This past Tuesday, I was in southwestern Ohio, just about 50 miles from the Indiana border. So the Indiana Presidential Primary election which was held that day was big local news in that part of the world. I guess, if nothing else, Tuesday’s vote in the Hoosier state continued to clarify a muddled election cycle which seems to have gone on far too long now. We now have a “presumptive nominee” in one political party, and a “might-as-well-be presumptive nominee” in the other party. So it means that it’s almost time now to buckle up for this next phase of political theatre known as the general election season.
We will hear a lot in the coming days and weeks ahead about how the candidates from each party are so very different from one another, and would move this nation forward in such radically divergent ways. But one thing that each of them will say repeatedly is how each will be such a staunch defender of freedom. And to that end, each of them will be saying exactly what the American voter wants to hear… regardless of how that sense of freedom is interpreted.
You know, Americans may hold varying opinions on lots of different issues in our country today, but one thing we all seem to hold near and dear is an unwavering respect for freedom. Whether it be the American Civil Liberties Union, on one side of the political spectrum, championing the cause of the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, or the National Rifle Association, on the other end of that same political spectrum, rallying the troops for the defense of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, freedom is one of those basic American qualities – basic human qualities, I really believe – that everyone wants to get behind and support.
The year was 1943. Our country, and our world, was at the height (or maybe it would be better to say, the depth) of World War II. It was in February and March of that year that the Saturday Evening Post ran on its cover perhaps the most famous series of illustrations by America’s most famous illustrator. Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, went to the heart – in Rockwell’s characteristically idyllic way – of this deep human longing for true freedom. You may recognize some of these images. (Show pictures.)
Freedom – that’s really the issue which lies at the heart of today’s first reading from the Book of Acts with Paul and Silas in Philippi. For seven Sundays in a row now, our first reading each week has come from that same book, as it has chronicled the experiences of the earliest church, telling us of the travels and travails of the first disciples as they spread this Good News throughout a not-always-so-receptive world around them. Today, with the arrival of the apostles in Philippi, in ancient Macedonia (what is now present-day Greece), we witness, for the first time, the gospel message being carried from the Middle East onto the continent of Europe. And like so many stories in the Book of Acts, this one is filled with suspense, danger, and an unexpected twist at the end.
It started out as a day like so many others. Paul and Silas were on their way to worship, as was their custom. Apparently, though, there was a slave woman of Philippi who had been following them around for some days now. This woman, using the language of the scriptures, was possessed by “a spirit of divination.” In other words, she was a fortune teller… and her particular gift brought her owners a good deal of money. This woman… this slave woman… would trail behind Paul and Silas calling out, “These men are slaves… slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” – which seems like a pretty good advertising technique to me, if you’re trying to get your message out in a new community. Paul, however, saw her as more than just a source of free publicity. Paul saw her as a woman trapped in a different kind of slavery – not just a slave to her owners, but also in bondage to this spirit which resided within her. So, he ordered that spirit to come out of her – he performed an exorcism, if you will.
Now, you’d think that being freed from some kind of spiritual possession would be a good thing. But apparently, this slave woman’s owners had another opinion. It seems that freedom is a fine idea – so long as someone else’s freedom doesn’t have a negative impact on my life. You see, her slavery to the demon which possessed her meant financial gain to her owners… and now her freedom meant financial hardship to them instead. Her freedom from one kind of slavery meant that her value as another kind of slave suddenly vanished.
This is where the rubber really hits the road. Whether it is fracking for oil in North Dakota, or overcrowded garment factories in Bangladesh, or making components for the IPhone in China, or growing lettuce in the central valley, or working in low paying jobs in the service industry to keep the tourists at Disneyland fed and housed and entertained, the issue remains the same. We are always quick to champion the freedom of others – unless that freedom means higher costs to heat or cool our homes, or more expensive tennis shoes, or higher prices for our fresh produce in the grocery store, or a bigger bill at the gas pump, or more expensive diamonds at the local jewelry store. Now, as then, when one person’s freedom runs headlong into someone else’s pocketbook, freedom usually comes out the loser.
