Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
OK, there’s a lot going on in this story from Acts. So let me leap right in to see if I can make some sense of this complicated drama. “One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl”. The evangelists were traveling, seeking to bring more followers to the Way. For several days, they were followed by a girl, a slave who was owned and exploited by several merchants who were making quite a lot of money on her and on her fortune-telling. She had the gift of sight, it might be said. She could see into the future. She could see things others missed. And, following Paul and the others, she made them a little bit crazy for several days shouting out to anyone who would hear that these missionaries were trying to bring people into salvation. Finally, Paul had had enough and he performed a little miracle on her, exorcising the demon from her. Thus began an amazing chain of events. Her owners, seriously peeved at Paul for effectively destroying their money-maker, captured Paul and Silas, dragged them into the city, charging them with disturbing the peace. They were arrested, stripped, beaten with rods, thrown into prison, placed in the innermost cell, no light, no air moving, their feet shackled into stocks. Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns and other prisoners could hear them and began to listen to them. But then an earthquake, with all its chaos, broken rocks and walls and darkness and broken chains , opened the prison doors. All of which meant big trouble for the jailer whose job it was to keep Paul and Silas restrained in the worst conditions possible. His life was over. Better he just kill himself than endure the punishment he would no doubt receive. No, no, don’t kill yourself – we didn’t run away. We’re still all here! Torches were brought into the darkest rooms and sure enough, there they still were. Whoa – Thank you – what do I have to do to be saved like that! Believe on the Lord Jesus, Paul told him, you and your household, and you’ll be saved. The jailer took the prisoners home with him – he tended their wounds and they baptized him and his family. And then they ate and rejoiced.
Well, you just don’t see that kind of baptism preparation every day - an exploited slave girl, an irritated evangelist, some mean-spirited carnival masters, a vengeful crowd, Javert the jailer, a miraculous earthquake, and a conversion.
One of my sisters is extremely courageous – where angels fear to tread kind of courage. But if you met her, you would never guess it of her. She is quiet, modest, so hysterically funny it makes your sides hurt only you have to be standing right next to her to know that because every funny thing she says is soft-spoken. There is not one drop of drama in her. And when she’s in the presence of someone who is a little over the top in the personal histrionics department, my sister gets even quieter. She laughs easily, listens carefully with a barely discernible facial reaction. She makes President Obama look like Marlon Brando in A Street Car Named Desire. Her preternatural calm is one of many reasons I seek her out whenever I feel like things in my life have spun out of control. It’s like sitting by a quiet, deep pool of water. Her very demeanor makes my blood pressure drop ten points. She bears witness in some of the most conflicted situations I know – teacher contract negotiations, child custody battles, whenever there’s been hate speech spoken in her conservative rural Minnesota community. Honestly, I want to be her when I grow up.
I think of her whenever I’m in a situation where people are trying, often successfully, to make drama out of nothing. I imagine her sitting at the table when I’m beginning to seethe over some comment, or at the moment when a discussion slips over from helpful problem-solving to posturing self-promotion. I try to channel her when I’m watching someone belittle a child, or when someone has been dishonest.
In my family of origin, a significant part of every big event was the debriefing afterwards – when we all sat around, still dressed up but with our shoes off and our feet tucked up under us, coffee in hand, first load of dishes in the dishwasher, reminding each other about one moment or another, laughing or expressing our dismay or poking at one puffed up dignitary or another. My sister was usually quiet during those post-game debriefings, until finally she would say just a few words about something we perhaps had overlooked, and she would have it absolutely pegged. Often, her words would close out that portion of the conversation, not because she was adamant or harsh or loud or declarative, but because her words on a subject were perfect, and there was just nothing more to add! I remember one such occasion especially. It was 1970. Hubert Humphrey was running for the U.S. Senate, representing Minnesota. My dad was president of Hamline University and Senator Humphrey was the commencement speaker. The ceremony was outdoors and, just as my father stood to introduce Senator Humphrey, an angry student blasted an obscene war-protest song from nearby dormitory windows. My father stood at the podium until the song had ended. And then asked, “can everybody hear me?” I was so proud and so embarrassed, loving my dad but also admiring the brassy student. Later in the ceremony, while degrees were being handed out, another young man snuck behind the dais curtain, intent on stabbing Senator Humphrey with a butcher knife. The Secret Service, guarding the Senator because he had been Vice-President, tackled the young man and took him away in handcuffs, a scuffle we didn’t learn about until the end of the ceremony when we were all led to the receiving line with Muriel Humphrey, to shake hands. Later, during our family debriefing, shoes off, feet tucked beneath us, we all talked about the drama of the day – how exciting it all was, and how scary and dangerous and wondering if our pictures would be in the paper since we were, after all, the children of the University president! And we were speculating on whether the events of the day would help or hinder the Senator’s run for reelection to the Senate. It was my sister who quietly asked what was going to happen to the young man who had tried to kill Senator Humphrey.
So I wonder what my sister would say during the debriefing of the amazing events before, during, and after the prison earthquake. All the chaos and noise would have entertained her – my sister enjoys watching a huge drama unfold. But I am certain she would wonder whatever happened to that slave girl who was no longer profitable once Paul chased the demon out of her. She would be the one making coffee for the prison rescue-workers. She would be the one to provide the hot, soapy water to clean the wounds. She would be the one making sure there was food for the meal after the baptism. She might be the family member who would quietly suggest Paul looked a little tired, and speculate on why the slave girl wasn’t not traveling with Paul and Silas since she had lost her job because of them.
I’d like to make an observation about this community in which we live, this remarkably lovely Hanover/Norwich “where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above average” (Garrison Keilor, “A Prairie Home Companion”), where there are more advanced degrees per square inch than pine needles, way more leaders than people to lead, more expert opinions than can be attributed to each individual. When you’re part of a community like this, when you read the local newspaper and follow the controversies over school budgets, state gambling, and where to put a boat launch, you might have one of two reactions. You might just stay away from public service or participating on a board altogether. After all, you might reason, there are plenty of people who know way more than I. Or, you might have an opposite reaction – you might assert yourself on every board, project, public arena that you can find – elbowing everyone out of the way because you are a natural leader, and your knowledge about any particular subject is the knowledge most needed and it is clear to you that if you aren’t the one doing it, it won’t be done well.
If you’re a church in this incredibly gifted, above-average community, you might find yourself competing, just a little bit, with other churches in the community for members, budget stability, attractiveness to Dartmouth students. You might take just a little too much pleasure in describing the hardships of some other church, telling their story over and over again as an example of the heartache that can sometimes come to churches during difficult financial times. You might want to identify weaknesses within your own congregation, historical fault-lines where there is still a little corrosion and a few weeds growing through the concrete. You might want to spend hours mending those old cracks, ignoring the new opportunities in the future.
In other words, you might want to focus on the incredible drama of this story from Acts – the earthquake from which Paul and Silas were saved. You might be drawn, as I am, to the conversion of the jailer, to the hospitality they extended to former inmates who later baptized him. You might seek that kind of drama in your religious life, as I do, and be disappointed that rarely, very rarely, do such dramatic events happen in churches any more. And you might be tempted, as I am, to beef up the things that are going on, and try to make them punchier, more exciting, more dramatic.
I would be with you, I’m afraid. I say that as a confession, because the truth is, it would be much better for all of us, and probably the world, if we took more of a clue from the quiet, decidedly undramatic saints around us and ask, instead, I wonder what happened to that girl who began all the drama. By today’s standards, we might correctly assume she had some form of mental illness that her owners exploited. She was cured, I guess, by Paul, but then what happened to her? We should find her, and make sure she’s ok.
That would be ministry. Amen.