When Julia Ward Howe and other women first declared a “Mother’s Day” in the mid-19th century, it was rooted in social activism and peace advocacy, lifting up the bond between mothers on all sides of war and conflict whose sons were being used as “cannon fodder.” “No more!” these mothers cried. These women saw themselves as “social and political activists who benefited society as a whole, rather than as individual contributors to the private lives of single families.” [Motherhood and Feminism, but Amber E. Kinser] By the time Congress adopted the national Mother’s Day holiday in 1914, the original intention had been reversed, largely taken over by consumerist and anti-suffragist concerns.
So, our reading from the Book of Acts this morning may actually be more of a “Mother’s Day” story than you might think. And, as I’ve thought about it and worked with this text this week, I’ve also come to think that maybe a better title for this sermon–or at least a sub-title for it–could be “Chain Reaction”–a slight variation, too, from our bulletin cover title “Breaking Chains.”
The story begins with Paul and Silas “going to the place of prayer” in Philippi, which , in the story in Acts just before this story, was down by the river. There they had met a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, who had been inspired by them to get baptized and to have her whole household baptized as well. In today’s story, they met a slave girl, “who,” Luke says, “had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’”
She was what we might call, a psychic, a “diviner,” who was able to predict the future and, as one writer put it, “able to see more deeply into the realities the rest of us might miss.” (Kate Matthews, sermonseeds, 5/8/16) That, actually, is also the definition of a “prophet,” as the Hebrew Bible understood it. In the Greek world, these powers were thought to be from the god Apollo, whose worship center at Delphi drew people from all over, seeking wisdom from the oracle there. The symbol of Apollo was the snake, not unlike the serpent in the medical symbol of Aeschlypus, a symbol of healing.
It is not at all clear that this girl feels enslaved by this spirit of divination, but she is clearly enslaved by the men who own her. She was their cash cow; she made them a lot of money. Her perception of Paul and Silas was spot-on: “These men are slaves–servants–of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” But apparently Paul did not appreciate her evangelistic fervor. “Very much annoyed, [he] turned to her and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.” Thus the chain reaction is set off.
Paul gives no thought to the girl’s future, what her owners will do to her now that she is useless to them, at least as a diviner. She, like so many others enslaved, then and now, would most likely be abused, or discarded, perhaps killed. Paul never questions the institution of slavery, which simply reminds us that he, like us, is caught up in a web of cultural understand-ings and structures.
Still, Paul paid the price for disrupting this web of transaction and profit. The owners of the slave girl seize Paul and Silas and drag them into the marketplace before the authorities, charging them with disturbing the peace, advocating customs which “are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe,” i.e. to worship a god other than Caesar. A mob joins in, and Paul and Silas are flogged and thrown into prison, where they are bound by chains.
Even in the depths of their dark and dank prison cell, Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns, witnessing to the other prisoners, reminding themselves of the power and peace present with them even in this dungeon. “How can I keep from singing?” And when a level 8 or 9 earthquake shakes the very foundations of the prison about midnight, breaking all their chains, the jailor wakes up and prepares to kill himself, for he is sure that all the prisoners will have escaped. When Paul calls out that they are still all there, the jailor calls for a torch to be lit and rushes in to find them, utterly brought to his knees that they should have considered him. Bringing them outside he asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” “Believe in the power of Jesus Christ which held us in its care and delivered us from this prison,” they say to him, and then “spoke the word of the Lord to him.” He binds up their wounds and takes them to his house, where he and his household are baptized, and they share a meal together.
We also do not know what happened to this jailer the next morning when the authorities find out what has happened, but we do know that, beginning with the slave girl’s true seeing of what Paul and Silas were about, all these people are connected in a web of interdependence and consequences. One person’s freedom does not remove them from that web of relationship. And the story reveals the systems in which all the characters were captive– systems of oppression, systems of occupation and slavery, systems of assumptions and thought of which they were not aware. Not so unlike the systems we still are caught up in, systems of injustice with which we have perhaps made our peace, from the way things work–or don’t work–in Washington and Wall St., the power of money and connections that exclude so many, all of which have been exposed in this presidential campaign; and yet what about our pension funds, our church’s endowment fund, for that matter, which are dependent upon Wall St.’s prosperity? Aren’t we caught up in that? And what about the ways in which those of us who are white, relatively privileged, how we benefit from the way things are? The keynote speaker at our Vt. Conference Annual Meeting was Bishop Dwayne Royster from Philadelphia, who found himself in the midst of the tear gas cannisters and shock bombs thrown by police in the Ferguson, MO protests, who spoke powerfully about the everyday fears and anguish of parents of children of color. It may seem that we in overwhelmingly white Vermont have little connection to those brothers and sisters, but this story reminds us that we are indeed caught up in a web of relationship, no one of us free until all are free; and even in our midst, in our congregation, in our community, diversity exists, as both challenge and blessing.
That is actually good news. We are all connected. The family of which we are a part extends far and wide, supporting us and challenging us. It is the “grace of interdependence,” as Bruce Epperly writes, “recognizing that we are, even as agents with freedom to choose and change the world, utterly dependent on a Wisdom and Power Greater than Our Own.” (Adventurous Lectionary, 5/8/16) And “what must we do to be saved?” as the jailor asked Paul and Silas–the answer, as Epperly puts it so simply, is “Nothing! Nothing, that is, except recognizing that we are already saved. We are in God’s hands, now and forevermore.” And yet that recognition will affect how we will act; even the smallest gesture, one act of kindness or courage sets off a chain reaction that travels through the whole web.
That prayer of Jesus that we read in John 17–often so convoluted and confusing–is simply an affirmation of the web of grace–that God and Jesus and we and our neighbors and the whole creation are one. “May they all be one,” Jesus continues to pray down to this day and into the future. That other prayer of Jesus– “forgive us our debts,” or “trespasses”–is also a prayer for ties that bind us, but in ways that can cripple us and ensnare us–”loose the cords of mistakes binding us, [one translation from the Aramaic says] as we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.” (Saadi Neil Douglas-Klotz) And it is not only the individual cords or strands, but the structural systems that ensnare us–consumerism, militarism, racism, classicism, walls of misunderstanding and fear between neighbors near and far, assumptions, prejudice. Free us from these, we pray, untangle these, so that the chain reactions of love and light, of healing and justice might race freely throughout the web of creation. May we be one.
May this be our prayer this Mother’s Day. May we all be one. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark