Scripture: Acts 16:16–34
And now, for something completely different!
For the last several months, we have been on a journey through the Gospel of John. But we move now into the last few weeks of the narrative lectionary for this year, with the story of a very different journey.
We tell the story of Paul’s ministry to share the Gospel beyond the boundaries and the borders of familiar territory. By the time we get to today’s reading in Acts 16…
- Paul has been converted on the road to Damascus…
- has travelled to various Jewish-friendly communities sharing the story of Jesus…
- had a dream in which he felt called to leave those areas to enter into less familiar and less friendly territory in Greek Macedonia…
- entered into the city of Philippi where he met a businesswoman named Lydia and several other women of faith…
- shared with all of them about Jesus and baptized of them…
- and has begun preaching in the public areas of Philippi, under the support of Lydia and these women.
In the coming weeks, we are going to explore Paul’s move into Greek Macedonia, including his relationship with those in Philippi, and ask what God’s work there might have to do with God’s work in our world today.
16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
Life in a pandemic is hard for young women. But life was hard before the pandemic, too.
The Alliance for Women and Girls at Risk reports that mental ill health among women is on the rise. One in five women (19%) experience a Common Mental Disorder (such as anxiety or depression), compared with one in eight (12%) men. Women in poverty are more likely to face poor mental health, with 29% of women in poverty experiencing a common mental health disorder. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women face additional inequalities and challenges to their mental health, leading to common mental disorder in 29% Black women, 24% Asian women, and 29% mixed-race women. Finally, young women are at great risk: 26% of young women experience a Common Mental Disorder, such as anxiety or depression—almost three times more than young men.
We as a culture have a lot of work to do to support, empower, and embrace those struggling with mental health. So often, we do the opposite, creating structures and systems that make life harder for these women. I want you to think about these statistics, including people that you may know in some of these categories, as we explore the story of a young woman in the book of Acts.
She couldn’t explain how it happened. All of a sudden, when she made eye contact with someone, she found herself telling them what would happen in their lives. It was actually pretty terrifying, and not something that she wanted to happen, but she couldn’t help it. It started when she was very young, and it terrified her parents, too. It would happen in public places, with complete strangers, and often included embarrassing if not shameful details. In fact, her family told her again and again that she needed to stop, that she was bringing shame upon their household. But she couldn’t stop, even if she tried.
One day, a couple of men saw her do this, and approached her parents. Before she knew what was happening, she had been sold into slavery by her father. She never even had a chance to say goodbye to her sisters and brothers. These men whisked her off to Philippi and began charging people to have their fortunes told. They treated her horribly, but at least she had something that they valued. They cared for her enough to keep her doing the work that made them money.
Until two new men came to town. The young girl did not know them, but whenever they came around, it happened. Without any control over what she was saying, she cried out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” She said it the very first time that she saw them. And then again the next day. And then again the next. She could tell that these men were getting annoyed, but she couldn’t help it. Finally, she shouted again when she saw them, and one of them wheeled and pointed right at her: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!”
And it was over. The spirit had left her and she was free! For several moments, she felt the best that she had ever remembered feeling. Until it dawned on her: what use did she have now? What was her value to these people? They would cut her loose in this strange city, or maybe worse. Her joy felt like terror. What would become of her now?
This is the end of the story of this woman who was possessed. In most of the stories of the Gospels, when someone is freed from a demonic presence, there is joy and gratitude and healing. But in this case, we are left to wonder, what would happen to this young girl, now that her masters no longer saw value in her? Would she be tossed aside by the social structures of the day, a victim of political wrangling and religious scapegoating? The bottom line is that we don’t know. The Book of Acts never tells us. So join me in some hopeful imagining, based on the parts of the narrative that we do know…
In Lydia’s house, all night long, they had prayed for the release of Paul and Silas. They had been beaten, thrown in the stocks, and expected to be killed the next day. So the faithful prayed. The faithful gathered at Lydia’s house and prayed all night long. Lydia thought back to that day on the riverbank, when Paul had found her and the other women praying. She thought back to her decision to follow Jesus, and her baptism. Paul had meant so much to her, to all of them. To the entire, growing congregation there in Philippi. So, they gathered all night and prayed.
