Reading: Acts 16-34
Theme: Free to love (and be loved0
Is a mother ever really free? Whether it’s a child of her body or a child of her heart, is a mother ever free just to do what she wants, go where she wishes, live just for herself? Even if her child or the children are gone, is a mother ever not always defined in some deep way by whatever feelings of gratitude, or grief, or guilt, or love – whatever sense of closeness, of distance or of absence persist?
Is a mother ever free?
I ask the question because today is Mothers’ Day. I ask also because our reading is filled – is populated, with persons all of whom in one way or another are not free.
There’s Paul and Silas, ready to tell all the world the good news of God’s love and kingdom come true in Christ, but not free to go just wherever they choose. They wait like soldiers in a barracks, like servants in the master’s house, until the call comes. And when the call comes, they go – to spread the good news to Philippi, and be beaten and jailed for their actions.
There’s Lydia, who at first blush seems the freest one of all in the story – a Gentile able to pray with the Jews without becoming one herself, a woman of substance, a seller of purple to the upper class, head of a business and a household. But how free really is she? What is it she is looking for among the Jews that she cannot find in her own past and her own culture? In a patriarchal culture what masks does she wear, what ruses does she employ, what risks does she face over and over again? And with her place in society, how limited is she in who she can befriend and associate with?
At the other end of the social spectrum, there’s the young woman possessed by a demon of divination and enslaved to her handler and manager. She’s nameless. Like the young women at the shrine in Delphi she divines the future for anxious souls willing to pay to know what may befall them, but she is not free to chart her own future for herself.
Her owners too are enslaved to an economic system that drives them to own another human being, and makes them feel at risk when they can no longer live off her gift.
The magistrates they appeal to are bound to serve the interests of the moneyed class, and to maintain an unjust social order because it pays their bills.
And finally there’s the jailer whose main job in life is to follow orders, so when everything goes wrong and at midnight all the prisoners are suddenly freed of their chains and he fears a mass jail break, he’s so scared of what this will mean for him that he’s ready to take his own life.
Everyone’s captive in some way to some greater and higher power. And the only question – the one question that makes all the difference in the world, is what power they allow themselves to be captive to.
Is it a power that divides, that dominates, that controls in unholy ways, and that brings death into people’s lives?
Or is it a power that gathers together what’s scattered, that reaches out to heal, that creates equal and mutual community across lines that normally divide,that brings life and makes good life possible for all, that makes people free to do the one and only thing that really counts, which is to love and be loved?
That’s the power Paul and Silas find in Christ, and to which they willingly commit their lives, their gifts, and their energies. It’s why instead of rushing off in any direction that comes to mind, they wait to know where God is preparing fertile ground. Why when they get to where they’re going, instead of launching a mass campaign of signs and wonders to attract the crowds, they start with simple face-to-face conversation with individual persons. Why they let the people they talk to, decide how and where the new community will happen. Why when they get into trouble they accept the consequences, and when they have a chance to get out of jail free they choose to stay and help their jailer not to get into trouble because of them.
For Lydia, life takes a turn towards joy and she finds what she’s been looking for when she opens herself and her house to this way and this Word that have come into the world to make it one welcoming family under God, and she lets her house become a home – a nurturing womb, for the new kind of community taking shape in her city.
For the jailer, life is changed for good and he and his house are transformed when through Paul and Silas he comes to see and accept a power of life and love greater than that of his bosses, and greater and better than the civil order he is sworn to serve.
And for the magistrates …unfortunately for the magistrates and for the owners of the young woman, things don’t change because like most middle managers and people in the middle class of any system, they feel the most caught. They have a little bit in the world – just enough to make them afraid of losing what they have, so they stay captive to the powers that be, the power they know – no matter how unjust, ungenerous, and unfree it may be.
We all are captive to something. The question is whether the power we serve helps us or hinders us, to be free to love.
Which brings me to the one person we haven’t yet got back to in the story – the young woman set free of the spirit of divination and thus made worthless to her owners. Nothing is said of her fate, and I wonder what happens to her beyond the bounds of this story.
As a slave-girl does she have any family to go back to? If she does, will they welcome her – another unemployed mouth to feed? Will her owner maybe find other work for her, and keep her just as enslaved? Or will she be abandoned, set loose to live where she can with no visible means and no community of support? Does she count, or is she just collateral damage?
An unimportant nobody – a statistic, on the edge of society? An unwanted, left-over shadow on the underbelly of the dominant culture?
The story seems to fall this little bit short of what we expect a Jesus story to be.
Because if Jesus had been there – in the perfection of himself rather than just in his servant Paul, would she have been freed of her demon in anger and exasperation, as she was by Paul? Or would Jesus have taken the time to stop whatever he was doing, call her forward and talk with her, ask her what she really wanted, and then heal her as she wished – the way any good mother would do?
If Jesus had been there, would she have remained nameless? Or, like the Divine Father and Mother of us all who know us all by name, would he have wanted to know who she really was and where she came from – what her story was? Would he have helped both her and us to learn about, and value her God-given identity and worth?
If Jesus had been there, would she have slipped through the cracks and off the page of the story as she has? Or would she have been welcomed into the new community being created over at Lydia’s house, and been offered a place where she could find and share with others her own unique gifts for the work of the kingdom of God on Earth?
I have to confess, she fell through the cracks of my attention and was completely off my radar by the time I got to the end of the story. I wonder … no matter how like Jesus we may be in the story of what we do, is there also always some way in which we are not? In our story as followers and disciples of Jesus, is there also always – even now, some way in which we fall short, in someone we forget, or diminish, or leave behind, or count as unimportant or unworthy of being included in our care?
It’s good news to me, to us, as much as to anyone, that because God is love, God is not free. Like a mother’s children never lost to her heart, her hand, her home, her table, and there is always room at God’s table for us all – no matter whether at any given time we be a true child of the family, a friend, a neighbour, a stranger, or even an apparent enemy of the kingdom.
God and all humankind are bound as mother and child are bound, by whatever feelings of gratitude, grief, guilt, or love exist – by whatever sense of closeness, distance or absence persist.
And God always keeps the door open, sets a place for us, and waits for us to come in just as we are, to be counted as part of the kingdom family, to take our place at the table and be fed into the amazing fullness of the family that is God’s.