A month ago, my preaching group gathered in Birmingham to spend a week preaching to each other and talking about the life of preaching in the church. While there we took an afternoon to head to the west side of town to the Civil Rights Institute, an important institution in the city that tells the story of the movement – connecting Birmingham’s important role in the Freedom Rides in the summer of 1961, King’s arrest and letter from the Birmingham jail – addressed to six white clergy, including the minister of First Presbyterian Church, who had published a letter saying too much was happening too quickly.
Across the street is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where on September 15, 1963, four members of the KKK placed sticks of dynamite under a stairwell during Sunday school, killing four girls: Carol Denise McNair (11), Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were 14. The staff was kind enough to let some preachers snoop around. A gentleman in his 70s who had grown up in the church walked us downstairs, then back up into the sanctuary. We stood in silence by the stained glass window that had been blown out that day, stared at the pulpit from which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, and then after that the doors swung open and children, two by two, locking arms, marched down the steps and across the street into a park where they were met with dogs and water cannons, reminding us, then as now, that those in power cling to it tightly. Then as now, freedom for all is never without cost.
“But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone,” Luke says in verse 19, “they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” Last week we heard about a vision that came to Paul in a dream, a man from Macedonia, calling to him. He begins a long journey, ending in Philippi. They head to the river one Sabbath looking for a group of men praying, and they come across a group of extraordinary women, including one named Lydia, who is baptized, along with her entire household, and she welcomes them into her home.
One day, later, Luke says, we – Paul, Silas, maybe Lydia – were heading toward the place of prayer, a makeshift synagogue for Jews visiting the Roman Philippi.1 They come upon a slave girl who had a “spirit of divination,” literally in the Greek a pythian spirit, from python, the mythical serpent slain by Apollo. This would call to mind to Luke’s readers the Oracle at Delphi, a place of great prophetic authority.2 Whatever this slave-girl was saying, it must have been accurate enough, because she made her owners good money.
Initially this is a bit funny. Paul, very much annoyed, impatiently casts the spirit out. But, and Luke’s language is wonderful, when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them before the magistrate. They didn’t get in trouble for preaching the gospel; they got in trouble for costing powerful people money. Will Willimon writes, “Here is a young woman, chained her whole life to the hell of demon possession, and now she is free; there ought to be rejoicing. But no, her owners aren’t free enough to do that. It was fine to give a dollar to the Mental Health Association drive last fall, but this is another matter. Religion has somehow gotten mixed up with economics here,” he writes, “and so her owners do what the vested interests always do when their interests are threatened. The girl’s owners say to the judge, ‘We’re not against a little religion – as long as it is kept in its place.'”3 Which sounds a lot like those white moderates writing to King in a Birmingham city jail. These disciples are “disturbing the peace,” “advocating the wrong customs,” Luke says. They are beaten, dragged into the innermost cell, feet in the stocks.
Stripped, beaten, flogged. Even without all this, we know prison changes people. People who, for whatever reason, even folks who have done serious wrong, don’t seem to have much of a chance for rehabilitation. There are amazing programs and ministries that try and bridge the divide between those IN THERE and those OUT HERE. Too often we end up with this cycle of folks who commit a crime, serve time, and come back out, commit a crime, go back in, and the hopelessness mounts and mounts and mounts. Did you see the wonderful story last week about a Cumberland County judge who sentenced a veteran he knew had PTSD to twenty four hours in jail, then went and served it with him? A former special forces soldier, deployed four times, who was plagued by what he called demons from what he saw in his time there, has wrestled with alcohol for years. He’s in a diversion program for veterans that tries to get them help instead of punishing them. This soldier lied to the judge about his urinalysis test, and the judge sentenced him to a night in jail. But this judge also knew that time in isolation, especially for someone with PTSD, can crush people. So the judge went and sat with him, in that cell, the entire twenty-four hours.4
Late that night Paul and Silas filled the darkness with singing. Then, mid-verse, rumbling, walls shaking, rocks loosened… and then… in an instant, the jail doors were flung open. As the buildings settled into silence again, everyone’s chains fell off. But no one moved. The jailer, true to stereotype and sleeping on the job, woke up with his own fear. You don’t allow people to go free without cost, without consequences, and he stood, tears flowing, sword poised at his own throat. Paul shouts… “Do not do it!” We are here. We are all here. Lights! Lights! He calls out, falls down trembling before these men. He grasps their hands, taking them outside, looks them in the eye: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus.” They told him the story, he cleaned their wounds, and the entire family was baptized. They shared a holy meal together. They were free.
What does it look like when healing comes? Someone sent me a piece by David Brooks in the New York Times this week that I think is important for this moment in our national discourse. Brooks does the usual moaning that the political class is doing about Donald Trump then, and I appreciate this, he puts on the hat of someone who resembles a pastor. Brooks says that this election cycle – “not only the Trump phenomenon but the rise of Bernie Sanders also – has reminded us how much pain there is in this country. According to a Pew Research poll, 75 % of Trump voters say that life has gotten worse for people like them over the last half century.” This falls in line with all sorts of other horrible statistics – the suicide rate is at a 30-year high, a sure sign of rampant social isolation. A record number of people believe the American dream is out of reach. For millennials, social trust is at historic lows.
Brooks says that there are two ways to deal with this. One is to listen to, and spend time with, people different from us. Of different races and classes and backgrounds, different politics. Different theological systems. My guess is we all could do a better job at this, with the patterns of people like us being so easy to fall into. We have to do better. The church MUST. The other thing he says is that we need a new national story. He doesn’t know what it is, he says, but it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over the isolation, dislocation, and social instability so present today.5
The good news is that I think we’ve got the story. Of Jesus the Christ who was born as we were, lived a simple yet extraordinary life, confounding the world with more love than people knew what to do with. Who was killed by those who were threatened by this love, because that love was breaking walls down and connecting people in new ways and helping them, forcing them, to see each other as beloved, maybe for the first time, calling them to listen and pray TOGETHER, calling them to serve, not just the folks like them but their sworn enemy, like a Samaritan helping out a good Jew hurt on the side of the road. Who calls you to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. This One understands that love subverts the power to which we ALL cling, especially those of us in relative privilege in the eyes of the world. And that a life indebted to him, to Jesus, a life that seeks to follow him, calls us to lean into that love. To think about what it means for ourselves. And to walk in that love, let that love seep into every pore of our lives.
It was THIS story that led Paul and Silas, even in jail, to not act out of anger or resentment, but use even that opportunity as a moment to bring glory to God. To show others through their living the story that claims us more than any other the world has to offer. It was that story that claimed them, that built bridges, that welcomed all, that had a part to play in the healing of the world, then as now, filled with too much brokenness. It is the story of that One, Jesus the Christ, that calls to us all.
What story does your life tell? To whom does it point? All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The Discipleship Study Bible, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), footnote on page 1901.
2. From the Rev. Dr. Joe Clifford’s paper on this text for the 2013 meeting of The Well, Baltimore.
3. William H. Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988), p 139.
4. “Cumberland County judge spends night in jail to help former soldier,” WRAL.com, April 21, 2016.
5. “If Not Trump, What?,” David Brooks, The New York Times, April 29, 2016.