We need to talk about Paul. Paul’s writings, the letters, that he wrote are the what we believe are the oldest Christian writings we have. They don’t have a date at the top like the letters we might write, but the people who do this professionally have made some educated guesses assuming that Paul was executed 30-ish years after Jesus’ execution and resurrection, around the time of the emperor Nero no later than the year 65. This means that Paul died before the destruction in Jerusalem. Paul is doing the work of establishing the 1st communities of people who were the followers of the way.
Paul has not always been my favorite person. But it turns out, most of the writings that I find the most upsetting, about women and their role in the church, weren’t written by him, but by people writing in his name, which was common a common practice in the ancient world.
So, I’ve had to give Paul the benefit of some doubt, it wasn’t really him, it just might have been people he taught… Then we have this story, and we can only blame him so much because obviously Paul didn’t write this and it was years after he had died but still. We have this story.
What we have here is the story of a woman enslaved who is given no name, no agency, no choice, and no conclusion. We know very little about her we know that someone claims to own her. And that she is able to fortune tell. She has a prophetic spirit about her, well according to this author, men have prophetic spirits and women have demons. But a prophetic spirit wouldn’t have been an uncommon way of understanding fortune-telling at the time. And it seems that the spirit might have really known true thing because as she followed Paul and Silas and Timothy, she proclaimed the truth that they were slaves to the Most High God and they did proclaim the way of Salvation.
The people who owned her would sell her gift in the city. Imagine a city street with a neon light that’s said fortune telling, tarot readings, star charts. And she must have been good because not having that spirit was going to cost them a lot of money. We hear that she is freed from the spirit that was possessing her. But we don’t hear that she is freed from her enslavement. In fact, it seems likely that she would have had to continue to work, without pay, enslaved by these same people. And They would have found some way to make her mind or body profitable for them.
Paul freed her from the spirit out of his annoyance, it was the right thing to do but was it good?
There’s been a lot of news, a lot of stories recently about Mega-churches around the country and the world. And I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to degrade or mock the church universal however I do think it is appropriate to hold up a mirror and hold each other accountable. So There have been these primarily mega-churches, prosperity gospel churches, taking the bible as literal. And they just keep bringing in members they grew and continue to grow at these exponential rates. Then, once you start to get people it starts to be the cool church and you have the cool pastor with the cool shoes and the cool hair, and again, that has never been me.
What we have had recently are these stories and these documentaries and these podcasts that tell story after story of ego and narcissism and abuse of leadership and abuse of Women. and the pastor says to their community, it’s my way or no way, get on the bus or get ran over, and so their journey of Christianity is littered with the bodies of people they have chosen to sacrifice.
And while there is little accountability, those in the same circles as these pastors, people who might hold this leader this pastor accountable keep asking the question do the ends justify the mean? Look at all the lives that were saved for Jesus! so what if there are a few people who are living with trauma because of what got us there? Look the jailer and his whole family were baptized, what does it matter if one woman continues to live enslaved?
I think of a significant portion of the history of Christian missions around the world. The kind where people, generally white people, show up in a place and decide what the people of that land, nation, community need they need, without actually talking to anyone, without asking a question.
See I think THAT’S the biggest difference between the experience of the jailer with Paul and Silas and the experience of the woman who is enslaved. It seems like Paul and Silas had enough in jail to put some energy in, to do some reflection, to calm down from their annoyance, and maybe even have a conversation with their jailer. And then, they get to know his whole family! They spent time, had their wounds cared for, ate a meal, then were baptized. Paul and Silas stayed, were able to recognize the pain and the fear in the jailer’s time of need, and said, don’t hurt yourself. we’re still here
It’s almost like Paul and Silas were this community that came around the jailer to make sure that he would be safe, even as the ground beneath his feet shifted.
A bunch of years ago, everyone was up in arms about Kathy-Lee Gifford’s clothing line, at Kmart, which was being made in far-off counties by people with very little. We called them sweatshops. A bunch of years ago we were really concerned about where our clothing products were being made and who was making them. I don’t think the world of fast clothing production has changed at all, maybe we’ve stopped caring, maybe other things became more important, maybe it just became really complicated. I remember at some point, folks talked about shutting down those factories where women, generally women, sometimes children, worked for pennies an hour. We wanted to save them. And ending that practice is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to have clothing made by people who are paid a living wage. But if this is the only place where they can work to make money and we closed them all down, how do they feed their children? What we needed was a community to gather around these people these women and to set up an infrastructure that says you don’t have to be hurt we’re all right here.
