A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor
Sunday, May 8, 2016
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; Acts 16:16-34; John 17:20-26
The Hallmark celebrations of Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are dreaded by preaching pastors. There is no way to win. Should you preach about your dear, loving mother who set a godly example for your life, someone on the way out of the sanctuary angrily reminds you that not everyone had mothers that were kind and thoughtful and paragons of virtue. You go home defeated knowing that unintentionally an emotional pot was stirred. If you preach about the joys of your own parenthood, mid-sermon, you spy the church members who were just told that they cannot have children of their own or you see the young mother who is weeping from the exhaustion of caring for a special needs child or there sit the parents of a teen in jail for drug possession or the parents who, out of the natural order of things, just buried their child. These complications are why I don’t preach Mother’s and Father’s Day sermons. I support my argument by reminding folks who ask that the lectionary doesn’t cooperate. I do believe, however, that we spend a lifetime trying to understand what it means that we slept beneath the heart of another person, safe and warm for almost a year. Maybe if only for that common journey, I feel a need to tip my hat.
Ever since my mother’s death in 1982 and my father’s death in 2004, I find that there are times that I still need my parents as individuals and as a couple. How grand it would have been to sit with them under those big oaks on The University of Alabama’s campus (their alma mater and place of courtship) as Dannelly was recognized on Honors Day. What fun to take them to New York City to visit with David, take in a show and walk Central Park. Most of the time, however, it is the small things for which I long: like how much buttermilk to put in the biscuit dough or how to separate the day lilies. So I cook with my spice cabinet open to invite my mother to join me in the kitchen. Since I don’t chew tobacco or smoke cigars, I take delight in caring for the flowers that (thanks to Mary Helen) I can trace back to another day when they were giving glory to God in dad’s flower beds. I tend to grow only the flowers that he grew, so if you have shared daisies or day lilies, irises or daffodils, it is a double gift. I give thanks for you as I imagine him walking with me about the yard to see what grew overnight!
I do not visit my parents’ graves. What is the point of that? They aren’t there. They are here, in me, with me…all the good and all the bad. I still hear my mother’s voice telling me that I should wear my overcoat, as it is the coldest day of the year; or that if I sit around with wet hair, I will come down with a sore throat; that no matter how tired or busy I may be, I should always-always-return the scissors to their rightful place so I will know where to find them the next time; and I hear Dad’s booming bass admonish me to stand up straight and speak from the diaphragm, for after all, I am a Jackson.
As I approach 60 this summer, I know that my doctor and I have a date to look at my heart to be sure some dreadful surprise is not lingering there as it did for my mother. Should I be caught off guard, I am charging you with the task of being parental models to David and Dan who are about the age that I was when my mother died. How thankful I am for the women and men who stepped into my life as models of encouragement at the time of my parents’ deaths. Because they have made all the difference, I am depending on you to do the same. Cushion our children with additional years of love and shared wisdom. Let them know that they will never recover from grief; they will simply learn how to live with the loss. Assure them that they have everything they need, and that they should resist over-achieving if their subconscious motivation is only to keep looking for me in the front row to cheer them on. They already have my blessing. In my mind and heart, they are so very fine just as they are. (Anna Quinlan, “On Losing Your Mom,” I do not have the source information, just a copy of the article.)
Zelma Pattillo tells the story about a little boy named Jim. He is playing on the front porch of his home while his mother sits peeling potatoes. He notices a ray of sun shining through an opening in the leaves of a nearby tree. It appears to highlight a spot on the porch as a spotlight would on a stage. Pointing to the spot of sunshine, Jim asks his mother, “What is that?” She replies, without looking up, “That is the smile of God.” Jim moves so that he is standing in the ray of sunshine. “Look Mom,” he announces, “I am standing in the smile of God!”
Years pass. Jim’s mother dies. He and all his siblings return to the “old home place” to sort through things. In a drawer, Jim finds a small box with his name on it. He slowly unties the string. He opens the box. There is a small pair of shoes within and a note that reads, “These are the shoes you wore when you walked in the smile of God.” (Zelma Pattillo, “In the Smile of God,” The Alabama Baptist, May 6, 1993. This article is in Zelma’s personal file in the office.) It is all we really need to know, isn’t it? Whether it is our mother or father, aunt or uncle, friend or teacher, pastor or grandparent who tells us doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we receive a blessing from someone so that we know: as we walk, we are standing in the light of God’s smile. It is following that Light and sharing that Light, I believe, that took Paul and Silas to Philippi.
Thwarted by their desire to take the gospel to Asia, Paul and Silas make their way to Philippi. They go outside the city gate, down by the river, in search of anyone who might have gathered to pray. They discover a group that is led by Lydia, a successful merchant of purple cloth. After hearing their words, Lydia and her entire household are baptized as believers. Lydia takes Paul and Silas into her home. Because of her hospitality, Paul and Silas continue to stay in Philippi for several more days. Their presence becomes more and more obvious as a slave girl follows them from place to place, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” We would say she was mentally unbalanced. Scripture plainly says she is possessed by a demon. So she is doubly bound. She is possessed by owners, and she is enslaved to some “demon” or mental illness that holds her its victim. (William Willimon, “Captivity and Release in Philippi,” Interpretation, pp. 136 ff.)
