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"True Freedom" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 14, 2017

posted May 19, 2017, 12:39 PM by Plymouth Church UCC


Too often we approach the Bible with such reverence - “God’s holy book” - that we miss how deeply the struggles of people in the Bible match our own.  The story may be two thousand years old; but we face the same dilemmas.  

Just think about this story: it began with a girl ensnared in human trafficking who longed to be free; it concerned some outside agitators who arrived speaking about justice and got arrested by the authorities for disturbing the peace; and then it moved to a prison, where Paul couldn’t sleep and where a jailer attempted suicide.  

I want to read this story of Paul in Philippi very closely because it's such a modern story.  We know more than we want to about these issues: human trafficking, incarceration, suicide.  This ancient story about issues we face today can teach us something essential about what it means to be a disciple.  What does Jesus call on us to do?  Especially, what does Jesus call us to do in the face of daunting issues like human trafficking, incarceration, and suicide?  

Part of the answer will lie in a tension scripture creates between slaves, masters, and freedom.  This story wants us to ask, “What does freedom look like?”  

The story of the slave girl introduced the tension between slaves and masters and the question of freedom.  Today, we’d speak of this girl as someone being trafficked.  She was a girl; the original Greek makes it clear by calling her a term used for child-slaves, paidiske.  This child earned money for her male masters by prophesying; a child forced to turn divine tricks.  

A few years ago, Rev. Marilyn Miller, president of MICAH, preached here on this story and she made clear the parallel between this young girl and the too many young girls and boys trafficked in our community.  Human trafficking remains a major issue in Milwaukee; as reporter Colleen Henry noted last week, Milwaukee ranks third in the nation for the intensity of human trafficking here, tied for Las Vegas as a hotspot of child prostitution.  

The enslaved girl turned to Paul for help.  At first, he ignored her.  It’s hard to see the reality of trauma and suffering caused by trafficking.  As Colleen Henry said in her report, the average age of someone to begin being trafficked is 13.  13!  News stories detail what this looks like: a parent began prostituting a daughter for drugs; in another, a relative promised to help a runaway teen but instead sold her to a pimp.  We shrink from these stories.

And Paul did at first too.  But the enslaved girl kept calling out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  Now the scripture said Paul got annoyed.  Was it because of the hectoring?  Or because the slave girl forced him to see his solidarity with her?  “We’re both slaves - me to those men and you to your God.”  

Her message moved him to act.  Paul prayed; she no longer prophesied.  But I think the healing actually began in her own advocacy for herself.  Trafficking, enslavement, took away her freedom, took away her control of her own body, negated her agency as a person.  In this story, we hear her claiming her own sense of self back: asserting her own determination and agency over her own body.  

Over my years volunteering with Pathfinders, I’ve learned that help rarely works when it aims to rescue.  That was the first impulse when it came to human trafficking: how do we rescue these youth.  But youth rescued often go back onto the streets.  Lasting change comes when our help empowers people to assert their own agency.  The lingo of people confronting human trafficking speaks of the need to “recognize, respect, and respond.”  Colleen Henry, in her story on human trafficking, profiled Nancy Yarborough, a former street worker who now works to help girls and women leave.  She begins by giving out purses filled with hygiene products and resource cards, including her own information.  Yarborough initiates a relationship and then nurtures the agency of the girls and women she meets.  

And likewise two thousand years ago.  We just get a snippet of their interaction, but I think it shows us something important about freedom.  Freedom is grounded in our own agency over our lives.  As it did for the enslaved girl in Philippi, the path to wholeness begins when we assert our own agency.  And it reminds me that my work as a disciple is grounded in a commitment of helping people claim their own authority over their own bodies and destinies.  

When we think about what we mean by our commitment to justice I think it comes down to this vision of agency, of empowering people to have determination and control over their own lives.  It’s why we’re committed to social service organizations that feed and shelter people who are homeless; it’s why we advocate for policies and budgets that address systemic inequality; and it’s why we face our own internalized racism and privilege.  This is freedom work; ensuring people have true freedom and agency over themselves.

Paul’s help for the enslaved girl landed him in prison.  As the girl worked to free herself, the slave masters turned their anger on Paul.  The enslavers made the accusation, “These men are disturbing our city.”  Such accusations have rattled authorities ever since.  Think how many times Martin Luther King got derided for disturbing the peace, how many protesters in Ferguson got called out for disturbing the peace, how often people who advocate for justice get denounced for disturbances. As if everything was perfect until someone pointed out the oppression.

And so, Paul landed in prison.  The mob almost lynched him.  And as it was, he got stripped naked in the street, beaten with bats, locked in the bowels of prison, with feet chained to a wall.  Scripture said that “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”

Those brief words capture a lot of anguish.  Naked, beaten, and chained to a wall, Paul and Silas can’t sleep.  Could you sleep your first night in prison?  Anxiety, worry surrounded them thicker than the night.  People in ancient Rome often went from the prison to the slave market.  They kept awake because they did not know what might happen next.  Desperate, they began to sing to each other the psalms they knew by heart; psalms like we read this morning.  One could even imagine Paul saying, “From whence will my help come?”  And Silas answering, “Our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”  That psalm moves from anguish to confidence, even joy; Paul sang to Silas, “God will keep you from all evil; God will keep your life.” And Silas responded, “God will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore.”