I thought this week about abortion and Roe v Wade, because how could we think about anything else this week with and watch the news. And look denominationally, The United Church of Christ is pro-choice. And I’m sure you like me of heard stories this week about situations where the pregnancy wasn’t viable, meaning the child wouldn’t or didn’t survive the pregnancy live still the woman couldn’t have the medical procedure that would save her life and it cost her life. But even if we ignore those dramatic stories and just go with the ones One side is always telling trying to tell us are the reasons of people have abortions, we know making them illegal doesn’t end them. The way you reduce the number of abortions is by gathering around people, it is through healthcare, and education: both public school and comprehensive sex education. It is through financial means of supporting the mother and the child. And for the love of all that is good in this world, fix our foster care system, on any given day there are more than 400,000 children in the foster care system. Most won’t return home nor will they be adopted. I had a friend who came up to me after church several years ago and told me about how she got pregnant young before Roe. And her and her boyfriend made the decision to have an abortion and what to some seedy corner of the city, in an unclean room. And her Boyfriend who became her husband turned her and said we’re not doing this, not because of regret but out of safety. It is almost like he gathered around her and said Don’t hurt yourself. I’m right here.
We’re spending this time and the season of our worship year offering financial support for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which does work with and on behalf of people with mental illness and their families. Have you ever told someone about you’re feeling, really told someone, and they have offered advice? It might be depression or sadness or anxiety, it might be how to recover from a cold. Lots of people have lots of ideas on how to help people, and what will make you feel better. You just gotta get out of bed. Get dressed go outside get some sunshine some vitamin B will fix everything. If you do some exercising and get that serotonin will kick right in. And honestly, for some people this is enough but not for everyone. These are just the things you say as you pass by someone who has been crying out.
We’re in the middle of a youth mental health crisis young people all the way up to 25. The last 2 years have been incredibly difficult as they have been often filled with isolation on top of all of the stress and the anxiety and the trauma that are young people experience every day. Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people ages 10 to 25.
According to the Trevor Project, 45% of LGBT youth have seriously considered suicide. Imagine the horrific advice some of those young people are given. To pretend or to act different than they are, more feminine or masculine-as if there is one way to be feminine or masculine. Just try dating. Just bury everything deep until they can, I don’t know, leave for college. Or could you just stop being gay or transgender? The answer is no one stops being the thing that they are because it makes someone else’s life easier.
Rachel wrote about her experience with depression:
Weary, I whisper to myself while looking in the mirror, “What’s wrong with you, Rachel?” This is one of the many things I ask myself when I am in my dark place, lost within myself. I know it’s not healthy, but these thoughts can feel uncontrollable in the moment. I am in my dark place. A place where I can be unreachable. I may want — or desperately need — help, but I shut down when I succumb to my depression. It takes over, and it can be frightening.
Being in my dark place is also scary for those around me. They struggle to understand what is happening, and their confusion is compounded by the fact that I cannot explain it myself. Even if I could explain my mental state, I don’t know if I would want to admit to it. I can become angry and contentious or sad and compliant. I can be unpredictable. It leaves me feeling alone and yearning for someone to take my hand, but instead, I will walk further into the darkness. I will not allow anyone to help me. Sometimes I don’t believe I deserve to be helped.
Rachel’s depression isolated her, because she was afraid to let people in, and becomes some people were afraid of her depression. Over time, and therapy, she went on to write:
I have learned I can let people in here. Naturally, many will not come, and others cannot stay. But what I have learned by letting people into my dark place is that sometimes they bring a light with them. Sometimes that light can be enough to help me find my way out. My vulnerability allows those around me to share their places too.
The more people I share this with and the more people I invite, the less lonely it becomes. The less I hide, the more I share of this place, the more people come with lanterns. More candles are lit, more flashlights are shining.
Although this dark place may always be on my map, in the distance and sometimes near, others know how to find me now, and can help hold my hand and guide me back out. It is cathartic sharing the dark place — not because we pull others in, but because we can pull each other out.
The Trevor Project also says that LGBT youth with supportive families attempt suicide at half the rates of those without. Imagine if not just one’s family but whole communities gathered around those young people, teachers, neighbors, the church filled with diverse generations, wrapping young people in love. A Church community that loves and accepts the young person as the beloved child of God, made in the image of God, just as they are. A church that goes searching for those who have been left out, left behind, whose stories would be unheard but for those who gather around them in love. That the church gathers around people with mental illness, their families, who gather around those who are struggling to accept themselves or wondering why others don’t, a church community that says: don’t hurt yourself, we’re all right here.
And I think that’s what the church is supposed to be about. I think we are supposed to be a beloved community that holds each other in our times of need and holds the stranger too. A community that looks into the eyes of those who have forgotten and reminds them that they are Beloved of God, and of us until they can speak beloved over themselves again. And, like Paul’s song in the darkness, share it with others who need hope and joy. A community that puts in the energy to get to know someone, is what brings them joy and hope. A community that is invested in the best for everyone and realizes it takes time and energy to figure out what that might be. The church is a beloved community that names each and every child of God, made in God’s image, beloved. There are no ends that justified and the means of getting there cost another person their dignity, their safety, their hope, their lives, their belovedness. May we always be a church community for the woman on the side of the road enslaved, and remember that she is beloved too.