In this morning’s scripture lesson from Acts, we hear of the rich and the poor, the free and the captive, the known and the unknown, men and women. Through this story we catch a glimpse of the God of the Forgotten and of God’s ways in the world.
In the night, Paul has a vision of a man pleading with him to “come over to Macedonia.” So he sets sail once more.
But maybe you noticed a difference here.
“We set sail from Troas…”
For the first time, the story changes from the third person—“Paul did this. He did that”—to the first person:
“We set sail.”
“Once on our way to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl.”
These “we passages” lead some to suggest that here we are encountering first-hand narratives, that the author of Acts has joined up with Paul and now travels with him.
Just who this is, however, we don’t really know. Remember that Acts is a second book, a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. A tradition going back to the late second century, however, attributes both books to Luke, a physician who was a companion of Paul on some of his journeys.
By convention we call the author of both the Gospel and Acts “Luke” even though we don’t really know who wrote any of the four Gospels.
And by the time we come to the end of this lesson, “we” have vanished as Paul and Silas are attacked by a mob, beaten by the authorities, and thrown in jail.
Look at Paul and Silas. There they sit, feet in stocks, down in the innermost dungeon. They languish there, forgotten—like any number of political prisoners around the world, like any number of people caught up in the mass incarceration practices of our own nation, like any number of children separated from their parents at the border and kept without blankets or toothpaste or soap.
Look the other way.
It’s easy to ignore those on the margins, those with little or no power or resources. Often enough the message is that those who are forgotten should be forgotten.
That the followers of Christ could end up in jail should surprise no one. For nearly two thousand years we’ve been imprisoned around the world for translating the Bible, for opposing slavery, for resisting war, for standing up to oppressive regimes, for seeking justice and equal rights. Early Congregationalists, living as they understood themselves guided by scripture and the Spirit of God, often found themselves in jail. And we live in a nation in which leaving food and water for in refugees in the desert can result in jail time. Jesus says: “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was hungry and you fed me.” The US District Court in Arizona says: “Guilty as charged.”
Paul and Silas sit in jail, the first in a long line of forgotten followers.
They are there because they ultimately forgot about themselves when confronted with the suffering of another.
It started with an enslaved girl. She has no name—at least no name that is remembered as important. She has no occupation of her own—she does the bidding of those who own her. Her value seems only to be in the hope of profit that her owners find in her.
And they seem to make a tidy sum of money off of her.
You see, this girl also seems to be captive to a spirit of divination. She can tell fortunes, apparently. The Book of Acts doesn’t present this girl as either sick or an imposter. And in ancient Philippi as well as in modern Iowa City, there are those who are quite ready to part with some hard earned cash in exchange for a peek at tomorrow.
How do we describe what is happening?
The marring of the very image of God in a human being.
The thing is, in a sense this girl speaks the truth—and with some persistence. For several days she follows Paul and his companions shouting: “These people are the servants of the Most High God.” The word we translate as “servants” can also mean “slaves.” So here is an enslaved girl, trapped by the greed of those who own her, suggesting that these apparently free people are “slaves of the Most High God and they are declaring to you the way of salvation.”
Even the truth can become irritating. “There they are—the servants of God. Listen up everybody. Here come the slaves of God.”
Day after day.
Will the “slaves of the Most High God” do anything for this forgotten one?
In spite of her shouting, this girl is ignored.
Day after day.
We might wonder why this story was remembered and recorded in what Christians would come to regard as sacred scripture. This is not an inspiring story.
But then, scripture was not written that we might be inspired. Scripture was written that we might find life—and live a life that matters.
This is a disturbing story of justice delayed, a story of compassion withheld.
It is, as we have come to know, all too often the story of those who seek to follow in the ways of Jesus Christ, but who, like us, are distracted from that path.
Paul and his companions are busy heading to a place of prayer. They seem to be more concerned with their religious obligations, more concerned about getting together with like-minded people, than with the misery of this girl. It is so easy, isn’t it, to look the other way, to go about our own business with heads down, to ask, “Well, what can one person do, anyway?”
It is easy to forget the forgotten and forsaken.
Day after day this girl shouts to all who are around. Finally Paul has had enough. Not so much out of compassion as annoyance, Paul speaks to the imprisoning spirit: “Come out of her—in the name of Jesus Christ!”
