Today’s scripture lesson from Acts is the story of Paul, Silas, the writer of the Book of Acts (probably same guy who wrote the Gospel of Luke) and some others in Phillipi. They are beset by a slave girl with a spirit of prophecy, who after a couple days of haranguing our band of evangelists, annoys Paul so much he casts the spirit out of the girl. This upsets her owners because they relied on the income they received from her ability to see the future, and Paul and Silas end up in jail. While in jail, they sing hymns, and after an earthquake opens the bars to their cells, they refuse to escape. Instead, they tell their jailer about Jesus and he and his family are all converted and baptized.
In this sermon, I explore the question, “But what about the slave girl’s story?” and do that in dialogue with the abduction of the school girls in Nigeria (and the stories they all have), and our current inability in the U.S. to listen to one another’s stories and instead just shout at or demean one another, or think that if we disagree on one thing we ought not respect each other.
Some questions for you to answer in the comments section: Does telling your story or listening to others have power to you, or importance to you? How so? How is it valuable, if at all, to our social discourse and ability to live together as people? Feel free to answer those, or answer your own questions, or make your own observations. Thank you for reading, and God bless you in your faith journey.
“What About Herstory?”
Sermon, Year A, Easter 4, March 11, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Acts16:16-34
This passage from Acts I have read many times over the years. I was always really impressed by this incident in the jail, how the doors opened and Paul and the others stayed inside and didn’t try to escape. But I found this week in reading it something else has struck out at me. I found it difficult to read this story without focusing on the encounter with the slave girl. It caught my attention this week. Especially, I think, because of the abduction of the Nigerian girls. The girls abducted from their school The girls who were basically taken by Boko Haram who said thatthe girls’ crime was that they wanted to be educated.
So the connection between the two stories, the slave girl and these Nigerian girls, caught my attention. There are similarities between them. There is certainly a lack of respect shown to the girls in Nigeria. To abduct people because you think that you have power of them simply because you are a man and they are women or girls. There is also a lack of respect shown to the slave girl here in the Book of Acts. A lack of respect shown (or not shown) by a number of people. Paul doesn’t show respect for her or appreciate her. He sort of heals her. Maybe. He casts the spirit out of her, but we don’t know that she wanted to have it cast out of her. He just does it. And he doesn’t do it because he wants to make them better. He casts out the spirit because he is annoyed by her. He wants her to be quiet. That was the only motivation he had. And Paul doesn’t even speak to her. He speaks to the spirit. In a sense, he has violated her. Violated her being by doing this thing to her as though he had the power to do to her whatever he wants without having to ask permission first.
She has no say in the matter.
And then her owners are upset because they were making money off of her. She was a good source of income for them. And perhaps her customers are upset. So they’re upset. The magistrates are upset. Other people are upset. But in this whole passage the girl’s story never gets told. We don’t hear from her at all. No one speaks to her. She is ignored by Paul. She’s ignored by her owners. She’s ignored by the magistrates and others. She’s even ignored by the person who wrote this book. The writer didn’t feel a need to tell her story except to use her as a foil to set up this story about Paul, to get to this conclusion that ends with this wonderful conversion and baptism of the jailer and his family. Which is a great story! But where is her story?
I’d like to think that she has one. She must have had one. And even if we don’t know it, or get to read it or hear about it, God knows it. God knew her story. I think of those Nigerian girls who were abducted. They have names. They have stories. We don’t know their stories, but they have them.
We don’t often hear the stories of slaves, or the oppressed, or the people on the bottom of the social hierarchy. Even the Bible’s writers had their blind spots. They were products of their time. I’m not going to fault the writer here for not thinking much of a slave girl. Slavery was so common at the time, such a normal part of life, it wasn’t even really questioned as to whether it ought to exist. It just did. It was a part of life, nothing strange. So no fault for them being products of their time. We have evolved and come to think that slavery is not a good thing. But we do have that question, Why is this slave girl’s story not told?
There is nothing in the Bible that is anti-slavery. But we have come to accept a position over the years, most people around the world (though we know that slavery still exists – Jodi Emerson from Fierce Freedom spoke about it here in December) that slavery is bad. One thing I’ve found interesting about Fierce Freedom’s presence in town is how so many churches, that otherwise argue over many things, have come together on this. Liberal, conservative, Evangelical, mainline, Pentecostal, have come together on an anti-slavery position. We have, Jacob’s Well, Peace Lutheran, First Lutheran, Calvary Baptist, all claiming that slavery is evil. Perhaps this is a first step of finding some common ground to work together on those things we are in agreement on, even as we disagree on others. To come together, even if we disagree on some things.
