This is the text from the sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church on May 12, 2013. The Scripture is from Acts 16:16-34.
This week something happened that hasn’t happened since I began here. This week the sermon didn’t just come to me. Normally, the Holy Spirit and me have an agreement. I read commentaries and do some research on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday I bounce a bunch of ideas off my wife, Heidi, and Thursday I sit down and write the sermon in one fell swoop. I can write it in one fell swoop because I already know what I feel like the Spirit is trying to say to me and to us by then.
This week is a little different.
The passage from Acts is packed full of sermons, it’s packed full of meaning and metaphor, it’s packed full of theological teachings and practical applications. For me, this week, I haven’t had a clear sense of where God was leading. I have also been reminded of something my professor said in seminary in regards to passages like this thick with meaning, “You don’t have to preach every sermon, every week.”
I’ve tried to find that one sermon, that one message; I’ve tried to answer that question that begins all my study, “What is the good news?”
I mean really, do you talk about the slave girl who annoys Paul and Silas so much that he cast a demon out of her, a demon that allowed her to see the future, a demon that made her owners a lot of money? Do you talk about the fact that an estimated $32 Billion, that’s right BILLION…with a B, will be made off the human trafficking industry worldwide this year? Do you talk about the fact that there are more slaves in the world now than there have ever been in the history of the world? Do you talk about the unjust and unsafe conditions that caused the exploitation of workers around the world so that we can by discount clothes? Do you talk about the fact that that exploitative system directly resulted in the death of over 1,000 people in the factory collapse in Bangledesh two weeks ago?
Those are all questions I had and that’s only first half of the scripture.
Do you talk about the fact that even though Paul and Silas were free from the chains and the walls of the prison they decided to stay? Do you talk about why the jailer's first response to a jailbreak was to kill himself? What did the jailer need to be saved from?
This week has been hard and my wife has had to endure a lot of fits and starts of my bouncing ideas off of her. Mostly, it sounds like, “What about this…but…well…maybe not…” She just smiles and nods. I love my wife.
Back to the Good News, right?
Thursday morning, I woke up and I went to the Men’s Breakfast at 6:30 at Janie’s Confections downtown. By the way, if you’d like to come and hang out with us, we have some great conversations…and coffee.
I woke up, went to breakfast, had great conversation, then I went to the gym. Heidi was running late so I took that time to check Facebook and I saw a post by a pastor friend of mine from North Carolina. It was a quote from Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela, a South African, who was imprisoned for 27 years for opposing apartheid.This was the quote, “For to befree is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respectsand enhances the freedom of others.”
Seeing this quote threw me, but it got me to thinking.
It got me thinking that we live in a free country, right. There are freedoms that we enjoy because we are citizens of the country and then I started to think about other countries and other freedoms and I realized that we may not be as free as we think.
We are shackled with debt, for many that debt is student loans that had to be taken out because of the rising cost of education or we took them out because we were told that you had to to make a better life, to increase our earning potential, we needed a college degree. We are saddled with that debt for no other reason that we wanted a good education and a good job. The American dream, right?
For many that debt is from health care costs. The number one cause of bankruptcy in this country is from relief for medical costs. If you don’t have the right insurance or your accident occurs at the wrong time, you could be saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for no other reason than you got sick.
Many are stuck in houses that are no longer worth what they once were. Stuck with mortgages they can’t afford because they dreamed too big or they were given bad information by a trusted advisor. Some are underwater on their house for no other reason than they bought their house at the wrong time.
The shackles that hold us take on many forms, whether it be debt, addiction, failed relationships, insecurity, unmet expectations, mental illness, the list goes on and on. We all have our inner most cells where our feet are secured in the stocks.
Sometimes through the grace of God our lives are shaken to the core and we become unbound, we are released from our shackles and given the space to run free. We get out and sometimes we don’t look back.
Paul and Silas show us a different course of action.
Paul and Silas, even though they were unjustly thrown into prison, even though they were beaten, even though they should have run for their lives, they stayed. I believe they stayed because Paul knew what an empty jail would mean for the jailer. They stayed because they knew that someone was going to be in those very same chains in that very same cell soon after them.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
I think about the people I see coming in and out of our church five times a week for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I know the stories of some of the people in our community who go to those meetings and I know the battle with addiction is a life long one.
I see those who have been sober for decades, who come to help those who aren’t sure they want to be sober at all. The members of AA who come back to the meetings, not because they need them as much as someone needs them to show them there is freedom, that the shackles can be released. Those members are the Pauls and Silas of our day.
On this day where we celebrate women, on this day where we celebrate all who mother us I am reminded of another person who is taking the example of Paul and Silas and helping to free people from the stocks that once imprisoned her.
Somaly Mam grew up as an orphan in extreme poverty in Cambodia. When she was a young girl a man posing as her grandfather sold her into slavery as a sex worker. Somaly witnessed unfathomable atrocities in the brothel where she worked along side other children. Heroically, she escaped to try and make a better life for herself vowing to never forget those still stuck in the chains of slavery.
In 1996, Mam established a Cambodian nongovernmental organization that employs a holistic approach ensuring victims not only escape their plight, but also have the emotional and economic strength to face the future with hope. In 2007, the Somaly Mam Foundation was established creating a funding vehicle to support anti-trafficking organizations and to provide victims and survivors with a platform from which their voices can be heard around the world.
Somaly Mam and those like her who are freed from their own chains but stand fast helping others to be free embody the Good News of Jesus Christ. They show us the truth that the author of the poem adorning the side of The Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus, reminds us of, “Until we are all free, none of us are free.”
Somaly Mam and those like her remind us of the call from Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself.
It reminds us that like Paul and Silas sometimes in order for us to be free, to be truly free, sometimes we must stay in the inner most cells and help the next one who is coming to be locked up so we can show them the way out and together tear down the barriers and injustices that surround us. Show them the path to new life, help them find their way on this long journey.
May it be so.