I thought I would share the sermon I preached a few days ago. With recent political events, I feel like I have to say something. Perhaps there is a relevant tidbit or two in here:
In Acts 16 we read about a slave girl with the power of divination. We don’t know exactly what this means but we do know this power gives her owners some economic benefit. And we read this girl follows Paul and Silas and repeatedly proclaims them to be “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” This seems harmless enough but alas Paul finds these proclamations annoying and so he orders the spirit out of her. And that is all we are told about the slave girl. I find this troubling. Here is a girl, held as a slave, one of the most vulnerable in society, and Paul seems to give her no consideration other than removing the part of her which annoyed him. She is left with lowered value in the eyes of her owners but as far as we know still a slave, still at the mercy of these men whom we will find in the following verses to be completely without scruples or mercy.
As I considered the seemingly gross injustice of the treatment of this girl, I tried to think of Jesus in this situation and tried to imagine him treating her so callously. And suddenly I realized this story reminded me of the story of the Syrophoenician woman. In the story of the Syrophoenician woman the woman begs for healing of her daughter and persists despite Jesus’ attitude of exhausted dismissal toward her pleas. It made me wonder if perhaps the slave girl had a purpose to her annoying proclamations. Perhaps she followed Paul and Silas hoping they would be worn down into seeing her plight and freeing her from the spirit within her. Perhaps there were things about her divination duties and the position they put her in which made her long for healing. Perhaps her cries were annoying to Paul because he felt called to heal her but knew to do so would be dangerous and so she persisted until Paul could resist no longer. For Jesus the Syrophoenician woman’s persistent and wise words moved him to act. For Paul it seems to be the sheer weight of annoyance. But this is all speculation since we know so little about the girl or the situation. Perhaps this girl’s slavery was being unfairly lengthened due to her economic usefulness, maybe the divinations were part of a larger illness. And it could be I am way off base, she didn’t want to be healed, lost her value to her owners and lived out a pitiful existence abandoned and alone. Whatever the case I feel it is my duty to honor her story by at least acknowledging that she had one.
There is much to wonder about regarding the slave girl but the behavior of her owners seems pretty clear. Upset at their loss of profit, they slander Paul and Silas. They play upon the prejudices of the local populace and appeal to their patriotism in order to get what they want, revenge upon Paul and Silas. Prejudices are a reliable way to stir up violence and so Paul and Silas are arrested and beaten.
Phillipi was a place important to the Roman empire. Imperial power was strong in such a place and with many benefits but also ruthlessness. Seminary professor, Matthew Skinner points out the description of imperial rule which the story from Acts lays out for us: An empire which exploits the power of religion, and values people for their economic worth, skillfully uses scapegoating, utilizes violence and torture, and refuses to admit defeat. (from ON Scripture article)
So many of these imperial tactics are being paraded before our eyes this election season it is appalling. Obvious use of religion to manipulate is rampant. Scapegoating of refugees, muslims, undocumented immigrants, hispanics, transgendered people is just a tip of the iceberg. Calls to violence toward those who disagree have become common place. Refusal to ever admit any mistakes or wrongdoing regardless of the magnitude of the offense has become bread and butter of politics. Valuing people only for their economic worth has distorted our view of reality until someone who has benefited from privilege and power with every breath from the first moment of life can claim to be outside of the establishment and we buy it seemingly because of the economic power associated with a name.
It is discouraging, depressing, appalling, and frightening. So, what can we do? We can remember the slave girl. We can commit to never forget she and people like her have stories. They are people of equal value to the more powerful of the world. We can work to lift up stories of the oppressed, those suffering from injustice and discrimination, the outcasts and the feared. We can value people just for being people, not for their economic status or how they can promote our own agendas. We can stalwartly resist violence in all its forms and remember honesty and repentance as virtuous acts. We can refuse to be silent in the face of hatred.
We are not a people without hope. We are a people guided by love, healed by forgiveness, and called to be light in the darkness as was one who came before us, Jesus, our guide and our hope. Amen.