A sermon preached on May 14th, 2013 based upon Acts 16:16 – 34.
I have long marveled at the verse in the center of the story we just heard. The verse amazes me. It comes at what from our usual way of seeing things would be the absolute low point in the story. Living as strangers in a foreign land, Paul and Silas have unfairly incurred the wrath of a great mob of people in the city market place — they’ve been arrested, beaten and then locked up in shackles in the dungeon of a jail. They would appear to be in the gravest darkness — the moment when things look the bleakest. And then comes the verse:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.
Though outwardly Paul and Silas are imprisoned, inwardly they are free. It’s midnight, the darkest hour, but their hearts are full of light. In their eyes, jail is as good a place as any to pray and sing hymns of praise to God.
And it’s also a place where they can witness to people they might not otherwise have come in contact in. The other prisoners are listening to them — amazed by the fact that these two strange men can manifest such undeniable joy and peace in what seems to them to be the most miserable of circumstances.
They are so attracted to Paul and Silas that when, shortly thereafter, an earthquake breaks the jail open, the prisoners don’t flee the jail. They are more impressed by the freedom in the hearts of these men than they are by the freedom that waits for them outside the prison.
In contrast to Paul and Silas is the jailer, with whom I suspect many of us can identify. One moment his life seems pretty good. He’s a free man — in the usual sense of the word. He’s got a good job, with benefits, able to provide nicely for his family. He’s got power – he’s the keeper of the keys to the prison cells! But having the key to someone else’s prison cell does not make you free, which becomes evident when in the next moment an earthquake erupts and suddenly he finds himself standing before a great dark abyss of despair. He sees no choice but to take his own life and he draws his sword intent on doing so.
And then there’s Paul’s remarkable act of love and compassion. Presumably in the hours earlier the jailer had been total jerk to Paul and Silas. (It’s hard to imagine a warm and cuddly Roman jailer!) He was what we would usually think of as their “enemy.”
But Paul’s freedom includes freedom from the knee-jerk response we human beings often have in which we feel compelled to see some people as enemies, or if not enemies, to see only them only in terms of their roles and not by their humanity. Paul is free to look directly at the man and recognize a soul that is in torment and in need of help.
And what Paul has to offer the man is the source of his extraordinary freedom – his experience of the love of the savior, Jesus Christ. “What must I do to be saved?” the jailor asks, which means “what must I do to be free of this despair that tempts me to take my own life?”
All he has to do, says Paul, is to put his trust in the amazing love of God revealed in Jesus – let that love down into the dungeon of his own heart.
I do not live my life with the kind of freedom Paul is manifesting in this story, and I doubt you do either.
But we do have moments, don’t we? — moments when we glimpse something of that kind of freedom. Somebody is unkind to us, and somehow we are able to rise above the knee-jerk response of being unkind in return – free from the compulsion to turn a cold shoulder. Somehow we recognize this person is struggling with burdens of which we have no clue. We recognize that one unkind act does not define the essence of a person. We let the unkindness go; we choose to forgive.
And we realize at such moments that the forgiveness wasn’t only for the sake of the other person; the forgiveness was what was necessary for us to be free – free from the bondage of resentments.
Fear is another form our prison cells take, and sometimes the walls can seem pretty impenetrable. But surprising moments come when the grace of God dissolves that fear, setting us free.
I remember Jeannette Nickelson, a long time member of our church who died ten years or so ago, tell the story of how she once in a hospital bed at night waiting for the potentially life-threatening surgery she would undergo in the morning. She was afraid, and feeling very much alone. But something shifted inside her as she began to pray the 23rd psalm. The fear lifted, and it wasn’t so much an assurance that the surgery would be successful, but rather it was the confidence that whatever the outcome — whether it be life or death — she would be okay, because God would be with her.
We’ve all had our moments of such freedom, and yet, it tends to be just that: moments, not a way of living.
And so the question becomes, how do we move in the direction of living more often in this state of grace?
Our story gives some clues. Paul and Silas spend a lot of time praying. We need to deepen our prayer life.
