If I’m going to be completely honest, I need to tell you, the scripture that Mary read is my favorite Bible story.
I have loved this story since I first heard it as a child in Vacation Bible School. One of the Sunday School classrooms had been decorated to represent the Philippian jail, they got all the kids to start singing, the singing triggered an imaginary earthquake, and I loved it, and I have loved this story my whole life long…
The whole narrative unfolds like a triumphant banner of possibility. The action moves with such intensity and vividness that hearing this story feels like watching a cartoon. Save the girl from a magical spirit —Shazam! Get thrown into prison —Oh no! Sing and pray and summon the earthquake —Hallelujah! Everybody’s chains get unfastened. Everybody gets set free!
And here’s the thing… Cartoon or not, I really do believe this is God’s agenda. All through the Bible, the Holy Spirit keeps getting into the story and driving the plot toward liberation. It’s like God is heaven-bent on bringing us back to life! This is what it is to find new life in Christ.
In the heart of their heart, the LORD our God wants us to be free.
There’s a folk song from Zimbabwe that goes: “If you believe, and I believe, and we together pray… The Holy Spirit must come down and set God’s people free. The Holy Spirit must come down and set God’s people free.”
I can’t tell you how much I love this promise! I love the story Mary read. Not only does a prison get defeated, but it gets taken down by music— this is my life’s dream!
You can understand why it’s easy for me to get swept up in the thrilling rising of hope, and maybe you’re feeling this too… It’s just.
There’s trouble in the story too. Once we start poking at the trouble, it makes you wonder whether any of it is real.
The cartoon version soars right over this detail: The story begins with a girl who’s enslaved. When Paul gets annoyed with her, he drives out her spirit of divination, but she never asked him to do that, and he certainly doesn’t release her from slavery. Now the storyteller doesn’t want us to look too closely at the facts, just keep your eye on Paul and Silas.
Next thing we know, those two get hauled into the public square where they’re stripped naked, and beaten, and I guess this is just a thing that happens in Philippi? Nobody is worried that this is an entirely normal way to respond to a civil complaint? The storyteller doesn’t even give us a minute to ask.
Paul and Silas get thrown into the heart of the prison, and get ready for the all night singalong that triggers the earthquake that triggers the jail break. The Bible tells us that everyone’s chains were unfastened in the storm, but help me here… The prisoners don’t leave. There is no jail break! A few hours later, Paul and Silas get released, but all the others who were incarcerated are still locked up. Just like the slave girl from the beginning, we never find out what happens to them.
There are actual people in prison who are singing and praying to God, and no earthquake is coming to rescue them. Once the story is about people instead of cartoons, you have to wonder whether it’s real.
If you believe, and I believe, and we together pray… The Holy Spirit must come down and set the people free. But I mean —really? You have to wonder.
The purpose of our Bible story is to showcase Paul’s stellar success as an evangelist. The storyteller works to keep our eyes fixed on our heroes Paul and Silas and on the good work they’re doing to spread the Gospel. Then about half-way through, the storyteller turns and takes notice of the jailer.
Most of the time in stories, prison staff get treated like they’re just part of the furniture of the institution. That’s not what happens here.
Sometime earlier, when Peter was in prison, an angel of the Lord mission-impossibled into his cell in the middle of the night and busted him out. When Herod found out that Peter had gotten away, Herod ordered the execution of the prison officers who were on duty.
In our story, once the earthquake shakes open the prison, the jailer knows that he will be executed. He doesn’t even try to impose a lockdown. He doesn’t conduct a count to see who’s left. He knows it’s no use! Now it’s entirely dark, but the jailer must have been close enough to Paul that Paul could sense the swoosh of his sword.
Don’t do it! cries Paul. No one is escaping!
Come to find out, the jailer has a whole family. He probably has children and a wife. He might have a mother who lives with them and worries about him— and here, Paul just stopped his suicide.
What I want to know is: What made Paul do this? What turned his attention?
How did Paul start to care about the jailer?
The better question is… How did we?
Somehow. In the heart of the prison, in the middle of the miracle, some flash of light flickered in Paul’s soul, and he heard himself wonder: What if the guy who fastened our shackles is an actual person? What if he’s afraid, and what if he has good reason to be?
All I can tell you is once you start asking questions like this, there’s no going back. If you think what happened to Paul could just as easily happen to any of us, you’re right. We all harbor this capacity for empathy. We’re all susceptible to having it provoked.
Not every person in this room knows what it is to work inside of a prison, but some of us here know and love people who work in law enforcement and who serve as corrections officers. We might not understand what they’re up against each day, but maybe we can imagine. Maybe we have to try.
Not every person in this room knows what it is to survive a building collapse, or a suicide attempt, or a wrongful arrest. We have not all lived through the same hell.
And yet, there’s a holy impulse that flickers a light in your consciousness and in mine. There’s something we have to try to imagine.
You might hear yourself ask out loud: What if the one who did this to us is a person? What if she’s afraid and has good reason to be? What if they have children they’d give anything to see right now? What if they have a mother who’s worried about them… Because as much as we don’t understand the other person or what they’ve done, we might understand this. We might understand this exactly.
In the United States, Mother’s Day emerged from a variety of tributaries feeding into a common stream. One tributary came from Ann Jarvis.
During the Civil War, she got mothers from both sides to go into army camps in order to promote sanitation and care for wounded soldiers. A couple of years after the war ended, there was still discord in communities that had been divided. Grafton, West Virginia was one of these towns that was home to both former Union and Confederate soldiers. In an effort to bring about some kind of reconciliation in Grafton, Ann Jarvis instituted Mothers Friendship Day in Eighteen Sixty-Eight.
Her whole premise was that moms get it; they understand. They may be on opposite sides of the war, but there’s something of the same compassion lighting their way. When Union and Confederate mothers see each other as people —when they’re even friends—then when others in the town see this and begin listening to their mamas, well—it’s not looking so good for the old ways of war.1https://legacyproject.org/guides/mdhistory.html
Recently, I attended an information session on the restorative justice pilot program getting launched at Stateville and Logan Correctional Centers in Illinois. One component is an apology letter bank which is exactly what it sounds like. It allows the people who are incarcerated to write a letter of apology to the people who were impacted by the crime.
In the meeting, one woman asked a question. Her son is in prison. She wanted to know whether family members of the person who’s incarcerated could also get the opportunity to write a letter of apology to the individuals who were impacted by the crime. When she asked this, the representative from the governor’s office said: We never thought about the families reaching out. That’s a great idea!
This is exactly what happens when we take seriously the questions of empathy that are already shining inside of us. This is exactly what happens when we listen to the mothers.
In the heart of their heart, the LORD our God wants us to be free.
Sometimes the miracle has all the soaring splendor of the best cartoon. The heroes survive an ordeal, and knock down a prison by singing, and save the life of a man and his whole family, and go on to the next town all before lunch, and oh Hallelujah.
Sometimes the miracle is hearing yourself ask out loud: What if that person is afraid? What if that person needs our help? And you and I know. Once we ask this, there’s no going back.
If you believe, and I believe, and we together pray. The Holy Spirit must come down and bring to light our empathy, and unshackle our compassion. And who knew we needed this so dearly?
Who knew we could set each other free…
Oh Hallelujah, Amen.