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Casting Off Chains

Acts 16:16-34


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Hymn # 804 Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart!

Prayer of Invocation

Eternal God, you have called us to be members of one body. Join us with those who in all times and places have praised your name, that, with one heart and mind, we may show the unity of your church, and bring honor to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Call to Confession

Our Lord Jesus said: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As God has instructed us in these great commandments, and because we have not lived in full obedience, let us now confess our sins to God, trusting Christ as our Savior and Lord.

Prayer of Confession

Gracious God, we believe that Christ's work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another, yet we confess that we do not always live up to our beliefs. We do not live into the unity of the church, as Christ has called us to be one body. We see separation and hatred between your Children, O, God, yet we do not do enough to mend the breaches. Help us, God, to love one another and practice community with all of your children. Help us, God, to be agents of unity, in the church and in the world that you have created. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Passing of the Peace

Minute for Mission: Berwin and Peggy Guttormsen

Prayer for Illumination

Acts 16:16-34

26 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. 17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you[d] a way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned 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.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer[e] called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord[f] to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Sermon: Casting Off Chains

Good morning. What a powerful story that is! Our reading this morning from the Book of Acts speaks into our fractured and chaotic world. I love that image of Paul and Silas, sitting in prison, in chains, singing hymns. It reminds me of a story my mom told me a number of years ago, about a man from our church.

His name was Abe and he sang in the choir with my mother. Abe was probably old enough to be my grandfather and he was a real gentleman. He was a doctor, a pathologist, and for many years, he served as the Deputy County Coroner for Washington County. That meant that Abe performed a lot of autopsies on people who had been murdered.

One time, my mother asked him, “How do you get through the difficult cases? How do you deal with an autopsy on a child?”

Abe’s answer was simple: “I sing.”

He told my mother that he would sing hymns or even opera. This allowed him to focus on his task, without being overcome by grief or wondering what course that child’s life might have taken. Music was enough to distract his emotional response, so that he could perform his duties. As a coroner, he had to be precise and emotionally detached; he could be called as a witness in a trial.

Paul and Silas sang hymns while they were in prison; Abe sang hymns while he performed autopsies. Those are powerful stories. So, let’s take a closer look at why Paul and Silas were in jail in the first place.

Paul and Silas were in Philippi, which was a Roman colony in Macedonia. They were there to evangelize, to establish a new worshiping community. They were outsiders; they were Jews. Remember, at that point, no one was using the name, Christian. Nobody outside of the Jewish community would have recognized the difference between the two.

Paul and Silas are going to a place for prayer, when they’re followed by a slave-girl who is afflicted with a spirit of divination, who shouts out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” Now let’s be clear, this is NOT the Holy Spirit that is speaking. The spirit is probably associated with the Greek god Apollo.

I don’t know if I would call this spirit a demon, but much like the demons that Jesus casts out, this spirit knows the truth: Paul and Silas serve the one, true God. Even though this spirit is correct, it’s not the witness that Paul and Silas want or need. They are in Philippi to proclaim that Jesus is Lord; they’re not there to say it’s okay to listen to other spirits.

To Paul, in particular, it doesn’t matter that this spirit spoke the truth. It was the wrong witness and it had to be cast out. But that spirit made the slave-girl very valuable to her owners. Her owners could sell the girl’s services to anyone who could pay; they were exploiting the fact that she was possessed by a spirit. They profited from her affliction.

Paul took away their source of income. The owners had Paul and Silas arrested and beaten. They incited a mob. They labeled Paul and Silas as outsiders; they painted them as enemies, because they were Jews. They hauled them before a magistrate and had them thrown in jail, so that they could be held for trial.

The owners of the slave-girl knew that Paul and Silas carried a message that was a threat to the established order, in which slavery and exploitation were encouraged and rewarded. It didn’t matter that Paul and Silas were right. Most of the people in Philippi wanted to maintain the status quo.

During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, many white community leaders in the south—politicians, sheriffs, business leaders, and clergy—sought to downplay the causes of the civil rights movement. They claimed, falsely, that African Americans in their communities weren’t that interested in civil rights, in equal accommodations in stores, restaurants, and public transportation. These white community leaders said that African Americans in their communities weren’t all that interested in the right to vote. Things were fine just as they were.

When civil rights leaders organized marches and sit-ins and all sorts of non-violent protests, white community leaders denounced those demonstrations. They said the protests were the work of a handful of outside agitators who wanted to destroy their way of life.

Sounds kind of like the charges against Paul and Silas: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The white people in positions of privilege in the American south in the 1950s and 60s were unwilling to admit that Black people in their communities wanted change, wanted to be treated as full citizens, wanted to be treated as equals.