I had another experience on Monday of this coming together. A couple gentleman down at the Senior Center have put together a series of lectures/classes called “The Faith of My Neighbors” about religions and religious issues. Tomorrow they are having a class on the difference between Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds, and in a few weeks they’ll have a Hmong spiritual leader talking about Hmong animism/spirituality. This last Monday they invited me, and Roger Galstad from Grace Communion Church, to talk about science and religion because we have different perspectives. You might remember back in February I had an article in the religion section about faith and science, from a pro-science perspective. That same day, Roger had an article in the editorial page about the same topic, but from an anti-evolution and anti-climate change perspective, coming from his Biblical literalism. The two men at the Senior Center thought it would be interesting to have the two of us come and talk about this topic from our two perspectives. Not to try to convince anyone of our correctness, but to speak to our own stories. So Roger told his story, and I told mine. We disagreed. Disagreed quite a lot, really. But we agreed on certain things of faith: Easter, the empty tomb; Jesus as savior; God incarnate in Jesus; the command to love our neighbors. We had common ground there on the essentials of faith. But what was really interesting is what happened a few times while we were speaking, and after we were done. People were not impressed, overall, so much by what we said about science, or how we read the Bible, or biblical authority. They were impressed, they said, with how Roger and I spent an hour and a half sitting right next to each other and disagreeing on so much, and yet we never attacked one another, never belittled each other, said men things, denied the humanity of the other... we were quite civil. And I thought how sad that we are in such a time, with so much toxicity in our public dialogue among politicians, pundits, even churches, so much nastiness that people were surprised that two men would be civil to one another while they disagreed.
Wow! What a powerful moment that was, not even about science and religion, but that the two of us offered a model that you don’t have to hate each other just because you disagree on something. It’s not an all-or-nothing affair. You can hear each others’ stories and affirm one another even if we don’t agree with all of it. When we don’t let someone tell their story, or when we don’t listen when they do tell it, that’s a problem. Whether it’s politicians not listening to one another. Or some of the back and forth shouting we’ve had on the Confluence project here in Eau Claire. Other issues on a national level, like our long debates on homosexuality, abortion, the environment, corporate regulation, where it seems no real conversation is going on but it is just shouting back and forth. Then I think of how powerful the experience has been when we do listen to one another. Think of our own church tradition, how good it has been for us and for the world, once we started listening to the stories of women, and affirmed that women could have viable and important spiritual stories, or social stories. Or when we started listening to the stories of slaves. And when we started listening to the stories of African Americans during the 40s, 50s, and 60s during the Civil Rights movement. Listening to the stories of migrant workers. Or our LGBT brothers and sisters. Or like in our Street Ministry, listening to the stories of people who live on the streets, who struggle, who are having difficulty. To listen to their stories, to let them be told: that’s the power of the Church! That’s what the church is about and ought to be about! Lifting up the stories of those who are otherwise silenced, so that their stories can be heard. So they have a voice. To speak on their behalf, or hopefully find a way to let them speak. Even if we disagree. To hear each others’ truths.
And so I’m bothered by this story in Acts. She’s the pivot point in this story. She doesn’t make anything happen or set things in motion, but everything happens because of her. And she gets ignored like so many women, and so many others, even today get ignored. Get used for something and then are ignored. Like the Nigerian girls abducted for no reason other than that they thought they ought to have an education equal to the other half of the population. A thought which threatened some people. Simply because they thought they had a right to an education, that they had a right to life, they were abducted. As Boko Haram has said, they did so with plans to sell them into slavery as though they aren’t people with stories, but are just females, just girls, they don’t matter. Just objects, things to be used by men as tools or commodities to be bought and sold with no more than thought than you might trade in a car or rip up the old carpeting to replace it with new.
And so we lift up their stories here in the church. Many are lifting up the Nigerian girls today. And we lift up the story of this unnamed slave girl, who shows up in scripture, even though it tells us very little. We lift up their stories even though we don’t know much about them. To remind the world that they do have stories. As followers of Jesus, as Christians, we can say to them as God to says to us, that even if we don’t know them personally, “You matter. You are important to God, you are important to us, you are important to me because you are also God’s creation. You are God’s son or God’s daughter. You matter.”
And though we don’t know all their stories, we want their stories to be heard and to tell the world to listen to their stories. Listen to them, and say to them, “Though we know little of your story, we are in solidarity with you. We are in solidarity with you as we are with all people whose stories do not get to be told.”