“How Can I Keep From Singing” 4/22/18 by Rev. Amy Clark Feldman (click on title for audio)

Scripture: PSALM 104 and Acts 16:16-34 (Paul and Silas in jail) 

How Can I Keep from Singing

God’s good creation is in trouble.  I think most here would acknowledge that as God’s beloved and appointed stewards of this earth, we humans have fallen short.  Way back in the garden of Eden we were invited to live in humble harmony with creation – to live and thrive with God’s natural provision; to look out on the world, as our Psalmist does and see that it is Good – to know that when the storks and the lions; the fish and the trees; and we humans live according to God’s plan for us and creation – trusting in God, taking only what we need – we can return to that first goodness of the Garden. In Genesis, the word for Good that God uses to describe Creation in Hebrew is TOV:  sweet, harmonious, all working as God designed it to work, GOOD.   In that Goodness, we are invited into a kind of harmony and freedom – freedom from tension and conflict with each other and the natural world; freedom from anxiety and fear; freedom from the effects of violence we do to one another and the earth when we fight over and try to control resources, and the wealth those resources provide.  This too, of course, is the vision, peace, freedom and promise of the Kingdom of God that Jesus offers and invites us into.   This is the hope of the resurrection, that we as God’s Easter people are called to sing, once again, into existence. 

LET US PRAY:    Be with us now we pray, O God.  Because when you are with us, nothing else matters; and when you are not with us nothing else matters. AMEN.

I’m not sure how many of you made it out to see the Marathon on Monday, but it was incredible.  The route isn’t far from our house in Natick, and we go every year.  This year we stayed as long as we could in the driving rain, wind and sleet – long enough to know our own K.P. had passed us, but after a few hours, soaked to the bone and shivering, we decided to head home.  And yet as we did, we watched runner after runner, each with her or her own story – many with wheelchairs and prosthetics, guides and others with challenges we couldn’t see, running past us. We saw the elite women fly by, and only afterwards heard the story of the frontrunner, Desiree Lindon, who thinking she might not even finish, chose to run alongside and encourage the woman she thought had a better chance of winning – even stopping with her at a port-o-potty and helping her back into the race.  “Helping her, Helped me.”  Desiree said in an after-race interview. 

In the face of driving rain, the runners showed such strength, resiliency, hope, and compassion.  The weather was so strange – arguably the worst in the marathon’s history and then with the snow in the week, I really did wonder if maybe this out-of-whack April weather had anything to do with our out-of-whack climate and changes our poor earth is experiencing.  It may be irrational but seeing such resiliency/perseverance, hope and compassion in the face of that weather, gives me some hope for humanity as a whole as we face this weather on a global scale. 

This Story of Paul and Silas is a fascinating one, but full disclosure, I wasn’t thrilled when I saw it come up as the scheduled lectionary reading for this week.  The truth is, I almost switched it out in favor of something easier and more Earth Day friendly (something uncontroversial about God’s love of creation), but all week this story wouldn’t let me go.  Especially after watching resiliency, hope and joy of the runners in the face of such adversity, there was something about hope, compassion and song of Paul and Silas in their dark jail cell rang true and felt relevant. 

So here we are.  Last week we heard about the Road to Emmaus, when Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, encouraging them not to run away and let fear, grief and hopelessness get the better of them,  but to remember that he is always with them, and that they will know him in the breaking of bread together.  In today’s story we skip way ahead – the disciples, now including Paul, are spreading the Good (TOV) news of Jesus and the Kingdom of God far and wide, breaking bread and forming new churches.   This second half of the book of Acts, follows Paul on his travels, including into Asia Minor where we find him in this story in a city named Phillipi.  As he and his new partner Silas are walking through town they run into this poor slave girl, who has, the ancient Greek tells us, the Spirit of the Python (associated with the Oracle of Delphi) – a spirit of divination. We don’t know much about her, but we know she makes a lot of money for the men who have enslaved her, and does seem to have a gift for seeing things and speaking a kind of truth. She follows Paul and Silas relentlessly, relating to them and calling them slaves too but of their Great God, who offers a path to salvation.  This girl deserves her own sermon, but she annoys Paul enough that he turns around and casts the spirit from her.  We don’t know what becomes of her and whether her release from the spirit was a blessing and freedom or its own kind of curse …  But we do know that her masters get angry.  Their source of easy wealth exploiting this girl is gone.   They go to the authorities casting unfounded accusations against Paul and Silas that are less about what Paul and Silas DID, and more about who they ARE as Jews – religious minorities, strangers.  Without a fair trial or process, Paul and Silas are brutally beaten, chained and thrown in jail.  And here is the part of the story that particularly stuck with me this week.  Chained, in this dark place, Paul and Silas do not fall into desperation, but begin to sing.  They sing hymns for themselves, the other prisoners and even their jailor to hear.  They sing from a place of Hope and Freedom that the chains and the dank walls of the prison cannot contain.    They sing hymns, their faith made music, we can only imagine; they sing of God’s promise of peace, joy, LOVE a return to all that is TOV – sweet, harmonious, Good.  They sing as generations of enslaved and imprisoned people have sung. Why does the Caged bird Sing asks Maya Angelou

“for the caged bird 

sings of freedom.”

