Rev. Tina Walker-Morin
Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC
May 8, 2015
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Names. Names are a funny thing; we all have names that we go by daily and we all have our legal names. Sometimes these names match and other times they are vastly different. I don’t know what is up with my family of origin but none of my parent’s four daughters go by their given birth names. My eldest sister, legally named Jean after my mother, goes by her middle name Marie, my twin Melissa goes by Missy, I am legally a Christina, and my little sister is Sarah who has always gone by the name Shelley.
Saul aka Paul also is a person of multiple names. Having dual names during Saul’s day was common. For him, Saul would have represented his Jewish heritage -- he was a well-known persecutor of Christians so naturally he would have used his Hebrew name. The name Paul, on the other hand, would have been his Roman name; after all, he was born in the Roman city of Tarsus. It was not until sometime after his conversion that he became more widely known by his Roman name Paul. Some scholars suppose that by adopting his Roman name this would have enabled him to more easily assimilate with the gentiles to whom he was sent to spread the good news.
So here we are again today with Paul. Paul is a very important figure in our scriptures, in fact the letters attributed to Paul constitute half of the New Testament canon. Act of the Apostles, the book in which our scripture for today is taken from, narrates Paul’s travels, travails, and trespasses across the Roman world.
While Paul is a very influential figure he is also very controversial. Most people either love or hate him. Since his day and time he has been used to establish -- and to challenge -- ethical, social, sexual, and racial/ethnic hierarchies, inside and outside religious communities. He has been a persistent presence in arguments for and against slavery, women’s rights, homosexuality, and inter-religious dialogue and acceptance—just to name a few. No one appears to be neutral about Paul.
Today’s passage about Paul is perhaps a little tamer. The setting is in Philippi in modern day Greece, which is a Roman occupied gentile land (Acts 9:12). Paul and Silas are headed to a “place of prayer”, note not a temple. The reason there is no temple is because the Jewish population is too small so they do not meet the requirement needed to form a temple and thus this “place of prayer is located over a mile outside of the city gate”.
On their way to this place of prayer Paul and Silas encounter three people who all are being held captive. Really you ask?
I thought there was only one slave girl?
You would be right but all are being held captive by something.
First Paul and Silas come upon a girl with no name, just simply a slave girl who is out making money for her owners by telling fortunes. This slave girl reminded me of a story my cousin told me this past weekend, from their trip to Italy.
While in Italy they encountered numerous people who were trying to sell roses and selfie sticks. A person would hand the rose out towards my cousin’s kids hoping they would take it and then demand payment for the rose. These individuals were persistent in their quest to make money. I imagine that is how this slave girl was pursuing Paul. She kept following Paul and Silas not just all day long, which would be enough of a nuisance for me, but “for many days” (v. 18). Finally Paul, very much annoyed, turns and releases her from captivity. He orders the spirit out of her. She was being held captive not just by her slave owners but by a spirit of divination.
The spirit of divination is a reference to “a spirit of the Python”. This slave girl was an oracle, who provided prophetic predications inspired by Pythia, an ancient Greek priestess to the God Apollo. People from all over Greece and beyond came to have Pythia answer their questions about the future. Her answers, usually cryptic, could determine the course of everything; from when a farmer planted seedlings, to when an empire declared war. Arguments often broke out over the correct interpretation of an oracle (in our case the slave girl), but the oracle was always happy to give another prophecy if more gold was provided.
The slave girl is being held captive not just by her owners but also this spirit or gift of fortune telling. I equate this slave girl’s captivity to be like that of a mental challenge or a personal struggle that holds us captive. I think of Pete Frates, the former Boston College baseball player who has ALS and who started the ice bucket challenge. To me his ALS is something that is holding him captive. It is slowing eating away at his physical being.
Yet Pete does not allow it to hold him captive. He fights this disease every day. He fights by having a family, he fights by raising money and awareness for a cure of ALS. Pete will not be held captive.
Yet once Paul ordered the spirit out of the girl, her owners were furious because now their way of making money had been taken away. They too are held captive, but not by another person but by their greed and want for making money.
Money has power. Money has the power to blind us and influence our decisions. Just look at Compressor Station debate right here in North Weymouth. Spectra offered up $47 million to the town if they dropped their opposition. Spectra was hoping this money will influence and hold the town captive. The good news our Mayor, with the support of many, responded and declared we will not be held captive and thus rejected the offer. Myself and the other UCC clergy in Weymouth are writing a letter and will be attending the meetings supporting our Mayor and declaring Spectra will not hold us captive.
And finally we meet the prison guard, who throws Paul and Silas in jail at the slave owners and town’s insistence. Paul and Silas are beaten, bound and thrown naked in the innermost jail cell. Then here is the turning point in the story, as Paul and Silas are being held captive, literally God intervenes. An earthquake occurs shaking the prison, opening the doors and giving the prisoners an opportunity to escape. Yet, for whatever reason the prison guard sleeps through the whole ordeal and upon awaking he believes all the prisoners to have escaped.
The Prison Guard knows the punishment for escaped prisoners. He knows that if a prisoner escapes then the life of the guard is demanded in the prisoner’s place (12:19). Knowing this, he quickly pulls his sword with the intent on killing himself, shorting his time of shame and distress. As he does this he hears Paul shout, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (v.28).
The Guard is held captive by his job. I remember a friend of mine who was in a career and job that felt unfulfilling, unrewarding, and like no one valued her work. She hated going to work but was unsure what she should do or where she should look for a new job. Our old minister gave her a simple prayer to help her through this time. It was “O God, send me my next divine assignment”. My friend felt trapped, she felt like the prison guard, she was being held captive by her job. Yet our minister gave her comfort and reassurance by pointing her to God.
We are all held captive by something.
Often we are held captive by things we think we need. We need to work harder and longer, we need more time, we need more money, we need...you can fill in the blank.
Rumi the great spiritual poet and teacher stated, “When I run after what I think I want, my days are a furnace of stress and anxiety; if I sit in my own place of patience, what I need flows to me, and without pain. From this I understand that what I want also wants me, is looking for me and attracting me. There is a great secret here for anyone who can grasp it.”
We are all held captive by something. Maybe it is your past, which is represented in a name very few know you by, Saul…Christina. Whatever it is that is holding you captive, internally or externally, the good news is we can overcome it. We can overcome whatever is holding us captive. To overcome this captivity, first we must acknowledge the captivity, acknowledge the ALS like Pete Frates. Then secondly want to be released of it, want to keep the compressor station out of Weymouth. And third, trust in God to help us through, turn to God “God send me my next divine assignment”.
Acknowledge, want to be released, and turn to God.
May you be released from whatever it is that is holding you captive this day.
 Mayes, James ed. Haper Collins Bible Commentary (New York: 1999) 1008.