Singing from Prison for the Earthquake of God
Today we are going to talk about one of the most important characteristics of the gospel.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, above all other things, is liberation.
We see this dynamic all over our story from Acts.
We read that Paul and Silas, as they minister in Philippi, attract a hanger-on.
She is an enslaved woman, and she is said to have a spirit of divination.
We don’t really know what that means or how we would think of that in modern terms, but the author makes clear what the practical result was: “She brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”
This woman was being doubly exploited.
First, she was held in slavery, and second, she was used to make money by manipulating what was either a genuine spiritual gift of her own, or the gullibility and spiritual hunger of anyone her owners could attract.
She had no freedom or self-determination, and she was being used as a circus side-show act.
But she could sense the true spiritual power of Paul and Silas, and she pursued it.
“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,” we read, and then Luke tells us that Paul was “very much annoyed.”
Why was he annoyed?
Well, I think anyone following you around shouting out the same sentence for days at a time might get a bit annoying after a while.
It’s also possible that Paul was irritated that someone was stealing his dramatic thunder in the public square. Never one to shy from the limelight, Paul loved being a showstopper for Christ, and this woman was rather upstaging him.
But I wonder if there’s another explanation for his annoyance.
This woman was an ever present reminder of the very injustice she was undergoing.
Slaves were supposed to be quiet and unobtrusive, like sentient furniture, living bodies that could anticipate and do your will without your having to engage them as human beings.
This woman trapped in slavery would not be silent.
And when oppressed people refuse to be silent, people with the power to do something about that oppression who don’t really want to deal with it get very annoyed.
This is precisely our own situation with those suffering from racial and economic injustice in our own country and around the world.
We do anything we can to not hear their cries, the proclamation that God’s power could make a change if we would let it.
Most of the time it’s a low level of discomfort that we can stifle with materialism and busyness.
But sometimes it gets loud enough to disturb the public square, and we become very much annoyed.
We don’t want to know that there are enslaved people around us and we are ignoring them.
I am the number one practitioner of this willful blindness! That’s the reason I’m so convicted about it!
Awful as that truth is, we’re in good company. Saint Paul himself fell into the same trap.
But Paul eventually lets his discomfort drive him to do the work that he is being called to do.
He, through the power of Jesus, liberates this woman from her exploitation.
“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.”
And then they all went home and lived happily ever after.
Oh, no, wait, that’s not what happened.
“When her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities…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.”
Ouch. Paul and Silas have succeeded in unleashing the liberating power of the gospel, but the result is that they have exchanged their own freedom for the freedom of the enslaved girl.
And that’s another truth that we don’t really want to grapple with.
If and when we finally listen to the Spirit enough to get serious about the liberation of oppressed people in our communities, there will be a cost.
For some activists, it is as literal as actual jail time for civil disobedience, just like Paul and Silas.
But for most of us, the cost will be much more subtle.
It will be the loss of some of our own privileged position, some of our own wealth, some of our own comfort and security, some of our own certainty that we are right.
And most of us would frankly prefer literal chains around our hands and feet like Paul.
That’s much more glamorous and dramatic and noble than the humble spiritual discipline of letting go of our own power.
But here is the amazing thing about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the amazing thing about this story.
We have seen the liberation of the enslaved woman, and we are about to see the liberation of Paul and Silas and their compatriots from their unjust imprisonment.
But what makes this story remarkable is that there is much more liberation happening here than just the obvious.
What makes this story about the transformative power of Jesus Christ is that the oppressors are liberated right along with the oppressed.
Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God in their chains.
They’ve already drawn the attention of their fellow prisoners.
But it seems that their faith and steadfast hearts have caused creation itself to want to sing with them, and the mighty voice of God’s earth breaks forth in a powerful earthquake.
When people are willing to give themselves for the liberation of others, to walk freely the way of the Cross for the sake of those denied their dignity as children of God, the rocks and stones themselves start to sing, as Jesus foretold.
Justice rolls down like waters. The torrents call to one another, from deep to deep. Every valley is exalted and every hill made low.
This is the earth-shattering power of the marriage of justice and mercy that is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this remaking of the earth is the laying of the foundations stones of the new Kingdom of God.
Nothing will ever be the same. And we know that because we see it in this story.
What would you do if you were thrown in jail on trumped up charges, and then suddenly the doors were open and you were free to go?
Well, first you’d at the very least probably run away from the prison warden, if not give him a good punch in the face or three on your way out.