Paul and Silas sing and their singing is Good.  So good and in synch with God’s hope and plan that the natural world itself cannot help but respond. The earth moves and shakes, and the prison walls crumble around them, and their shackles fall away. 

Here we reach a twist in the story.  The jailor, who up until this point has seemed to be one imprisoning, not imprisoned, is so confined by the fear that he will be blamed and punished if the prisoners go free, that he picks up his  weapon and prepares to kill himself.   Paul and Silas, in an act of courageous compassion, choose not to escape, but to stay with the jailor order to save him – and offer him a path to salvation and a new kind of freedom. Amazingly, the other prisoners, filled with Paul and Silas’ song of freedom and hope follow suit.  By the end, we see Paul and Silas’ unjust verdict overturned.  The Jailor,  having watched the walls of the prison come crumbling down and finds himself saved from by an act of great compassion, is filled now with his own song of freedom; and decides that he and his family will also follow this way this Good/Tov way of (hope in) Jesus and are baptized.  And the story ends with a scene of Paul, Silas, this Jailor and his family gathered around a table, knowing and remembering the peace and freedom of Christ in the breaking of bread  (We complete the circle back to the last supper and the road to Emmaus.)

The lessons we take from this story depend, I suppose, on where we place ourselves in this story.  All of us though find ourselves imprisoned by something – some literally (too many in our communities) and all of us figuratively.    If we look just through the lens of Earth Day, we can imagine God’s good creation, the future of our children, not guided by forces of hope, compassion and peace for all, but imprisoned by forces of injustice, greed and misused power.  It is easy to see ourselves in something of dark, dank seemingly hopeless place when it comes to our environment and natural world.  I cannot help but find inspiration from Paul and Silas, who in that dark place, sing freedom, hope, God’s Goodness into the world and make it reality.  How can they keep from singing?– they themselves have been so transformed by their experience of Christ’s Love and Peace that the song wells up from within them and cannot be contained.  By its nature it is a song so compelling, that those who hear it are moved to compassion – like the prisoners who stay to save the jailor.  I cannot help but find an example in Paul and Silas’ courage not to run, but to be led by compassion to stay and save the life of their jailor.   Paul walks the talk, lives the song, lives his faith with courageous action.

And if I’m honest, I can also see myself as the jailor.  I know that I contribute to and am part of systems and daily practices that are not life-giving for the earth and for other people.  I do things out of ignorance, inertia, fear, a sense of being overwhelmed (what can I do anyway)– and when my complicity is pointed out– the prison walls come down in front of me — I am not driven to kill myself as this poor jailor ws, but I do feel rightly convicted and in need of God’s mercy.

Maybe we even see ourselves in the slave girl, with her message of truth to share.  Unfortunately, while her message might not have been wrong, it was shared so vocally, loudly, and often that it was more annoying than compelling.  Just a few year after this, Paul writes in his first letter to the church in Corinth, and says that those who speak without love sound like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Those with gifts of prophecy, that do not have love, are nothing.”  I wonder if this girl was in his mind as he wrote those words.  How often do we have the right message, but go about sharing it in the wrong way – without Love and Compassion – creating more division than peace.

On this Earth Day, we remember the beauty, Goodness and Peace of God’s Creation as it is a meant to be, and we pray as Jesus taught us that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We know that we have a long race to run against adverse conditions, against strong head-winds, as it were, as we seek to restore and heal the harm we have done to Creation.  Yet we do not despair, and we do not give up.  Who knows where each of the runners on Monday got their strength and hope, but we do know where Paul and Silas got theirs – and we are invited to dip into the same well.  As followers of Jesus, there are springs of Kingdom HOPE and Love bubbling in each and every one of us.  Once transformed by that hope and love we cannot help but let it overflow into song – living, speaking and acting with compassion and joy.  And when we do, others may join in the song, the walls imprisoning us and others may begin to crumble, as we experience a freedom and hope that walls cannot contain.  This is the Way of Jesus, this is the work of the Kingdom of God, this is the hope of the new old creation. And we live into it with JOY, for it is indeed GOOD.