5.16.10 sermon notes
My apologies in advance for those of you who were here last week. Because I have another bird story. I promise this won’t be a trend. Must be spring.
We have birds in our dryer vent. A couple of European Starlings decided that the small broken flap on our vent cover was just big enough for them to squeeze through and build a nest, and lay some eggs, and care for them, and wait for them to hatch, all while staying nice and April fresh. So we have what now must be 2 week old baby starlings flapping and pecking at our metal dryer vent and chirping loudly every time we walk near that end of the house. We’ve researched this a bit and the kindest plan seems to be to let them reach the point of leaving the nest on their own and then clear out the nest before mom and dad contribute another set of eggs to it. So we are doing that. But I must admit they are annoying! The vent runs underneath our bedroom, and sometimes the baby birds wake up earlier than anyone else in the house. I would be lying if I said that my annoyance wasn’t making me want to liberate them a bit earlier than nature would allow. But I am practicing patience.
My dryer vent birds are admittedly a small annoyance in the grand scheme of life, but it made me think about those small irritations that cause us to act rashly. Paul is annoyed by a slave girl in this story from Acts. And that is not just scholars’ interpretation of his actions. The text says he was annoyed (actually the closest translation of the Greek word used there is that he was exasperated, which seems even stronger than being merely annoyed). So in his frustration, Paul calls out the slave girl’s spirit.
Many people have tried to talk about this story as one where Paul did this good thing, even though he wasn’t meaning to help her. In his annoyance to quiet her, he cast out the spirit and liberated her. Isn’t that wonderful! — that God can work through us, even when we aren’t working with good intentions. Well, sorry, but I don’t think that is what this story is about at all. This passage from Acts is about liberation, but I do not think the slave girl was one of those who was liberated. We have too easily associated this story with other exorcisms from the gospels, where people are rightfully relieved of painful spirits that had plagued them for years. But we get no indication that this slave girl was plagued by her spirit. And actually, most scholars call such people “diviners” who were believed to be able not only to predict the future but also to see more deeply into realities the rest of us might miss. In her own setting, this girl “would have been accepted as a more or less ordinary member of society serving a useful function for people in that culture” (Walaskay). She had a gift, not a demon.
So Paul didn’t really rescue her from anything, because there is no indication that he made any effort to liberate her from slavery even after he took away her divining spirit. So as I said, there is liberation in this text, but not for her. And that is hard for some of us to hear. And I have to leave you in this same frustrated place where I am on that part, because we simply don’t know the rest of her story. Her place in the story seems more to explain how Paul and Silas landed themselves in prison, as the slave girl’s owners brought up charges against them after they caused her value to plummet. And it is in this prison where some powerful liberation and healing do take place, but I am not talking about shackles falling to the ground.
This is a wonderful and fascinating story. Paul and Silas are beaten and thrown into the innermost part of the prison for questionable charges. In their shackles, we are told they are praying and singing hymns. Now, I have to imagine that these were not peppy, happy songs. I imagine the deep laments of so many of the psalms; I imagine something more akin to the bold faith expressed in many of the spirituals sung by slaves in America. I imagine the powerful witness to trust in God that we heard about in news a few months ago as people in Haiti began to sing to bring comfort. Those are the kinds of hymns and prayers I think Paul and Silas were offering. And those indeed could have shaken the walls of that prison. Yet, even as their chains were gone, these men did not head for the first available exit. They remained. And when the jailer, knowing a terrible fate awaited him if all the prisoners escaped on his watch, is ready to take his own life. But somehow, in the darkness, Paul knows this is about to happen (we aren’t told how), and he speaks these words of comfort to the jailer: “Do not harm yourself. We are all here.”
The next thing we hear, the jailer asks a question we’ve heard before in scripture: “What must I do to be saved?” Realistically, this man might still have been worried about his life and career, not his soul. After all, he is still going to have some explaining to do to his bosses. Perhaps he was asking Paul and Silas for help getting all of the prisoners back in their places. But no matter what he meant, they decided to answer his question very much the way Jesus did with so many people – with something much deeper than what initially might have been discussed. Like the Samaritan woman at the well who thinks the conversation is about water to drink, Jesus offers living water that will never run out. And as this jailer is possibly asking for help in his present situation, Paul and Silas offer him the good news of Jesus Christ.
So the jailer hears the gospel, and he and household are baptized. That’s wonderful. But a more profound transformation happens just prior to that. Luke goes out of the way to tell us that the jailer washed the wounds of Paul and Silas. We can’t know for sure, but I wonder if the jailer himself might have been the one who inflicted those wounds. What a beautiful and powerful image – what that must have been like for the jailer! Can you imagine washing wounds that you inflicted? What humility and grace that must require! And perhaps this moment of humility and reconciliation was necessary before the jailer could truly accept a new life in Christ. Jesus Christ, the wounded healer himself, offers new life and healing to all of us, those of us who have been wounded and even those of us who have inflicted deep wounds in the past.
I heard a story on NPR a few years ago about restorative justice programs, in which victims and families of violent crimes meet face-to-face with their assailants. It is still considered experimental and has its fair share of critics, but it was remarkable to hear the stories of some of the people as they spoke of the peace and healing that came when they were able to meet with their attackers. Sometimes there was deep remorse and tears on the part of the perpetrator, but not always. One woman described the simple healing power in being able to speak directly to the man who had killed her husband and help him to see the very real human impact of his actions. For her, being able to see the man as a human being helped her as well. She was able to forgive him, which she admitted did not mean that she thought he should be free from prison. But she had peace that was not there when she heard the guilty verdict so many years before. Real healing came when she could meet face to face with the assailant and tell him her story. So often, we have to be honest about the wounds we bear and the wounds we have inflicted for real healing to come.
That is the wonder of the healing grace Christ offers. It doesn’t mean everyone gets along and that no one ever makes mistakes. Even the oneness in Christ that the gospel of John speaks about is a complicated kind of unity. It is not uniformity, as if Jesus wanted us to be some kind of Stepford Christians. But we can be united in our love for one another with all of our varied gifts and differences.
And offering grace to others does not mean that we have to put up with all kinds of unacceptable behavior because it is the nice, Christian thing to do. We can forgive others while still holding them accountable for their actions. We can be in relationship with people as brothers and sisters in Christ and still lovingly disagree with them. But we have to get to this point. We have to be willing to forgive as we have been forgiven. We have to be with one another in honest relationships and supporting one another in joy and in sorrow.
The healing grace of Christ liberates us from our past, regardless of whether we have been the ones hurt or have been the ones hurting others. We all bear wounds that are in need of healing. We all seek the wholeness that Christ offers. Who do you have to forgive in order to live fully into the new life Christ offers? And like the jailer in our story, are you willing to humble yourself to wash wounds that you yourself may have inflicted? What a world this would be if we all showed such humility and grace to one another.