Sermon 6/2/19 Acts 16:16-34, John 17:20-26
Our scriptures today speak to two different realities… one speaks to the reality of the kin-dom of God, and the other to the kingdom of man. In the gospel of John we hear Jesus proclaim: “the glory that you have given me, so I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” The chunk of scripture we read today is a bit repetitive and convoluted as John sometimes tends to be, but the gist is this… Jesus wants to be one with us, just as he is one with God. That is his ultimate goal for humanity… for us to know him so deeply that we see one another as he sees us, isn’t that beautiful? That is the reality of the kin-dom of God. And since our theme for today is healing from trauma (since James has been leading us through a series of healing in the book of acts), it seems only appropriate to understand trauma as the opposite of that oneness. Trauma is separation from God. This can look like many things… the isolation felt after the loss of loved ones, the pain we inflict on others when we act out of fear and stereotypes, the shame we ingest when our bodies are violated… the list goes on and on but what they all have in common is the ability to separate us from our beloved identity in God… Jesus wants us to know first hand the love of God, to feel how deeply we are loved by our creator, and that does not come from separation from God, or identities that would further divide us from one another… it comes from liberation from those things. Jesus knows that the only way we begin to let go of what has separated us from God and experience that healing “oneness” with our creator is through opening ourselves up to closeness, intimacy, and vulnerable relationships with God and one another. And I think all of us here know enough to realize that is no small order.
Turns out this idea of healing and oneness is not all peace signs and daisies… it is messy, hard, and holy work to reclaim the shattered pieces that trauma (both individual and communal) leaves behind … it requires choosing relationships over convenience, vulnerability over defensiveness, it requires not turning a blind eye to the injustices of others, and it requires a close enough proximity with our neighbors so that we cannot trick ourselves into thinking we are better than them. Seeking “oneness” with God means putting people before any form of profit… and that is bound to ruffle a few feathers. But this “oneness”, this unity that Jesus speaks of, is not defined as ruffle or conflict free. Unity with our brothers and sisters does not always mean abiding by the rules, it does not mean simply smiling at one another on the streets (although that is good, keep that up), and it definitely does not mean unity as conformity to the social norms of our society… this may seem like an oxymoron, but we see this statement affirmed in the life of Jesus, the ultimate feather ruffler… who flipped tables, healed on the Sabbath, and ate with prostitutes…. All things that broke rules, caused conflict, and definitely did not abide by society’s norms… in the name of peace and unity. Jesus did all of these things in the name of fulfilling a ministry that would bring us closer to one another, heal divisions we had placed between ourselves, and bring us closer to the true character and love of God. If we follow his story all the way through we see that this work of unity is in fact what Got him killed… so we begin to see the pattern that this work of loving our neighbors and seeking unity with God and the Holy Spirit is not only hard, but in fact can be dangerous work. The kin-dom of God is not for the faint of heart. But it begs the question- How can dangerous and disruptive work bring healing? Well… it depends on what we are disrupting. Are we disrupting something that is perpetuating the kin-dom of God or the kingdom of humans?
I believe the perfect example of disruptive healing lays in our story from Acts today…
This story of Paul and Silas is a pretty traumatic story if you look at it as a whole… Paul and Silas get beaten, thrown into prison, there is an earthquake big enough to bring down buildings, and now there are escaped convicts running amok on the streets of Rome! I don’t know about you, but I would be pretty traumatized from the earthquake alone, let alone witnessing or experiencing the violence perpetuated on Paul and Silas. But that is just the tip of the iceberg of what is really going on here… this is a story of liberation, of radical compassion, a story of those dangerous acts of healing and unity, and of surviving the trauma of our world.
Upon a first reading we may list the people who were separated, enslaved, or imprisoned as Paul, Silas, the girl with the spirits, and maybe the other prisoners. But if we go through it a second time with the lens of trauma as separation from God, who else would be included on that list? What about the owners of the girl? They were enslaved by their greed for money, putting their profit before the well being of this girl, and when she is cured of her illness, instead of celebrating… they are so far separated from this union with God that they only see it as a wrong perpetrated against their bank account. That does not mean I am de-emphasizing the trauma inflicted upon this young girl…. But it does make me feel sorry for these men, and it reminds me of my own enslavement to money, and the fear of not having enough… it forces me to ask myself “when have I put my profit before the well-being of people?”
The next people I would add to that list upon a second reading is the jailer and magistrates. I have never been forced to beat or imprison someone before, but I can only imagine that it would carry a significant weight on my soul. And again, I do not want to overlook the trauma of Paul and Silas, but I do want to call attention to everyone involved in that trauma. The men who beat and imprison Paul and Silas are themselves enslaved to perpetuating a system that uses violence as a means to control the community. Nobody is benefiting from this violence except the ones at the very top.. And Jesus’ ministry happens an awful long way away from the upper echelons of society. This is division, separation, and the brokenness of the kingdom of humans.
