Sermon for June 2, 2019
Our problem is civil obedience.
Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war.
Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.
That’s our problem.
The Brief Statement of Faith
In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God,
the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve.
If It Be Your Will, Leonard Cohen
If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before
I will speak no more, I shall abide until
I am spoken for, if it be your will
If it be your will, that a voice be true
From this broken hill, I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will, to let me sing
If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well
And draw us near and bind us tight
All your children here, in their rags of light
In our rags of light, all dressed to kill
And end this night, if it be your will
While we were on the way to the place of prayer, a slave woman with a prophetic spirit who made plenty of money for her owners by issuing oracles encountered us. As she trailed along behind Paul and us, she kept on shouting: “These people are slaves of the Most High God! They commend to you a means of deliverance.” She kept this up day after day until Paul became so irritated that he turned around and addressed her spirit, “I hereby command you in the name of Jesus Christ to leave her.” It left her right away.
Her owners realized that their expectation of income had also left. They apprehended Paul and Silas and hauled them to the authorities in the city center. When they had brought them before the chief magistrates, they said, “These fellows are convulsing the city! They are Jews and commend practices that we Romans can neither accept or follow.” The crowd pitched in against them, so the chief magistrates tore off the clothes of the accused and ordered a flogging. After many blows with the rod, the officials tossed them in jail, directing the jailer to secure them carefully. In obedience to these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and shackled their feet in stocks.
Sometime in the middle of the night, as Paul and Silas were praying and praising God in song while the other prisoners listened to them, there was suddenly an earthquake so powerful that the foundations of the prison were rocked. All the doors popped open, and the chains of all the prisoners came loose. The jailer awakened, saw the doors of the prison wide open, and, presuming that the inmates had escaped, pulled out his sword with the intention of killing himself. But Paul shouted very loudly: “Don’t harm yourself. We’re all here!” The jailer called for illumination, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. After bringing them out, he asked, “Milords, what must I do to be saved?”
“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, together with your household.” They thereupon told the jailer and all in his home the message about the Lord. Late as it was the jailer took them where he could cleanse their wounds. He and all of his people were then baptized without delay. He then escorted them to his own home, where a meal was set before them. The household was ebullient because each all had come to faith in God.
The next morning the chief magistrates sent their police escort with the message, “Let these people go. The jailer gave Paul the word: The chief magistrates have sent orders that you two are to be released. All right, then, come on out and be happily on your way!”
“They give us,” said Paul, “a public beating, us, Roman citizens convicted of no crime, then toss us into jail, and now they want to kick us out of town secretly? Not a chance! Let them come in person and remove us from jail.”
The police reported this to the chief magistrates who were terrified to learn that their victims were Roman citizens. The magistrates came with reassuring words, took them out of jail, and requested that they leave town. After their release Paul and Silas went to see Lydia. They provided the believers with spiritual nurture and then left Phiippi.
Verily with every difficulty there is ease,
(Again) verily with every difficulty there is ease.
Sermon: Paul and Silas
When the Jesus Seminar turned its attention to Christian origins and in particular the book of the Acts of the Apostles, they determined that Acts was a second-century fiction. A romance much like other apocryphal works of that time.
Acts is filled with swashbuckling tales of derring-do. Many of these tales are drawn from Greek and Roman literature.
I mention that because I feel it is important to be forthcoming about what I think the literature is as best as I can. I think this particular story of Paul and Silas is parable more than history. As a reference I recommend Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report. This is a translation of Acts with commentary showing their work regarding the analysis of Acts.
Acts within the New Testament functions as a narrative. This is the story of how we want our origins remembered. But as we know, history changes as it should. Nothing, no event or account of events should ever be beyond historical inquiry. Nothing should be so sacred that to analyze it is taboo or forbidden. This is true for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, anything.
Religion can say what it wants and promote its beliefs, but if it wants a hearing in the public square it must submit the tools of inquiry.
Not only is historical analysis of religion critical, but also historical analysis of the state and its narratives. History is distorted and shaped and often becomes mythology, a sacred narrative. It is often when the sacred narrative begins to break down, that oppressive measures are instituted to preserve the sacred myth. You end up with the censorship of dissidents and the imprisonment of truth-tellers including journalists and whistle-blowers and so forth.
Whenever we get the message that a particular historical event whether recent history or ancient history is taboo or dangerous, you can bet that you are dealing with a sacred myth and that sacred myth is likely protecting a lot of criminal activity.
My heroes have always been truth-tellers. The dissidents, the heretics, the whistle blowers, and the prophets. In their own time, most often they are marginalized, ridiculed, even imprisoned and worse, for challenging the sacred myths of those in power. Often it is not until much later, long after their own deaths in many cases, that history shows they were right to speak out. They told the truth and they did the world a good service.
