Acts 16:16-34; watch the sermon here
Help us to be really present.
To you. To each other.
To your Word.
There’s a freedom song that sings of Paul and Silas in prison.
The freedom song is called “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”
It was written for the Freedom Riders,
black and white civil rights activists who rode together on buses into the South
to protest segregated travel.
Violent mobs greeted them when they arrived.
The police arrested them for mixing races on a bus.
Here’s an excerpt of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”
Hold on. Hold on.
In the Scripture today, Paul and Silas are imprisoned for
emancipating an enslaved girl. How do they respond?
Do they attempt a jailbreak?
A prison riot? No.
They sing songs of freedom.
God’s presence moves powerfully as they sing.
And God comes through an earthquake.
This earthquake shakes the foundation of the prison.
Leaving every chain snapped. Flinging open every door.
This is a powerful metaphor for the real activity of God.
God will empower us to be courageous witnesses
to the moral bankruptcy of the empire.
Don’t fight fire with fire, Paul and Silas teach us.
Fight the fire of evil with patience, endurance, and songs.
Songs at midnight. Hold on. Hold on.
Bind yourself to the peaceful, the merciful, the sacrificial way of love,
which is the way of Jesus, Paul, and Silas.
For God shakes the foundations of what feels unmovable.
Evil that feels solidified. Fossilized. Codified in the world around us.
Silas and Paul felt the sting of a system that unfairly arrested them.
In the beginning of the Scripture,
Paul exorcises a demon from an enslaved girl.
This act parallels the account of Paul and Silas
being set free from prison.
It is a part of God’s liberating work.
In fact, Silas and Paul are so radically free that they
remain in the collapsed prison.
Even though they could have got out and taken the city by storm.
They stay; they sing.
This demonstrates their freedom.
They were never held by those metal chains.
Their soul could never be bound by those metal bars.
They could never be prisoners of the state
because they were already bound to the risen Christ.
Likewise, in the face of moral bankruptcy, what is our call?
Sometimes it is hard to keep our eyes on the prize.
Sometimes it is hard to hold on.
It has been a hard week.
Our hearts are broken. By the children killed in Texas.
By the racially motivated shooting in Buffalo.
By Covid. By Ukraine. By life.
Any illusions we have had as Americans
of safety, of security, or superiority have been stripped away.
Likewise, the disciples in Acts are living in a world
where their sense of safety, security, and superiority has been stripped away.
They are living on the other side of the Christ event, same as we are.
Their community suffers from beatings, imprisonments, and killings.
They have to figure out: How are they to respond? How are they to endure?
Acts begins to give us real-world examples of what to do.
Well, what do they do?
Jesus is not here anymore to perform miraculous interventions.
God’s spirit remains.
When it feels like life is crumbling, what do we hold on to?
Paul and Silas sing at the midnight hour.
They don’t know what the morning will bring.
Yet, make music they do.
There’s something of God that we hold on to, not to release us from the world,
but so we can be deeply present to it. To witness something new.
Paul and Silas witness to freedom in this system of incarceration.
How can this witness change others’ lives?
Can this witness have an effect on others’ lives?
Can it unharden their hearts?
Can it bring them out of their death-dealing ways into a different way of being?
Take now the example of the jailer.
At the first sign of distress, the jailer shows a death instinct.
The jailer thinks,
I have failed to protect the empire. I am done for. I need to fall on my own sword.
No. No. No! Paul and the other prisoners say.
Don’t do that! We are right here. Hold on.
We are here with you.
The other prisoners accompany the jailer out of that misery.
Out of the misery shrouded in the death-dealing way.
They journey together into life.
This is symbolized by the jailer bringing light into the dungeon,
trembling before Paul, Silas, and the prisoners,
repenting of supporting the empire, of supporting injustice,
of scapegoating other people.
That night God shook the foundations of the jailer’s own inner dungeon,
the limiting space in which he dwelled.
Keep your eyes on the prize.
Hold on. Hold on.
This witness to freedom is so powerful
that we can trust it to move other souls and bring an awakening,
an enlightenment, a possible change. The future is not preordained.
What will happen?
There is an air of uncertainty.
That’s a reason why resistance requires trust in the Spirit.
In the midst of moral bankruptcy, Paul and Silas give us a model
of courage and perseverance.
They have a vision of an alternative world
to which they cling no matter the odds.
They act AS IF the world they want is already here
even though it has not yet actually arrived.
Paul and Silas could not extricate themselves
from prison by their own means, true.
Yet God sends the earthquake.
God reminds us that even when we don’t have control over other actions,
we can choose what we will embody. Who we will be.
This is resurrection patience.
We lean into resurrection when all else seems beyond saving.
Like the prisoners Paul and Silas.
Like the jailer who failed at his job.
Like the Freedom Riders.
Like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
who, like Paul, wrote letters from prison.
In the Letter From Birmingham Jail,
written while he was incarcerated,
King explains why it is so important to maintain acts of civil disobedience,
in spite of imprisonment and beatings.
King tells others:
Hold on to the idea of where we are going.
Stop saying, It’s not the right time.
King said No to doing nothing. He explains that resurrection patience
means to suffer with and under the consequences of protesting injustices.
Like King, Paul confronts unjust systems.
Paul sees that the enslaved girl is being exploited for economic profit.
He liberates her voice from captivity so that she can speak freely.
He threatens the greed-driven economy.
This is precisely why the enslavers say, “These men are disturbing our city!”
The enslavers trump up charges so they can continue to death deal freely.
Paul accepts that there will be consequences
to disrupting unjust systems.
King and Paul both do the work of liberation, realizing there will be trouble.
Yet they do the work anyway .
This is our call when the world is on fire.
Remain with the Spirit of God who remains with us.
Talk about the issues that concern you.
Find a way to respond. Even with something small. Start somewhere.
For God-given dignity cannot wait.
Justice too long delayed is justice denied, King teaches us.
Hold on. Hold on.
The Spirit of the risen Christ remains.
Bringing forth the rising.
Walk into the prisons of this world.
Go to those falsely arrested,
beaten, killed for no reason.
To those trodden down by the economic systems of this world.
Speak truth to power.
Sing the songs of freedom.
Trust in God to shake the foundations
of even the surest places of evil.
For God cares for our real bodies,
so we can care for the real bodies of others.
The jailer gets that.
This is why he tends to the real wounds of Paul
when he has a change of heart.
Sweet Honey in the Rock sings,
Now only thing I did was wrong
Stayin’ in the wilderness too long
The only thing we did was right
Was the day we started to fight
Hold on. Hold on.
Thanks be to God for Jesus, for Paul, for Silas,
for the Freedom Riders,
and for a jailer
who teaches us to turn from the systems that indoctrinate us
to the living God who humanizes us.
A God who tenderly cares for our real wounds.
This is what is really true.
This is what makes us free.
God remains with us.
God liberates us.
God sings songs of freedom to us.
So our foundations of fear, doubt, and neutrality
might crumble to the ground.
So that we, too, might experience life, life, life.