Dragged into the marketplace

Sermon based on Acts 16:16-34

by Ken Sehested
Circle of Mercy Congregation, 20 May 2007

        Ever since Easter the principal lectionary readings have been excerpts from the books of Acts which records the story of the birth of the church after Jesus’ resurrection and then the subsequent missionary journeys of Paul and other church leaders.

        Today’s story is actually two stories: a short one, which I just read—about Paul healing a “slave girl”—which sets up a longer one, which Nancy told to the children—when Paul and Silas are dragged into the marketplace of the city of Philippi, A city on the Aegean Sea coast of what is now the modern country of Bulgaria, in what was then a Roman colonial region. There they are accused by the slave girl’s owners of unlawful activity, and the city magistrates convict them toss them into prison.

        There aren’t many biblical stories that have fired the imagination of protestors (like those of the Civil Rights Movement) more than the memory of Paul and Silas . . . sitting in a squalid prison cell, no one to make their bail . . . and singing. The practice of singing in prison dates to this story from Acts.

        I didn’t catch many of the details, but a recent NPR program interviewed a man imprisoned in a small town in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. The small group of activists were singing away, and it was driving the prison guards crazy. After much harassment, the guards finally unleashed water hoses on the group. People in jail cells aren’t supposed to act like they’re free!

        And the truth is, this entire narrative is a stunning commentary on who’s really free and who’s really a slave. The slave girl’s owners, the city magistrates and the jailer—these are apparently living in liberty. The slave herself, along with Paul and Silas—these are supposed the ones under bondage. But the Gospel message turns this around. The text is urging us to ask deeper questions about freedom and bondage. We think we know which is which. But do we?

        For today, though, I’m especially intrigued by the first part of this story, the one that sets the stage for Paul and Silas’ conviction.

        The text says that the “slave girl” had “a spirit of divination” and could tell people’s fortunes. And for days she would follow the missionaries around town, crying out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

        The woman’s words were probably more like a taunt than an introduction. And Paul finally got tired of it. So he performed an exorcism: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And,” the text continues, “it came out that very hour.”

        That’s when the two traveling preachers were “dragged into the marketplace before the authorities” and soon thereafter stripped, beaten and tossed into the deepest recesses of the prison, feet bound in stocks so they couldn’t even move around. All because the slave girl’s owners “saw that their hope of making money was gone” after Paul healed her.

        Scripture scholars aren’t entirely clear exactly what it was that ailed the woman. Probably some kind of mental illness, and probably some ability as a ventriloquist. The closest analogy that comes to mind is to think of how, years ago, traveling circuses had their “freak shows”—bearded women, dwarfed people and the like—people who were exploited for their very unusual physical appearance.

        And when Paul and Silas disrupted this exploitation, they were dragged into the marketplace where they were sentenced to prison. The lesson is: You don’t go messin’ with people’s livelihood. That kind of freedom is strictly sanctioned.

        It reminds me of that 17th century legal statute in the State of New York: "It is hereby Enacted by the authority of the same, That the Baptizing of any Negro, Indian or Mulatto Slave shall not be the Cause or reason for setting them or any of that at Liberty."

        That law is one small example, among many, of the state’s consistent pattern of defining the legitimate authority of religious practice. It’s OK to baptize those slaves. You just can’t set them free. (And you thought our nation was founded on religious freedom?!)

        It’s interesting how an emphasis on economics—thinking about money—has emerged in our Circle this year. Neither the pastoral team nor the church council planned it this way. It just happened.

        Counter-cultural economic practice has always been a significant part of our vision, of course. Nearly four year ago we first began asking members to make financial pledges for the support of our common life (which is a small form of “holding things in common,” one of the defining characteristics of the first Christian community). Nearly three years ago we made the decision to create our own “contingency fund” for emergencies; but instead of putting it the money into Exxon stock, we chose to put it in microlending institutions and community development banks, at 0% interest, so that capital could be circulated in places which mainstream financial institutions won’t go.

        I’m not one to boast, but I confess it does please me to think that we were the first congregational supporter of Christians for a United Community, one of whose goals is addressing economic disparity. And more recently, we were among the first to make a congregational contribution to the Living Wage campaign here in Asheville.

        This past February, at our annual planning day, the agenda was given over to discussing ways to implement parts of our mission. You remember—we took a list of “Pentecost Power” questions first put on the table on Pentecost Sunday in 2006. Everyone present at the planning day got to vote on their top three priorities. One of those three was the topic of economics, and it evoked a great deal of discussion and ideas.

