May 23, 2004

Immanuel Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell


John 17:20-26

Acts 16:16-40

Prisons of Our Own Design

Well, great day in the morning. Looks like a pretty one -- for ducks. And should be an interesting one - especially with today's Scripture reading about Paul's and Silas' imprisonment in Philippi. As I prepared the sermon for this morning, it seemed like a timely tale. And I'd like to re-tell it to you in my own way:

Paul and Silas are going about their business when they are met by a slave girl, or at least a girl working for slave wages. The woman is sort of like a Greek Cassandra, going from corner to corner predicting the future. This Philippi girl was owned by some men who apparently made a great deal of money through offering her services to passersby. Must have been something like a fortune-telling machine - plug in your denarius, and the girl gives us an instant verbal fortunate-cookie message. The girl fixates on Paul, and Paul finds the girl's attentions a bit nuts and very grating. He decides to end the girl's economic exploitation and cure her of her madness at the same time. She comes to her senses, which is good for the girl, but not for her masters. Not nearly as entertaining as a sane (and therefore "free") woman, the slave no longer is of any economic value.

The men are angry and grab Paul and Silas, drag them before the authorities, and make false claims that they are insurgents, troublemakers, sent to throw the city into an uproar.

Not much evidence of any of this, of course, but the authorities buy this argument and order the visitors stripped, beaten, flogged, put in uncomfortable positions in wooden stocks, and left to languish in an inner cell - deep within the local prison. I'm not elaborating. It's all right there in the Scripture. We also know that Paul bore the scars from this imprisonment and flogging for the rest of his life.

And as I mentioned to the children this morning, Paul and Silas did not give themselves up to gloom, doom, anger, or depression. Nope. They took this confinement as an opportunity to keep up their own spirits and the spirits of everyone else around them with songs and hymns - and probably a bit of planning, preaching and philosophizing. They knew that wherever they were, they could work on their greater mission. They had a purpose. The job was to go about it.

About midnight - when it's about as dark as it can get - kaboom! An earthquake hits. A big one. The very foundation of the prison system is shaken. The doors fly open; the walls are cracked, the chains fall from the prisoners.

The guards are terror-struck. The prisoners are out. The word is out. Paul and Silas shouldn't even be there - they are Romans, for Jove's sake. What is going to happen to them, the guards, if the prisoners either escape, or worse yet, if people find out the guards have been abusing "real" people, real citizens? One guard considers falling on his own sword. He would rather die than face the consequences of losing those prisoners.

Paul could have left then. Take the earthquake as a sign - and get moving. But he didn't. He stays put and apparently convinces everyone else to do likewise. Amazingly, he takes the time to hear the fears and repentance of one of the guards. The guard wants to be saved from his own history, his own personal prison. What must he do to be saved?

This is probably one of the men who had just stripped, beaten, flogged, and placed Paul in the stocks. Did Paul really care if the man felt bad about it now and wanted to know how to be a better person, saved from his own sins? Apparently, Paul cared. In fact, instead of escaping, Paul and Silas go home with the man that evening to meet the family.

The guard and his family feed the travelers, wash their wounds, and listen to their message. Paul tells him that the answer to his life's questions rests with Jesus Christ - not just believing that He existed, but believing in His message and living life accordingly. That didn't mean the man had to give up his job as a prison guard, by the way. Remember Jesus and the Internal Revenue Service guy? Jesus told the tax collector to do his job, but do it honestly and well. I feel certain that Paul said something similar to the prison guard - your job is necessary. Do it honestly and well.

The prison guard and his whole family were baptized that evening. And, Silas and Paul are returned to the prison.

And here is where Lectionary lesson ends, at Versus 34. Seems odd. We are given the impression that after the dinner and the baptism, Paul and Silas might be free, but they aren't. The prison guard has repented, changed his ways, and is a new man - as are all his family. End of story. Let's focus on the prison guard and end it there, suggests the compilers of the Lectionary.

But wait. There are just a few more verses to the story. Why aren't they included? I checked to see if they might be listed for next week or the next. But no, next week is Pentecost - and the Scripture jumps back to the second chapter of Acts. The week after that is Trinity Sunday and the Scripture is from the Book of Romans. But the last verses in Chapter 16 of Acts are important.

