Sunday, May 8, 2016

Sermon: "Left Behind" (Acts 16: 16-34)

Keith Allen Harward spent 33 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

On April 8 – just four weeks ago – he was released, after DNA testing revealed he wasn’t the one who committed the crime.
All this, according to an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
What’s it like to get your freedom back after 33 years? Harward said: “You take your first car you ever have, you take your first girlfriend, first kiss, first dog, first house, first child. You know how excited you are in that moment. You put all those together and ramp it up about 10 times. That’s what I feel.”
The first thing Harward did was go to a restaurant and order a big $10 cheeseburger. Then he went home to Greensboro North Carolina. He had to get an I.D. card, and open a bank account. He had to learn how to use a cell phone and look up stuff on the internet. At a public bathroom, he was amazed that the toilet didn’t have a handle.
And he’s enjoying pleasures that were denied to him in prison – like relaxing in the shade of a big tree. “It’s a great day,” he says. “It’s Monday, and I’m in a park!”
Freedom. That’s what it’s about. The Christian faith is about finding freedom.
Freedom – from whatever chains are binding you. Freedom – from whatever burdens are keeping you from living life to the fullest, living the life God wants you to live.
Sometimes we need to be set free from the chains others place on us: Racism. Oppression. Homophobia. Economic injustice.
Sometimes we need to be set free from the chains that come from within: Guilt. Regret. Fear. Greed.

Last week, some of our youth got to look through the giant telescope at the Griffith Observatory, and see Jupiter and several of its moons. Afterward, one of the youth asked, “Why are we here?”
Gazing into space through a giant telescope does prompt those kinds of questions.
There are many ways to answer that question. Here’s one: Why are we here? We are here to be free.

When we find our freedom, we call that salvation. The Greek word that appears in the Bible over and over again is sozo. Sozo means healing and wholeness. When the Bible talks about being saved, that’s sozo. It means being made whole, being made well, being restored to the fully-human, fully-alive person God intends you to be.
It’s freedom to be who you are, freedom to be who God made you.
There is, of course, a future component to salvation. Jesus talks about “the life eternal.” But that life is something that begins now. The salvation Jesus offers starts now. It is freedom now from the chains that bind us.

Paul and Silas worked to bring freedom and salvation to as many people as they could. That’s what it means to spread the gospel. “Gospel” is good news, and the good news sets people free.
This work took Paul and Silas all over the known world. Travel was long and difficult, but that didn’t stop them.
Philippi was about 1,000 miles from Jerusalem. When they arrived there, they intended to go to a place of prayer.
They never made it.
As Paul and Silas were making their way, they met a slave-girl, someone who obviously lacked the freedom they were teaching about. Her owners kept her as a slave because she could tell fortunes, and the owners made a lot of money off that.
The scripture says Paul was annoyed. Was he annoyed because this slave-girl kept following him and harassing him? Or was he annoyed that it was perfectly acceptable in that city to keep a girl as a slave so that her owners could profit off of her?
Maybe both. I think it was both.
So Paul cast out from her the spirit that made it possible for her to tell fortunes.
I have no idea what that means. Some of you want to believe there are spirits and demons in the world, and that stories like this are to be taken literally. Others of you surmise that these are just ancient descriptions and explanations for things like mental illness. I don’t know what the right answer is.
 I do know that when Jesus cast demons out of people, there was something really powerful going on. And the same can be said here. Paul cast the spirit out of this slave-girl, which everyone recognized as something really powerful.
You can tell that something really powerful happened here by the reaction of the people. Her owners were furious. They immediately seized Paul and Silas. (I’m not sure what Silas did here; I guess he was guilty by association.) And they dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities, claiming that these men were “disturbing the city.”
Disturbing the city? All they did was cast one spirit out of one slave-girl. But in doing so, they had challenged an entire culture that said it’s ok to enslave innocent girls just to make a profit; they had challenged a culture that said making money is more important than human freedom and well-being.

