Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Acts 16:16-40
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Current Headlines in Acts
[SLIDE #1] These old Bible stories are remarkably current. An enslaved girl who makes a lot of money for her owners? That's human trafficking. [SLIDE #2] Here in VA it's mostly sex-trafficking, but also labor trafficking. The anti-Jewish abuse and imprisonment of Paul and Silas brings to mind contemporary racial profiling and the global embarrassment of detention and incarceration rates in the US. [SLIDE #3] And the jailer's suicide attempt reminds us that weapons can be turned on ourselves [SLIDE #4] during severe depression or in amoment of feeling trapped and hopeless. The death this week of recently retired Sheriff McEathron in Warren County seems to follow this pattern. And so, from a 2000 year old travelogue, God speaks to us today. God is not just addressing issues that may or may not affect our daily lives, depending on our privilege, protection or isolation. God addresses us personally with saving grace.
[SLIDE #5] Our scripture begins with a girl who had a spirit. It's not an evil spirit. It's not an unclean spirit. The Greek says she had a Pythian spirit, which is very specific. Pythian describes a Greek spirituality. The Greeks had a tradition of spiritual intermediaries, often widows or virgins, who spoke for the god Apollos who was said to have killed the great Python who guarded the center of the earth.
What's important for us is that when these followers of Jesus on their way to pray to meet this girl, among all the other dynamics, it's an interreligious encounter. And what the girl says through this Pythian (Python) spirit in the name a Greek god is (weirdly) true: These men are servants of the most high God who proclaim a way of salvation. Imagine! Other religious traditions may speak a truth that is compatible with Christ-centered truth. Perhaps her announcement was advantageous to the Christian message that Paul and the mission team were sharing. We know historically that Greeks and Romans who were drawn to a high God in their pantheon, exploring monotheism or even Jewish faith were more likely to receive the message of Jesus Christ as good news. These are servants of the most high God who proclaim to you a way of salvation.
While the girl is speaking the truth, she is also suffering from a triple-whammy of oppression. Here's the triple-whammy:
- Her Greek spiritual gift is being exploited by Roman commerce.
- As a slave, she is dominated by owners.
- And as a female child, she is controlled by a group of adult males.
[CLICK for Triple Whammy] That's a triple-whammy of oppression. If we were academics, we'd call that intersectional analysis, but we're church and we're just listening for God and the saving grace we need.
Now let's be clear, the message and mission of Jesus always resists oppression. Exactly how to resist is often thorny, complex. We do it imperfectly. Paul and his team didn't do anything at first. But eventually, Paul confronts and evicts this spirit from the girl's body…and she is free. That's saving grace.
I wonder what happened to her. Did she speak in her own voice? Did she become curious about the Lord Jesus by whose name she was set free?
Did she find a community at that place of prayer in Philippi? She receives God's saving grace as freedom and her story is open-ended. God's story just shows us that point when she was freed from oppressive powers.
I encourage you this week to listen to your own story. When have you experienced God's saving grace? Has there been an important event? Have there been dozens of experiences of grace this week alone? [SLIDE #6] That's something to talk about with others in your circle or journal about. Our own stories of being saved, build our faith for future challenges. Maybe there's an episode of saving grace that the Spirit is nudging you to share this morning.
Now the former owners of the girl accuse Paul and Silas of creating an anti-Roman disturbance. This is the bad guys talking, but weirdly, they're right! The Christian message and mission disturbs empires and systems of oppression. At this point in the story, and very often, the empire seems to have the upper hand. God's messengers are stripped, beaten and jailed, which sounds nothing like saving grace unless you know Jesus–in his passion and his resurrection.
As if human trafficking and brutal abuse isn't enough human tragedy in this scripture, while in jail there's yet another devastating crisis. Weirdly, an earthquake releases all the prisoners. What will the magistrates do to the jailer, if his prisoners have escaped? He is trapped and about to take his own life.
In the last two decades, suicide rates in VA have been slowly increasing. A recent report from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services says handguns were the most common cause of death in suicides, used in 58 percent of all Virginia cases. The report also found that men were more than three times more likely to die by suicide than women. (From AP Dec 2018).
Are some of the mass shootings today elaborated suicides with officers completing the violent spiral?