This girl, however, possesses an unusual gift. She can tell fortunes. If she is asked a question, she always has an answer. Sometimes she is funny, but mostly she tells the future and remarkably, she is usually right. Thus, her success. Because she is a slave, her owners decide to put her gift to work to their advantage. The arrangement works well for them, because people are willing to pay lots of money to find out their future and receive assurance to soothe their anxiety. They hire her out to read palms at parties and to provide entertainment at business conventions. Ohhh, there is money to be made in thousands of enslavements—drug addiction, consumerism, trafficking to name only a few. And this girl, she earns her owners a lot of money. They are completely happy with the arrangement until Paul and Silas come to town.
For whatever reason, she is fascinated with Paul and Silas. Everywhere they go, every conversation they attempt, she is there, interrupting, shouting. After a few days, her constant presence is annoying. So finally, one day, Paul has enough. He shouts back at her. It reminds me of a morning that Lloyd and I were with David in New York. He was walking us from our hotel to his college. The streets were crowded and as we walked by a store front, I heard my well-mannered, even-tempered son begin to audibly growl. He shouted at a woman who was lingering in a doorway. “David, what are you doing?” I asked. “Oh Mom, she’s crazy, and if you don’t shout at her first, she gets in your face and chases you down the street screaming things at you the whole way to school.” Paul, likewise, decides to give this woman a dose of her own medicine, because he is “greatly annoyed.” The only other time this phrase is used in Acts is to describe the agitation and consternation of the Jewish leaders over the apostles’ preaching that indicts Israel and its leaders for killing Jesus. (Acts 4:1-1) (“Paul in Philippi,” https://bible.org/seriespage/paul-philippi-purveyor-purple-purveyor-pain-acts-1611-40) So Paul, greatly annoyed, shouts at her, BUT he does so in the name of Jesus Christ.
You would think that celebration would break out when the girl shows evidence of wholeness and healing. But remember, her owners are hustlers, pimps, men who chase after the mighty dollar with a vengeance. While they might give a dollar to The Mental Health Association every now and then, this is incredibly personal. Religion is infringing on their economics, and so her owners do what vested interest groups do when their particular interests are threatened: they haul Paul and Silas into court. (Willimon)
Paul and Silas are accused of disturbing the peace. The exact charges are threefold: (Walter Brueggemann, “One Exorcism, One Earthquake, One Baptist…and Joy,” VL 1 Collected Sermons and “At Midnight,” vl. 2)
- “These men are Jews.” Yes, please do hear the same anti-Semitism that we might just hear, with add-ons like “These men are Hispanic.” “These men are black.” “These men are Muslim.” They point out that Paul and Silas are Jews as if being a Jew would explain everything. It stings of bigotry.
- “They are disturbing the city.” They disturb the peace by setting people free to be whole and healed. They disturb the city by upsetting the established social structure. They disturb the city by refusing to participate in oppression and, instead, they practice emancipation!
- “They advocate customs that are not lawful for Romans.” Well, won’t everyone be surprised when in verses 35-39, Paul reveals that he and Silas ARE Roman citizens! The magistrates then have to come apologize for the ways they have been mistreated.
The slave girl’s owners, who make these accusations, are quick to say to the judges, “We are not against a little religion, as long as it keeps to its place.” “Its place,” apparently, is right behind the mighty dollar. Then, the crowd that gathers joins in with their complaints. So Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten and thrown into jail. Their feet are shackled and the cell is deep within the jail house—like solitary confinement–because they are perceived as so very dangerous.
Now if we take all the characters mentioned thus far: the fortune teller, her owners, the magistrates and the crowd; all their drama flows towards the largest symbol of keeping the status quo: the prison. The prison is the safe place to put trouble-makers. The prison will keep a lid on trouble if by no other method than by intimidating any who even question the status quo much less change it. Don’t we realize that a prison is supposed to make us feel safe and taken care of? Why else has the building of new prisons been the hot topic within our state legislature this term? Multi-million prisons proposed in order to keep teen-agers with hoodies and immigrants from Syria off of the streets! I feel safer, don’t you? (Please forgive my sarcasm!)