This story is more than just the story of one prison guard's conversion, although that is important. We'll come back to that in a moment.

But let's finish the story first. Starting with verse 35, we learn that the morning after the earthquake and the baptisms, Paul and Silas are still in prison. The government officials have sent officers to the prison with the order to "Release those men! And tell them to leave town." The officials had learned that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens and the treatment that they had received would not be well-received back in Rome. In fact, if Rome found out, it would be an earthquake experience of an entirely different sort - real explosive, radioactive, even.

The officials sent word, "Now you can leave. Go in peace. Even better, go in peace and QUIET. Just leave. Leave the city."

Paul looked the officers in the eye and said, "They beat us without a trial. They threw us in prison. We are citizens and we deserve better. And we're not leaving!"

Not leaving? What did they want? They were free to go. They had a whole family of new converts. What more did they want?

Dignity, that's what Paul wanted. An apology would be nice. Some public recognition that it was the officials themselves who had ordered the deed-it didn't just accidentally happen.

"No," said Paul. "We aren't leaving. We aren't leaving until the officials themselves come to apologize and publicly escort us from this prison."

The officials caucused. It didn't take too long. It must have been galling, but this is what the officials did. They went down to the prison, "appeased" Silas and Paul, and escorted them from the prison and politely requested that they might leave the city whenever it was convenient for them to do so.

Paul and Silas walked out of the prison with their heads held high and went to their friend Lydia's home. They spent some time there with friends, talking and encouraging them in their faith - but no doubt reviewing the experiences of the past few days, as well. With an air of self-confidence based in self-understanding, they left the city, in their own time.

Paul used his prison experience to further his mission. He learned he could either surrender to the circumstances around him, or he could focus on a purpose so great that the circumstances didn't matter.

Each of us, like the prison guard himself, faces similar prison experiences in life. We may not find ourselves literally behind bars, but our entrapment and pain are just as real. Some of us have been trapped in emotional prisons that have incarcerated us since childhood. Others of us are confined by personal or financial prisons. Still others find themselves in relationship prisons. O man, those relationship prisons are tough ones. How should we respond when we find ourselves behind bars -- incarcerated in an inner prison deep within our souls?

We can only wonder what Paul's prison guard's personal prison was all about. Sounds like he had some guilt feelings about his job - but his personal spiritual pain could have been about any number of things.

One minister from whom I have borrowed some ideas today, suggests that we can deal with our personal prisons in three ways: we can curse them, nurse them, or reverse them.

* We can curse our prison. It's easy to become resentful when we find ourselves locked up. Life isn't fair. This option was open to Paul. He could have blamed others, become resentful, given up on the whole project. God could just find someone else to further His Kingdom. Unfortunately cursing our prisons renders us useless in the hands of God. Nothing good comes from bitterness. We spend so much time bemoaning our concerns that we don't discover how we can use that experience to help others. Our prison, not our purpose, consumes us.

* We can nurse our prison. Sometimes we cling to our prisons, even when we are free to let them go and get on with our lives. Looked like Paul was doing that for a while when he refused to leave his cell, but this is not what I am talking about. What I'm talking about is when we keep our negative emotions alive, nurse them as though they were pets, and carry them with us wherever we go. When we nurse our chains, we spend our time stroking the misery rather than striving for the mission. By reading the rest of the story this morning, we learn that Paul had purpose in remaining in his cell. He would use his negative experience to reach not only the prison guard and his family, but also the government authorities. When the authorities escorted him from the prison with dignity, the message was heard by the entire community. These men were poorly used. They deserved more respect from us than they received.

* Our third choice is that we can reverse the prison experience. Paul completely turned the tables on the authorities when he maintained focus on his purpose. No doubt, his opponents thought prison would shut him up. Instead, his jail cell became his opportunity. By staying the course instead of surrendering to his circumstances, Paul's prison became a pulpit. As Christians, we must remember that the Good News of the gospel is not just that God will help us through the tough times. In fact, when we become consumed with His purpose, God will use our tough times, our prison experiences, to advance His Kingdom here on earth.

Purpose is a life-saving thing. There is a story about a 25-year-old woman who attempted suicide sometime ago by jumping off a bridge. Life no longer held meaning for her. Like the prison guard, suicide seemed the most viable option.