And throughout the rest of the story we find this rising note of joy.  The practice of prayer itself seemed to open their hearts to joy.  We often think of prayer in terms of what happens: answered prayers are the safe return, the healthy baby, the long-sought job received.  But Paul and Silas point to another, and I think more important, aspect of prayer: the joy.  For me prayer isn’t so much what I say.  Instead, when I pray I experience it as my heart opening to God.  My prayer isn’t the thoughts and questions and hopes I pour before God.  No, to me, prayer is God pouring into our hearts; pouring in joy.  

This moment in the story could easily be skipped over; that’s part of the reason why we stopped to read a psalm in the middle of it.  But it's also poignant.  Paul and Silas, at their most vulnerable moment, the time when their lives seem most endangered and when they existed like enslaved people bound in the dark; in this great desperation, Paul and Silas radiate joy.  We’re meant to see the contrast between their fetters and their freedom.  In their joy, they embody a radical freedom beyond the touch and blow of oppression. And it's why they are the most free people throughout this story.  God’s joy in their hearts made them free men wherever they went.

During this incarceration, the bizarre happened: an earthquake.  Scripture doesn’t say God sent it; but it must have felt miraculous to Paul and Silas.  Not so much to the jailer.  The jailer felt the earth move and heard the doors popping open.  He knew the prisoners would flee.  He knew the authorities would hold him accountable.  He knew he’d lose his job or his life.  And because of what he knew, the jailer moved to take his own life, to commit suicide.

In that awful moment of crisis, the jailer could not see any options for his life.  He became trapped by all the things he thought he knew.  And enchained, most of all, by his fears.  Enslaved to his anxiety.  

Paul prevented the suicide by calling out to the jailer.  “We’re all here.”  The jailer, sword in hand, unable to see any options for his life, paused long enough to ask, “Bring me light.”  So real was his worry that he couldn’t see the people around him.  

The jailer shown the light on Paul’s joyous face.  He must have wondered how this prisoner, about to enter the slave market, could look so free.  And so the jailer asked, “Masters, what must I do to be saved?”

Again, this story wants us to see the tensions between slaves and masters so that we ask who is really free.  In this moment the jailer, holding Paul and Silas as if they were slaves, now greets them as his masters.  The jailer, master of the prison, switched roles with Paul and Silas, the inmates of the jail.  “Save me,” he asked.

Paul spoke up.  “Believe on the Master Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  These words could sound like empty banality on another person’s lips.  But there in the depth of the prison, coming from the bruised face of Paul, it sounded like the key unlocking doors of possibilities for the jailer.  The jailer had wanted to kill himself because his world crumbled and he didn’t see any options for his life.  Paul opened for the jailer a new life, one in which the old patterns of domination and oppression, the old master and slave hierarchies were upended, one marked by transformed relationships.

The jailer began to embody those new transformed relationships with his former prisoners.  One can sense how physically damaged Paul and Silas were from the abuse they suffered; scripture describes the jailer taking them, because their once shackled feet were limp; the jailer washing them, because their bodies were bloodied; and the jailer bringing them up, because they could not walk.  

The jailer tended to them.  Earlier in the night, the jailer had been ready to kill himself for fear he was alone.  But now the jailer tended to Paul and Silas, fed them at his table, and discovered he was not alone but in fact surrounded by a new community.  

In this interaction of Paul and Silas with the jailer we see another aspect of freedom: the ability to transform relationships.  Freedom didn’t mean Paul and Silas striking out on their own; their freedom sent them back into relationship with the jailer.  They were able to prevent his suicide and help him see options for his life.  

The story of Paul and Silas had begun this morning with their trip to the house of prayer in Philippi; now, out of jail, they finally reached that small house church.  I imagine them now arriving with new people - the former slave girl, the former jailer, people once bound but now freed.  Perhaps sitting together in prayer gave Paul the insight that, as he would later write, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; but all are one in Christ Jesus.”  

And certainly he looked around that small church, seeing what freedom meant: the agency of our own bodies, the joy poured into our hearts by God, and the transformation of our relationships.  

I want to discover that freedom in our own time too.  It’s why I work for justice.  It’s why I pray to God.  And it’s why I gather with you in worship.  May we learn from Paul and Silas to embrace the freedom God brings to all our lives.  Alleluia and Amen.


- Covenant House, “Largest-Ever Research Studies Find One-Fifth of Surveyed Homeless Youth in the United States and Canada are Victims of Human Trafficking,” PR Newswire, April 2017.

- Eilers, M. Kathleen, “Acts 16: 16-40,” Interpretation, April 2007.

- Nes, Adi, “Untitled” from Prisoners Series, 2003.

- Sensenig, Jennifer Davis, “Joy in the Jail: Reflections on Acts 16: 25-34,” Vision, Fall 2014.