The Seventh Sunday of Easter
There are times when your clergy really dread having to preach. Today is one of those times. I went through much of this week thinking I had nothing at all to say. Or really, I had too much to say, but none of it coherent or helpful. About the horrors of living in a country where common sense and human decency can’t seem to get any traction in our laws or customs. About the sick feeling in my stomach as I imagine parents who will never hold their children again. About my rage that so many Americans place their individual rights over the lives of other people, how we all act like we have no responsibility for anyone besides ourselves – a far cry from those we commemorate this Memorial Day. About Jesus and how he too lived in a time of violence and oppressive empire, and how it killed him. About hanging onto hope when we just want to curl up in despair. But it all just wants to take the shape of a long howl. It’s hard to pat it all into place to give you today.
So what we do when we can’t find the words: we go into silence and prayer, and the words of scripture. As Christians, those are our resources. That’s how we place ourselves into the hands of God who is greater and wiser than us; that’s how we connect to the communion of saints so that we know we are not alone. And that’s what I’ve got for you today: we’re going to look at our scripture, and we’re going to pray, and we’re going to talk about doing that more in our lives.
For scripture I want us to look at the passage from Acts, a wonderful story full of detail and drama. And everyone loves hearing a story. Now, I have to confess that I’ve always relegated the book of Acts to just that – fun old stories. The apostles who were so relatable as confused disciples somehow become inhumanly perfect in Acts. And there’s no Jesus at the center of the story. But all the same, Acts is part of our scripture, so there may just be something of God’s word in it for us today.
This story about Paul and Silas is both an artifact of a different time and something completely relevant to us. There’s demon possession in it, and divination, and exorcism; there’s a slave girl and Roman magistrates; there’s a miraculous earthquake and instant conversion. That all puts it in the category of a time long ago, a set of beliefs so different from ours that we can’t even really engage with it, too fantastical to do anything but chuckle and say, what a great yarn.
But it’s not so far off from us to think about an exploited and trafficked person finally set free from her captors, and those who lose money by her freedom becoming enraged and inciting mob violence, leading to unjust imprisonment. And yet everyone in the story is set free. And I think this is where God’s word might be for us today. The young woman is enslaved doubly – by her owners and by the demon possessing her. She sees Paul and Silas as enslaved also, slaves of the Most High God, as if her reference point is only and always about being a slave, she’s internalized that. But she is freed from all of that, and her freedom is what starts all the trouble. When her traffickers capture Paul and Silas and drag them to the marketplace, they rile up the crowd with the words that these two are a) not from here and b) out to destroy our system – which is, actually, true. These two Jesus followers have found freedom in Jesus and they are there to show others they can have that freedom too – maybe even freedom from this marketplace and freedom from this oppressive society they’re all in.
But Paul and Silas are put in prison in the innermost cell, legs in stocks. But that can’t keep them from singing, and there, freedom breaks out too, first the literal freedom of all the prisoners’ chains unfastened, and then the freedom of the jailer who is about to kill himself for his failure. But he and all his family hear the good news from Paul and Silas, and are baptized, and the whole prison becomes a place of freedom and joy.
Prison and slavery and unfreedom – there is more than one way to encounter all of that. So much in our world tries to hold us captive in unjust systems, and in isolation from one another, and in fear. But my friends, like Paul and Silas, we are not from here. We are free people, followers only of Jesus. And we do not have to suffer these chains of fear and despair, or our roles in this oppressive world, any longer. We can claim our freedom and hold onto hope. And our freedom can cause a lot of good trouble.
Back in 1963 Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was preparing to lead a campaign of desegregation in Birmingham, Alabama. In mass meetings, hundreds of volunteers stepped forward to participate in nonviolent protest, sit-ins, marches, and boycotts. Freedom was in the air. But Dr King and those leading with him knew that this was going to be a long, hard struggle, hard to stay nonviolent, to persevere through terrible opposition towards a far-off goal of freedom and justice. So if you signed up to be part of these protests, you had to be trained. But not only that, you had to make some commitments. Ten of them, to be exact. You had to sign a pledge card of ten commandments:
1) meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2) remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory.
3) walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
4) pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5) sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6) observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7) seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8) refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart.
9) strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10) follow the directions of the movement and of the captain of a demonstration.
In practicing these commitments, volunteers would build their own capacity for nonviolence and strength. They would ground themselves in God by daily prayer and scripture, they would strengthen their ability to love and serve others, they would control themselves and be better able to carry on the work. And in doing all of this, in keeping these commitments, this rule of life, they would be free. Free from all the smallness and pettiness that dogs us, from all that would trap us in systems of exploitation and oppression. Freedom from the lack of hope and despair that anything can ever change. And with that freedom, they brought freedom into this world.
That work is still ongoing. These must be our commitments as well. This is a long journey we’re on, and there is a long way to go yet. We must resist fear and despair. And I’ll be frank: we don’t do that with lots of likes and hashtags on social media while we sit at home in our apartments, doomscrolling. We do that with our rule of life as Christians – to pray and to read our Bible and to take our Sabbath. To love our enemies and to watch our tongues. To guard our hearts from too much media and partisan garbage. To keep our bodies healthy and our hearts open. And in doing all this, to keep getting in the way of this system that seeks only to oppress and destroy and kill. We claim our freedom as Christians, as people who follow Jesus, and our freedom will bring more freedom. Because it will show how ugly and violent and small evil is. And evil will not overcome.
So yes, we’re weeping and horrified at the world right now. On Memorial Day, we remember those who died for our freedom, and we try to hold onto the good this country could stand for. And we need to claim that freedom and that good, the freedom of God, who is our goodness. We claim the power of prayer and community and love. We come together and stand firm and say no to the violence and selfishness and hatred, and we commit ourselves to the long haul, even when the change we seek may not come in our lifetimes, or ever in this lifetime. That’s what our faith is about; that hope in the resurrection is the ground we stand on. May God sustain us as we walk. Amen.