The jailer in our story, terrified of the consequences to himself for an entire prison’s worth of convicts escaping into the night, has drawn his sword and is about to kill himself.
Who would blame Paul and Silas for letting him do the deed? The only good Roman is a dead Roman, right?
And how else are the rest of these people going to have time to escape, not to mention Paul and Silas making a clean and well-deserved getaway themselves?
But Paul and Silas have fallen so deeply in love with liberation, that is to say, so deeply in love with Jesus, that they cannot let this man, this jailer, die in his own chains.
They stay his hand, convince him to live, because there is freedom for him in Christ. All he has to do is open his heart.
The jailer does, and takes Paul and Silas with him to baptize his entire family.
Consider the consequences for the jailer as he takes this path.
Everyone who didn’t go with Paul and Silas to join the baptism no doubt escaped. The jailer is not off the hook for that.
He will certainly forfeit his job and possibly even his life for this.
But he has learned that there are things more important than the circumstances of his human life.
He has experienced a liberation that will see him through whatever comes his way, disgrace or threats or even death itself.
His soul is free, and so his body can never truly be imprisoned.
If he ends up in the same jail he threw Paul and Silas into, he too will be singing hymns and anthems to God.
Freedom with Jesus is freedom forever.
Do you live your life like that is true?
Do I live my life as though that’s true? I’m not sure.
I think a great deal of the time, the earthquakes of God are shattering our walls all around us, and we’re so terrified of that loss of control that we cling to our chains and call them comfort and harmony.
Liberation, which is Jesus by another name, is disruptive and scary and can feel out of control.
It changes things forever, and for we who are powerful and comfortable, it rarely feels to us like it’s for the better.
Among the many who are liberated in this story, the owners of the slave girl were liberated from their wealth and their ability to continue exploiting her.
But I bet they didn’t call it liberation. I bet they called it unfair and wrong and a threat to the rule of law.
Are we doing the same?
Is God’s earthquake knocking at our doors and we’re calling it unseemly and unnecessarily divisive and impractical?
“We’ve never done it that way before,” we hear in church again and again, or, my other favorite, “We tried that once and it didn’t work.”
“We tried that once and it didn’t work.” Tell that to the enslaved woman in our story.
The first time she proclaimed the truth about Paul and Silas and to Paul and Silas, it didn’t work.
The tenth time she tried it, it didn’t work.
The fiftieth time she tried it, it didn’t work.
But she spoke truth to power until power couldn’t take it anymore, and on iteration number 647 of “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation,” Paul called upon Jesus to liberate her into salvation of her own.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether it is going to take 647 proclamations of the truth to us from oppressed people for us to hear the message, or whether we might covet some freedom of our own enough to listen a little sooner.
I am one hundred percent convinced, and I have preached this before, that the death of the Episcopal Church is the best thing that has ever happened to us.
We of the institutional mainline church are like that jailer, hearing the songs of oppressed people who cannot be severed from God by our complicity in their imprisonment.
When justice comes and they start to escape, we of the dwindling wealthy white suburban churches feel a profound sense of failure and grief.
We stand here today ready to turn our swords on ourselves, to give it all up because things are falling apart around our ears.
But hear the gospel: the liberation of Jesus Christ is for us too.
We don’t have to die for our own sins.
In fact, new life awaits for us the moment we’re ready to be humble and open enough to receive it.
The liberation of Jesus Christ breaks open not just our own chains and those of everyone we have failed to support in their quest for justice.
It will, in the long term, free us from those very labels of oppressed and oppressor that imprison us now.
God’s people, healed, forgiven, and free, will be known by new names.
And the words of the psalmist will speak the truth that we are: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
This is the last Sunday of Easter.
For forty days we have proclaimed the Resurrection, but each of us must ask in the privacy of our own hearts whether we are actually living as though it were true.
Last week, Jesus asked us, “Do you want to be healed?”
Today he asks us, “Do you want to be free?”
We’ve only got a week to decide, because next week is Pentecost. Next week the Holy Spirit comes.
We can either hold it at arms’ length because we’re afraid it will burn our house down, or we can welcome our house burning down because that house was actually our jail cell.
The price of a heart set on fire for Jesus Christ may well be seeing our own power and privilege going up in smoke.
I’ll never be brave enough to pray for it unless you pray with me.
Singing to God from jail is a terrible risk, but the earthquake song of God is our liberation made real.
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