July 30, 2017 ACTS 16:16-34
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’
The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
The Book of Acts chronicles the early years of Christianity and Paul’s missionary journeys to convert the gentiles. Today’s passage reads a bit like a movie of the week — high drama in Philippi!
Paul and his companions have been enjoying the hospitality of Lydia, his first convert in this Roman colony within Macedonia. But for the past few days they have been annoyed by a slave girl who is possessed by a spirit of divination. She keeps following them around, crying out “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Finally Paul banishes this bothersome spirit by invoking the name of Jesus Christ, and her fortune telling days are over.
This does not go over well with her owners, who have been making a tidy little profit from exploiting her powers. Incensed, they drag Paul and Silas into the marketplace before the magistrates. It’s obvious that their motives are financial, although it seems that there is little to be done. I’ve never read about anyone putting a spirit back into a person once removed. They clearly just want revenge.
But instead of charging Paul with that offense, which they knew would hardly hold up in a public court, they bring a more mean-spirited accusation before the magistrates, one that appeals to Roman anti-Semitism, with the intent to incite prejudice against Jews in a pagan marketplace. And they succeed. With no opportunity to defend their actions and no indication of a court verdict, Paul and Silas are beaten and thrown in prison. And you heard the rest of the story.
There are plenty of themes in this drama that could be explored in a sermon, but the one that jumped out at me was “integrity.” When you think of integrity, what does it mean to you? Webster’s dictionary describes it as the quality or state of being of sound moral principle, uprightness, honesty and sincerity.”
Who determines what is sound moral principle? Does morality change over time? Can we come to new moral insight? I certainly hope so. The bible at different times in history has been used to condone slavery, and keep women away from the polls — and out of the pulpit.
This story in Acts is rife with characters who do not act with integrity: who lie, who use others for their own profit, who treat others unfairly, who do physical harm to them. And then we have Paul and Silas, who remain faithful to God, who put their trust in God, no matter what the consequences.
Headlines in the Globe started jumping out at me this week as I was thinking about integrity, or lack thereof, in our world today:
U.S. turns its back on human rights
Congress must stand up for justice department
Pakistan’s prime minister resigns after high court’s corruption ruling
Lies and lying lobbyists who tell them
In Thailand, scores guilty of rights abuses
Iran detains president’s brother, citing misconduct
Sessions announces sweeping health care fraud crackdown: 412 charged in connection with insurance scams.
Brazils former president guilty of corruption
Official says U.S. in ethics crisis
Walter Shaub, Jr. resigns as the federal government’s top ethics watchdog
Even the Vatican was not exempt: Vatican trial set for ex-hospital officials: past president and treasurer of Vatican Children’s Hospital charged with diverting one and a half million dollars in hospital donations to renovate a prominent cardinal’s retirement home
The list goes on and on. And then, finally one that gave me hope: “A painful diagnosis for a man of integrity” and he showed it this past week.
These headlines are talking about ethics. Webster’s describes it as “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation — the principles that govern a person’s behavior. Ethics asks us: What is the best way for people to live? What actions are right and wrong in particular circumstances? Will the outcome of our decisions be for the common good?
My ethics professor in seminary called the church “a community of character,” That its task is to shape us. In order to do that we need to talk about ethics, about integrity. We don’t do that often enough. It’s a communal process.
In our ethics class we were shown excerpts from a PBS series called “Ethics in America.” They presented a diverse group of panelists with a situation and a question, and let them debate it. I remember one the questions vividly: Can you torture someone in the name of good? It’s a question still being debated by our military and policy makers. As I watched these discussions, as soon as I thought I knew what I believed, someone would present a counter argument that made me think about it from a different perspective.
It would be so much easier if the world was just black and white, and there are those who claim to see it that way. I doubt they ever took an ethics class? But our moral decisions are mostly made in that gray area. A minister friend once said to me: “I believe God is white. The holocaust is black. Everything else is gray.”
It’s the decisions we make in that gray area, on a day to day basis, that shape who we become, that determines what kind of world we live in, and what kinds of communities we create. How do you go about making those decisions? What tools do you use? — the bible? your faith tradition? reason? experience? Are you listening for that still, small voice of God trying to penetrate your ego?
If you were in Paul’s shoes, would you have run out of that jail without looking back as soon as the earthquake opened the doors? If you were the owner of the slave girl who lost her fortune-telling powers, what kind of justice would you have demanded?
Ethical debates rage on in our world today: the fate of baby Charlie Gard in the U.K. — euthanasia — abortion — Should Donald Jr. have met with that Russian lawyer? — how to fix our health care system — capital punishment.
These are all ethical questions.
Most of us, although opinionated about these issues, do not find ourselves embroiled in the middle of these kinds of debates. But we are faced daily with ethical decisions which shape our lives, and determine our character. I was once out to dinner with two clergy friends and the waiter forgot to charge us for our drinks (and we weren’t drinking sodas, so it added up.) We called over the waiter to point it out and he was both shocked and grateful. We laughed and informed him we were all clergy.
I wanted you all to have a short time, about five minutes, to talk around your tables like the panel in the “Ethics in America” did. So I’ve typed up a short scenario along with a question. Using your faith, the bible, reason and experience, debate it among yourselves to determine how you would act.
You are a fundamentalist Christian living in a southern state that has the death penalty. Your 13 year old daughter has been brutally raped and killed. They caught the person who committed this heinous crime and he has been convicted and is about to be sentenced. The press is coming to you asking if you want the death penalty. It’s a question you’ve been living with since he came to trial. Come to your decision based on your faith tradition, scripture, reason and experience.
Related Scriptures: Deut. 5:17; Matt.18:21-22; John 78: 1-11
How many wanted the death penalty? Life in prison?
Did your decision change?
What influenced you the most in coming to your decision?