A crowd joined in attacking Paul and Silas. The magistrates had Paul and Silas stripped of their clothing, beaten with rods, flogged, and thrown in prison.
So now, by trying to free the slave-girl, Paul and Silas had lost their own freedom. Instead of going freely on their way to the place of prayer, they were locked in an innermost cell, with wounds bleeding, chained and fastened in the stocks.
However, Paul and Silas believed that not even chains and locks could take away their freedom. Their desire had been to go to a place of prayer, and nothing  was going to keep them from doing that. They began praying and singing hymns to God, right there, in that innermost prison cell. That prison cell became the place of prayer.
I don’t know what the place of prayer was that they were intending to go to, but prayer can take place anywhere. You don’t need a building to worship. A lot of struggling congregations today think that if they lose their building, their place of worship, they lose everything.
Paul and Silas knew better. They may not have reached the place of worship they were trying to get to, but they knew that you don’t need a big, fancy place of prayer in order to worship and pray.
And then, as they were praying, something powerful happened. This is the second time in this story that we’ve seen this incredible power, the power of freedom and salvation. The first was when Paul and Silas cast the spirit out of the slave-girl. Now, that power appeared again, in an extraordinary earthquake that shook the foundations of the prison and somehow opened all the doors and unfastened everyone’s chains.
It’s the power of God that brings freedom to those in chains!
So Paul and Silas, and apparently other prisoners as well, had received the power of God’s freedom. Against that power, no chains or locks could hold them back.
They were free! Of course, with the power of God, they always had been free in their minds. Now, they were free of their chains.
Imagine how relieved they must have been! How excited! Consider the joy of Keith Allen Harward upon his release from prison.
There was a jailer… and the freedom of the prisoners meant a loss of freedom for him.
He was responsible for the prisoners. If they escaped, it would be his fault. I’m not sure what would happen to him if his prisoners escaped, but whatever it was, he didn’t want to face it.
In fact, he was about to kill himself to avoid that consequence, when Paul called out to him, “Wait!”
Here’s the thing about the Christian pursuit of freedom: It’s not just about one’s own freedom.
A lot of Christians get that wrong. They think, “I’m personally saved by Jesus, and life is good. I’ve got a personal relationship with Jesus, my personal Lord and Savior…”
Do me a favor: stop using that word “personal.” It’s not about a relationship between you and Jesus. Because that completely ignores the neighbor who appears again and again and again in scripture.
The most important commandment is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Scripture says “how can you love God if you don’t love your neighbor?” The prophets instruct us to care for our neighbors.
And “neighbor” is broadly defined. The scriptural definition of “neighbor” means your next-door neighbor, but also the far-away neighbor. It means your immigrant neighbor. It means your Muslim neighbor. It means your atheist neighbor. It means your homosexual neighbor. It means your transgender neighbor. It means your addicted neighbor. It means your friendly neighbor. It means your hostile neighbor.
Loving one’s neighbor is what it means to be a Christian. And to love your neighbor, you need to help your neighbor on the road to freedom, the road to wholeness.
Clearly, if you are only seeking freedom and salvation and wholeness for yourself, you’re not living a Christian lifestyle.
Toni Morrison, the author of books like Beloved, told her students this: “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
That’s exactly what Moses did, if you recall. He found his freedom when he fled from Egypt and was welcomed into the house of Jethro. But God sent him back to Egypt, because even though he was free, his people were not. His people were left behind, still in slavery, crying out for freedom.
Some years ago, a series of books called “Left Behind” were written, and a lot of Christians read those books and loved them.
They’re awful. And they were made into even more awful movies. Yet they were popular, and when many Christians hear the phrase “left behind,” it’s those books and movies they think of.
I think we need to change that. Because for Paul and Silas, the phrase “left behind” referred to those who were being left out of the freedom and salvation that God desires for all people.
Even though Paul and Silas walked into Philippi as free men, they could not leave behind the slave-girl; they had to work to set her free as well.
And even though Paul and Silas gained their freedom when the earth shook and the chains broke, they could not leave behind the jailer; they had to work to set him free as well.
Back to the question: “Why are we here?” “To be free” is a good answer. But it’s incomplete. We’re not just here to be free; we’re also here to help others find their freedom. Because we are only truly free if our neighbor is also free.
That’s why we at Bixby Knolls Christian Church feel called to work on behalf of all oppressed and vulnerable groups in our city and in our world. It’s why we feed the homeless. It’s why we speak out on issues of racial prejudice, and homophobia – It’s why we voted to be an open and affirming congregation.

Because the freedom we have is not enough if others lack that same freedom. We continue the work of ensuring that all God’s children are free, because their freedom and our freedom are tied together. Only when all are free will we be free. Only when all are free will the kingdom of God is present.

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