However, when the woman plunged into the river, unbeknownst to her, a man on the riverbank saw her. Without a second thought, he jumped in after her. Only at that time did he remember that he couldn't swim.

It's almost a humorous sight. The man panics, screams for help, and flails in the water. The woman looks around, sees him, and paddles over to save his life. Sure enough, she manages to grab hold of him and drag him to the shore.

In that moment of clear purpose - saving the man's life - the woman forgot that she was trying to end her own. The man didn't save her. But her sense of purpose did.

Few of us consistently live purpose-driven lives. We live our lives "by accident" rather than "on purpose." We become content to tread water and get by. We react to life instead of creating it. And bit by bit, we lose our passion.

Paul and Silas had a mission, a purpose, a passion for Christ, for which they could turn all manner of unpleasantness to good.

Paul was one focused guy. That's great. But most of the time, we find ourselves looking at life more through the eyes of the prison guard - confused, frightened, depressed, even suicidal. We know what it is like to feel boxed in, trapped, our options gone. Not only do we find our worlds to be prisons at times, but we also see those walls crumbling, crashing down, and threatening to crush us. We listen in the darkness for someone to say, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here."

Had Paul chosen the reasonable thing to do - get out when the earthquake hit, the prison guard would have never heard those life-saving words. "Do not harm yourself. We are all here with you."

Paul had a sense of God's actions in his life and prayed for God's guidance in tough situations. But what if you don't feel like God is guiding you anywhere? More often than not, most of us would love to have a clear picture of what God wants us to do, but we just don't. To hear a voice, see a vision, or have an overwhelming inner conviction of what God wants from us would be such a relief. I know that God wants me to take care of my family, to live a good life, and generally do the best that I can with the situations that come my way. But, if, for example, I might decide that someone is taking advantage of me, should I confront the situation or bear it in silence? It can be hard to sort out. Even Paul reacts in different ways in different situations.

In one instance, Paul knows when to get out when necessary - such as when he learns in Damascus that the authorities are planning to kill him. He allows himself to be lowered in a basket over the walls and escapes. Good decision. In this instance at Philppi, however, Paul stands and demands a face to face confrontation with the government authorities who had so solely abused him. Also, a good decision.

Like the prison guard, we will face times when we think we are at the end of our rope and feel that there is no escape from the forces which are threatening to crush us. Or, like Paul, we may be confronted with the easy way out, but be troubled by an awareness of being needed where we are. And it may be that what we need is what the prison guard lacked and Paul had: belief that God through Christ will lead us and work with us to bring about a meaningful resolution to our conflict.

We go back to the beginning of our story. What business was Paul going about when he met the slave girl who got him into this mess in the first place? He was on his way to pray. In closing, I direct you back to the words of our Prayer of Confession this morning:

O God of life, there is much that deals in doubt and despair and death in our world, and we are often tempted to succumb to these forces. Help us always to choose life; to affirm what can be affirmed, to hope where hope is possible, and to risk ourselves to lift up human dignity. For this we pray in the name of Christ, who is the way and the truth and the life. Amen.


The bulletin today has a Litany for Christian Unity. I included it, yes, thinking about Jesus' prayer in John 16 this morning for all believers, but also thinking about those believers acting as a catalyst for respect for persons and nations of all faiths and traditions. As we recite the Litany, let us remember to pray, as Jesus prayed, for all peoples under God.

Moments with the Children

(Actually before the Sermon)

If you were in a room all by yourself and you were a little bit scared because your mom and dad or grandma or grandpa were there, what would you do?

Well, you know there are a whole bunch of things a kid can do.

First decide if you are supposed to get out. Maybe your parents told you to stay put until they got back. They it's best to stay.

You could cry.

You could shout.

You could take the opportunity to go to sleep to make the time go faster.

You know what Paul and Silas did in our Bible reading today when they were put in prison. They were scared, too. But they didn't cry, shout, or sleep. Know what they did?

They prayed and they sang. Too good things to do when you're stuck someplace you don't want to be. Pray - ask God just what you ought to do. And sing - singing is a great thing when you are scared.

What's your favorite song? Jesus Loves Me - congregation sings along.

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