It would seem that pretty much everyone in this story, in one way or another, is tethered to this system of exploitation. So where is the radical compassion? The dangerous and disruptive work that is claimed to bring healing? It appears in four distinct moments… the healing of the girl, the singing and praying in the cell, the holy earthquake that unfastened EVERYONE’S CHAINS, and the baptism of the jailer.
It was important to highlight where all of the exploitation and trauma is happening, because it makes the beauty of these healing acts even more powerful.
Paul and Silas were acting in the name of Jesus Christ when they brought this girl out of trauma of enslavement to both owners and spirits. They probably knew that there were going to be ramifications (which might be why it took a few days for them to do it) but they eventually did it anyway… they put the person before the profit. Whether out of annoyance like it says in the text or not, they were able to see this girl for more than the dollar sign over her head… something that her owners were either unable or unwilling to do. And it ruffled the men’s feathers enough to have them beaten and imprisoned… they even make sure to identify Paul and Silas as “Jews” as opposed to Romans, which further reveals the broken world view of human reality, and its foundations in divisions, stereotypes, differences, and xenophobia… and this is enough to get them put in prison, where the second glimpse of healing and God’s kin-dom occurs. Did it not seem odd to anyone else that after being thrown in prison, they spend all night singing and praising God?? When our natural impulse is to scream “why?!” at the top of our lungs, it does feel strange to choose to sing and pray… but I am here to tell you I have seen this pattern many many times during my tenure as a chaplain, and can vouch for the holy healing it can provide. When I would come to the bedside of those saying an imminent goodbye to a loved one, often one person would start singing, maybe they would start saying a prayer and reach out for the hand next to their own. This act of gathering together, of seeking togetherness in a time of deep isolation… they somehow knew that this was what was going to get them through their grief and trauma. We cannot avoid death, trauma, and grief all together unfortunately… but we can survive it, we can heal from it. I love that these weird intimate compulsions I saw families and friends have in the hospital, are reflected in scripture like this… it is a reminder that even over the course of thousands of years we are more alike than we are different, and that we were never meant to go through life, let alone trauma, alone… Jesus wants to be one with us.
James even told me that this is exactly what happened recently at the bedside of our dear Velma right before she passed. Her family gathered around her, her great grandchildren sang her the ABC’s, and the adults sang hymns… when they found themselves in a time of overwhelming sadness they reached for GOD.. not to save them from their grief, but to accompany them through it.
The third miraculous act of healing comes as Paul and Silas are coming together to sing and pray… it is the holy earthquake that shakes all the cell doors open and unfastens everyone’s chains. The crazy detail in this act is that all the prisoners were freed… not just Paul and Silas. In this moment, God liberates all who have found themselves in chains. This is an act of radical compassion, trust, and hope on God’s part that to this day still baffles my mind. I have a hard enough time being vulnerable in a relationship let alone giving someone who society has deemed untrustworthy, a convict, a second chance… yet that is what God is doing here. God is choosing forgiveness over punishment. This simple yet radical action convinces me that God is always asking us to choose togetherness over separateness, unity over division, and second chances over mercilessness. God apparently does not work on a penal system… and that is scary for us… this act is a radical, vulnerable, and dangerous act of healing if ever I saw one. It is frankly also a bit of an indictment to a society like our own that has the highest percent of incarcerated individuals in the world. In don’t pretend to have answers to this, I am still working through what healing acts this calls us to do as a community, but like I said earlier… oneness with God requires us to not turn a blind eye to things that make us uncomfortable.
Lastly we come to the healing act of Paul and Silas stopping the jailer from killing himself, and later baptizing his entire family. Contrary to the grudge I would most likely be holding against the jailer for putting me in a cell, Paul and Silas seem to hold no grudges, no impulse for revenge… where I would seek to keep this man at arms length, Paul and Silas welcome with open arms. How do we harm ourselves and one another by choosing to trust our grudges? What opportunities do we miss to see Jesus in one another? To see and feel the surprising love and compassion that God wants for all of our lives.
So it would seem that how we heal from trauma is how we respond to trauma… are we choosing isolation or community? Are we reaching for our guns or one another’s hands? Do we let our neighbors drown in grief or do we join them to sing a song that invites the holy spirit into the grief? Who are we choosing to liberate and why? Does it put the person of the profit of economy first? These are all difficult questions… but it all points back to what we claimed at the beginning… that the healing work of Jesus Christ can be dangerous, can be disruptive, can ruffle feathers, and often goes against the system of value in our society. But as long as these disruptions are happening in an effort to be one with God and one with each other… these liberations big and small continue to bring the kin-dom of God here, to give us small glimpses of the unconditional love God has for us. So let us proclaim release to the captives, sing in joy and grief with one another, seek to break all chains, and welcome one another with the love of Jesus Christ. Amen.