Sermon May 29 2022 Acts 16:16ff Freedom! Rev. Betsy Hogan
"Look for the helpers." That's what Fred Rogers', Mr. Rogers', mother would tell him whenever there was scary, despair-making news, when he was little. "Look for the helpers. There are always people who are helping."
And it’s true. Even if it's easy to feel crushed by humanity and the world and the way things are, still -- the fact is that we DO retain as a human family at least some sense, and often a really strong sense, that if there’s a way we can help when others are in trouble, we should.
Because when a tragedy occurs, and people can do something to help? Loads of people will do what they can to help. There's always that human goodness that remains. In a mllion little incremental small ways, people will help how they can, to make things better.
It’s basically what Paul and Silas decide to get up to, in the passage we heard this morning. These two early Christian apostles and leaders, travelling around from here to there, sharing the good news, teaching about the Way of Jesus –
And basically they see someone in distress, and they CAN help, so they DO. It’s a pretty good operative principle for all of us generally, and it seems to be Paul and Silas’ operative principle here.
They CAN help, so they do. The weird thing, though, if we sort of stand back and look at HOW they help -- in this long and complicated reading that involves everything from a slave girl possessed by a demon, to a kangaroo court and a prison, to an earthquake and a guard in despair, and a nice baptism at the end to really finish it all with a flourish –
The weird thing, though, if we look at HOW Paul and Silas help in all these various situations, it’s like they keep sort of missing the big picture. It’s actually a little bit strange.
Take their dealings with the slave girl, for example. When Paul and Silas see that slave girl on this day, in this passage, it’s not the first time. She’s apparently been harassing them. Yelling at them. Every day. She's mysteriously gifted with a spirit that allows her to see the real truth about people, and her owner has apparently been making money off her as a roadside fortune teller.
And so for several days, so we’re told, whenever Paul and Silas have been walking past her to the place of prayer, she’s been yelling at them on the street. She’s not yelling anything but what's basically the truth – that they're servants of the Most High God and they've come to preach salvation in God’s name –
But it seems all that yelling is really getting on Paul’s nerves. Which, if that doesn't sound very Christian of Paul, it pretty much isn't, but at any rate, all her yelling is really making Paul annoyed. Though to be fair to Paul, at least in part what's making him so annoyed is that he recognizes that the spirit that is within her is a demon of sorts that is possessing her.
It’s a bit like the unclean spirits that Jesus would occasionally call out of people who were afflicted. We might talk now about seizures or mental illness or catatonic episodes, but at that time Paul would have understood that slave girl’s visions and yelling as possession by a demon. And that annoys or at least troubles him enough that he wants to respond. He can heal her. He can free her of this possession. And so he does!
And it’s just as wonderful when he does it as it ever was when Jesus did it. She’s free – finally free – of this tumultuous presence inside her that has overwhelmed who she really is and has made her a prisoner in her own body. In the name of Jesus Christ, Paul says to her, I order this spirit to come out of you. And it does. And she is suddenly and miraculously free.
Except... the thing is, she’s still a slave. Which Paul doesn’t seem interested in dealing with at all. And I know things happened quickly, and the whole episode stirred up a great kerfuffle – but doesn’t it seem like he let down the side a bit? Lost an opportunity to rage against the machine?
Because there’s a man who claims to own this girl – this human being -- like she’s a table or a chair, and Paul never questions that. Never challenges it. If the power of Jesus’ message was that there could be freedom from the demons within us that hold us prisoner – our fears, our addictions, our broken places – and it WAS….
Then surely it was equally so that the power of Jesus’ message was that there could be freedom from the chains outside us that hold us prisoner just as securely. Like for example, poverty, or oppression, or… slavery.
But Paul doesn’t say a word. The slave girl gets hauled off by her owner, and we never hear about her again. We know she was freed from her demon, but was she ever freed from being a slave?
