Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Slave Girl Set Free and the Unity Jesus Calls Us To

Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26

While certainly the drama in our lesson from Acts peaks once Paul and Silas find themselves in prison, it is what led up to their being beaten, bound and imprisoned that first captures my imagination this week. For I can't help but wonder what happened to the slave girl who was set free by Paul's healing. The challenge for this line of wondering, of course, is that this part of the drama seems to be long forgotten once Paul and Silas pay the price for this act of healing, however reluctant it may have been. (I say 'reluctant' for one wonders if Paul would have ever even noticed the girl and her predicament at all if she had not been so persistent in following them and calling after them!) Indeed, the text offers no answers as to where she came from or what became of her next.

Even so? Her situation has had me wondering in these last days.

I wonder, for instance when her 'spirit of divination' was first discovered. Was it something she always had or did it only become apparent when she was a little older?

I wonder how it was that she was sold into slavery.
  • Did the certainty that she was 'possessed' by something frighten her family and as a result, were they at least a little bit relieved to see her go?
  • Or was their financial situation desperate and so they sold her in order to benefit from whatever the 'going rate' was for girls such as her?
  • Oh, I would imagine that in that time and place it must have been her father's decision to sell her in this way and I wonder if her mother grieved this always.
  • Or perhaps her father did this at her mother's urging. 
  • Or maybe her parents had both died and she had no other way of supporting herself except for this unthinkable way. 
  • Or maybe slavery was simply a generations old reality for her family and her particular ability simply made her valuable in a different way to those who owned her.
And I wonder what her life was like as a 'slave.'

  • Did her owners only take advantage of her seemingly supernatural ability to discern the truth or was there more to her enslavement? This certainly was bad enough, but it could have been more and perhaps was.

I wonder all these things because mostly I wonder what became of her next.
  • Once she was freed from that which so benefited her owners, did they actually let her go or did they keep her for other purposes? 
  • And if they did set her free, was she able to return home? 
  • And if she did return home, was she welcomed there?
  • Was she able to return to any semblance of a normal life? 
  • Or was she forever damaged, forever changed by the experience of having been sold into slavery and living as such for who knows how long?

And you see, I wonder these things mostly for this reason:

Surely even after having been 'set free,' freedom in its truest sense would likely have been elusive for this girl. Indeed, presuming her owners now let her go, I'm not sure she would have had any kind of chance at a normal life without some sort of support. From her family, perhaps, if they were still alive or if they even wanted her back. Or maybe that community of others who had also experienced a kind of 'setting free' once they knew themselves embraced and empowered by the love, the forgiveness, the hope that was theirs as they followed the Crucified and Risen One.

We cannot know, of course, how it was for this girl,but this much I do know. For many of us, slavery can seem almost preferable to freedom. For we know the rules of 'slavery.' It can begin to feel safe in its utter familiarity after a while. One wonders if she ever yearned to go back. Indeed, think of those set free from slavery in Egypt so long ago. Part of their perhaps not surprising experience is that not long into their wilderness sojourn, they would have traded their long yearned for freedom in for the security of slavery. (Exodus 16:1-3) Without a doubt, sometimes the slavery we have known can feel more 'free' than freedom...

Indeed, I have encountered the truth of this over and over again and in these ways in these last days:

On Wednesday of this last week I attended a Food Security Summit here in De Kalb. Part of the day was spent learning and part of it was participating in a 'poverty simulation' which allowed us, for a few hours, to get a tiny taste of what hard work it is to navigate the world when resources are scarce and systems seem to be stacked against you. It was enlightening, to be sure. One of the things that will stay with me for some time is this. There are certain unique 'unwritten rules' for different social classes. This is to say that should one actually break out of poverty, a whole lot of things would have to be relearned which could be helped along by some kind mentors and friends.
Or this:
Last night I attended a fundraiser for Safe Passage, a local organization which seeks to help those who are victims of domestic violence. More than once in my life I have walked alongside those who have finally broken free from such dangerous and demeaning situations. In the wake of such wondrously realized freedom, in many cases these people have found themselves suddenly struggling with the challenge of living with fewer material resources in addition to trying to rebuild their own understanding of who they are. Oh, they may no longer be battered, but they are not yet fully free from the experience. How much better they do when they have a community of others who are there to help give them what they need as they seek to move ahead.

In both of these examples, the story doesn't end once freedom is realized. Rather, a community is needed to help those of us, all of us, who find ourselves formerly enslaved, perhaps newly 'free,' to move into the fullness of what God intends.

And so I am wondering now about the role of the church in all of this. How are we called to be communities of mentors and friends and guides to those who have been enslaved by poverty or violence or addiction or grief or mental illness or... well, you name it.

For the story of the slave girl surely does not end where the account in Acts leaves us. I can't help but wonder if you and I are meant to write the ending.

Indeed, as we consider Jesus' call to unity in John's Gospel this week, maybe this is exactly where it begins: Maybe this unity is not so much realized as the result of weighty theological discussions, but in working together to stand alongside those who have been enslaved and are now free. Perhaps this is a unity of action and of love lived out for the sake of all who have been set free and are now trying to live into that freedom. For the sake of all of us, of course, for we are all also formerly enslaved. And for the sake of a whole world of people who are yearning for such freedom, too.

  • Clearly, this week I have been taken down a path where the recorded story offers no ready answers. Do you think such a reflection 'preaches?' Why or why not?
  • Given all the options I offer above about how the slave girl got where she was and what became of her next, what do you think? How would you paint her story before and after we encounter her today?
  • In your community, what does it look like to walk alongside those who have been enslaved and are now free? How does your congregation seek to be part of this kind of ministry?