Imagine their surprise when one of the believers burst into the room: “They are free! And you’ll never believe how it happened!” Before long, Paul and Silas themselves came to the house. You had never seen such rejoicing! They brought with them members of the household of the jailer, who had been converted, as well. After Lydia and the others gave them some food, they told the whole story. The young woman who had called out in the public square. Paul’s words of release. Her slave-owners who saw their money go out the door and demanded retribution. The violence of the court, the trial, the prison. The prayers and songs all night long. The earthquake. The astonished prison guard. His gratitude all around. All around Lydia’s’ house, there was singing, and celebrating, and joy!
Except for Lydia. There was one part of the story that she had not heard. She and a couple of the other women leaders pulled Paul aside and asked, “But what about the girl? The one you released? Where is she now?” Paul and Silas looked at each other and shrugged. “Who knows? She is living a life of freedom in Christ!” But the women looked at each other with knowing and concerned looks. They knew Philippi. And they knew what would happen to a young girl slave that had no social commodity. Who was still locked into a system of slavery and abuse. She was young. She was a woman. And she was a slave. As a result, she was in danger.
So, before they even consulted Paul, they were out the door. They asked around about the girl who had told fortunes. Eventually, they found the men who owned her and asked what would become of her. The look on their faces told them it would not be good. So before she could think about the ramifications, Lydia pulled out her money and spoke the only language these men knew. She offered to buy the slave girl, for much more than her owners thought that she was worth. Lydia was a rich dealer in purple cloth, and had outfitted the rich and powerful around the city and the region. She had amassed enough to make a difference in this girl’s life.
And so she did. She and the other women gathered around her, and treated her bruises. They took her back to Lydia’s house and gave her food to eat. And when she had enough strength to talk, this girl asked why they would do this for her. She was no longer worth anything to anyone. That’s when they told her about Jesus. About the one who valued her for who she was, not for how much money she could make someone else. And before the day was out, one more believer was baptized into the life of Christ. A girl, that no one else valued, was cherished in the eyes of the Lord, and in the Church of Jesus.
A playful retelling, for sure. But it helps us ask the question today: Where are the Lydias? Where are the women and men who look beyond the values of this world to see the marginalized and the oppressed, those beaten up and thrown out by the structures and systems of this world? Are there still Lydias in this world? You bet your life.
Meet Keke Blackmon. She is the head coach of the Kansas City Glory, an all-women’s tackle football team in the Women’s National Football Conference. Coach Blackmon said that she and so many women on the team were told they couldn’t play because they weren’t boys. Well, no more. Coach K, as they call her, says, “Coaching…gives me goosebumps. Bringing value to my players every time I see them brings me joy. My dream for them is to see them succeed on and off the field.” She is a Lydia.
Meet the women of the Women’s Baptist Home Missions Society. In 1911, they saw the desperate need of families that worked in the meat packing plants of the West Bottoms of Kansas City. The poverty was great, and many of their employers were abusive in their practices. So, they began a mission to those families, many of whom were immigrants from Europe. Today, their mission continues its work in the same neighborhoods. Bethel Neighborhood Mission continues to work with those stuck in patterns of poverty, with immigrants who come to the United States looking for a better life, and on behalf of Christ who tells them in no uncertain terms “you matter.” They were Lydias.
Meet Fannie Lou Hamer. Born in 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, her faith told her that the Jim Crow laws of her land had nothing to do with the love and grace of Jesus. So she stood up to those laws. She joined the Civil Rights Movement and travelled from community to community, protesting and standing up to injustice. The white establishment was not a fan. Fannie Lou told story after story of oppression at the hands of white police, including being beaten, groped, jailed, and abused. In Winona, she was beaten so savagely that she had permanent kidney damage and a permanent blood clot over her eye. And yet, as Fannie Lou tells the story, every time that they were imprisoned, they would spend the night singing. They would sing the song of Moses: Let My People Go. They would sing about the Gospel freedom of Jesus. And they would sing about Paul and Silas: “if it is good enough for them, that old time religion is good enough for me.” And because Fannie Lou and the Freedom Fighters did their work, the evil of Jim Crow slowly dissipated. They didn’t get rid of all injustice or racial oppression, but they showed us the way.
The challenge today is clear. How will we be Lydias? How will we care for the oppressed in our midst? How will we sing the song of freedom?