(Sermon shared with Taiwanese Christian Church 5/29/22)
Acts 16:16-34 (NRSV)
Today’s text from Acts is an odd one. Paul and Silas are followed by a slave girl possessed by a spirit that allows her to tell the future and see hidden things that others cannot see. During this time and place, being possessed by such a spirit wasn’t seen in the same way as being possessed by a demon. A demon was an entity motivated to spiritual destruction and harm for the one who possessed and those the demon-possessed person encountered. The kind of spirit that possessed this girl was more of a spirit among other spirits or a god among other gods.
From Paul’s perspective, the problem wasn’t that this girl wasn’t speaking the truth (she was saying, again and again, that Paul was in service to “the Most High God.”). The problem was where she was getting her information. She wasn’t saying this as her witness out of her experience. She was saying this as a conduit of another god. If she had been testifying to God’s power based on her experience with that power, it would have been one thing. Instead, she was calling out the affiliation of these men repeatedly in such a way that her actions got in the way of Paul and Silas.
Not only that, the fact that this spirit possessed this girl made her exploitable. She was possessed in two different ways; body and soul. This spirit possessed her, and she was valuable to those who charged others to learn about their futures or gain insight into their present life. Her value to her enslavers was as a spirit-possessed person.
When Paul released her from being possessed, she was at least half free. We don’t know what happened to her after this story but based on the statements of her owners, we know that her value to them plummeted. She no longer made them the same sort of money she once did, and, for that, her enslavers wanted Paul and Silas punished. They were beaten and jailed by both the authorities and “the crowd” that I presume was made up of those who enslaved people with similar spiritual possessions; those who sold enslaved people; and those at the market who benefitted from the slave-centered businesses. Paul and Silas opposed the possession of people and were lifting and promoting God as the one you were free to serve as opposed to forced to serve. These forces were so powerful that if they couldn’t pay you to serve them or coerce you to serve them, they would try to jail or kill you.
Sometimes, it’s tempting to look back at another time and another place and distance ourselves from the way of thinking of that time and that place. That is until we look at the news and see those possessed by a gun industry that promotes gun ownership as the best way to prevent gun violence.
That is until we see those possessed by social media companies protecting organizations that don’t just sell our information but provide pathways to possessing our minds.
That is until someone ground down by anti-gay slurs and shamed for being poor takes out his rage on elementary school kids.
That is until we see a church shot up by someone possessed by nationalism.
That is until we see someone possessed by racism open fire in a grocery store.
That is until we read a report that documents a government and Church possessed by white supremacy that kidnapped, abused, “re-educated,” and killed thousands of Native American kids for 100 years.
That is until we read about companies possessed by greed that are willing to destroy the world in exchange for profit.
That is until we see systems that help make it clear to women that their bodies are not their own.
That is until we see those so possessed by political and religious ideologies that they are willing to deny science and sacrifice millions of people to disease.
It may seem as though this preacher is getting political or sectarian. I get that, and I neither blame you nor expect to convince you otherwise. I can say this isn’t my intent. For me, naming these things is a deeply faithful act.
When Paul called out the spirit dominating the slave girl, he didn’t do so as a political act but as a profoundly faithful one. He was not making a political statement but a faithful one with political and economic implications. Paul was called to be faithful and to serve God first. He was willing to suffer any political or economic backlash to do so.
When we, as people of faith, name those systems that possess us and name those whom God calls us to love, it’s a profoundly faithful response. Yes, there will be those who say that this naming process is political, but it’s not that simple. Yes, the problems I named may require a political and economic response but the work to free and protect people from spirits of domination is deeply spiritual. Some problems are so big that a political, economic, or religious approach may not be enough. Some problems are so big that a political, economic, AND political approach must address them. Some problems are so big that the means may overlap even if the motivations are different.
In today’s text, the powers of domination were so threatened by Paul and Silas’ act of liberation that they beat them and threw them in jail. They were thrown into the deepest darkest cell, with their feet locked down to make it impossible for them to move. Yet, they kept on praying and singing until the ground shook. The prison doors shook open, and the prisoners’ chains fell. All the prisoners were free.
I imagine all the noise and shaking woke up the jailer, and as he saw what happened, he panicked and expected that all the prisoners had escaped. Out of shame, he was ready to kill himself. Then Paul’s voice let the jailer know that no one had left. Yes, those who were present could have run away, but there was still one person who wasn’t free.
This law enforcement officer was not free. They were so wrapped up in the systems of domination that to fail these systems felt like an act punishable by their death. Paul, however, made it clear that they hadn’t abandoned the jailer. They recognized his possession and sought to set him free, too. It was an act of love so powerful that it wiped away the jailer’s allegiance to a self-serving system of domination that loved power and opened up this jailer to the power of love. This jailer, whose job it was to break the spirits of those under his control, had something happen to him at that moment. The earth shook. His mental, emotional, and spiritual prison doors were shaken open. The chains that had kept him imprisoned fell to the ground, and he was free.
In one day, Paul and Silas had resisted the marketplace and freed a slave girl from possession. In one day, Paul and Silas had resisted a political system and freed a jailer. Although the political and economic systems responded, the acts of Paul and Silas were deeply spiritual. They freed the slave girl and the jailer from some of that which possessed them and saw the child of God that hid behind that facade.
My Siblings in Christ, we sometimes find ourselves stuck. Probably not in ways precisely like the slave girl or the jailer, but sometimes we find ourselves possessed by an idea, a tradition, or prejudice. In the same way the slave girl spoke for the spirit of divination inside of her, we speak for those ideas, traditions, and prejudices that possess us instead of speaking for God’s loving, liberating spirit. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the rewards from our work or role that we forget that we were created to love and serve God and all God’s people. Yes, our worth to others may be in our status or the money we make, but our worth to God is found in God’s love of us; a love so abundant that it overflows from us to all those we encounter.
My Siblings in Christ, you may feel possessed and even imprisoned in a cell created by an idea, a tradition, a prejudice, a job, or a role. But be prepared, you beloved child of God, for the ground may be ready to shake, those cell doors may be ready to open, and your chains may be ready to fall to the ground.
When this happens, the question will no longer be how to cope with being possessed but how to serve God with all of your new freedom. Amen.