Psalm 97; Acts 16:16-34
Good morning. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting excited about this mission trip! On Friday, the youth group had another fundraiser for the trip, and between that event and the car wash a couple weeks ago, they’ve raised about $2,000. That’s fantastic! I think we should all be very proud of what our young folks have accomplished so far.
I imagine that most of the people who are participating in this trip, our young people and the grownups who are going as chaperones, are excited about helping people. They should be. It feels good to help others. It helps us all to understand what it means to be the Church. In fact, mission trips were what got me excited about church in the first place.
You might think that I was always into church, always on fire about church, because I’m a pastor now. But as a young kid, I was indifferent; I was anything but excited about going to church. My mom had to drag me to church. I liked singing in the children’s choir and I kinda liked the sermons, sometimes. Still, if I’d had a choice, I would have stayed at home and watched cartoons.
When I was in high school, my mom started going to a new church. The kids in the youth group were a lot nicer than the kids in the old-money Presbyterian church where I grew up. Also, the kids at the new church went on mission trips. And they talked about those trips. A lot!
They told so many stories about the trips they went on. They had so much fun. They loved what they did and they shared an amazing bond with one another, through the service they’d performed. It was clear that if I really wanted to be part of the group, I needed to go on the next trip. I was also excited about helping people and doing good things, but mostly, I wanted to be a full member of the community, of the youth group.
And now, I’m excited about the chance to become more deeply involved in the life of this congregation. More than that, I’m excited about watching our young people grow in faith and in love for God and for their neighbors. I’m also excited about the opportunity to get to know our young people better and build relationships with them, too. I firmly believe that building relationships is even more important than simply helping people.
Our reading from the Book of Acts is also about a mission trip—literally. Paul and Silas have traveled to Philippi, which is a Roman colony in Macedonia. This is a very important part of the story and it’s why I added verses to the beginning and end of this morning’s reading. That context is important.
Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia. This is where Alexander the Great was from; this is in the northern part of present-day Greece, just south of Bulgaria. This area is also known as the Balkans; farther north are Serbia, Montenegro, and Croatia. Then as now, a lot of people spent a lot of time and effort fighting over these small territories.
The Romans established this colony at Philippi about a hundred years before the Apostle Paul made his visit. Rome maintained control of the territories it conquered by establishing these colonies, in which they settled their veteran soldiers. So, if you served in the Roman legions for twenty or twenty-five years and you didn’t die, you got a plot of farmland in one of these colonies and you became a Roman citizen, if you weren’t already. And that was just the beginning of the benefits.
Roman colonies received the protection of the Roman legions. The Romans built aqueducts, marketplaces, roads, and harbors. This made it easy to move troops and conduct trade. This was how Rome expanded its borders and maintained order in its growing empire. This period is also called the Pax Romana; it is the establishment and maintenance of peace and stability through Roman economic and military might. The Pax Romana began around the time that the colony at Philippi was established.
For those reasons, Roman citizens in colonies like Philippi were fanatically loyal to Rome. They loved the Pax Romana. Their lives and their livelihoods depended on the Pax Romana. They believed in the Roman way of life and they believed that the gods were smiling upon them. And then along came Paul and Silas, disturbing the peace.
They were there to spread the Word of God—that’s Word with a capital-W; they were there to tell the good news of Jesus Christ. But the Roman colonists didn’t want to hear it. They were happy with the gods they already had. They liked their Pax Romana just fine, thank you very much!
Their peace was founded on the idea that Rome was successful at gaining territory because the emperor and the people were pious and faithful to their pagan gods. Their peace was founded on a lie. And then along came Paul and Silas, disturbing the peace.
A slave girl, who is possessed with a spirit of divination—the gift of knowing the truth about people and things—follows Paul and Silas around. She shouts, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She’s right, of course. But the people of Philippi aren’t ready to hear this message.
Then, in a fit of annoyance, Paul casts out the spirit and frees the slave girl from the grips of that spirit. On the surface, this sounds like a great thing—the girl has been released from the spirit that possessed her. It also demonstrates the true power of the Lord. But honestly, I’m troubled by this part of the story.
We don’t know what happened to the girl after Paul cast out the spirit. It can be dangerous to speculate on things that aren’t in the text, but I wonder if things actually turned out well for the slave girl. I doubt that her master believed that this exorcism was a good thing.
There’s no account of either the slave girl or the master becoming a believer after the spirit was cast out. In other places in the Book of Acts, when someone is converted after a healing, the author of the book tells us how the person who was healed then comes into the faith and into relationship with the community of believers.