In the revival meeting Paul and Silas hold in the darkness of that prison cell, the impression we get is that their focus isn’t on getting out of there. They are focused rather on simply communing with God.
Deepening our prayer life means praying throughout the course of our day, but it also means setting aside time to simply sit in the presence of the God who awaits our return from our wandering.
And when our prayer takes the form of an open-hearted communion with God, we give the Holy Spirit room to move in our lives – room for surprising grace-filled things to happen. It’s a space that isn’t there when our focus is on telling God exactly what we think needs to be done.
President Kennedy’s line is well remembered: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
There is a similar shift that needs to happen in our relationship with God in order to enter the deeper freedom. More often than not, our relationship with God is about getting God’s help: God help me straighten out this problem I have with my co-workers; God heal my friend of her cancer. These are good things to pray about, and if they are what is concerning us at the moment – they should be taken to the Lord in prayer. But if our relationship to God remains focused on what we think needs to take place in our world, we’ll never move beyond our reliance on our circumstances of the moment for our sense of well-being. We’ll never leave behind the prison cell of our own little selves, and we’ll never get around to asking God what it was God would have us do.
And what God would have us do, as Jesus showed so clearly, is to consciously choose the way of a servant. It’s a path that doesn’t come naturally to us, so the choice needs to be made day by day. Paradoxically, in choosing the path of a servant we are lead into a quality of freedom uncommon in this world.
I heard a story once about two well-dressed young men passing by a soup kitchen, where they happen to see through the open doorway a nun down on her knees scrubbing a filthy floor. One says to the other, “I wouldn’t do that even if you paid me a million dollars.” The nun overhears him. “Neither would I,” she said. She was free; the young man was not.
Victor Frankl wrote about witnessing this kind of extraordinary freedom in a few rare souls within the concentration camp in which he was a prisoner. He recalled
“the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given sent of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
His experience in the concentration camp lead him to develop who system of psychological thought based upon the basic premise that our deepest need is for meaning. Meaning is found in offering our lives to bless those with whom we come in contact.
I heard a man recently describe the extraordinary way his sister – a Christian with an extraordinary love for Jesus — dealt with the cancer that eventually took her life. Like Paul and Silas in their prison cell, she would go out of her way when she went for her chemo treatments, or when she was hospitalized to find opportunity to bring comfort and courage to the other patients she met there – human beings with whom she was uniquely connected by virtue of their shared experience of cancer. She chose not to dwell on her suffering; she chose instead to offer herself in the challenging place to which cancer had brought her, and in doing so, she manifested a remarkable sense of calm.
If we don’t find ourselves in a prison cell or a cancer ward, the same choice is there for each of us to make, though we often don’t recognize the choice, which is to say, we don’t recognize the freedom that is ours. Take the time to listen to a remarkable commencement speech* given by David Foster Wallace to the graduating class of 2006 of Kenyon College. He refers to their being a “default setting” that all of us return to in the course of our days without a conscious decision not to. In this default setting we are the center of everything that happens in our life, the result being we experience human beings in one of three ways: A hindrance to getting what we want, irrelevant to what we want, or a help in getting what we want. The significance of people constantly resolves about us.
What if we were able to step out of the prison cell of the default setting and see them as they are – as beloved children of God, with unseen burdens and struggles, in need of grace that we might be uniquely able to express?
A turning point in John Wesley’s life came when he choose, as he put it, “to become more vile,” which for him meant to leave behind the refined world of the upper class who inhabited the churches of his day, and to go out to where the working class poor were to be found – lining up to work in the factories and mines. He went where they were as a servant, telling them the good news of Jesus great love.
Later he developed what he called a “Covenant Service” which Methodists would hold on New Year’s Day. I want to finish this morning with a prayer from that service, which, if you take seriously, has the power to set us free:
Lord, make me what you will.
I put myself fully into your hands:
put me to doing,
put me to suffering,
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and with a willing here give it all to your pleasure and disposal.
*You can find the commencement speech on Youtube by entering “This is Water.”