A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton `© 2021
Fifth Sunday in Easter/B • May 2, 2021
“Well, we’re here”. My late mother in law Marilyn said this more or less every time she arrived somewhere. It could be driving here all the way from Texas; it could be down the street to a restaurant. “Well, we’re here”. It’s become a tag line in our family. Drive home, finish the long drive back from Baltimore, chances are someone will say, “Well, we’re here”. It’s a touchstone. We got through that last little bit safely; we’re ready for the next part.
I wonder what Paul and Silas said when they landed in jail. I wonder what I would say. They’re not strangers to conflict. In fact, their journey has been full of arguments, often with their own folks. John Mark, who legend says later wrote the Gospel of Mark, started out with them but they couldn’t all get along so he left. The mother church back in Jerusalem doesn’t think much of what they’re doing, converting Gentiles. The synagogue authorities where they preach think they are annoying. Now they’ve gotten in trouble with the law and trouble with the law is serious in the Roman world.
Life in ancient cities was mostly lived outside in the hustle and bustle of the market place. Think of the mall at Christmas time or a crowded farmers market. The market is full of scents: hot olive oil, garlic and good things cooking, animals and all those people, always all those people. There are people selling cloth and pottery and jewelry. These sellers aren’t like the ones at our mall. Even today in the markets of that world, sales begin with someone grabbing your arm, talking to you, “Look, have you ever seen anything so fine? Here, touch, feel, really I’ve been waiting for someone who could really appreciate this, I can see you are a collector, a connoisseur. It’s a shame to let it go, I only offer it because I think you’ll appreciate it, here, just 22 drachmas.” There are no price tags; everything is barter. It takes some getting used to but it’s a required part of the sale.
One night when Jacquelyn and I were in Italy for dinner, I failed to argue over the bill. Arguing over the bill is a standard part of dinner in Italy, in fact routinely the maitre’d offers a glass of grappa, which smells like kerosene and tastes like moonshine, while the bill is discussed. I barely knew enough Italian to order the meal, let alone argue about it and anyway food in Italy is cheap, so I was happy. We’d been out to a fancy dinner, the bill was about 30 bucks, which translated into about 50,000 lire. No problem. But the waiter saw a problem: I wasn’t arguing, I was just shuffling through my billboard sized Italian currency, looking for a 50,000 lire note. So he began to argue on my behalf. The maitre’d said something back and within moments they were off and running, the Italian was flowing hot and fast, we were ready to go, so I put down an extra bill for the tip, said goodbye and we left as they continued.
That’s how I imagine that marketplace: full of talk, full of bartering. Among all the people, there are entertainers. One of the best gambits for earning money has always been predicting the future. It’s still in use today. Every newspaper has a horoscope column. Miss an editorial and no one notices; miss the daily horoscope and the paper gets lots of calls. Go to a Chinese restaurant and they give you a little cookie with your fortune inside. We may not take these seriously; but we read them.
This story starts with a girl who has a gift for telling people’s futures. Like most workers, she’s a slave. She’s just strange enough to get people to believe she has a special gift. Today we’d diagnose her; in that time, they just say, “She has a spirit”. Every day Paul and his friends are in the marketplace, preaching, and every day she is there, heckling them, yelling at them, making noise, disrupting whatever crowd they gather. All preachers hate that. Most of us tolerate babies talking back but we really expect the rest of you to behave and shut up. But she won’t shut up. One day, Paul gets so annoyed, he turns and snaps of an exorcism. It works; she shuts up. But of course her owner is now angry: who wants a silent prophetess? So he gets Paul and Silas arrested for theft of services. They end up before a magistrate and as the song says, no money to go their bail, so now they’re in prison. What did they say? What did they think?
I’m sure they were scared; I’m sure they were frightened. But there is a great mystery here: what is it that allows some of us to do things that risk everything for a gain only dimly perceived, a gain not to ourselves but the whole world? Nothing in the world compelled Paul, a successful lawyer, to leave his practice and go off to preach. Nothing in the world compelled Paul to stand up to the church in Jerusalem. Nothing in the world compelled Paul to free that girl that day. But Paul is not living from the things in this world. He has seen a bigger place: he has had a greater vision. I don’t know a better description than the one we read today in the book of Revelations. It’s the end of time, it’s the end of the world and the Lord God is present. This is God’s introduction: “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
It’s like being lost and suddenly having someone point out your exact location on a map. Paul knows where he is, he is sure. He is in the hands of God. It’s that simple. Nothing can change that any more than saying the sky is falling changes the day. It is the basic reality. First and last: God is present, persistent. In that crowd around Paul there must have been people who had seen that slave girl abused for a long time. In that crowd there must have been people who’d seen her owner beat her, heard her cries.. There must have been people who wanted to say something, do something, but they didn’t, they were scared, or embarrassed or they just didn’t want to get involved. There must have been people there that day who were horrified when Paul was arrested, who shuddered at the idea of what would happen. There must have been people who wanted to help. But they didn’t. Paul and Silas are led off to jail, beaten and left in pain in the darkness.
Now here’s the interesting part to me. That night there is an earthquake. The jail doors spring open. Wow! Imagine the luck! Freedom is just a step away. Even an atheist might thank God at such a moment. The jailer doesn’t have any doubt what’s going to happen. Roman law holds him responsible with his life for these prisoners; he will take their place if they escape. He cries out that he’s lost but in the echoing silence after the earthquake, the only sound is Paul’s voice, calling back, don’t worry, we’re still here. Still here: can you imagine? They could have made a run for it, gotten clean free in the confusion. But there they are, there they stay. You see, Paul is not in jail: he’s in the hands of God. He always was and ever since his heart was opened to God, he has known it. So wherever he goes, whatever he does, it’s with God. We’re here, he calls out. We’re here.
Where are you? Where are you going? John Newton is the author of a favorite song, Amazing Grace. Newton was a sailor who worked his way up through the brutal British naval life of the 1700’s. Sometime around 1744 he went to sea on a slave ship, transporting slaves from Sierra Leone to the slave camps of the Caribbean. He worked his way up to be master of the vessel. One night during a violent storm, his heart opened and he experienced the love of God. He wrote in his journal that he had experienced a great deliverance, that when all seemed lost, and he was sure the ship would sink, he had called out, ‘Lord have mercy on us’, and believed that God indeed had mercy on him.” He continued in the slave trade but he began to treat the slaves more humanely. Finally he couldn’t face the suffering he helped cause and left the sea altogether. He became a Methodist preacher and a voice in the early British anti-slavery movement.
The history of the movement against slavery is full of such people. Pete Seeger told of going down to Alabama in 1964 where children had dogs set on them and people just like the ones who put Paul and Silas in jail bombed churches just like this one. He said, “I guess no one who hasn’t actually faced those police men can know exactly how much bravery it takes to be cheerful in the face of all kinds of things. Then he shared a song: Ain’t a scared of your jail cuz I want my freedom.
What courage made those children sing? What purpose made Newton give up his success? What faith made Paul stay in that cell? It isn’t a formula or a creed, it was knowing they are in the hands of God every day, everywhere. To live in that faith is to live alert to the possibilities of each day, convinced that God is accomplishing a great and wonderful purpose in your life. To live in that faith is to be able to face whatever circumstance, whatever event, with an openness and a joy. It is to say indeed, as Marilyn does, “Well, we’re here,” and see that God is here also, always here.
So we are not alone and we are not without purpose. God is our beginning and end: we are in the middle and nothing in the world can come between us and the love of God.