Last year a couple of us from CMC were trained in mental health first aid. The Action Plan began with tools to assess for risk of suicide or harm. [SLIDE #7] If a group of CMCers wants to take the course together, we can arrange for that in partnership with the local community services board. We need professional mental health workers, but we also need more ordinary people–men and women–trained in mental health first aid. Now there is no indication in this Bible story that the jailer was mentally ill. He is perhaps terrified and hopeless. And he's armed. He's a high risk for suicide. The good news is that as with the girl set free from human trafficking, the jailer to experiences saving grace. Paul intervenes as best he can and the jailer is saved. In the imperial system, the jailer seems doomed, but as Paul reaches out to him and his whole family in the name of Jesus the jailer finds life, faith, and joy.
Throughout Acts 16 there are shimmering examples of Christian faith that matters. There's an interreligious encounter that is about truth and freedom. The jailer is brought back from the edge of taking his own life. Later, the jailer shows hospitality and compassion to Paul and Silas, washing their wounds. There's home-based hospitality, speaking the word of Lord, a shared meal, belief in Jesus Christ and baptism–another washing away of a lifetime of wounds. Finally, there is an outbreak of joy.
And so the terrible events in Philippi–the enslavement of a young girl, the mission workers being stripped and beaten, and the jailer's suicide attempt–are held and healed in the larger story of God's saving grace in the world. This is one of the reasons we worship together– a week in and week out. [SLIDE # 8] In worship we are assured that our lives are held and healed in the larger story of God's saving grace in the world. Without a weekly rhythm of hearing God address us together, we could despair, we could drift away, we could lose our capacity to influence public powers in the name of Jesus.
When Paul and Silas are bruised, bloody and shackled, they pray. They sing hymns. Why worship in jail? When everything is wrong, in our own lives or in the life of the world, when we are physically beaten, mentally broken down, literally locked up, when worldly authorities seem to have the loudest voice and the upper hand, the people of God, worship and believe. We believe in Jesus. And we believe that we are held and healed by God's saving grace. Our lifestory is still open-ended. There is hope for us and for the world.
Another reason we worship each week is because other prisoners–captive to the same empire as we–are listening. In Biblical spirituality, the people of God freely express pain and even despair, as they claim the hope and saving grace of God. That's why the lament psalms usually become songs of thanks and praise by the end. It's as if joy indeed comes in the morning as if Christ's resurrection wonder is absolutely true. Our fractured world is held and healed by One whose broken body and resurrection life finds us wherever we are and is among us now.
We don't know how the inmates prayed and sang in Philippi, but we know their standard prayers and songs from the Psalms. I like to imagine we're among those prisoners listening in on the midnight prayers and songs of Paul and Silas. Turn back to Psalm 97, which we read this morning. It's a psalm about government. About who is in charge of the world. It's not us. It's not the jailer. It's not the magistrates. It's not Rome. It's not the adversaries on every side (v. 3). It's not the hand of the wicked (v. 10.) The Lord reigns! Let the earth rejoice! This psalm is studded with joy, rejoice and gladness. We need joy to sustain our faith. And like the arc of a rainbow on the other side of this old Bible story, there is an outbreak of joy as the jailer believes and his household is saved (v. 34).
Here's the part I didn't want to preach because it's right at the edge of my faith and it seems to wreck that description of being held and healed. It's the earthquake. [SLIDE #9] You know the epicenter of an earthquake is on the surface, but the focus is deep in the earth because earthquakes start underground. Blocks of rock moving against each other along fault lines get stuck. For a while, there are opposing forces, but no movement, until one breaks and then the earthquakes. I think another reason we worship is that the people of God at worship are part of a force that shakes the foundations of the prisons and empires and anything else that would destroy God's creation and God's people. And we just never know when that breaking point will come when the doors will be open and the chains broken. And we don't want to miss it because it will be our freedom, our saving grace, too.
[SLIDE #10] I don't know why you came to worship this morning. Maybe you're asking that question: what must I do to be saved? Maybe you feel some freedom, like that girl saved from oppression and are finding your way. Maybe you're like those folks in the jail, awake at night, and listening in to the prayers and songs of believers. Maybe together praying and singing, listening and believing, no matter how beat up we are, until the powers that be apologize, we're some of that seismic pressure whereby God breaks through for a world that needs saving grace.
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