The “spirit” that inhabits her day, after day, in the marketplace, calls out to Paul and Silas, the way demons often did to Jesus. Demons would “out” Jesus, as this spirit was doing to Paul and Silas. In a bit of irony, the spirit that lives in a slave-girl calls Paul and Silas “slaves of the Most High.” The Bible says that Paul got annoyed, and for that reason, commanded the spirit to leave her in the name of Jesus. I would have preferred it if Paul and healed her to help her, to have mercy on her, but that does not seem to be the case. Being annoyed seems more consistent with Paul’s personality! Paul does not heal her for the sake of this girl, her life and mental health, her future. In fact, we do not hear about her again, and her future is more in doubt than ever! She, in fact, loses her job, her value to her owners, which could put her in danger. We might hope there was an emergency shelter she could flee to, or family somewhere, or even strangers who could take pity on her. We do not hear anything from Paul in the way of concern about her fate due to his actions.
Today, in our world, there are more slaves – labor and sex slaves, than ever in the history of the world, about 26 million. This is a terrible scandal that governments, NGO’s, churches, and individuals must collaborate to stop! More and more attention is being drawn to this problem, that exists right under our noses – but more must be done.
Paul and Silas are punished for even unintentionally disrupted the profits of the owners of this girl. They have stepped into an evil system, called it out, and messed with the system.
Paul neglects to tell them he is a Roman citizen, and he and Silas take their punishment for being troublesome Jewish foreigners who have disrupted the status quo. They are beaten, and thrown into the innermost cell of the jail, presumably to be forgotten forever.
That is the end of the first story. But it is not the end of THE story. . .
Then, the plot turns.
It turns on this beautiful verse, “About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”
About midnight – it was very dark!! There were no lights in that innermost cell – they had been beaten, bloody and sore, all for healing a nameless girl. . .And, they are praying and singing.
I do not think they were singing mournful songs, no, I imagine they were not woeful, but joyful, their tears were tears of laughter and hope.
I love that the prisoners, and maybe the jailer (?), were listening. . . how were they feeling about that singing? What did they suppose it signified
Are these guys crazy? They sound happy, sweet sound, comforting . . .
Why are they singing?
BECAUSE THEY ARE FREE.
Free Community Church, they are free of and for many things! No jail cell can oppress them, or prevent them from being full of faith and hope. Their lives are no longer just their own, they belong to a higher power, to God, to the Jesus Way, and that means that whether they are in the marketplace, or in the darkest dungeon, they are free!
No jail cell can defeat them, no beating can hold them back, they can laugh and pray and tell stories, and sing their hearts out! They do not exist for themselves, but for a greater purpose. That is what freedom is – it is not about having no responsibility, it is about being available and fully human, fully alive, in every circumstance.
Paul and Silas have given their lives over to an adventure of faith that sometimes lands them in a deep, dark cell. But all of it is for a purpose. . . THEY ARE FREE
And, then, there is the earthquake.
It is so violent! The foundations of the prison were shaken, it says. . .
That jail, that prison, was a place of misery, of pain, of hopelessness. It needed to be shaken.
I live in a country, the US, whose prison system destroys lives, poor people, people of color, terrible injustice. The foundations are being shaken even now — finally, there is an out cry, and action, and justice. We are experiencing a moral earthquake. . .
This earthquake unfastened everyone’s chains. . .
Now, if I had been Paul or Silas, might have thought: “I prayed, sang, and God answered my prayers with an earthquake, now I am free, RUN!!!”
But, remember, Paul and Silas are already FREE! They don’t have to run to be free. Instead, they decide to “discern” this earthquake. To wonder whose prayers are being answered? They wait.
The jailer, who was supposedly a free man, awakens to see the prison doors opened by the earthquake, and panics, thinking he should take his own life rather than endure whatever unpunishment will come his way for losing prisoners. . .
Miraculously, Paul shouts to him not to take his life, that, in fact, that they are all there. I have no idea how Paul convinced the other prisoners to stay – if they were just so traumatized by Paul and Silas’ singing and the earthquake, that they were paralyzed. . .or they just had to see what would happen next!
In this act of grace, of mercy, of love, the jailer is transformed.
Before, he was a FREE man who was imprisoned by FEAR. Maybe he hated his life, his job and his was just the last straw.
But, in this act of mercy everything is turned upside down. Paul and Silas, who are in prison, but are FREE, bring the gift of faith and freedom to a FREE man who is in a prison of fear. . .In a moment of great courage, the jailer brings them out of prison, and asks them what he must do to be saved. . . what must he do to have their kind of freedom, joy and hope? The jailer brings them to his home, feeds them, dresses their wounds, and he and his household hear the word of God, the message of Jesus, and are baptized. The jailer who had been so afraid just hours before is now risking everything to help these prisoners!! He is FREE to live in God, to live in a new purpose. . .
What can we learn?
First, I am still unsettled by this slave girl, who is a warning to us: sometimes our “good deeds” have unintended consequences. I could have wished that she was important enough that Paul and Silas, or the jailer and his family, or someone, would have cared enough to follow up.
There are those who are still so marginalized in our world, that they do not count, that we do not know what happens to them . . .if we knew it would break our hearts . . .but, that breaking of hearts is what brings real change, how justice begins.
FREE COMMUNITY CHURCH, you came into existence to make visible the suffering of a group of people who others refused to see, help, include. . . your calling is to continue to live in that kind of freedom and faith!
The owners, the jailers, are all part of a system that claims to protect freedom, but, really, it is based on FEAR. The Church of Jesus Christ is too much like that today – protecting its interest, the status quo . . . seeking to lock away those who would disrupt and challenge it. FREE COMMUNITY CHURCH, it is midnight, and you need to sing with all your heart and minds and souls, in FREEDOM and FAITH – so that the other prisoners, others who are marginalized, can hear you! And, so that even the jailers can hear you FREE COMMUNITY CHURCH – you need to discern your earthquakes! Whose prayers are waiting to be answered by you?
When I was pastor of MCC Los Angeles, there was an earthquake, in 1994. It destroyed our building, and 80 other churches were also damaged. But only people in and around MCC asked, is this God’s judgement? The Catholics and the Baptists did not ask that. We had to learn not to run away from the challenge. . . . God is up to something, and can use this earthquake. At first we assumed we should rebuild on the same spot, but, in time, it became clear that God was calling us in a different direction, one that was to alter our mission and calling. We moved to West Hollywood, to the heart of the community, and found there was so much to do . . . our presence needed in new ways.
When you are challenged, take the time to discern as FREE people . . . Who Needs us Now? You may think you know, but, give God a chance to reveal it to you.
May God give you, Free Community Church, the faith to sing at midnight, the courage to discern your earthquakes!
Thank you for who you are in this community, and for so many around the world!