The anxiety of all the story elements: the fortune teller, her owners, the magistrates, the crowd, the jail—provides a mirror for us to observe our own society filled with fear and anxiety. Sometimes what we fail to remember is that deep within our faith tradition is the conviction that God cares very much not only about the state of our individual souls (like the slave girl) but also about the life of the community (like the businessmen, the magistrates and the gathered crowd) and all of their fears, both founded and unfounded. It is from the beginning, not either-or, but both-and. Faith is both personal and corporate, a personal gospel and a social gospel. Anglican bishop and scholar N.T. Wright writes:
The point of following Jesus isn’t simply so that we can be sure of going to a better place when we die. Our future beyond death is enormously important, but the nature of Christian hope is that it plays back into the present life. We’re called, here and now, to be instruments of God’s new creation, the world-put-to-rights which have already been launched in Jesus and of which Jesus’ followers are supposed to be not only its beneficiaries but also agents. (Simply Christian, Introduction)
And so Paul and Silas, agents sent to put the world-to-rights, are beaten and thrown in jail, but they are not defeated. As we peek inside, we find that neither Paul nor Silas is afraid. They are not upset about their mistreatment. They are not angry nor are they licking their wounds. No, instead, they are praying! They are singing! …and not just a little bit of humming to themselves. They are singing so robustly that the other prisoners are listening with fascination. It is a wonderful testimony to how powerful our response to adversity can be! Paul and Silas, even though imprisoned, are transforming the jailhouse. They are turning it into a revolutionary community by witnessing to the Easter power that brings freedom even when restrained. It is midnight, pitch black, long after the candles have been extinguished and in that dark, terrifying place comes their singing. Paul and Silas are overturning yet one more institution of enslavement. It has me wondering: What song do you sing when you are in need of transformation? What song do you sing that brings courage to others?
William Sloane Coffin was the pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in New York City. His sermons remain today as beacons for preaching social justice. He was constantly in the streets involving himself in protests for what he believed to be right and Christian, especially in regards to the Viet Nam war. As a consequence, he spent many a night in jail. Of one of those nights, James Carroll, a Catholic priest writes: (Foreword to Credo)
A steel wall separated your cramped space from that of the man in the adjoining cell of the D.C. lockup. It was an overnight incarceration after being arrested for trespassing at the U.S. Capitol. The year was 1972. On the cell block, in separate cells, were another two dozen prisoners who had been part of an antiwar demonstration.
It was eerily quiet and dark. Raised and educated as a priest to respect authority, Carroll says that he felt disoriented, alone and afraid in jail.
[While no one knew what prompted Coffin,] at some point in the night, he began to sing, softly at first. His resolute baritone gradually filled the air as he moved easily into the lyric of what you soon recognized as Handel’s Messiah: “Comfort, comfort, ye my people.” …Coffin sang as if he were alone on earth, and the old words rose through the dark as if Isaiah himself had returned to speak for you to God—to speak for God to you. Others in the cell block soon joined…”The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
When Paul and Silas sing in Philippi, the earth heaves, the prison shakes, the doors fly open, and everyone’s chains fall off. The jailer awakes and seeing the prison door open, he prepares to fall on his own sword knowing that he will be held accountable for the escape of his prisoners. Keep in mind, just because he possesses the key to all the doors does not mean that the jailer is free. Prisons come in all shapes and sizes. (Willimon) So Paul assures the jailer that they are all there—every last one of the prisoners. They live out the truth that serving God doesn’t mean escaping dangerous places. Being followers of Christ means we are given the opportunity to be the voice and hands of Christ right where we find ourselves.
Coming to grips with his personal bondage, the jailer realizes that freedom is determined by something greater than chains and prison cells. So the jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved? What must I do to be free?” Upon hearing about Christ, the jailer and his entire household are baptized. They bring Paul and Silas into their home to feed them and to bandage their wounds.
Now you may be thinking that this story doesn’t really have anything to do with you. After all, not many of us have disturbed the peace so significantly that we spent a night in jail. Not many of us have been saved by an earthquake or disturbed by a troublesome spirit. So maybe Easter and its resurrection power are not about us, unless…unless… (Brueggemann)
Unless something inside nags at us of which we long to be free.
Unless fear so overtakes us sometimes that we listen to and join in with the
Unless, like the jailer, we go to sleep at night expecting NOTHING.
Unless we find ourselves drawn to the singing of others and yearn to have
our own song to sing.
Unless we know that we are on the edge of an earthquake and are filled
These are times when the desire to stand in the light of God’s smile as a blessing is foundational to personal faith.
My parents loved being Baptists. They attended every meeting and held offices on committees of influence within the Convention and Woman’s Missionary Union. They attended a state convention one year at which The Alabama Baptist Children’s Home gave their annual report by inviting some of the orphans in their care to tell their stories. One waif stood at the microphone and without seeming anxiety over the hundreds of persons who listened, she told about her life and then burst into singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” My parents were moved. They were so moved that they could not talk about it without their voices cracking and tears coming into their eyes. My parents were so moved that up into his last days, Dad would still just suddenly burst into “I sing because I’m happy…I sing because I’m free…for his eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches over me.”
At his request, we asked the soloist of the Evergreen Baptist Church to please sing this song at his funeral. She was doing her best, but somewhere in the second verse, a large moan came from within the midst of our family. It wasn’t a moan that made you afraid, it was a moan that said let me draw you to my bosom and comfort you. It was visceral and raw and it swelled to such a crescendo that we found we were all singing…singing in gratitude that in Jesus we are free, unbound by all that tethers us to this earth and free to be alive in Christ for all eternity.
If this is the type of freedom for which you long, I hope that you will respond, in faith, as we stand to sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” which is provided on the bulletin insert.