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Stocks and Bonds

May 9, 2016

“Stocks and Bonds” Acts 16:15-40 © 5.8.16 Easter 7C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Her name was Elektra, and her parents were both afraid and proud of her. Imagine! Their daughter was blessed by the god Apollo with an extraordinary ability. She could read minds. She could tell the future. She knew whether someone was telling the truth. There had been no one in their family with such a gift, though it was rumored that back in the day, one of the women in the family had been attached for a time to the shrine at Delphi. So, while they were not a little awed that their daughter was a witch, a prophet, a soothsayer, they also feared that if they ever thought of her in any other than a positive, loving way, she would call down the wrath of Olympus on them.

Her sister Daphne thought she was a freak, though not a fraud. Elektra knew all about what happened with that young man from the tavern, and that was a secret Daphne had told no one. So, she put up with her and as a way of conciliation, she let her borrow some of her clothes from time to time or fixed her up with a guy from work.

Elektra and her family were convinced she would never get married. What man would want a woman who could tell what was really on his mind when she asked “Does this tunic make me look fat?” or “Do you think she’s pretty?” So, she would end up being a burden to her parents unless she could find some way of making it in the world.

That’s why when the men came from the Philippian Psychic Palace and wanted to buy her, mom and dad said “yes.” Even Elektra realized that slavery was her only option. They paid enough for her father to get out of debt to the loan sharks and for the family to move to a better part of town. And she would have food to eat, a roof over her head, and, hopefully, decent treatment, even if the hours were long.

One day after she had been working for the Triple P for a while, she encountered a couple of men by the river who had an aura about them which immediately caught her attention. She looked into their minds without their permission and found that they served the Most High God, whom she believed went by many names, and had been telling people in the city about a man named Jesus, who brought salvation. That intrigued her, and for no other reason than that, Elektra started following them and shouting to passersby about them and their message.

After a few days of this, the one who seemed to be the lead man turned around and confronted her. He was obviously annoyed, angry in fact, and he shouted a command at her. Or not to her, to whatever it was that gave her the gift. Suddenly she felt empty and alone. The voices she heard constantly in her head were gone. She stared at the man and the others standing around and had no idea what they were thinking. Oh, no! What would she do now? She was worthless as a fortune-teller to her owners, and she had no other skills. She didn’t ask to be free of the spirit of divination, what in Greek would have been the “python,” the dragon, the snake, that guarded the shrine of her god Apollo. But here she was, still a slave and worthless to her owners. Did the man care about any of that? About her? Did he ask her name? No. He was an ill-tempered jerk who probably hadn’t slept well last night or had a lunch that didn’t agree with him. Later she found out that in his religion, the divine spirit inside her was thought to be a demon. Not surprising, she supposed, since snakes and dragons were the symbols of the one who ruled the underworld in his faith. He had thought her in bondage. But weren’t the preachers also slaves? She had proclaimed that they were bond-slaves of a deity higher than Apollo, and no one had disagreed. She supposed that the best spin to put on the situation was that the men’s loyalty to their god, their honoring of their bond, meant that they had to free anyone they perceived to be in chains to some spirit other than this man Jesus.

Their bond with their god meant that they ended up in stocks in the innermost part of the prison. Her owners had been furious. All their investment in her had gone down the drain, their great profits from her psychic readings, which had rated five stars in surveys. They were the most popular place around, and now they would have to find some other girl. If they would set her free, she could go back home or try to find another means of supporting herself. But what if they didn’t? Would they keep her on, feed and clothe and house her? What would they expect of her?

We may wish we knew what happened to the girl, whose name is of course never given. Nor is her back story. Luke cares for the prophetess only as a hinge in his tale. That’s really a shame, but it is what it is. In a moment of annoyance and anger, Paul had ruined a girl’s life, in the name of doing what he thought was right. We hope perhaps she found shelter with Lydia and the church in her home or maybe with the jailer and the church he hosted.