Throughout my career as a minister, I have made it a principle not to allow sacred myths, usually the sacred myths of Christianity, to stand above critical analysis. The reason is that sacred myths allow certain people to have power. But as I said earlier, it isn’t only Christianity or even religion. These powers are economic, political, and militaristic. The ‘screens’, my shorthand for the so-called news media and entertainment media function together as the propaganda arm that promote these sacred myths. They enable these sacred myths rather than expose them. That is what I am discovering more and more. I am being careful not to be specific here, so as not to lose my larger more general point. I think it is unhealthy to allow sacred myths to go unchecked because we are afraid of the powers behind them.
The first act of liberation is breaking free of the sacred myths that keep us oppressed or obedient or what have you.
The story of Paul and Silas is a parable, in my view, embedded within the larger parable of the book of Acts. As parable, the story of Paul and Silas in prison can serve to be a liberating text.
Much like the parable of Jesus in the Eastern icon of resurrection, waking humanity up from death, from illusion, from sleep, the Paul and Silas parable is a parable of Spirit exposing the economic and political power symbolized by those who make profits from the slave-girl, and who with the help of mob rule, imprison Paul and Silas in the deepest innermost cell. Mob rule itself is a product of propaganda stirring up emotion against those who break taboos.
The slave-girl makes profits for someone else by delivering oracles. We are not told how that works. Perhaps second-century readers of this story would know how she makes money for her owners. Maybe she is like a fortune-teller or something. Paul finally gets annoyed with her, even though what she is saying about Paul and Silas is complimentary. But Paul eventually realizes that something is off. We are not really told but perhaps the ones for whom she is making a profit might also want to profit from Paul and Silas as well? Perhaps coopt their message?
But Paul is uncomfortable enough with this and sets up a contest of spirits. Commanding the spirit within her, the spirit that enables her to proclaim some sort of sacred myth or other, to depart. It does. She loses her power and the powers that had profited from her lose the economic power. They are connected enough with political power to have Paul and Silas thrown in prison.
Paul and Silas see this imprisonment as an opportunity. The thing about truth-tellers is that you can tell truth anywhere. They are on a mission. They sing in jail.
As the parable goes, they are rewarded for their faithfulness by divine intervention. An earthquake busts open the prison doors, just like Jesus does in the resurrection icon. But the prisoners do not escape. They all remain in prison, saving the reputation and life of the jailer.
The authorities, embarrassed, recognize that Paul and Silas really shouldn’t have been treated so badly. There are laws after all, even if the powerful circumvent them. They try to get them to leave quietly. Paul and Silas, as truth-tellers, demand a public open accounting.
“No you don’t get to sneak us out.”
So the authorities have to come and own up to Paul and Silas and then Paul and Silas are on their way.
This is a parable about the power of Spirit.
Paul and Silas are consumed by Spirit. It doesn’t matter what happens to them. They don’t care. Their calling is to speak from the power of Spirit, regardless, and that includes singing in jail.
The book of Acts as a whole is not history. It is a parable of Spirit. As a myth of Christian origins it is not true. It didn’t happen like this historically. But as a parable, it can speak to us about the work of Spirit.
To me, it speaks of the Spirit of holiness, of goodness and truth, of courage, hope, joy, and possibility.
We celebrate Spirit especially on Pentecost, next Sunday. But Spirit works 24/7, 365 days per year.
I won’t be here to celebrate Pentecost with you as I will be remembering my father with my family. But I thought I would share again what I wrote for the June newsletter.
As I share this, in my mind are the dissidents and the truth-tellers in the past and in the present. These are the ones who have risked a great deal and who have sacrificed much exposing falsehoods. They, to me, are true heroes motivated by Spirit.
According to the Pentecost story in Acts, Spirit caused the disciples to look foolish, drunk even, as they began speaking in foreign languages in order to proclaim good news throughout the realm.
Then the apostles did other crazy antics after becoming intoxicated by Spirit. They started baptizing each other in the Jesus movement. They started to believe all this peace and justice stuff. They even went so far as to share their possessions with others as any had need.
Spirit got them running around the countryside healing people, raising others from the dead, calling all to awaken from sleep and illusion, proclaiming that a new reality, a new kingdom, a new way of doing business, a new way living was manifesting itself in the world.
Spirit got them so worked up that the authorities felt threatened. This new way of living could hurt profits. This new way of living might liberate the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved, and who would do our work for us then? So the authorities threw the apostles in prison. Executed others. You know how it goes. You can blame Spirit for that.
That same Spirit got Paul and Silas singing in jail, though. When you have become intoxicated by Spirit your heart takes over. It begins beating for truth, goodness, beauty, justice, love, and joy. Nothing else really matters so much.
Spirit moves you to pray, to speak, to sing, to shout, to dance, to take off on new adventures, to expose falsehoods, to befriend those who the powers of this world want to marginalize. Spirit gets ahold of you and moves you to places you didn’t think you could go or would even want to go.
Spirit will not be owned. Spirit is not limited to human strategy, calculation, or polling. Like the wind, Spirit blows where it will. In the words of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Brief Statement of Faith:
We trust in God the Holy Spirit,
everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church.
The same Spirit
who inspired the prophets and apostles
rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the church.
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit,
we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks
and to live holy and joyful lives,
even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth,
praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Where is Spirit taking you?