Those voices are still with us today. There are lots of people in our society who want to ignore the calls for change, the calls for social justice. Some people will tell you that there is no racism in our society, we don’t have a problem with race in this country. Yes, some people actually say that. But I do see signs of hope. I see more white people paying attention to the cries of black and brown people, listening to the songs of lament.

The people who arrested Paul and Silas didn’t understand two things, two central truths. First, Jesus Christ is Lord and the message of salvation is true. Second, Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. The authorities were not allowed to treat them as they did.

Perhaps it was easier for Paul and Silas to sit in prison and sing hymns because they knew that they were right. They knew the truth of Jesus Christ and they knew that the Roman authorities couldn’t hold them. And maybe the singing distracted them from their pain and discomfort, much as singing helped my old friend Abe get through difficult medical examinations.

What’s more, because Paul and Silas know that their cause is righteous, they sit—in chains—as witnesses to God’s love and justice. And when the earthquake happens, they don’t exploit the situation. They remain in their place. If they had fled, the jailer, who was otherwise innocent, would have been executed for letting the prisoners go.

Paul and Silas were powerful witnesses! Perhaps their faithfulness inspired the other prisoners to remain in the jail. Certainly, their faithfulness inspired the jailer to convert to this new religion. And we know that Paul and Silas succeeded at establishing a new congregation in Philippi. We know this because Paul later writes a letter to that congregation, the Philippians!

We have to read this story as history and as a parable. Remember, in a parable, we have to read ourselves into every part in the story. I’m sure we all want to see ourselves as Paul and Silas, but maybe we should spend some time with this story as the other prisoners in the jail, or even as the jailer.

We are all imprisoned by racism, even if we, as individuals, don’t practice the worst parts of racism. We are held in its chains, because the presence of racism—racism on the individual level and on the systemic level—limits our ability to practice relationship with people who look different from us. And that limits us as witnesses to God’s love for the world. It limits us as we attempt to do the work of building God’s kingdom.

There’s a line from the movie The Usual Suspects that I love. One of the characters says: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” Racism is like that too. We want to pretend it doesn’t exist. We want to pretend we don’t have to work to dismantle it. We want excuses that let us off the hook. We want an earthquake to set us free, when what we actually need to do is work together to cast off our chains.

This is uncomfortable territory for a lot of us, including me. Yet I feel hopeful. It really seems like more of us are getting on board with the work of reconciliation. As I’ve said before, part of that work is getting educated.

Like the other prisoners in that jail with Paul and Silas, we have to listen to the hymns, the cries, and the laments of our African American brothers and sisters in Christ. We have to seek out the voices of today’s civil rights leaders. Rather than complaining that there isn’t another Martin Luther King, Jr. in this day—rather than waiting for the media to anoint one particular leader, instead of waiting for that leader to emerge—go out and research the leaders who already exist!

They’re out there! I’ve mentioned some of them before, like the Rev. William Barber II or the Rev. Otis Moss III. Google them. Find their sermons online and listen to them. Some of their messages may be challenging, or even painful. Listen anyhow. We have to stop waiting for this to come to us. We have to do our homework. These are the first steps on the long road to reconciliation. These are steps we need to take if we are to be effective witnesses in today’s world. Will you walk down this road with me? Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymn # 821 How Can I Keep from Singing?


Prayer of Thanksgiving

We give our thanks through our talents, our time, and our treasure.

Thanks be to God; whose love creates us!

Thanks be to God; whose mercy redeems us!

Thanks be to God; whose grace leads us into the future! Amen.

Prayers of the People

God of Grace and Mercy,

Awaken us from our slumber.

Break us out of our self-imposed prisons.

Free us from self-absorption,

Pettiness, arrow-mindedness,

Ignorance, and racism.

Help us to see and hear

Those whose struggles

Are greater than ours.

O, God of every nation, race, and land,

Help us to see the world outside of our walls.

Break us out of our self-imposed prisons.

Send your Spirit, so that we may love

All your children as we love ourselves.

As always, we offer a prayer of thanksgiving—and prayers for health and safety—for all of the helpers out there. We lift up all the nurses, doctors, lab techs, nurses’ aides, housekeeping staff, and first responders who are on the front lines of this pandemic. We give thanks for all they do and we pray that God continue to watch over them in this time.

Finally, as cities and states emerge from this time of quarantine, we ask for the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit for all our leaders, as they make difficult decisions about how and when to reopen businesses, schools, and houses of worship. And we pray for wisdom and grace for all of us as we navigate the return to parts of our old routines.

The Lord’s Prayer

Hymn # 792 There Is a Balm in Gilead


Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember that we are called to cast off the chains that keep us from being in relationship with all of God’s beloved children. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

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