By Rev. Rebecca Messman
May 29, 2022
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
May these words inspired by your Spirit startle us again, and open in us a fuller life than the one we know. Amen.
Today’s story from Acts starts with Paul and Silas on their way to “the place of prayer.” They wanted spiritual rest, music, and a maybe a passable cup of coffee, and they couldn’t even get there. Before they could get to church, they got entangled in a local scandal that ended in senseless violence. You see, what they believed to be the common sense, humane thing to do – which was freeing a girl from some kind of psychic trafficking ring, healing a powerless person rather than enabling the profiteers – that was cast as the problem, they were cast as people of some other faith threatening their laws and throwing the entire city into an uproar.
And before Paul and Silas could wonder out loud about these extremely exaggerated grievances and the overall lack of concern for the girl herself, the crowds had already mobilized. And despite all the talk about laws, Paul and Silas – whom Scripture highlights are Roman citizens – were beaten within an inch of their lives and thrown in jail. What a sadly familiar tune.
From there, scripture makes a point to say they weren’t just thrown in the the normal jail like Christians had already faced a few times in the book of Acts. They were thrown in the inner jail which means their feet were put in stocks and a special jailer was there to make sure they never got out.
As a pastor, I have visited all kinds of jails… real ones, to be sure, those with imposing walls and thick silence except the clink of huge gates and the tick of institutional clocks. I have also met people in emotional and psychological jails, such as the person who feels trapped by a diagnosis or ensnared by a financial crisis or stuck in a brutal divorce. But eventually, even if it is terribly painful, these jails have an ending. Eventually, there is a period at the end of the sentence. There is some measure of relief and some way to look back on it after a new chapter has begun. People can handle most anything if they know it will end.
But the inner jails people face are the hardest… Inner jails might have plenty of clocks but time itself feels lost. Inner jails might not mean your feet are in the stocks but they might mean you are denied any real sense of progress. Inner jails are a state of the heart on the edge of numbness and dehumanization such that even the jailer who works in the system sees no way out of it. Inner jails are cemented by walls of despair in the soul. If you want to know what breaks people, that is it.
When you or a family member have chronic physical or mental health struggles and it feels like the world has moved on without you, that can feel like an inner jail.
Another surge in the pandemic or the climate crisis or ongoing racial pain can feel like that too. But wow, this week as the mom of a fourth grader, when I read about Uvalde which I will not describe because we have people of all ages in here, I just had to put on my shoes and walk around the block. A pastor friend texted me the words “it just never ends.” And I thought, this is the inner jail. There are cemented ideologies and stocked feet of perpetual inaction from our leaders and the loud awareness of how much time has passed like this. Day by day lives are lost, schoolchildren and churchgoers, grocery shoppers and educators, security personnel and grandparents. And day by day, it is as if our country is on two different sides of thick glass, and it’s sometimes hard to tell who is free and who isn’t.
And after my walk I went straight back into this story. I had to. Paul and Silas sat together in the inner jail. Now if this were a Star Wars movie, the soundtrack would start to sound intense, the French horns would be starting up, and you’d know that someone was coming to break them out of this. You’d know someone was just about to dismantle the core of the death star super weapon which is always this super obvious thing in the center that everyone knows about. You’d see others doing their little lightsaber skirmishes on all fronts making their way in.
But for Paul and Silas it was reality and in reality you have to bring your own soundtrack and you don’t always know what other people are doing that is working. So, they do this beautiful countercultural thing. They sang hymns at midnight and prayed. They filled the void with music and hope. I imagine it was a defiant kind of singing. A kind of singing that channeled all the courage they and those long before them had ever known. And then the ground beneath them began to shake. The foundations of the entire prison shook. The whole enterprise of exploitation and intimidation and discrimination fell to the ground in the medley of hope they sang because of the God who taught them those songs and who always sets us free.
Music works like this. It tunnels us out of whatever jail we are in.
When enslaved people in this country would hear the song Swing Low Sweet Chariot, it was not only a beautiful song but the cue that they needed to be ready to flee because a band of angels from the Underground Railroad was ready for them.
When Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote today’s opening hymn, calling for courage and wisdom for the facing of this hour, he was lifting up the urban poor at the beginning of the Great Depression and warning against fundamentalism in the church that seemed to dismiss real world suffering. That song has called the church to be courageous through countless hard hours ever since.
When marchers in the Civil Rights Movement joined arms and sang We Shall Overcome or other freedom songs, they created a stark moral difference between their call and the water hoses that had been turned on them. John Lewis said, “if it hadn’t been for music, the Civil Rights Movement would have been a bird without wings.”
When Nelson Mandela was in prison, he said, “you can sing your way out of pain and survive.” He described how opponents and supporters of apartheid made music together in jail and there they forged the bonds that eventually took the whole apartheid system down.
Paul and Silas sang hymns and prayed and shook the foundation of an entire system that was built on the exploitation of the powerless including the jailer. And it is so important to remember that those tunes carried them not into more violence, not into more alienation, but to dinner at the jailer’s house. It was a deeper conversion that freed them all. When we sing God’s refrain, we also refrain from furthering any patterns of abuse and hatred. As Paul wrote in Ephesians, the peace of Christ tears down the dividing walls of hostility between us, creating in himself one new humanity. We sing our way into a new way of being and as the Gospel song says, the walls come a tumblin’ down.
The other night, a group of us gathered on Zoom. The plan had been a book group discussion about racial reconciliation. About 36 people from BPC and First Baptist Church of Vienna, a predominantly African American congregation, had signed up. But the day before our meeting, the Buffalo shooting happened. The former youth pastor of First Baptist Vienna is now Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist in East Buffalo — his home town, and he joined us on the Zoom, along with about 15 members of his congregation, right after he finished being interviewed by CNN. Suddenly there were 104 people together, a beautiful mix of people, with no race in the majority. The Christians from East Buffalo told us their stories. We prayed. We listened. And what might have been another inner jail became instead Zoom squares full of prayers that were shaking with stories and humming with Gospel hope and an outpouring of people working together to become a new humanity, free and safe, praying and singing our way toward the beloved community we are in Christ.
At the end of the Zoom, Rashena from First Baptist sang Precious Lord Take My Hand and set something free in all of us.
[play video, second service]
In reality, we must bring our own soundtrack, and as Christians we don’t sing the same old tired tunes of violence and despair. As the Psalmist said, we sing a new song and it sets us free.
And I’ll end with this: When Katherine Lee Bates wrote the hymn America the Beautiful, a Memorial Day hymn if ever there was one, it the early 20s, 1920s, and America was healing from war and a pandemic then too. Maybe you know these lyrics: America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
May we work so that it might be so.