A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 16, 2010.
Christianity largely owes its start in Europe to two women mentioned in Acts 16—Lydia, the woman who owned her own business selling purple clothing to wealthy purchasers and this un-named slave woman whose exorcism triggered the first public conflict between the followers of Jesus and the established order. Lydia was the first European convert to Christianity. Her house became the base of operations for the apostles. We do not know anything else about the woman who was freed of the demonic spirit that had made her commercially useful for her owners.
The woman—described as a “slave-girl” in the NRSV rendering of that passage—is not named. One day she met Paul and company and began following them as the group was “going to the place of prayer.” She followed them for several days shouting “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to us a way of salvation.” Paul eventually became “very much annoyed” and exorcised the spirit of divination from the woman by the authority of Jesus Christ (why did he wait so long?).
Freed of that spirit, the woman—why is she not named?—no longer could sell her services. Her owners—presumably they were men—used their economic loss as an excuse to charge Paul and company with promoting unlawful religious customs. Paul and Silas were beaten and jailed on trumped up charges of religious heresy because the impact of their encounter with the woman threatened the men who used that woman for commercial profit.
Waiting to Exhale is the title of a 1995 movie adapted from a novel by the same name by American author Terry McMillan (not to be confused with the country singer by the same name). The book and movie focuses on the lives of four black women friends living in the Phoenix, Arizona area and their relationships with each other while “holding their breath” for the time when they can experience fulfilling relationships with men committed to them. Each woman believes in loving commitment. Each has lived through personal drama. Each is “waiting to exhale”—waiting for what they believe to become real in a living relationship. In that sense, Terry McMillan’s novel reminds us of the great effort people make to live in hope. So how does that title relate to the encounter of Paul and his company with a young woman spiritualist and fortune teller they encountered at Philippi, a leading city in the Roman colony of Macedonia?
We do not know her name. We do not know what became of her. We do not know whether she became part of the Christian community at Philippi. All we know is that she was a woman in a male-dominated society. She was a worker whose spiritualism was exploited by business owners. She eventually got on a preacher’s nerves so badly that the preacher performed an exorcism. Her liberation occurred by the power of God’s love, but only after the preacher became annoyed. She was living an oppressed existence socially, economically, and spiritually. She was waiting for a fulfilling relationship with God’s love—waiting to exhale.
Her story challenges us on several levels. We are forced to recognize how early Christian leaders treated women who did not have wealth. Lydia, the purple merchandiser, is named. The servant woman is not. Despite the fact that the ministry of Jesus was largely financed by women and that named women stood with him until his death and were present at his crucifixion, despite the fact that women were the first messengers of his resurrection, and despite the fact that women were present from the very start of the Christian movement, they are not prominently featured in the New Testament.
Do we have the sensitivity to recognize how the leaders of Christianity related to people based on class and gender? Even at this late date, women often receive second-class treatment within many Christian communities. They are devoted, committed, and determined to follow Jesus. Like the woman at Philippi, however, they often are only socially tolerated by male leaders.
The notion of male privilege has also influenced how Christianity has dealt with other types of social oppression. Just as Paul did not do anything about the oppression operating on the woman at Philippi until she got on his nerves, we who follow Christ are often content to be bystanders to oppression until we are inconvenienced by it. Homelessness and poverty are ongoing social problems that we do not address until the homeless are trying to find food, shelter, and money from us.
Every day people like this un-named woman live in oppressed situations waiting and hoping that the power of God’s grace and truth that we have been commissioned by the Holy Spirit to deploy will somehow make a holy difference for their living.
· Workers are holding their breath and hoping that the power of God’s grace and truth will make a holy difference in the way they are treated at work, the income they receive, and the way their work is valued in society.
· Palestinians struggling under apartheid-like conditions are waiting and hoping that the grace that we Christians sing about will somehow make a holy difference in the way American policy is shaped.
· Immigrants trying to raise families and improve their lives are waiting and hoping that somehow the grace and truth of God will work a holy change in how they are treated, whether in Arizona or elsewhere.
· Poor children and families in rural and urban communities are waiting and hoping that somehow the grace and truth of God will work a holy change in how public education is funded, the way public school teachers and support staff are paid and treated, and the way political and business leaders behave.
· In every society, the men and women who risk their lives through military service–and the families who love them—are waiting and hoping that the grace and truth of God will work a holy change in the way politics and profit-making operate to use their lives as bargaining chips for power-mongering.
· The creation is holding its breath in hope that the grace and truth of God will somehow make a holy change in the way humans treat the earth, air, water, and other creatures.
Throughout the world, everyday there are situations like that faced by the woman at Philippi where the pressing issue remains–is there any good news?
Yes, there is good news. The Spirit of God still operates despite the tendency we who follow Jesus have to tolerate injustice and other evils. And people like the woman from Philippi keep showing up around the followers of Jesus. They keep showing up to ask us for help. They keep showing up on the news. They keep showing up at work and school. The need for fulfillment–the need for that holy difference—keeps them showing up. They cannot stop showing up because they are waiting for something they sense God has for them. They are waiting for the love they somehow sense God has to give them. They are waiting for justice they somehow sense God has for them. They are waiting for peace they somehow sense God has for them. They are waiting for joy they somehow sense God has for them. They are waiting to be accepted, affirmed, delivered, encouraged, and redeemed by a power they somehow sense is alive and active in the world. The good news is that they keep showing up—waiting and hoping—because they sense the power of God’s grace and truth in us, even if we who follow Jesus try to ignore them.
The issue is not whether grace and truth are alive and present in the world. The good news is that they are. The painful reality is that we, like Paul concerning the slave woman of Philippi, who are the agents of divine grace and truth for liberation are often too content with things as they are as long as we can attend our prayer meetings, sing our songs, and not be inconvenienced. The power of resurrection eventually comes to be seen by us as something to be lived, not just to be preached, prayed, and sung about. When that happens, people are liberated and oppressive situations are changed.
Until we who are the agents of divine grace and truth realize our responsibility to be the presence of grace and truth in the lives of people waiting to exhale, we must not be surprised to find them getting on our nerves. God is trying to get through to us. God is trying to get them into our hearts and lives. God is trying to make us one people. One way or another, God will see that we get the point that the people waiting to exhale are our brothers and sisters. We are here to be a holy difference in their lives and the world.
They are waiting. God is waiting—holding the breath so to speak—waiting to exhale. God and they are waiting on us.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a circuit court judge in Arkansas.