Meanwhile, of course, Paul and Silas are now experiencing a little imprisonment of their own, thanks to charges trumped up by the slave girl’s owner. They're captured, they're flogged, they're bound and shackled, and they're chucked into a prison dungeon. With a bunch of other prisoners. All miserable, all without hope. And Paul and Silas praying and singing for comfort as best they can. Until suddenly, there's an earthquake! Which I can’t even imagine how terrifying that would be. I've been in earthquakes, but never when I was shackled in a stone dungeon.
But when the earthquake's over... the prisoners look around them, and they're free! Their chains have been broken, the walls have fallen, the doors have been opened wide -- there's basically no more prison. They’re free!
But do they run? Oooo, I bet they started to! Until Paul, noticing that the prison guard is about to commit suicide because all the prisoners have gotten free on his watch, stops them. And “Don’t worry, Mr. Guard,” Paul calls to him. “We’re all still here!”
So helpful, isn't he, our Paul? Indeed, the guard is so impressed his helpfulness that he wants to know more about this Jesus that they talk about. “Come to my house,” the guard urges him. “I’ll bind up your wounds and bring you some food.” And off they go. Paul and Silas have been freed.
But the rest of the prisoners? Not so much. And I know things happened quickly, and the whole thing was a bit chaotic – but doesn’t it seem like maybe Paul missed an opportunity here? Wasn’t it Jesus who talked about loosing the prisoner from his chains? Letting the oppressed go free?
Because sure, some of those prisoners had probably done some very bad things. But can we really assume that the system that shackled Paul and Silas to a wall in a dungeon on trumped-up charges wasn’t doing the same thing to other people? Can we really assume that what was happening in that prison was actually justice? Might there not have been good reason, in the name of Jesus, for Paul to speak up? To challenge the way things are?
The things that Paul does, in the name of Jesus, in this reading, that seems to be all about freedom – they’re good things. He makes things better for the slave girl, frees her from the spirit that binds her, and he makes things better for the guard, frees him from the unbelief that binds him. In both cases, Paul can help someone in trouble, and so he does.
And that's great. It really is. The guard’s whole family rejoices when he became a believer, and although things aren’t necessarily looking that great for the slave girl, since her owner's unimpressed that her fortune-telling days are over, at least in theory things are going to be better for her because she won't be experiencing episodes of ‘possession’ anymore that are out of her control...
So Paul could help, and he did help. He did these nice Christian acts of freeing people from this and that, and it was good.
But here’s the thing. Jesus' promise of release of the captives and letting the oppressed go free -- it wasn't just this little help and that little help. That was only part of Jesus' bigger picture. And if Paul seems to forget that a little bit on that particular day in this passage, we don’t get to, as we stand back and look at that bigger picture.
Because right in the middle of this reading, in the midst of Paul and all his nice little Christian acts of freeing people from this and that, there it is. And it’s big and it’s loud and it’s violent, and it shakes the foundations and it crashes down the walls and opens the doors of a prison, and that earthquake? When God does freedom, God means it.
I think sometimes it's good for us to get reminded of that. Because essentially what this story is showing us, essentially what it amounts to is being reminded of what God thinks we deserve.
One of the best things about these stories from Acts that we really only hear in the season after Easter is that essentially the Apostles are kind of learning on the way. Figuring it all out as they go. Eventually realizing in retrospect what we get revealed to us in real time, essentially, when we hear their stories get told.
When God does freedom, God means it. And that earthquake? It's what God wants us to know we deserve.
Not just little freedom, immediate freedom, "now" freedom from this-or-that fear or "demon" thats twisting us up inside at any given moment – but BIG freedom. Earthquake freedom. Freedom from the systems and defaults and unquestioned "norms" that keep us and keep others imprisoned in servitude, imprisoned by oppression, always at risk.
That keep ALL of us from the real fullness of life God wants us to know we deserve.
"Look for the helpers," Mr. Rogers said. "There are always people who are helping." And we do. And it’s amazing. In a tragedy, in a disaster, in a crisis, people are amazing. Paul and Silas are amazing. They help.
But God's like, notice the earthquake. When I said freedom, I meant it. Help each other claim the real freedom, the real fullness of life you deserve, and you won't be doing it alone.
Thanks be to God, who empowers us. Amen.