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A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

Acts 16:16-34

May 12, 2013

Psalm 97; John 17:20-26; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Sooner or later life teaches us we make sense of the journey of our lives by viewing our life’s arc as the sum total of the decisions we make and the decisions that then make us. On our good days … we move deftly through a maze of decisions and choices and life goes well and a certain agreeable peace ensues.

But on those other days … we seem to hit every speed bump and every light stops us dead in our tracks as we seem to make one bad decision after another making a mess of our lives. What do you call those days? They’re the difficult days, the bad days, the days we wish we had stayed in bed and pulled the covers over our heads.

In All the Pretty Horses, novelist Cormac McCarthy described a decision-dilemma facing two young boys who had ridden horses down into the heart of the far country of Mexico; they had ridden into the heart of darkness where they had no legal protection and no one to look after them. In a particularly tough situation, and knowing the stakes were high, the older boy offered this cautionary wisdom to the younger: “Ever dumb thing I ever done in my life there was a decision I made before that got me into it. It was never the dumb thing. It was always some choice I’d made before it.”[1]

So it is that we swing back and forth between the choices we make and the consequences we receive because of those choices. An old Hebrew truth suggests nothing is lost. Nothing is wasted. In the ecology of creation, it’s all there. Even if you smash a thing so thoroughly it seems the atoms themselves are broken apart and mysteriously they reassemble, becoming something else perhaps, becoming something unexpected; ever-present, albeit in some different form or purpose.

So Paul and Silas followed the Voice of God and wandered into their own far country where they faced the tough challenges that presented themselves to them.

Acts 16 is intriguing because it has two back-to-back stories about women. One woman came to follow Jesus from another faith. She was affluent because she was a businesswoman that traded in expensive cloth. The text described her as “a worshiper of God” who came to faith in Jesus after hearing Paul preaching outside the walls of Philippi where the women gathered as a place of prayer. Lydia was an uncommon woman in that her affluence meant she traveled about freely and handled her own affairs and was free largely to live her own life as she wished. She was influential in the New Testament as the earliest Christian missionary activities were funded by her generosity.

But in our reading in Acts there is a second equally compelling story about a woman whose only power came from the services she provided to those who owned her. She was likely a stray who had been carefully profiled for her ability to make her owners money. But she used her prophetic powers in a life-giving way and followed Paul and Silas around town announcing to all that these were men of God and that they brought with them the message of God’s salvation. She was not quiet and she was not shy.

It is not surprising the Bible refers to the enslavement of this girl (a girl stripped of her personhood in order to justify her slavery) as a form of demon possession. Evil lurks in the dark places in the world and one doesn’t have to be religious to think of these things as the result of some demonic force, whether one believes in the demonic forces or not.

This week we have come face-to-face with the reality that three young women had been abducted and held captive in the hellish squalor of an abandoned house in Cleveland. They were picked up by a man who innocently offered them a ride and thus they foolishly made a decision that altered everything about their lives, putting them in a nightmarish prison where they were sexually abused and tormented by their captor for a decade. Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight and a six-year old girl born in captivity were all dramatically rescued after ten years of living in a house that had all the appearances to the neighbors of being vacant.

Like Jaycee Dugard who was held prisoner for 18 years and Elizabeth Smart who spent nine months in torment after being snatched from her bedroom, these three women went through unimaginable physical and psychological terror. The pattern is understood by forensic psychologists who have studied this unique kind of kidnapping. The perpetrators of these crimes often have longstanding fantasies of capturing, controlling, abusing and dominating women through a perverse system of rewards and punishments that create fear and submission in their victims. The women eventually lose their sense of self and become strangely dependent upon their captors. All this occurred right there in the neighborhood.

So a girl who offered prophecies for money was finally freed from her slavery and it should raise some questions:  What does it take to get us to notice, to notice when something is not right? Why did the community accept that this was occurring, and why didn’t the community rise up to do something?

The text is clear on this matter:  The only ones who rose up were the slave owners who raised their voices clamoring because someone had upset the system? In an ironic twist, they demanded justice for their egregious loss. Thus, Paul and Silas were thrown into prison – it was the price they paid for doing something. They did the right thing and were punished severely making one wonder whether the community ever wants to disturb the status quo where some are exploited. Often it’s all a part of a carefully balanced world where there are some who profit at the expense of those who actually give of themselves to produce. Even the good folks are woven carefully into acceptance that “this is just the way things are.”

Rather than complaining about their pitiable situation, in the darkness of their cell, Paul and Silas sang songs in the night – they were at peace with the troubles they had made for themselves because they had done the right thing and were willing to pay the price for doing so. What they did was a powerful refusal to invest in the narrative that would suggest that nothing good could come out of their suffering – that only sorrow and pity could come of it – rather than choosing to make something useful out of it. The Bible is clear: Under the right conditions, we have incredible power at our fingertips and usually we don’t have a clue that we do.

In September of 2001, in that raw tragic week when terrorists hijacked four airliners from various airports on the East coast in a sophisticated simultaneous attack and successfully flew three of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan and into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., Congress rushed into session to pass the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), legislation that dramatically broadened the President’s power to wage war with no further Congressional approval.

 

[Note: Only one other time in U.S. history has this kind of power been given and that came notoriously in response to the so-called attack on our Navy in the Gulf of Tonkin. That attack never happened and yet Congress signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that effectively gave President Johnson the power to widen the war in Vietnam, thus turning a relatively small international police action into a full-blown war that led us into a military quagmire we could not win and could not morally sustain.]

In the first week after the terrorist attacks, Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California voiced the lone vote in opposition to giving the President such unchecked authority to wage war. A few weeks later, the LA Times described the controversy that erupted after the 434-1 vote and Congresswoman Lee’s lone vote of opposition. For her vote, she received so many death threats she was given around-the-clock police protection. She was widely denounced by editorials and political jibes that were more like political threats such as that by a National Review editorial that said, “Barbara Lee is not an anti-war activist; she is an anti-American communist who supports America’s enemies and has actively collaborated with them in their war against America.”

In careful hindsight, Senators today are discussing how to peel back this authorization in light of how far beyond its scope US military action is now routinely deployed, wanting to revert back to our Constitutional system of checks and balances that would not allow any single person who sits in the Oval Office to go unchecked in waging a war through drone strikes and other covert military actions that has not been authorized by Congress. Congresswoman Lee’s lone vote against the proposed legislation three days after the 9/11 attack was an act of incredible and rare courage that is worth commemorating in its own right.[2]

How does one account for her courage one can’t help but wonder? I wonder, however, whether it’s useful to know she’s an active member of an American Baptist congregation in Oakland CA where her commitment to follow Jesus has been nurtured and sustained. I suspect Congresswoman Barbara Lee has been nurtured on the courage of Jesus and those early followers who carried the gospel with them as they traveled preaching fearlessly and paying the price for their commitment.

We make decisions and then those decisions make us. Some decisions are mindless and seemingly meaningless. Others take rare courage and resolve. Our decisions are all a part of the arc of life we’re called to live. God help us to determine to stand in the crucial places, standing for the helpless and those enslaved unjustly.

 

[1] Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

[2] Glenn Greenwald, “Barbara Lee and Dick Durbin’s ‘nobody-could-have-known’ defense,” The Guardian, 5/7/13, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/07/aumf-durbin-barbara-lee-defense

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