And it’s to him we turn now. Let’s call him Marcellus, a fitting name which means “defender.” It was his job to make sure the prisoners, convicted of crimes against the state and good order, were absolutely secure. He didn’t question whether their not being afforded a trial was just or whether the severe flogging they received was appropriate. He simply carried out the orders of his superiors, the magistrates and the police. So he placed the two men in stocks, designed to make their legs cramp and add to the discomfort of their raw backs. And to make sure they were out of sight of decent people and didn’t escape, he locked them away in the dungeon. Food and drink were forgotten. Let them be hungry and thirsty and hurting.

When he had carried out the instructions of the magistrates to the best of his ability and in keeping with his experience, he went home to supper and his wife and kids, adjacent to the prison. After a pleasant evening, he went to bed at his customary time.

Marcellus was sleeping soundly until vases started falling off shelves, and the floor felt as if it were being heaved up on a wave. Earthquake! A big one. Fearing the worst, he grabbed his short sword and headed for the prison. To his horror, he found the doors wide open. There could be but one conclusion. All the prisoners who survived the quake had fled. He was bound by honor and duty to make sure no one escaped, so the sword he had intended to use for defense he now prepared to turn on himself. His word was his bond. He swore in the name of his most high god Jupiter that nothing would happen to those in his charge, and his own life was the price of failure to keep his promise.

But just as he was about to do the deed, he heard a shout urging him not to harm himself, that all the prisoners were accounted for and had not run away. Huh? How could that be? What sort of men were these he was punishing so cruelly? He fell at their feet, convinced that they were servants of some powerful deity, greater than Jupiter, and that their god had caused the earthquake. But their bond with their deity must require that they act even to their own hurt if it meant another’s life hung in the balance. Why else would they have stayed in prison when all the chains were loosed and the doors opened? He was afraid of this god, even more than he dreaded the ire of his superiors, and asked: “What must I do to be saved?” Their answer was curious. He meant how could he get out of this mess in one piece. They instead talked about trusting in a man named Jesus, whom they said ruled over everyone and everything.

Marcellus was so grateful that he took the men to his home next door and dressed their wounds personally. Then he and they and his whole family became bonded in a new way. The men, whom he learned were called Paul and Silas, baptized him and his household into the faith of Jesus. Then they ate together, which took on a special significance as they celebrated their relationship. He found out there were others in town, a woman named Lydia, for example, who shared this faith, and gathered with like-minded believers on the first day of the week. He would do the same in his house.

I’ve spent a great deal of time on the slave girl and the jailer, and even given them names and stories. That’s because I think their interactions with the main characters are instructive. If we pay attention to them, we can learn some important lessons for our witness and for life in general. Also, when we read the Bible, we might do well to ask what isn’t happening that we might expect, given what Jesus taught. What voices are ignored or silenced? What might the story be like if told from the perspective of those on the sidelines or on the underside?

With that, then, notice first, how the truth of God may and does come from unlikely sources. The slave girl, wherever her clairvoyant power came from, knew who Paul and Silas were and what they were preaching. As Walker Percy once said: “The madmen in the gospels know when you’re telling the truth.” This girl wasn’t crazy, just loud and obnoxious. Whatever the Jews thought of the source of her insight, she was not in fact possessed by a demon. But even if that were so, the demons in the gospels knew the identity of Jesus. Is it too much of a stretch for our day to say that God in his freedom and sovereignty may and does speak through people of other faiths and no faith, through those within the Church with whom we may vehemently disagree, through anyone we suspect or scorn, through those who irritate us to the point we want to turn around and scream “Shut up!” God can bring his truth through a debauched celebrity or a celibate saint, a homeless wanderer or a well-heeled community leader, the outstretched arms of a little child or the tears of a confused victim of Alzheimer’s. He is not a Republican or a Democrat of any stripe, doesn’t identify with any country on the planet, is beyond gender and race and creed. Yet he speaks through them all now and again, even as from time to time he judges them all.