We get no further details about the slave girl, but we know that she made a lot of money for her master. By healing the girl, Paul deprived her master of a nice piece of income. Do you really think the master was going to be happy about it? This part of the story seems to be more about Paul than about the needs of the slave girl. That should trouble all of us.
There’s always a danger, when we do mission work, that what we do is more about us than it is about following God’s call to mend a broken world. We often see problems in the world or in the communities that we serve. And they’re real problems and we want to help. But sometimes the people we wish to serve have more urgent needs than the problems we see.
When I was in seminary, I served an internship with a pastor named Dave Carver; he did a lot of missionary work in Malawi, which is located in eastern Africa, wedged in between Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz after worship.
Malawi has a population of 18 million and the Presbyterian Church has a large footprint there. In fact, there are more Presbyterians in Malawi than there are in the United States. The church is alive and well in Africa.
Dave has led several delegations of folks from Pittsburgh to Malawi—pastors and church members. On one of those trips, a very kind man from Pittsburgh was visiting a remote village. He was also a wealthy man. He noticed that there was no library in the village. He decided he would donate a large sum of money to help build a library, and then he would lead a campaign to raise the rest of the funds for this project.
This sounds like a great idea, right? I think most of us see education as a way out of poverty and dependence. This sounds like an amazingly generous gift! I think we can all identify with the kind man from Pittsburgh.
What this kind man didn’t understand is that a library was pretty far down on the wish list for that village in Malawi. Perhaps because he was a man, he didn’t see the women of the village rising before dawn and walking three or four miles to the nearest well to gather water for the day. The village needed a well way more than it needed a library. However, the culture of Malawi is such that, once the man had offered to build the library, the people of the village felt that they had no choice but to accept the kind man’s gift.
I don’t remember the kind man’s name, but his desire to do something gracious for the people of that village blinded him to the real need. This is not quite the same as the Apostle Paul’s annoyance at the slave girl who constantly proclaimed, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” However, Paul’s decision seemed to have more to do with Paul than with proclaiming God’s grace and mercy.
The grace in the story from Acts comes in two places. First, it comes in the hospitality that is offered by Lydia. By offering hospitality to Paul and Silas, she created the space for relationship. The fact that she is named in this story suggests that she’s pretty important. Perhaps she became a very important member of the community of believers at Philippi.
We can also see Paul and Silas practicing grace when they are in jail. After the earthquake, instead of fleeing, Paul and Silas and all the other prisoners remain in the cell. If the prisoners had escaped, the jailer might have been executed. But Paul tells him that all the prisoners are still there; the jailer’s life is not forfeit!
Through this act of grace, Paul creates an opening in which the jailer may come to believe in the Lord, rather than the gods that he might have worshiped in the past. He and his whole family are converted to this new way of believing that will come to be called Christianity. The grace in this story is accomplished through the relationships that the apostles cultivated with Lydia and with the jailer.
The story about the village in Malawi also has a graceful ending. As I said, Pastor Dave has made many visits to Malawi. He’s built many strong and vital relationships with Presbyterian pastors and elders across that nation. Because he had spent so much time and energy cultivating those relationships, the pastor from that village was able to reach out to Pastor Dave. He actually picked up the phone and called Dave from Malawi.
“Pastor,” he said, “we are absolutely amazed at the generosity of this kind man. But pastor, we do not need this library. Not now. More than anything, Dave, what we need is a well in our village.”
Dave said, “Thank you for telling me. I know this must be a difficult thing to ask. Would you like me to reach out to the kind man?”
“Could you do that, Pastor Dave?” he replied. “That would be most helpful.”
“Of course,” Dave said.
“Are you sure it is acceptable for you to ask this of the kind man?”
“Yes,” Dave said, “and again, I thank you for telling me this. I know it’s not an easy thing for you to tell me.”
“Thank you so much, Pastor Dave,” said the pastor from Malawi.
True to his word, Pastor Dave reached out to the kind man and explained the deeper needs of the villagers. The kind man understood what Dave told him, and the project was changed. Instead of raising funds to build a library, funds were raised for the construction of a well, and eventually, the well was built.
The well greatly improved the quality of life for the women of the village. It also gave the girls of the village more time for things like school. All of this was made possible through the relationships that Dave had cultivated. Through that relationship, the pastor from Malawi was able to step outside of his cultural constraints and ask for what was truly needed. And through his relationship with the kind man, Pastor Dave was able redirect the kind man’s generosity and meet the village’s greatest need.