Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 28, 2022
[sermon begins after one Bible story; the John reading is posted at the end of the sermon]
Acts 16:16-34 One 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.
“What would you fight for?” No small question on Memorial Day weekend as we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, dying for our country while in military service. Since we’re in this weekend of remembering those who literally fought and died, I want to be careful not to confuse their deaths with my question. Well, really it was the Call Committee’s question to me when I interviewed with Augustana. “What would you fight for?” I answered, “The Gospel.” The life of Jesus, especially his resurrected life through death on a cross, proclaims the gospel of peace as the book of Ephesians calls it. Since I talked a lot about God’s peace last week, I’ll condense it here to say only that the Gospel brings peace because Jesus unconditionally loves us. Loves us so much that his self-sacrificing death was inevitable; inevitable because radical grace is as offensive as it is disarming, because it dismantles power as the world understands it. Jesus’ gospel is the great leveler, lifting up the lowly and bringing down the mighty. Right-sizing humanity through his radical grace and unconditional love, Jesus conscripts the church to go and do likewise – right-sizing us in the world as children of God and reminding other people that they are beloved children of God too.
The apostle Paul docked in Philippi with his friends Silas and Thomas. We heard that story last Sunday including the baptism of Lydia and her household in the river by the place of prayer. Naming them children of God and baptizing them into God’s promises to always be present, to always take them back through forgiveness, to form them into Christ-shaped disciples, and to keep God’s promises forever. After Lydia and her household’s baptisms, Paul and his friends were again heading to the place of prayer in our reading this morning from the book of Acts. They didn’t make it very far before being followed and yelled at by a girl who was enslaved as a money-maker for her owners. She followed Paul and the guys for days and days, proclaiming their call from God at the top of her lungs, which she knew because a spirit of divination held her captive along with her enslavers.
Paul, the story tells us, was very much annoyed and finally cast the spirit out of her. The bottom line was an actual bottom line for her enslavers who’d lost their source of income. Furious with Paul and Silas, her owners accused them in front of the town’s authorities who had them flogged and thrown into prison, ordering the jailer to secure them. The obedient jailer “put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in stocks.” In the dark of night, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns while the other prisoners listened. Just when you think the story couldn’t be weirder, an earthquake opened the prison doors and unfastened everyone’s chains. The jailer woke up, saw the doors open, and was about to kill himself until Paul shouted through the darkness, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” That same night, after he’d washed their wounds, the jailer and his entire family were baptized without delay. But we don’t get the next part of the Bible story in our reading this morning. The next day, the police sent word to the jailer to let Paul and Silas go. But they didn’t leave quickly or quietly. They accused the magistrates of mishandling them as Roman citizens and the magistrates apologized and asked them to leave town. Instead, Paul and Silas went back to Lydia’s house, encouraged their siblings in Christ there, and then they left for Thessalonica.
Paul and Silas were instruments of the gospel in their day, freeing the girl not only from the spirit of divination but also from her enslavers, freeing the jailer from his shame and suicide attempt, and freeing the magistrates by holding them accountable for their crimes against Roman citizens. Paul and Silas carried a gospel of peace with their hands and feet along with their prayers and songs. The two ways of carrying the gospel were inseparable. The gospel is not a choice between either the promise of God’s eternal presence and unconditional love OR a promise of freedom for the lowly and the powerful. The gospel of Jesus is Both/And – BOTH God’s eternal promise, AND God’s promise of freedom now.
Late February, I was invited to join a group of faith leaders heading to Montgomery, Alabama. A rabbi, a priest, a pastor, a Baháʼí, a Mormon, an African-Methodist-Episcopal, a Buddhist, another rabbi… you get the idea… No punchline here, just a few multi-race, multifaith leaders from Colorado who visited The Legacy Museum (about the history of American slavery and its impacts on mass incarceration today), the National Memorial for Peace and Justice sometimes informally called the lynching museum, and more. On June 12, I’ll present a few highlights about the trip including these four-year old museums, and answer questions as they come up – there will be snacks if that tempts anyone. I couldn’t resist the multi-faith aspect of the trip and I decided to go as part of my continuing education as a pastor of this congregation, and because six generations ago, my triple-great-grandfather enslaved Africans on plantation workcamps in South Carolina. My main question throughout the trip was how people structure societies in which they can still call themselves good while hurting other people and maintaining systems that allow them to do so. No better place to take those questions than Montgomery, the heart of the Freedom Movement led by Rev. Dr. King and so many others.
As Americans, we’re asking similar, systemic questions about our society related to race, guns, and more, in the aftermath of the mass murders of elder black citizens in a Buffalo, New York grocery store as well as Latino and white children and their teachers in a Uvalde, Texas school. The Bible was written in a time by people that couldn’t have imagined guns or cars or modern medicine much less democracy – so much of what we take for granted in 21st century America. We tease apart these stories like this one about Paul, Silas, the enslaved girl, her owners, the jailer, and the magistrates to see what light they might shed on in our lives of faith. I see the Jesus followers, Paul and Silas, figuring out their actions through their faith including baptizing the founding members of the church in Philippi which included Lydia, the jailer, and their households. While they did so, they ended the exploitation of the enslaved girl, saved the jailer from suicide, and demanded accountability from the town magistrates before they left town. BOTH baptizing, AND lifting up the lowly while bringing down the mighty.
As Christians here in worship this morning, we confessed our sin in the presence of God and of one another, and heard in response that God’s forgiveness makes us alive together with Christ. There is no person, system, or institution in the world untouched by sin – whether it’s our own selves, our families, our church, or our government. We are forgiven by God’s grace and set free to question and seek life-giving change in our own lives and in our institutional systems like church and government. Paul and Silas did it in this morning’s Bible story. Jesus did the same with religious leaders and public leaders to raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty.
Jesus also prayed for his followers before he died. Called the High Priestly Prayer in the Gospel of John, he prayed that the love of God with which God loved Jesus may be in us. The same love of God that loved us even when we were dead in sin. The same love of God that makes us alive together with Christ, saving us by grace. So maybe the question, “What would you fight for,” would be more aligned with Jesus’ prayer if we asked, “What would you love for?” I had to really think about this question. “What would you love for?” What and who are you called to love with the same love of God that loved us even when we were dead in sin? The love that we share as the body of Christ called the church is a love first given to us by God – a love that binds us together and sets us free to love.
Thanks be to God and amen.
 Ephesians 6:15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
 Luke 2:52 Mary’s Magnificat: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.
John 17:20-26 [Jesus prayed:] 20“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”