Long ago Bob Dylan sang of hope: “Any day now, I shall be released.”
But not everyone welcomes such liberation.
The story is told of Jesus releasing a man from evil spirits that plagued him and sending the spirits—which were legion—into a herd of pigs. The pigs then promptly ran off the nearest cliff and into the sea. Well, the local Pork Producers Association came to Jesus with a simple request: “Please get out of town.”
And now the Philippian Fortune Telling Alliance is upset.
If you think people get upset when you mix religion and politics, look at what happens when you mix religion and economics.
At this point, the forgotten, exploited girl disappears from the story entirely. Even in her freedom she is forgotten.
But the owners of this now “unprofitable” girl take Paul before the magistrates.
They appeal to a desire for order: ‘These men are causing a disturbance.”
They appeal to the way things are and should be: “They are advocating practices that we cannot accept.”
They appeal to nationalism and anti-Semitism: “These men are Jews.”
They appeal to all the reasons one might find to hate and despise and punish.
There are consequences when people seek to be faithful. We struggle, Paul says, against principalities and powers. Quite often those powers strike back.
Paul and Silas set someone free. And they are beaten and thrown into prison—the first in a long line.
One of the characteristics of those who follow Jesus is that, time and again, we find ourselves in conflict with the established order. Jesus did. Paul and Silas did. So, too, have any number of followers over two thousand years.
Before we leave Paul and Silas in that dungeon—and don’t worry, we’ll come back to this story next Sunday to see what happens, although there’s nothing to keep you from breaking out your Bible and reading ahead in the coming days. But before we leave Paul and Silas there in the dungeon, let’s go back to the beginning of this story—because there is another important woman in this story in addition to the abused and exploited girl. Remember that the controversy started as Paul and his companions were going to “the place of prayer.” This is the synagogue where Lydia and other women gathered.
Philippi was a Roman colony. And women—all women—were second-class citizens in the Roman Empire. Forgotten. Ignored.
Remember that the Acts of the Apostles is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. And the author of both of these books shapes the stories of women to conform to this Roman model. The desire to present a picture of Christianity that would win favor in the Empire led to a further diminishment of women’s roles in Acts.
Women were generally forgotten or ignored in the ancient Roman world, but here we encounter a woman who has a name, Lydia; a woman who has an occupation, a dealer in the luxury good of purple cloth; a woman who has a home and financial resources.
When Paul and Silas arrive in Philippi, they find a small synagogue, populated, it seems, mostly or entirely with women.
Lydia listens to Paul. And while we aren’t told what he said, the result is that Lydia and he household are baptized. She provides a place for Paul to live.
Lydia’s—well, Lydia’s radical hospitality and her extravagant welcome of this stranger and newcomer to Philippi provided a base from which Paul’s liberating encounter with that enslaved girl was possible. And perhaps we can begin to see that the synagogue that Lydia and other women attend was a gathering that provided the strength and courage that Paul needed to stand up to not only demonic spirits but also to and angry mob and to endure the flogging and imprisonment that resulted from his actions.
The lives of two women are changed.
Paul and Silas languish in jail.
Where does this leave us?
First, if you have come here this morning feeling ignored, feeling that no one cares about your struggles, feeling that you are forgotten, there is good news: the God made known in Jesus Christ is the God of the forgotten. You are remembered. And in spite of all that leads to anonymity, to being ignored, you are remembered and loved by God. In deep dungeons, on city streets, you are more than a number, more than an anonymous face in the crowd.
God does not forget.
God remembers you and loves you.
And this is just as important: the rest of us?—We are called to remember, to be servants of the Most High God of the Forgotten. Lydia’s resources made Paul’s ministry in Philippi possible. As individuals and as a congregation we must bring our own abundant resources to bear on ministry and mission to the forgotten: to make it clear that we have not forgotten children languishing in detention centers on our nation’s borders, we have not forgotten men and women languishing in solitary confinement in our nation’s prisons, we have not forgotten the homeless on our streets, the hungry in our schools, the anonymous students who look for one face that will reflect back their humanity.
God remembers those whom the world would forget.
God equips us to do the same.