“Embracing the Earthquake,” a sermon on Acts 16:16-34
“Embracing the Earthquake”
Everyone in this story begins in a trapped place.
They’re all bound in some way, bound by a system of slavery and violence, bound by guilt, bound by fear.
And almost all of them are freed in some way in the course of this short chapter.
The slave girl’s freedom is incomplete, but she’s the most obvious place to start when talking about people who are trapped.
She’s possessed by a spirit, in Greek it says the Spirit of Python, which is associated with the Oracle at Delphi.
So we know that she’s probably Greek, probably has a religious past, was possibly a former priestess of Phython or Pythia, and was somehow captured or sold into slavery.
Which was not at all uncommon. In Italy alone in the time of Jesus, 30-40% of the population were slaves. There were 2-3 million slaves in Italy alone in the 1st Century.
They had no rights, and many didn’t even have names. Their names of origin were thrown away, and they were given slave names.
In addition to being enslaved by her owners, this particular girl was shackled to an ability that she may or may not have asked for, the ability to see the truth in the present as well as the ability to tell the future.
Which both got her owners quite a bit of money, and also got Paul and Silas in quite a bit of trouble.
When Paul and Silas come to town, her gift enables her to recognizes them immediately. “These men are slaves of the Most High God,” she says, “Men who proclaim to you a day of salvation.”
If she has any agency in this story at all, it’s this line here, where she recognizes God as a different kind of Master and recognizes the Good News as preached by Paul and Silas as a path to freedom.
She proclaims publicly that God promises “freedom, deliverance, and rescue.”
Which is a threatening prophecy for a society that depends on 2 million slaves.
If Paul and Silas are preaching freedom and deliverance, in this life OR the next, they are a significant threat to the Roman empire and its way of operating.
Paul, a Roman citizen himself, recognizes the danger, and doesn’t appreciate her constant presence, which is drawing attention to him, so after a few days, he casts the spirit out of her.
In my own alternative ending, Paul would have been more Jesus-like and told her that she need not have any master but Christ.
The word for slavemaster in this story is actually Lord, by the way. When we say Christ is Lord, we’re using the same word Roman slaves used for their slavemasters.
Which means using the word “Lord” is either super troubling or subversive, a word we can reclaim – you’ll have to decide that for yourself.
But back to story – in my rewrite of Paul’s journey, he would push back harder against the practice of slavery in Rome, and push back harder against human trafficking and the exploitation of women.
But Paul is flawed and human, and he’s not Jesus. And Paul’s doesn’t fight that fight.
Instead of freeing her from her slaveowners, he “frees” her from the spirit of fortune telling that’s annoying him and putting him at risk.
But it’s not really she who’s freed, is it?
Frustratingly, we don’t get to hear the end of her story. What happens to her when she stops being able to tell the future? Does she fake it for a while to stay safe?
Do her masters sell her off?
Do they send her to the mines or somewhere else? We don’t know.
I suspect this is the place where we get to insert ourselves into the story to finish this narrative. Maybe we are the ones to step in and accompany others who are trapped and trafficked in this way. Perhaps that is your calling – to finish the work Paul left undone.
We do know that as a result of Paul’s actions “freeing” her from the spirit, he ends up in a heap of trouble anyway.
Her owners, of course, are furious.
Even though, they too, are stuck in an abusive system.
Think about it – they’re shackled to an economic system that depends on free labor, violence, and dehumanization.
The economic system they’re a part of compels them to commit violence and civil rights abuses.
Them being a part of a broader system doesn’t excuse their behavior, by any means, but it’s important to note that their lives are damaged by the slave trade as well.
As slave owners, they’ve become abusers. And they are now shackled to their guilt, if they have any, and to the negative changes in their lives and consciences that have resulted from owning people.
And it’s not just them.
The magistrates too, the town officials, they’re also shackled in a sense. They’ve been hired by the Roman empire to keep peace and order in the growing city of Phillipi.
When Paul and Silas are accused of disturbing the peace, the magistrates have little choice but to punish them and make and example of them.
Otherwise, they’ll lose their position and possibly end up prisoners, slaves, or even executed.
Out of fear for their lives, they’ve become abusers as well.
And when they do their public display of beating Paul and Silas, the crowd joins in.
The crowd who is also tied up in a system that promotes law and order over mercy and civil rights.
At least civil rights for non-citizens.
At this point, no one knows that Paul is a Roman citizen.
That will shake things up later, but for now, the crowd believes Paul and Silas are immigrants, travelers who have come with strange customs and religion and subversive ideas.
The jailer, too, is both a perpetrator and a victim.
When the magistrates ask him to lock Paul and Silas up in the inner most cell, the jailer has little choice.
If he disobeys the magistrates, his own life would be at risk.
So either he locks Paul and Silas up and tows the line, or he loses his own life.
We know he has a family that depends on him. Not obeying the magistrates would put all of them at risk as well.
So he does his job, even though it means shackling others.
Like Paul and Silas, who are literally bound, and chained up in a jail cell along side criminals, many of whom are actual criminals, and others who, like Paul and Silas, were thrown into jail without due process.
Everyone is trapped in this story.
Yes, people are benefiting in some way from the Roman Empire’s way of doing things. There are great roads. There is “peace.” The economy is booming for the top 1.5%, who own 50% of the slaves.
But at what cost…?
What percentage of their consciences have they tied up? What percentage of their humanity have they surrendered?
They’re all trapped, in one way or another.
Until verse 26, when something extraordinary happens.
There’s an earthquake so violent that the foundations of the prison are shaken.
Immediately, all the doors are opened, and everyone’s chains are broken.
Now it’s possible there really was an earthquake, but don’t you imagine that this was a perfect metaphor for the Word of God?
Isn’t that what the Good News is supposed to be?
An earthquake so violent that the foundations of our prisons are shaken?
All that which keeps us trapped – our guilt, our fear, our unhealthy relationships, our addictions, our political and social systems that hurt the poor, the parts of our economic systems that hurt ALL of us.
What would happen if the foundations of THOSE prisons were shaken?
What if we released ourselves from the prison of our own guilt?
What would we be free to do?
What if we released ourselves from the prison of stuff? Of clutter?
What would be freer to do?
What if we released ourselves from the prison of privilege, if that’s even possible?
What would be freer to do?
What if we released ourselves form the prison of perfectionism?
What would be freer to do?
My invitation to you today is to embrace the earthquake.
Let some unhealthy foundations crumble.
And imagine, when they do, what Good News will you be freer to live?
Speaker: Rev. Sarah TevisTownes
June 4, 2019
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