Sunday, May 8, 2016

Sermon: A Way of Deliverance and Liberation

Acts 16:16-34
A Way of Deliverance and Liberation
James Sledge                                                                                       May 8, 2016

If you were in worship last week, you heard Diane preach about when Lydia met the Apostle Paul at Philippi. Paul had gone out from the city on the Sabbath, looking for a place of prayer. There he met Lydia, and she and all her household were baptized. She then opened her home to Paul, and presumably he and his companions stayed with her during their time in Philippi.
If you were in worship last week, or on any number of other occasions when Diane preached, you heard her close our worship by speaking of Christians as a people sent into the world. She charged us to go out into the world saying, “Consider that wherever you go this week, God is sending you there.”
I wonder if Paul discovered something about this sort of sending in the events of our scripture for today. The story is really a part of that reading from last week were Lydia met Paul and on beyond today’s passage. The story begins when a vision convinced Paul he was sent to Macedonia and its leading city, Philippi. Initially, the story played out along the lines Paul likely expected. He probably set up shop in the city to ply his trade, traditionally thought to be tentmaker, where he would talk to those he met in the marketplace.
On the Sabbath, Paul had gone out to find that place of prayer. There along the river just outside the city, Paul spoke to the worshipers he found there. Lydia was moved by the Spirit, the Church gained a new convert, and Lydia opened her home to Paul.
 But then, on another day, Paul headed to the same place of prayer where he had met Lydia and met someone else. More to the point, an unnamed slave girls seems to have met him. The story says that she had a spirit of divination, and because of this possession, she recognizes Paul’s connection to God. She senses the Holy Spirit in him, and begins to follow Paul and his companions around, announcing, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation,” or “deliverance” or even “liberation.”
Perhaps Paul enjoyed the attention at first, especially when he learned about her how people paid her owners (literally “her lords”) for oracles she would speak. Surely her words would confer a bit of prestige on Paul with the locals. But after days of this, Paul was getting more and more annoyed. Curiously, Paul never seems to consider that he might be sent to this slave girl, to proclaim to her a way of deliverance or liberation. Yet when Paul can stand her no more, he heals her in a fit of pique. “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And immediately it was so.

Paul seems oblivious to the possibility that he was sent to this slave girl. He has not healed her out of any abundance of compassion or sense of mission, yet it is this event that pushes the narrative forward. Paul’s action unleashes a slew of events that reveal the new thing happening in Christ.
The story does not say what happens to the slave girl. Clearly she encountered the power of Christ, and it seems likely that she did find a way of salvation, of deliverance. Slavery was neither racially based nor permanent in the Roman world, and when she was no longer a source of income for her owners, it’s quite possible that she was able to acquire her freedom.
Not that any of this sat well with her owners, her lords. They drag Paul and Silas before the authorities, but they don’t accuse Paul of healing the girl, of ending her possession. Rather they stir everyone up by accusing Paul and Silas of undermining community values. It’s a tried and true method that’s still popular. When the deliverance and freedom are revealed, there are always people who see it as a threat. That’s why Jesus was crucified.
When Martin Luther King proclaimed a way of deliverance and liberation for the oppressed of color in this country, he was labeled a troublemaker and rabble rouser, even by many devout Christians.
As the late Brazilian Arch Bishop Hélder Câmara put it, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." It is fine to help people. It is dangerous to speak of freeing them.
As King and Câmara knew well, accusations of undermining community values often work, and so Paul and Silas find themselves beaten and jailed. I wonder if by this point, Paul had started to recognize the truth of those words Diane often speaks at the close of worship. God sent him into the life of that slave girl, into this situation. I don’t know that such a realization had anything to do with why Paul and Silas were praying and worshiping that night. But in the innermost cell, their feet in stocks, they prayed and sang as the other prisoners listened, and no doubt marveled.
Then comes the dramatic rescue. An earthquake. Paul and Silas are free. But perhaps they consider that wherever they are, God is sending them there, and they do not flee. The jailer, who has been told he had better not lose these prisoners, knows he is in big trouble. He is a man of duty and he has failed his. So he is ready to die, until Paul calls to him.
“Sirs (literally “Lords”), what must I do to be saved,” to be rescued, delivered, freed? the jailer exclaims. Paul and Silas proclaim their way of salvation, of deliverance and liberation, and just as happened with Lydia before, they receive the hospitality of a stranger. He washes their wounds and in turn is himself washed in the waters of baptism.
Paul may not have meant for any of this to happen, but by healing a slave girl he blunders his way into a story that embodies what Paul will write in his letter to the church in Galatia. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
I think it’s easy, especially for Christians, to miss all that is going on in the story of Paul at Philippi. It happened to me when I began thinking about how to preach it. I got boxed in by words like “save” and “salvation” and “Lord.” They’re churchy words with churchy meanings. But not for Paul or his hearers or the writer of Acts. They were real words that spoke of real rescue and deliverance, of real bosses, owners, and rulers.
Jesus, this strange, alternative ruler, proclaimed a new day, a new kingdom, a new community, a proclamation that was a way of salvation, rescue, deliverance, and freedom. It freed people from fears of death and sin and loss, but it did much more. It saved, freed, delivered people from what bound them, trapped them, or held them captive. And whenever Christ is truly proclaimed and encountered, a way of salvation and deliverance continues to free and rescue people from all manner of fears, chains, and oppression.
Like Paul with that slave girl, I am often oblivious to opportunities I have to share a way of salvation. Worse, I’m too often still caught up in ways of the world that honor divisions of gender, race, economics, culture, orientation, education, privilege, and more. Lord, show me again your way of deliverance and liberation. And send me to share it with others.

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