The Seventh Sunday of Easter
The Very Reverend Nicolette Papanek, Interim Dean
Acts 16:16-34

Imagine for a moment you own a jail. It’s not just a job in Philippi; you actually own the place. You’re a government subcontractor. You both own the place and run it for the Romans. You are responsible for the prisoners. Your livelihood and the well being of your family depend on how well you run the jail. Not how well you run it for the prisoners, but how well you run it for the Romans. A jail isn’t the best thing to own because it’s a step or two beneath the guys who own the butcheries and the spice shops and the cloth shops and the places that sell pottery. Your social status is well below those folks and certainly below the soldiers and government officials who check to see how you’re running the jail. Luckily you don’t have to provide meals. The family and friends of the people in jail bring in meals. You do, however, have to see that everyone in jail is kept safe, safe until his or her trial, release, or execution. Your job is to keep it together: no unseemly deaths prior to execution, no escapes, and no riots. You likely live on the jail premises with your family to make sure things are okay.

Most of the people that come to you are pretty normal, your ordinary lawbreakers: petty thieves, business cheats, tax evaders, the usual. But tonight for some reason law enforcement hauled in a couple of lawbreakers for something unusual. These two guys did an exorcism, probably more properly a healing. Well, it was really Paul. Silas, the guy with him was just a witness, but they were together so they were both arrested. You’d think people would have been glad to see an exorcism or a healing, wouldn’t you? But it turned out the woman who was the recipient of the exorcism/healing was doubly enslaved. She was not only enslaved to an evil spirit or perhaps a mental disease, she was also enslaved to her owners. She was enslaved to human masters using her gift of prophecy to make money. In present day terms this would qualify as human trafficking defined as using another human being for gain.

Paul had the foolish idea that everyone needs to be set free in Christ. He’d reached the end of his patience with this woman following them and yelling about what they were doing. So he turned on her and healed her. It’s odd how frustration often causes us to do something wonderful. In this case to heal.

You’d think the people who witnessed the exorcism/healing would react with wonder and awe and maybe even with faith in the God that made it happen. Instead, they reacted with anger and greed. The anger is from the knowledge that at least with this woman; her owners’ ability to use her for profit is now at an end. And secondly, because her owners sensed something different in their midst, something that made them uncomfortable.

Not only does their human trafficking come to an end, but also there is something different and alien in their midst. Paul and Silas are different, other, strange, and definitely a threat to the socio-economic structure of using others for gain. The livelihood that was made possible by the trafficking of this woman is threatened and then destroyed. And, like other protesters against the socio-economic system, Paul and Silas were thrown in jail.

All too frequently, those who are strangers, as Paul and Silas were, become objects: objects of criticism and violence because they are upsetting the system. And all too frequently those around them fail to recognize how God might be working in their midst. People especially miss God working in their midst when their cherished profits and carefully laid plans are thwarted by the new thing God does.

So it seems to the jailer that Paul and Silas have lost the fight. They are in chains in his jail. They have lost their freedom. All is safe, all is right in their world, and all is as it should be to keep the system going. Everyone can keep on the way they were: trafficking and profit making from others.

But people who don’t listen and look for God’s presence sometimes miss what’s gone before. The book of the Acts of the Apostles, commonly known as “Acts,” records that twice before God broke open jail cells. We don’t know for sure whether Paul and Silas knew about those other jail breaks, but we do know they had faith in God whether they were rescued or not. So they prayed and they sang. And their singing and their praying inspired a song called the “The Song of the Freedmen” or “We’re all here.” The chorus of the song is like this. “Paul and Silas were bound in jail, do thy self a no harm.” The chorus is based on Paul’s shout to the jailer, “We’re all here. We’re all here. Do thyself no harm.” It’s been sung in a lot of jails and by a lot of people. It was sung by children, working in factories in the 1800s before child labor laws were enacted in this country. It was sung by striking garment workers like Clara Lemlich in 1903, protesting the dangerous and underpaid conditions in garment factories in the United States. Civil Rights workers sang it in the 1950s and 60s. War protesters and eco protestors sing it. It will continue to be sung as long as injustice exists. It is a song of freedom in the midst of fear and imprisonment.

You would expect, then, once having assured the jailer that everything was all right, Paul and Silas would escape out of jail. The locks were broken. The doors were open. Instead, Paul and Silas shared their freedom in Jesus with the jailer. Freedom in Jesus does not depend on walls or doors or locks or circumstances.

The jailer opened his home to Paul and Silas. He washed Paul’s and Silas’ wounds. The jailer and his entire family were baptized. The jailer fed Paul and Silas and he and his entire household rejoiced that he and his family had been set free.

And so too was the slave girl set free. Two stories. One about greed that led to trafficking another human being, a second about a jailer and his family set free. Both are stories about encounters with the living God in the midst of fear and imprisonment and exploitation. The world can never go back to the way it was when by the power of Jesus Christ, freedom is given! AMEN.

The Very Rev. Nicolette Papanek
1. Acts 5:17-21, 12:6-11
2. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Song Book. Copyright January 1968