Given an opportunity to explore how the God without boundaries might be at work, Paul shut down any conversation, any possibility of making an unlikely ally in his mission because he was angry and irritated. He was perfectly capable of engaging pagans on their own terms. Just look at his speech in Athens in the very next chapter, in which he quotes Greek poets. But irritation pushed aside engagement here. And he got himself and Silas in a good bit of trouble, which they could have been spared. Not to mention that he didn’t even think of what his action might mean for the slave girl’s future. One of the principles of the law of unintended consequences is that someone’s value system, in this case Paul’s viewpoint on the source of divination, may make him or her fail to anticipate results of an action (http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-law-of-unintended-consequences.htm). So, the apostle may not have been able to look ahead. But in this case, there was nothing theological happening. I think he was just going with the moment, as all of us do from time to time, not even considering that if he cast out the spirit, he might offend the owners of the girl, who would then bring charges, which would result in his ending up in jail. No, he was simply mad.

How many times has our angry word or unthinking action led to bad consequences for us or one of our family, friends or neighbors? We look back and say “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” but the harsh response on social media or in person given in the heat of the moment breaks a relationship, perhaps irretrievably. The politician’s or the preacher’s offhand, unscripted comment is taken as a plan of action by followers, and violence erupts or someone is condemned as a worse sinner than anybody else. I recall a scene from the movie The Fisher King, in which a radio talk show host tells a caller that “Yuppies ought to be killed.” Taking the suggestion seriously, the man walks into an upscale restaurant with an automatic weapon and opens fire, killing several horrifically, including the wife of a college professor, the Robin Williams’ character. He is driven mad by the trauma and wanders the streets looking for the Holy Grail.

But thanks be to God, he can and does use anger, rashness, stupidity, bad ideas, and/or unintended consequences to accomplish his purpose. As Paul wrote, he puts treasure in earthen vessels. We flawed humans and our sometimes messed up politics, religion, and relationships are the agents and the arenas of the divine. Look what happened. A jailer was saved, along with his family. Prejudice was exposed, as uppity local officials were humiliated by Paul when he revealed that he and Silas were Roman citizens, whom it was illegal to have treated in such a manner. Yes, they were Jews. Yes, they were foreigners. But they were also loyal Romans entitled to certain rights. And ultimately, justice was done, despite beating and imprisonment without trial. But not everything turned out right. The true motives of the Psychic Palace owners were never revealed. They continued in their bigotry, and they kept piling up riches by using others. The slave girl was not freed. The earthquake didn’t shake things up quite enough.

So God speaks in surprising ways. He uses even our anger and stupidity. But finally, we notice how the way a believer behaves is the key to an effective witness. Words mean little without action. Love and loyalty are shown in deeds. Paul and Silas endured flogging, deprivation, and general mistreatment, yet still prayed and sang hymns. When the earthquake loosed their bonds, they stayed put, acting against their best interest, urging others to do the same. The life of the Philippian jailer, a stranger, was more important than their freedom. All that impressed the soldier, who valued honor and courage, and convinced him these men were at least people he could trust, even the messengers of the divine.

So we can preach and pray and spout pious phrases all day long, but it’s the way we act toward others that will bring them to Christ, convince them that our faith is authentic, restore trust in the Church as an institution. It will be our response to adversity, our concern for both the spiritual and physical well-being of our neighbors, and the quality of our community life that will prove our commitment to Christ. Speaking about typical Christianity in America these days, a writer recently observed: “People aren’t coming to church … because we good and faithful church-goers, singing hymns about amazing grace and love, pour out of the building at noon every Sunday and head to our favorite buffet—and then gripe at the servers. And leave lousy tips…. It’s hard enough getting people just to step out of their—our—self-absorbed lives long enough to smile at the cashier at Wal-Mart. Oh sure, we’ll say ‘Have a blessed day,’ but exercising just a bit of patience when that cashier is having a hard time with her register and making us wait in line too long—that’s just a bit too much effort…. When churchianity becomes authentic Christianity, when we’re doing some legitimate Jesus-following, we won’t have to invite someone to a service this month. And we won’t need signs to remind us. People will be knocking on our doors wanting what we have” (Stephen Schmidt, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/andygill/please-stop-inviting-your-friends-to-church/).

So much right happened in this story. A whole household united with Jesus, thus forming deeper relationships with each other. New friends made. When Paul wrote to Philippi, his epistle went to that jailer and Lydia and others of their families and friends. Spending some time in the stocks may have been worth the lasting bonds forged for Paul and Silas. So things turned out well.

But I wonder: what about the slave girl, what about Elektra?

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