Supporting Actors

Passage: Acts 16:16-34
Date: June 2, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Patsy Mitchner, a former slave from the time when our country participated in that evil institution, looked back on those years after the Civil War and commented, “Slavery was a bad thing, and freedom, of the kind we got, with nothing to live on, was bad. Two snakes full of poison. One lying with his head pointing north, the other with his head pointing south. Their names was slavery and freedom.”

I wonder if the slave girl in today’s story felt the same way after being freed from the spirit that possessed her.

I have wrestled mightily with this story from the Book of Acts. It’s part of the chapters that take place in Macedonia, when the apostles Paul and Silas heed a vision telling them to go to that area – today’s northern Greece – to bring the good news of the gospel to the Gentiles and Jews there. Just before today’s story, Paul and Silas meet Lydia, the woman who deals in purple cloth, who hears their message, invites them into her home, and is baptized along with her entire household.

These two women – Lydia and the slave girl – provide quite the contrast. One is named, wealthy, free, and in charge of her own household, which was likely filled with servants and maybe even slaves. The other is unnamed, possessed by a spirit and owned by men, a slave with no agency of her own, who is freed by the apostles and then forgotten.

The man we call Luke wrote the Book of Acts, and from his perspective, the point of this story arc is Paul and Silas and the conversion to faith of Lydia and the jailer. Ninety percent of the commentaries you would read about this story would talk about the work of the apostles. But I can’t let go of this slave girl and how she has been glossed over or ignored over the centuries.

At the beginning of this story, Luke writes, “One day… we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul… she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’” (Acts 16:16-17) 

One of the interesting things here is the different Greek words translated ‘slave.’ For Paul and his companions, the word is doulos, which is translated as either slave or servant. Paul often identifies himself as a doulos – a slave or servant – of Christ. The word can imply a sense of honor in serving someone who is great. For the girl possessed by a spirit, Luke uses a different word – paidiske. It’s a specific word for a young female, and the King James Bible translated the word as either damsel or maiden, which seems to miss the point entirely. She is no damsel in distress; as a child, as a female, and as a slave, she lives at the bottom of society. She is owned by others, and she has value simply because people will pay her owners so that she will tell their fortunes.

But once she is freed from the spirit that enabled her to see the future, she is of no value to her owners. And her great liberators, Paul and Silas, are in jail, and they never connect with her again. The chances are likely that she was abandoned by both her owners and by her liberators. She would have to fend for herself.In those days, that meant she would probably be dead in six months.

I appreciate what commentator Dr. Mitzi Smith says. “Some readers will conclude that as a result of the exorcism, the slave girl is free. Free to do what in a slave society? A useless slave did not become a freed slave, but as an exposed slave, she was left to fend for herself with no means to take care of herself. Yes, the owners profited from her gifts, and yes slavery is wrong no matter where it is found – on the pages of sacred text or on American soil. Paul and Silas treated the slave girl similarly to how her masters treated her – as an object that annoyed them, but not as a human being.

“…our mission should never condone inhumane treatment of other persons.…it is easier to treat the nameless in inhumane ways, to be indifferent toward those for whom we have no names, to render them invisible, or treat them as pawns in the war between good and evil.” (¬¬_id=1931)

Do we do that? Do we accomplish our good deed, fulfill our mission, feel good about ourselves, and then forget those affected by our actions?

It’s a hard question to ask of ourselves.

It’s hard not think of our military veterans in regard to this question. We send our young men and women off to war, and perhaps they win the battle or even the war. And then they come home, some of them battle-scarred; shell-shocked, we used to call it. Some come home with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and too many of our veterans end up on the streets, struggling with health issues or mental illness or addiction brought about by their experience in war and other conflicts. A study conducted in the first decade of this century concluded that there were 22 veteran suicides a day. One every sixty-five minutes. We may have won the war, but at what cost?

Years ago, when serving my first church, I became involved with Habitat for Humanity. A family in our congregation had done the hard work of sweat equity and was receiving their Habitat home. The mother was raising her six children on her own, having left her abusive husband, and, having left the restrictive Wisconsin Synod Lutheran church, she found her way to us more welcoming Presbyterians.

Their house was part of a blitz build, and they were so happy to move in. I left that church to take a new call, but I heard through the grapevine later that the house had problems – the foundation had not been poured correctly and had cracked, causing the housing to lean. There was mold. The mother died, and the oldest child, who had turned 18, was left to fend for her siblings and left to pay off the mortgage. They were in so many ways forgotten – once they had a roof over their heads, everything would be okay, right? No. Not at all.

There’s a saying that no good deed goes unpunished, but I fear that too often the one punished is not the doer of the deed but the recipient of the deed. And I know we can do better.

There’s another way this story of the slave girl could have ended. It is possible that she was not left to fend for herself on the streets. It is possible that the church in Philippi, the city where she practiced her trade, took her in, and acted like the church. Maybe those who were part of the Philippian congregation got word of this slave girl exorcised of the spirit and abandoned by her owners. Maybe they took her in, cared for her, included her in their community.

Years later, Paul wrote the congregation in Philippi from prison and told them that remembering them brought him joy even in his adverse circumstances. He wrote that his prayer for them was that their love would overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help them determine what would be best. (Philippians 1:9) Paul encouraged the Philippians to have humility so that they could regard others as better than themselves. He reminded them that they were children of God in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation in which they shone like stars in the world. Maybe when he wrote them those words, he remembered this girl and how they took her in.

Maybe. We’ll never know.

So what does it mean for us to act like the church, to be humble enough to regard others as better than we are, to shine like stars in the world?

Maybe we start by noticing those whom the world has forgotten – the veterans on the streets, the children separated from their parents in detention centers, the strangers we see or read about who have no name because no one will claim them.

Maybe we take stock of our ministry, think about those whom we think we helped once upon a time, and then ask ourselves if we still know them, if we know how they’re doing, ask ourselves if we ever truly invited them to join our community.

Suppose a couple comes to our door and tells us they are hungry – can we help them? We might give them $20, or find them cookies and some fruit from coffee hour. We might direct them to Grace Meals next Friday night or to Northeast Emergency Food Program.We might realize that they are not only hungry, but they’re unemployed or underemployed, and maybe they’re couch surfing, relying on the kindness of friends and acquaintances for a place to stretch out at night.

And maybe as we consider all these things, we realize that some of the big systems in place need to change, that having a job is one thing but earning a living wage is another. That having a roof over your head is one thing, but being a part of a community is something else.

And maybe as we sit with them up in the Great Hall, or talk with them under the red awning, we introduce ourselves, and we ask them their names. And maybe we take them to lunch and hear some of their story.

Then do we wish them well, and go home, and figure our work here is done?

I think sometimes we meet people whose lives are so different from our own, and in that meeting, we never forget them. It might be that the differences between us makes us really uncomfortable. It might be that those differences make us feel guilty or envious. It might be that we feel mad or bewildered that there are people who live in a way so different from the way we live.

When you meet someone like that, I hope you might remember the nameless slave girl in the story from Acts 16. Often times we can never know the end of someone’s story. But often times we can act in such a way that we change the trajectory of a story. We can free this girl and then abandon her, or we can free her and welcome her in. We face those choices almost every day.

So what will it be?