The scripture for this sermon is Acts 16:11-34.
My dad is about five foot eight and thin. At seventeen, I was about six feet tall and husky. When kids started throwing eggs at our house weekly, my short thin dad, enlisted his husky son to strike back. People can come up with some bad ideas when their stuff is threatened. My dad’s idea was for the two of us to stand guard all Friday and Saturday night in our darkened living room looking out the large picture window into our shadowy yard. We didn’t sit on the couch, but on the floor next to the couch, so that a car pulling into our driveway wouldn’t notice us. And, oh yeah, we had weapons. We both held baseball bats, remnants from my short lived and unsuccessful church softball career. My dad’s plan was to scare the kids, chasing them away when they pulled into our driveway. My dad told me we had to do something. We can’t just let our house be destroyed. Feeling responsible, I agreed. Yeah, we’ve got to do something.
Gifted with a wandering mind especially when bored and sitting in darkness, I wondered about the possibilities if they returned that night and we came screaming out of our front door brandishing bats. What if they grabbed bats of their own out of the car? I have never been in a fight with my fists, let alone with a bat. I thought I might lose. That would hurt. What if we scare them, they run and one trips and falls? Do I hit them with a bat while they are down? Wouldn’t that really hurt them? Do I want to really hurt them? Is it legal to really hurt them? As the night wore on, I was more and more uneasy with the plan.
I have never seen my dad act violently and he is now almost 82. At 51, I still have never been in anything like a fight. I was thankful and I am thankful we saw no action. The perpetrators had lost interest, I suppose. It strikes me though that we were both willing to consider the possibility of doing something so out of character. When we feel threatened or afraid, it is easy for all of us to forget who we are or who we hope to be.
The story in Acts begins with a young slave girl annoying the apostle Paul and his assistant Silas in the Macedonian city of Philippi. The slave girl’s owners make money from her telling fortunes and reading palms. She has a spirit within her that gives her the ability to do this, but it is not the same Spirit that is within Paul and Silas. Her spirit is a demon that recognizes the power and supremacy of the greatest God whose Spirit is within Paul and Silas. Just as a murder of crows screeches at a hawk hunting near them until the hawk gives up and leaves. This demon screeched at Paul and Silas hoping to annoy them enough to make them leave Philippi.
The demon’s plan to annoy Paul and Silas worked, but not as she thought. Paul turned around after days of her screeches and cast her out in the name of Jesus. The wealthy man to whom she belonged was not happy, because without the shackles of that demon, his slave was of no value. Paul had messed with his stuff, obscenely his stuff in this story was human property, and people have been known to do crazy, violent things when that happens.
The slave owner had Paul and Silas brought to the public square. Probably because fortune tellers were thought of in Philippi as charlatans, he didn’t charge Paul and Silas with their actual offense, healing his slave and making her worthless. He accused them of being Jewish. This was not a crime in first century Philippi, but it would play on the fears of the gathered crowd of people whose dress, morals, and allegiances are not the same as their own. When crowds are afraid they justify some horrendous actions.
The slaveowner played the crowd like a violin and whipped them into a fury that demanded justice. The magistrates fears of this frenzied crowd kept them from doing the right thing. They didn’t hold a trial as the law said they must. Instead, they declared them guilty of a law that didn’t exist. Then stripped them down naked in public and had them beaten by hard wooden sticks to the cheers of the crowd. With their bleeding wounds untended, Paul and Silas were thrown into a cell and chained to a floor. All this because Paul had messed with a rich man’s property, his foreign accent struck fear in the heart of the crowd and those with power failed to do the right thing.
All of this sounds too familiar to me. Wealthy people justifying harsh retaliatory actions against those who threaten their bottom line. Crowd’s fearing foreigners or those just different than themselves and speaking ugly words and acting menacingly. Powerful people seeking the approval of the crowds and either encouraging or doing nothing to stop the hate. Men and women considering violence to save face, stand up for themselves, or right a wrong, even if the wrong is just a couple of kids throwing two dollars worth of eggs at a house.
When our stuff is threatened too often we justify really bad things. When we feel threatened, we become deaf to God’s voice calling us to love and not hate. When our actions are reactions to the unjust works of others, we act out of character and do something we would not normally consider. When we are worried, afraid or humiliated, hurting the weakest among us is too often our response. When we have the power to make a difference, fear of what the crowds might think keeps us from acting at all.
When children of God act this way, God and God’s love is not made known. I get that being like Jesus is tough in this broken world. To be able to be so full of faith that we could sing joyful songs like Paul and Silas while chained to a prison floor is a hard act for most of us to follow. However, sometimes we let ourselves off the hook too easily, failing to reflect on our actions in light of our baptismal promise to share Christ always. Amen