Date: May 29, 2022 Memorial Day Weekend
Scripture Lesson: Acts 16:16-40
Sermon: Let Freedom Ring
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
My country ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty!
Of thee, we sing!
Land where our fathers died
Land of the pilgrim’s pride
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!
[Lyrics by Samuel Francis Smith]
We’ll hear this sung this weekend in honor of Memorial Day. Freedom is a core characteristic that we like to associate with America. The land of the free. Our national story tells of seeking freedom from the constraints of Europe, from the control of kings, from exploitation by European business interests, from the constraints of European social divisions and stratification. The Bill of Rights protects our freedoms. We tell the story of America as a land where every person is free to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is the land of the free. And ask someone who has been in the service and they may very well tell you that they served to protect America’s freedom.
Given the theme of freedom this weekend, let’s take a moment to look at the story from Acts through the lens of freedom. There is the slave girl, the household servant, who allegedly has clairvoyant powers labeled as a foreign spirit. She is used by her owners to make money. She is a household servant, a slave. She is being exploited for her income producing ability. She is host to an ‘evil’ spirit, maybe a mental illness, for which she is not being treated because it is an income producer for her owners. Is she free? Hardly.
There are the owners of the girl. They are not concerned with her well-being beyond the point that it serves their interests providing them with money. When the foreign spirit is driven out by Paul, they are furious because they can no longer make money from the girl. They complain to the town magistrates. But they don’t accuse Paul and company of evicting the spirit and freeing the girl. They accuse Paul and friends of introducing foreign ideas that are at odds with Roman beliefs. This is anti Semitism. The owners are prejudiced against Jews. And that is what they focus on in their complaint because they know they can get traction around that. They don’t complain that the girl was healed, but that these foreigners are infiltrating the town and stirring up trouble. So, they are controlled by greed and anti-Semitism. Are they free? Not really.
Now, the townspeople. They are involved in the story. Speaking out to the authorities. They perpetuate the prejudice expressed by the slaves owners. And they are swayed by peer pressure, the influence of the crowd. So, are they free? Not really.
And the jailer. He has his job in the town authority structure. He is to staff the jail. Keep the prisoners in. That is fine until the prisoners are freed by an act of God and since it is Jews that are freed, it appears to be the work of the Jewish God not a Roman God. After the earthquake, the jailer is afraid of loosing face for the escape of the prisoners that he has put in maximum security, in solitary down in the darkness of the hole, and chained by the legs. But they are freed. He will be held responsible. So, he will be killed or he will save face by killing himself. From his perspective, his choice is to be killed by agents of the magistrates or kill himself. He is not really free, either. That is, until he seeks out the religion of Paul and Silas, and then in his freedom he takes the prisoners home, cleans their wounds, feeds them, and is baptized by them along with his household. Once he has chosen to align himself with the God of these Jews, his actions convey his freedom. He is no longer constrained by the power of the society around him.
And the magistrates? Are they free? They are faced with mob-supported accusations. They do not provide any opportunity for a trial or any defense on the part of those accused. They seem completely at the mercy of the crowd. So they don’t really seem to be free either, free to carry out their duties. They seem controlled by the whims of the crowd.
Now we turn to Paul and his companions. They free the slave woman of her foreign spirit with no thought to self interest or the consequences. Really this is done out of annoyance. They banish evil. Unintimidated. That is pretty free. Once they have been beaten and put in jail, they sing and pray. They seem to exert their freedom and celebrate their trust in God. They have offered salvation to Lydia in the previous chapter of Acts. She was rich seller of purple of cloth. They have exorcised a demon from a slave girl. Then they offer salvation to the Roman jailer. They offer salvation, healing, to Jew and Gentile alike. They seem to be egalitarian, offering the way of Jesus to everyone, not influenced by wealth or position in society or religion or ethnicity. That is freedom. And then, in what is really the cherry on top in this story, they confront the magistrates after they are released.
When someone from an oppressed minority gets released from prison, what do they do? The run. They get out of there while they can. Before anyone changes their mind. They save their skin by fleeing. But Paul and Silas? Paul takes issue with the authorities. They are citizens and they were jailed without a hearing or any defense. That was illegal and the magistrates could be punished, even killed, for violating the rights of a citizen. So, Paul wants them to publicly acknowledge their wrong and make a public display of freeing these Jewish citizens. And the authorities are so scared that they do just what Paul requested. Paul was not intimidated and he insisted on justice even though it could have cost him his life. Again, Paul, who was imprisoned, makes a flagrant display of his freedom and rightly so.
So it really seems that Paul and his colleagues who were beaten and imprisoned, who were victims of prejudice, who were denied their rights, are the ones who exhibit the most freedom in this story. They are freed from fear. They are free to love and serve. They are free to follow Jesus. They don’t seem to let any social or legal issues constrain their freedom. They let freedom ring.
And that is what our faith offers to us – true freedom. To praise. To sing. To serve. To reject evil. To insist on justice. Our faith frees us from the attitudes and prejudices of those around us. It frees us from the greed and self interest that motivates so much human behavior. Our faith untethers us from the constraints of the society around us. Our faith lets freedom ring.
