Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Easter 7, 8th of May, 2016
‘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.’
Last weekend I was at the Uniting Women conference, at which 400 Uniting Church women and one man, the current president, Stuart MacMillan, gathered together in Adelaide to worship, and learn, and support each other. During the weekend there was the opportunity for us to do workshops, and I chose to do one led by Elenie Poulos, the National Director of Uniting Justice. Uniting Justice is the part of the Assembly that supports the Church’s commitment to a more just and peaceful world – to a world that is closer to the one God created. Elenie called her workshop ‘Troubling the City’ and used today’s reading from Acts to begin the discussion about how we can advocate for justice. Given that, I asked her to provide today’s sermon but sadly she didn’t and I still had to prepare this sermon myself. What Elenie did do was help me read today’s story in a new way, which I’d like to share with you.
In today’s reading from Acts Paul and Silas, and possibly the author Luke, are in Macedonia, beginning the mission to Europe. They’d gone to Macedonia after Paul had a vision in a dream of a Macedonian man pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ This is the point at which the author of Acts starts saying ‘we’ did this or that, so maybe he joined Paul and Silas on the journey. The first person they convert is a dealer in purple cloth called Lydia, and we hear her story in other years. Then we come to today’s reading.
I’m not sure that Paul comes across as a particularly nice person in this story. For many days Paul and Silas are followed by a slave girl, who has a spirit of prophecy that enables her to recognise them, and who announces this to everyone around them. For a while Paul lets this continue, one of the commentators even suggests that he liked the publicity, until he finally gets ‘very much annoyed’ and exorcises the spirit. The fact that an exorcism works suggests that the spirit of divination within the girl was demonic – so why does Paul wait so many days before the exorcism? When he does finally call on the spirit to come out of the girl, does he only do so out of exasperation rather than compassion for a girl who is possessed? Finally, how can he leave the girl with her owners, no longer possessed but still a possession? I don’t think Paul comes out of this snippet of story particularly well. But Elenie showed us that there was more to this story than an annoyed apostle.
Whatever Paul’s motivation, this is a story of God liberating the oppressed. The slave girl has a spirit that enables her to tell the future, a spirit similar to the one that gave the prophetesses at the Delphi Oracle their power. This spirit may have been demonic, but it knew its stuff, because it recognised who Paul and Silas were – slaves of the Most High God. Paul, Silas and the girl are all slaves, but their masters are very different. The slave girl is being exploited by owners who make a great deal of money out of her gift or curse. When we discussed this passage in the workshop Elenie asked us of whom the slave girl reminded us – and we came up with a long list: girls trafficked into sex-slavery; the people who make our clothes in overseas sweatshops; international students underpaid by companies like 7-11; the child beggars in developing countries who are forced to beg on the streets by dealers who then take their money – there is no shortage of situations in the world today in which the vulnerable are exploited by others to make money, as this slave girl is exploited by her owners.
When Paul exorcises the prophetic spirit, the girl is no longer able to be exploited in this way. Her owners are unable to use her to bring them wealth. It’s typical of Luke that he is concerned about the way in which people use their possessions. To use a slave to make yourself rich is, in Luke’s eyes, an obvious misuse. To our eyes the very fact of having a slave is a misuse, but the Roman Empire was a slave-owning society. We can have a sense of what Luke is saying if we think about something like the situation of the international workers exploited by 7-11 franchisees. It is not wrong to hire people to work in 7-11. It is wrong to pay them less than the minimum wage. In the same way, Luke might say, it is not wrong to have a slave girl. It is wrong to use that slave girl to make yourself rich. Paul’s exorcism has now put an end to that misuse.
Naturally, the girl’s owners are not particularly happy about the situation. They complain to the magistrates: ‘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.’ Note what they don’t say! They don’t say: we had a valuable slave girl and these men have reduced the value of our property. Instead they accuse Paul and Silas of political subversion, with a nice bit of anti-Semitism added in.
The slave girl’s owners anti-Semitism works, as sadly it so often does. The crowd joins in the attack, and the magistrates, possibly to pander to them, have Paul and Silas flogged and imprisoned. This will come back to bite them when they later find out that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens; Luke tells us: ‘they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them’. That’s what the judiciary get for pandering to the anti-Semitism of crowds!
I’m not going to talk about what happens to Paul and Silas in prison, you can ponder that for yourselves. Instead I’m going to conclude by talking a little more about what this story of the exorcism of the slave girl means for us.
I’ve said that I don’t think Paul comes out of this story particularly well, but that’s a little unfair. It was, after all, Paul who wrote one of my favourite lines of all Scripture in his letter to the Galatians: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28) This story epitomises that verse, in the encounter between Paul, a free Jewish male, and the Macedonian slave girl. I don’t think there is any doubt that the spirit came out of her when Paul commanded it in the name of Jesus Christ because Paul and the slave girl were of equal importance and worth in the sight of the Most High God. That continues to be true today. The poor and oppressed are as valued and loved by God as the wealthy and free. And so they are to be as valued and loved by the church.
This is why it is the role of the church to continue to ‘trouble the city’ as Elenie called her workshop. The city is not particularly troubled when the church cares for the poor and hungry and sick. But the city is very much troubled when the church advocates with and on behalf of the poor and hungry and sick. As Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian archbishop, said: ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.’ As Paul and Silas found, challenge the economic system and you may find yourself accused of undermining society. After the recent Budget, which told us that the most important things in the world are ‘jobs and growth, jobs and growth’ the churches can be sure that we will be accused of undermining society when we argue that companies need to pay corporate taxes and that it’s more important to have the money to pay for health and education than to have tax cuts. We’ll definitely be accused of disturbing the city when we argue that overseas aid is more vital to a nation’s health than submarines! But we can be glad that while we’re following in the footsteps of Paul and Silas it is very unlikely that we’ll end up beaten and imprisoned for it.
There’s one last point I want to make. In this story one of the major characters is a slave girl and, as I’ve said, Luke’s concern is with her exploitation, not with the fact that she’s a slave. She ends the story free of possession, but still enslaved. Because the various authors of the Bible took slavery for granted, it took the church literally centuries to realise that slavery was wrong, completely contrary to God’s vision for humanity. But as Martin Luther King said, as I quoted last time I preached: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ The church eventually realised that slavery was wrong, and after two centuries of advocacy by Christians it was finally made illegal. Whenever we find ourselves tired and frustrated by injustice in the world, remember the story of the campaign against slavery. It may take centuries, but justice will ultimately defeat injustice. We know that, because the Most High God is on the side of justice. As we disturb the city, we can rely on that. Thanks be to God. Amen.