So what did the owners of that slave woman do? They hauled Paul and Silas off to court for disturbing the peace. And the local Chamber of Commerce was quick to rally around their fellow small business owners, and demand that these two outsiders – these two foreigners – be tossed into the clink. So, now the economic prejudice of the slave owners was cloaked in the guise of nationalistic pride, of civic duty. Keep that foreign competition off of our soil and out of our marketplace, they seemed to say. It sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? Some stories find a way of just repeating themselves time and time again. And the local mob got its way.
The next scene in our little drama this morning finds Paul and Silas deep in the innermost cell of the local jail, with their backs bloodied by a flogging, and their feet shackled in chains. Despite their ordeal, however, they are found leading a mini-revival right there in their jail cell, singing songs and leading prayers among the prisoners. It’s about midnight, when a divinely-inspired earthquake strikes (for a change, this is a natural disaster which truly is an act of God), and the prison doors spring open, and the prison chains fall from the captives.
When the jailor who had pulled the graveyard shift that night woke up (apparently, he’d been sleeping on the job), and sees that the earthquake has sprung all of the prison doors wide open, he is convinced that all of his charges must have fled into the night. And being the honorable civil servant that he is – not to mention the fact that he may be fearing the punishment which awaits him for being delinquent in his duties – he prepares to take his own life. But Paul calls out from the darkest depths of the prison, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” All of the prisoners, despite the opportunity to walk through the open door, have chosen to remain in their places. This witness of Paul and Silas becomes the opportunity for the jailor to turn his life around, and to follow this Jesus Christ whom Paul and Silas have been proclaiming.
The irony, of course, of this morning’s lesson is that there is freedom… and then there is freedom. The people who seem to be most in bondage in this story – the slave woman, Paul and Silas in prison – are those who find freedom. And yet, despite their new-found freedom, they still remain slaves and prisoners. And those people in the story who seem to be free – the slave owners, the city judges, the local jailor – are the ones who are really held by some kind of inner slavery which won’t release them.
The freedom which comes through the Gospel life isn’t necessarily a freedom which will guarantee us wealth, or success, or public prestige, or independence. And by the same token, those who show signs of the greatest wealth, or success, or prestige, or independence in our society are often the same people around us who are most bound by some kind of invisible chains. No, the freedom of the gospel isn’t freedom from anything. It is a freedom to, a freedom to act, a freedom to serve, a freedom to be the one who God is truly calling you to become. Often it is a freedom to step away from the very things which so many of us count as freeing… and to step, instead, into a relationship with a loving God.
There is a wonderful collect in the prayer book entitled A Collect for Peace, which is especially appropriate for today, Mothers’ Day. It’s not normally recognized as such, but Mothers’ Day here in the United States actually came into being through the efforts of Julia Ward Howe, the author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic during the Civil War. In 1870, Howe published a proclamation entitled, “An Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World”, calling for an international gathering of women to discuss ways in which the women of the world could consider their roles in stopping war and becoming advocates for peace. Her proclamation met, in some circles, with great resistance… and in other circles, with an even greater apathy. “Why,” some wondered, “should women want to get together to talk about waging peace?” But Howe was not to be dissuaded, leading several years later to a new idea, in her words, “a festival, a day which would be called Mother’s Day, and be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines.”
And so, in honor of Julia Ward Howe, and in honor of mothers everywhere, I offer the opening words from the collect for peace from the prayer book: “O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom.” It is that kind of freedom which God invites us to embrace today. So be free. In the midst of life as you find it right this minute, be free. Accept that gift of freedom. And accept the giver, in whose life, and in whose service, there is perfect freedom.
“On this Mother’s Day, we give thanks to God for the divine gift of motherhood in all its diverse forms. Let us pray for all the mothers among us today; for our own mothers, those living and those who have passed away; for the mothers who loved us and for those who fell short of loving us fully; for all who hope to be mothers someday and for those whose hope to have children has been frustrated; for all mothers who have lost children; for all women and men who have mothered others in any way – those who have been our substitute mothers and we who have done so for those in need; and for the earth that bore us and provides us with our sustenance. We pray this all in the name of God, our great and loving Mother. Amen.”