There are so many themes in this story that resonate today. The slave girl possessed of a foreign spirit. We would not say it that way, but certainly we are aware of the damaged souls around us, especially those who commit such terrible acts of violence as the Uvalde massacre and the Tops grocery store mass shooting, and the attack at Mother Emmanuel Church and the Pulse shooting, and the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Elementary School, and Sandy Hook, and I could, sadly, go on and on and on and on. These are acts carried out by people who we could say are mentally ill. In the first century, it was called ‘possessed.’ We know about the manifestation of evil due to sickness and damage. We see this theme in our setting. And like Paul, we have the freedom to pursue the healing of those seemingly lost to evil.
In the story we also see the manifestation of greed. The owners are upset and get crowd support really because of their greed. They want to keep making money from the abuse of the servant. They want to keep taking advantage of labor and the healing of the possessed servant has cuts into their profits. So they come up with the sham of these outsiders bringing in foreign ideas disrupting society.
Isn’t America controlled by the gun manufacturers hiding their profits thinly behind defense of the second amendment; the right to own a musket to protect yourself from a foreign invader? It’s all a sham protecting greed. And the profits are extreme. That is where the gun manufacturers get all the money to influence politicians and voters.
Just to set the record straight, there are more guns than people in this country. About 335 million people. Over 400 million guns. The highest rate of guns per capita in the world. That is one thing that makes us exceptional in the world. No other country can claim that.
The number of guns manufactured in the US has tripled over the last 20 years. Do guns wear out and need to be replaced like shoes?
School shootings are literally sky rocketing in the US. There were 118 in 2018. And 249 in 2021. Three years. The number more than doubled. Again, making the US exceptional.
And guns are the leading cause of death among children in the US. Not disease. Or car accidents. But guns. What an exceptional country!
In America , everyone is free to make a profit. No matter the cost. And the gun manufacturers are raking it in.
And there is another theme in the story from Acts that still plagues us today; prejudice. The arrest, beating, and jailing of Pail and friends is fomented by anti Semitism, racism, prejudice. The crowd is ginned up that they are doing things that are ‘foreign.’ How familiar is that? We see it every day. Don’t want any foreign influences here in the US – code for keep it ‘white.’ And we see the ravages of prejudice over and over and over: The Tops grocery store killings. And George Floyd. And the Tree of Life Synagogue. And again we could name and name and name. Racism and bigotry have their hold on the land of the free.
Supposedly we are the people from the land of the free. How does this ring true with us? We still seem bound by the forces that were controlling the slave girl, the owners, the citizens, the magistrates, and the jailer in the story from Acts. Bound by the power of profits and prejudice. This is a constant thread woven throughout the history of this country since the arrival of Europeans.
Here is an example from the 19th century that you probably did not learn about in school. Henry Dawes was a Yale educated senator from Massachusetts. Apparently in 1887, Senator Dawes toured Indian territory. He issued a report of his visit. Here is what he had to say about the Cherokee. And remember this is from a United States Senator.
“There is not a pauper in that nation, and the nation does not owe a dollar. It built its own capital. . . its schools and hospitals. Yet the defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go, because they hold their land in common . . . . There is no selfishness among them, which places them at the bottom of our civilization.”
Hear that again: “There is no selfishness among them, which places them at the bottom of our civilization.” Senator Dawes is faulting the Cherokee for taking care of everyone’s needs. They are seen as backward because they are not driven by greed. Yes, they are at the bottom of American Western civilization because that system prioritizes selfishness and greed, not the well being of all. That is a disclosure of the nature of American freedom. There is the freedom to be greedy and to serve self interest at all costs.
So we should not be surprised that in America guns proliferate because they are profitable. Selfishness rears its ugly, familiar head.
Greed. Free to run rampant in America. While the general citizenry is held captive. Afraid to go to the grocery store. Afraid to go to work. Afraid to go to school. Afraid to worship. Is that freedom?
Here we turn to Paul. He is the one in the story from Acts that is truly free. He is free from fear. He is not controlled by the powers that be around him. He is controlled by the power of Divine Love. He has bound himself to Christ Jesus. And no other. And so he is free. From intimidation, from greed, from prejudice. AND he is free to take action. To sing and pray. To save the jailer and his household. To call out the injustice of the magistrates. He is flagrant in his freedom. He is lavish in his love.
And that is what is needed in our land right now. People devoted to Christ Jesus who are willing to protect and defend the rights and dignity and lives of those being manipulated by society. Of those held captive by greed. Of those addicted to violence and guns. We are free to offer salvation, which means healing, to those whose lives are sullied by prejudice and hate. Through our faith, we are given the freedom and the power to aid in the healing of the soul of America.
This is Memorial Day. We honor and commemorate those who died to protect our freedom. Yet we are not free. To go to church. To go to school. To go to work. To go to the grocery store. As George Bush said, after 911, Americans have to be able to go shopping. We aren’t even free to do that which is putting more money in the pockets of Amazon and the like. Did those who have served our country think they were enabling greed? The greed of gun manufacturers? And protecting the gun culture? Is that why they put their lives on the line? No. They were protecting the freedom of their families, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, nieces, nephews, and communities to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
More than ever, we are needed to exert our freedom in Christ and honor the humanity and dignity of every person. We are needed to exert our freedom to disarm greed and violence. To cast out the evils of selfishness and prejudice. To disable the love of power. We cannot hide in our sanctuary. We must let our freedom ring for the healing of our beloved homeland and the world. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.