        The following month, Andy Loving happened to be coming through Asheville over a weekend and we invited him to lead the adult education hour on social responsible investing and then to preach in worship. His sermon title was, “The Common Purse and the God of Maximum Return.” He reinvigorated our thinking about alternative economic practices and really challenged the way we take for granted the values of our economic system. In fact, his presence was so stimulating that several people asked if we could get him back again. [details]

        (By the way, going back to the thing about religious freedom, one of the things Andy has taught me is that denominational pension funds are prohibited by law against investing in capital markets that do not produce the highest interest return. In other words, the United Church of Christ pension board can’t invest in Oikocredit, where part of our contingency fund is invested. The legal provision is called “fiduciary responsibility.” This is what Andy meant in his sermon title when he used the phrase “the God of maximum return.”)

        As the council began discussing possible resource leaders for our August family retreat, Dr. Michelle Tooley’s name came to the front. Michelle, a religion professor at Berea College in Kentucky, is a friend of several in this Circle, and one of her passions is the economic teaching in Scripture, particularly the legacy of what’s called the “jubilee” tradition, which first appears in the book of Leviticus, reappears elsewhere in the Torah, is picked up again by the Prophets and is put at the center of Jesus’ mission. The “jubilee” tradition for ancient Israel demanded that every 50th year that all land be returned to original owners, that slaves be freed and that debts be canceled. It is a stunning piece of social legislation which has no parallels in the ancient world.

        All of you are familiar with Jesus’ inaugural sermon, the one where he says “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed . . . AND TO PROCLAIM THE YEAR OF THE LORD’S FAVOR.” That last phrase—“the year of the Lord’s favor”—is a direct reference to the Jubilee Year in Hebrew Scripture.

        I’m pleased to tell you that Michelle has agreed to come do Bible study for us on the jubilee theme during our family retreat. And the church council has approved plans to follow up that event with some related Christian education themes. Mahan Siler has agreed to lead several sessions on a curriculum which used family systems theory to help individuals understand the values and habits they inherited from their parents in how decisions about money are made. And we’re making plans to study Ched Myers’ Sabbath Economics, the best concise summary of biblical teachings about wealth.

        Maybe this focus on economics might lead us to put the topic of tithing on the table for discussion. “Tithing” is one of those traditional religious words we don’t use around here, mostly, I think, because its use in mainstream churches is simply a form of financial development to support the congregational budget. What if we began thinking about tithing as one of the spiritual disciplines of membership in the Circle of Mercy—not as requirement that you give 10% of your earning to support our church budget, but as a commitment to directing financial support to places and people and movements that the dominant values of our economic institutions ignore?

        And what if, next year, we began talking more broadly about the purpose and values of common disciplines of various sorts? “Discipline” is another of those traditional religious words we don’t like to use. Mostly, I think, because the word “discipline” has come to imply punishment. All through my public school years, the vice principal of the schools I attended served as the “disciplinary” officers of the school. Which meant, that’s where you went to get scolded or paddled or even expelled—as part of your “discipline.”

        But the word “discipline” comes from the Latin word discere, which means “to learn.” A discipline is something you undertake because there’s something you want to learn. That doesn’t mean disciplines are easy to undertake; but it does mean that you are the one who decides, and the motivation for learning something important provides the stimulus for making such commitments. (“Discipline” is the root from which the word “disciple” is taken.)

        I happen to think that the struggle over economic values and practices and habits is the fundamental place where wheels of spirituality meet the road. We tend to forget that though Civil Rights leaders got into trouble for protesting segregation, it was when they began developing a sharp economic analysis of injustice that the threats became deadly. Dr. King was not assassinated for trying to integrate the sanitation department in Memphis. He was supporting the workers’ demand for economic justice, and he went to Memphis in the midst of planning a Poor People’s Campaign march on Washington—not a Black People’s Campaign. The people at Koinonia Farm in South Georgia got into trouble for letting white and black people eat at the same table. But it was their practice of paying everyone the same wage that brought provoked deadly threats against them.

        Like Paul and Silas, when we start exorcising the spirit of economic bondage, we will likely get dragged into the marketplace to face the authorities.

        Paul and Silas, bound in jail
        Had no money for to go their bail
        Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on
        Paul and Silas thought they was lost
        Dungeon shook and the chains come off
        Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on
        I got my hand on the gospel plow
        Won’t take nothing for my journey now
        Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on

        Sisters and brothers, hold on, hold on, Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org