A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
May 12, 2013
by Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Acts 16:16-34
Our scripture lesson this morning is taken from the Acts of the Apostles, and continues the stories of those followers of Jesus who sought to bring the Good News even to the ends of the Earth. Today we hear of Paul and Silas, at the beginning of their ministry in Macedonia. Let us listen to God’s word to us this morning…
“One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most-High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place 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 crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped.
But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on The Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of The Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He bought 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.
It was not the first time, nor will it be the last. That strange day brought what could only be seen as a miracle, and yet shed light onto some of the darkest and most sinister aspects of our humanity. A girl broke free. Her shouting made known the ways she was held hostage, abused, exploited. Her arm stretched through the barrier between her bondage and her freedom. A victim of the worst acts of humanity, perceived to be lost forever, and yet, hope was still found.
People have said what was most surprising was that this man took notice. A man who could have ignored her shouts, could have passed by and looked the other way. A man who was also a nobody in that town, just a powerless stranger.
But he didn’t. Didn’t turn away or blind himself to her pain. Instead released her into the light of day, into a hope fashioned from her new freedom, and in some ways he freed us all.
Certainly it was not what the stranger expected to find – he had come to this country after a dream about a man seeking his help. “Come to Macedonia and help us!” The man had pleaded. And so they came.
And yet there was no man. Only women. First a business woman and then this. This mouthy, unnamed slave-girl. She has “masters,” men who are living off her talent of divination, making a great deal of money off of her, selling her body and mind for their own profit.
The girl sits at the lowest rung of her society: disturbed, slave, woman. She has nothing, and whatever she might have had through her particular talent is being exploited by those who own her.
The stranger is no hero. For days he ignores her, annoyed by her. And yet she will not let herself be forgotten, will not be avoided, following the men around and shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God.” It is out of annoyance that he helps. And yet, regardless of his intent, the woman is liberated from the bonds that hold her, and she is freed.
It was not the first time, nor will it be the last. The bizarre and astonishing course of events would cause a man to plunge into the depths of hopelessness, and then be pulled into the height of hope and grace. Every aspect of his life had hinged on his profession; his household depended upon his income; his wife, children would not survive without it, without him.
His honor, too, was tied to his work. In social settings the first thing he was asked was about his work, and he didn’t mind – it was the way he understood himself, it was the way he found meaning. He went to work early and stayed late. His work was everything; His work was his master, it owned him. And now it was nothing; he was nothing.
When he discovered what had happened, how he had lost everything, his life flashed before his eyes: What would his neighbors say? What would people say? How would his wife and children look at him, when they learned he had lost it all? What would he do, what would he be, without his job? What could possibly fill the void, the chasm that had been created by this catastrophe. It was better to end it all than to face the darkness and unknown that lie ahead.
And then – voices ringing out of the dark. Voices of hope, voices of assurance, voices of peace and even – joy…
It was his last night with them. His last night with us. His last night, and he broke bread, ate with us and laughed with us. There was that strange moment when he rose from the table and washed each of our feet. There was his long and confusing sermon about vines and branches, and then that powerful moment when he began to pray for us. He prayed that we might be one.
He said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one….”
Christ’s final prayer, his continued prayer for us, is that we may be one, as the triune God is one. For all are one in Christ Jesus.
Perhaps it is exaggeration, even offensive, to imagine that we might have anything in common with the kind of slavery experienced by the unnamed slave girl in our text. Perhaps it is beyond the realm to imagine we have anything in common with Amanda Berry and her daughter or Gina DeJesus or Michele Knight.
Perhaps we relate more to the jailor, so tied to his way of life that when it appears to be overturned there is no hope to replace it. Perhaps we relate more to the neighbors, who kept so much to themselves that they failed to see what was right in front of them for years.
One chooses the source of his captivity, one does not.
And yet, it was not the first time, nor will it be the last. Girls continue to be exploited, abused, looked down upon as property, as less-than. People continue to be self-absorbed and busy with their own lives. What have we to do with it?
And yet, what if in some ways this is what Paul and Jesus were pointing to – that none of us can be liberated without all of us being liberated. That the masters who exploit and trade in human lives must be vanquished just as much as the masters we choose for ourselves.
Any master that is not our Lord the Most High God is inadequate and inferior, and will not lead to life but only to death.
We are, all of us, slaves – of our own making, slaves of those who would give themselves over to the worst impulses of our humanity. Perhaps we are slaves to our kid’s sports schedules, slaves to our mortgages… slaves to our constant pursuit of more and better, education, wardrobes, salaries… Slaves to the idols we create and worship again and again.
Paul writes to the Galatians that there is no longer Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, Male or Female, for all are one in Christ Jesus. All are one. And so when we strive for Justice, all must be included. All must be liberated.
A girl was found, again, captive to the worst of our humanity, exploited and abused. I wonder what that moment was like, when she was freed from the clutches of her captor, when she understood that he would no longer posses her, no longer have access to her, no longer be able to own her life and her body again. Not only mothers, not only fathers, but all people everywhere, even our God in heaven, must rejoice at her liberation.
“These are slaves of the Most High God! Who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” That is what the slave-girl shouted at Paul and his companions.
…may it be said about each and every one of us.
In the name of the Creator the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.