lately, I’ve found that in reading God’s Word I don’t have to use my imagination too much.
In today’s first reading, for example, Luke writes that one day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.
All we have to do is check the news and learn about three women in Cleveland who were kidnapped as girls and held against their will for ten years. Slave girls of the 21st century!
All we have to do is check the news and learn of the garment factory in Bangladesh that collapsed and killed over 1100 people. We might hesitate to call these employees “slaves” but how else would you describe the conditions in which they worked?
As intriguing as the slave-girl in today’s reading from Acts is the response of other people in the story. Paul, for example, healed the slave- girl. But the story tells us that it wasn’t necessarily out of mercy or compassion; Paul was annoyed. It seems like he healed her just so she would shut up! But whatever his motive, this healing caught the attention of powerful people, who eventually got Paul and Silas thrown into jail.
Interesting–one powerless girl—a nobody—speaks out, and there are all kinds of consequences for the powerful people in this story.
This past week in Cleveland a woman who had been held captive for many years saw an opportunity to speak out. A neighbor called 911, the police came running. When we hear the details of this story, we rush to judge who the heroes are and who are the villains. How could this happen? Who’s to blame? Is it the police? The neighbors? The 911 dispatcher?
In the Scripture story, as in the Cleveland story, the boldness of a
single enslaved person got the ball rolling. But neither of these stories is really about a slave-girl. These stories are really about the rest of us. These are stories of captivity and freedom and justice. They force us to ask who is captive and who is free and what is just. They invite us to wrestle with the question of responsibility. The answer isn’t always obvious.
Last week I was at our bishop’s semi-annual retreat and at one of the meals I found myself sitting next to a colleague of mine who is a Chinese pastor. He’s a busy guy! He’s a young father, and not only does he have one congregation but he has a brand new mission-start congregation.
Chinese congregations offer a meal so this congregation has begun to attract local people–not just young Chinese-speaking families but homeless black and white people. Homeless folks, as we know, don’t always have access to showers so there is sometimes a smell. In that particular congregation the odor was so strong that families were starting to leave.
Well, here are homeless people who don’t have a lot of power or money coming to church—not quite slaves, but almost. At the same time, the church attracts immigrant Asian families who also don’t have a lot of power in society. That group is annoyed by the homeless population. If you were the pastor, what would you do in that situation? If you were one of those families, what would you do?
But we don’t have to imagine other people’s dilemmas. What about our own? Think about any issue in which you find yourself, like Paul, irritated or annoyed by someone who has less power and privilege than you do, whose issues tend to offend what you think is right. Immigration? How do you feel about people coming into this country illegally, calling for immigration amnesty? Homosexuality? How do you feel about those voices calling for equal rights, for gay marriage? Maybe irritated? Annoyed?
Paul’s response in the story was to try to get the irritating voice to shut up. Probably all of us have had that experience; we just want the problem to go away. Whatever makes us uncomfortable—homelessness, hunger, poverty, immigration, sexuality–don’t bother trying to understand the situation. Don’t get to know the people and hear their stories. Just make the problem go away. I’m tempted in that direction; how about you?
In the Bible stories, it’s often the respectable people, people of power—even someone like St. Paul—who become distracted by their own concerns and miss opportunities to celebrate God’s grace. The mob that rounded up Paul and Silas said, These men are disturbing our city. They are…advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe. These respectable people were interested not in compassion or mercy or understanding. They were interested in money, and tradition, and the law.
Here is a story that invites us in. Here we have the opportunity to discern what makes us irritated or angry. What issues provoke us? What problems do we want to see just disappear without having to take a hard look at our own need for change? Which is our priority: laws, customs, traditions, wealth, self-interest? Or, are disciples of Jesus Christ moved to attitudes and acts of mercy, compassion, sacrifice and love, as a sign of God’s power and presence in the world?
It’s a lot easier to stand on the outside looking in, reading news headlines and judging who’s right and who’s wrong. Like Paul, we grow uncomfortable hearing voices that draw our attention to people and situations we’d prefer not to deal with. And yet, a slave-girl escaping from captivity in Cleveland reminds us that we all participate in economic and political systems that make such tragedies possible. And that woman who survived 17 days buried under factory rubble in Bangladesh is a living reminder that we all buy shoes and clothing, maybe without a thought as to where they come from and the conditions of the workers who made them. Like the slave-owners in today’s reading we’re often just looking for the best deal, the best price, the best value.
Today’s gospel reading is a prayer and a vision for the unity of God’s people. But it’s also a reminder that all our lives are intertwined with the lives of every other person; we cannot honestly wall ourselves off from our fellow human beings and think of ourselves as pure or righteous.
But there’s a lot of good news in today’s story. Although those who were most concerned with money, the law, and traditions don’t seem to have changed, St. Paul was transformed. Here’s a guy who healed a girl, initially just so she’d shut up. But her healing led to unexpected consequences. Paul suffered. Having become a prisoner, he soon found new opportunities to offer hope and healing to many, even in a prison.
So, if there’s hope for Paul I think there’s hope for me. If there’s hope for Paul there’s hope for you. We may find ourselves entangled in systems and policies, in traditions and customs and lifestyles that do as much harm as good to people we’ll never know or whose stories we’ll never hear. But the Holy Spirit working through a sinner like Paul was able to transform the lives of many. So also, we have hope that the Holy Spirit can use our imperfect lives to bless and heal the lives of people God has sent us.
Let us use our gifts and our opportunities with courage, compassion and confidence, to the glory of God! AMEN