Monday, May 17, 2010

grace from the System

Acts 16:16-34

16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.

19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God."

Twice this week I have come face to face with my own privilege. Last weekend, I spent a Friday evening and Saturday learning about hunger in our world with members of our youth group. I learned of horrifying statistics, like 9 out of 10 pregnant Indian women do not get enough to eat, and a child dies every six seconds due to hunger and hunger related causes.

And after learning about hunger in the world, I went home and made chocolate chip cookies, poured a tall glass of organic antibiotic free milk, planned my meals for the week.

Tuesday night, I went to the Amos 5:24 taskforce meeting on racism and learned that Johnnie, an African-American Male, becomes afraid every time he hears that the police are looking for a tall, medium weight black man. He’s scared that he might be mistaken for the man who committed the crime. I was reminded how racism and other forms of prejudice permeate our society so deeply that it is as if it is the very air we breathe.

And, yet, even as my eyes were opened, and in some cases re-opened, to the prejudice in the world, I found myself locking my doors as I drove home through East Liberty that night.

This week, I have been forced to see how lucky I have been. To have been born in a family that could put food on the table. To have opportunities to go to school, to pursue any job I might want to pursue, to open a savings account, to live in whatever neighborhood I could afford to live in, to vote, to feel protected, not pursued, by the police.

See, most of us here have benefitted, to varying degrees, by the power system that is currently in charge. Don’t get me wrong, many of us have been victimized because of this society; many of us have been hurt and abused by the Power Structures present in our world today. And I do not want to minimize that. But I’d like those of us who have benefitted in some way by how our city, our government, our country, our families have been structured to take a moment and to notice how much we’ve been given.

We’re the lucky ones.

Walter Wink would say that we are the beneficiaries of what he calls the current Domination System. When “an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values, we get what can be called the Domination System.” The Domination System is a form of institutionalized way of life that has become corrupted. It is a way of life that has winners and losers, those who waste and those who starve, those who have freedom and those who are enslaved.

And yet, most commonly in a Domination System, those who are benefitting from it hardly know what is going on. It would be like telling a fish that it lives in water – completely true, but incomprehensible to the fish.

Rome functioned under such a domination system. Our society functions under such a domination system. And we, in our own time, have a responsibility as Christians to identify in what ways we have benefited from and even encouraged the domination system of the present day.

It is with this perspective in mind that I would like us to approach today’s reading.

When I first read the Scripture in preparation for today’s sermon, I immediately wanted to identify with the poor slave girl in this story. She is the ultimate victim. She’s a slave. She is a girl in a patriarchal society. She is healed, seemingly, only because Paul is annoyed by her. And then we never hear from her again. It is right to stop and question what in the world is going on here. And we should take some time to wrestle with what God is trying to tell us through her very brief story, especially if we identify with her to the extent that we, too, feel victimized and enslaved by the social structures in our world.

But it is to the “ordinary” households that I want us to think about now. Let’s think about the slave-owners, and the jailer. These are two households that could probably be considered “the middle class” of the Roman Empire. They had jobs, they probably had homes, they had income coming in. Now, it’s easy to demonize the slave-owners, to quickly write them off because they were guilty of the horror of owning slaves, and it’s an understatement to say that what they were doing was wrong. But it is also important to note that they were entrenched in Roman Society, and in Roman Society, slave-ownership was, unfortunately, no big deal. They were so fully immersed in what were considered the “norms” of their society that they couldn’t see the evil in what they were doing. This is the case with the jailer as well. He’s a government worker on the night shift, making enough money for a home and a family.

Both the slave-owners and the jailer were benefitting from the literal imprisonment of others. But can you imagine how they would justify their actions? Can you hear what they might say?

“I’m upholding justice.”

“If we free the slave-girl, we’ll all starve.”

“If I let these ruffians out, they’ll corrupt the streets.”

“If we treat her equally, she might bring down the test scores at my kid’s school.”

“I’m just trying to save enough for retirement.”

“I just want to make enough to take the wife out to dinner.”

“I’m just doing my job.”

“I can’t save the world.”

Both, the jailer and the slave-owners are so absorbed by the standards, the values, and the norms of their society that they cannot see that they are just as trapped as the slave-girl, as the prisoners.

And then, quick as a wink, their Power Structure, their System, is pulled out from under them. The slave-girl is healed, and the slave-owners lose their source of income. An earthquake hits, and the jailer thinks that all of his prisoners have escaped. Their world has turned upside down. They can no longer rely on the Power Structure that had once benefitted them. Everything they had counted on, the structure that they thought had protected them, has vanished. They have lost their privilege. The Structure of Roman Society failed them.

And what do they do?

Their responses to having the societal rug pulled out from beneath them are illuminating.

The slave-owners go charging back into the system. Even though they have witnessed the miracle of a healing with their own eyes, they run to the Roman Authorities, demanding that they fix this situation, that they make this right by punishing Paul and Silas. But what is interesting is that the slave-owners don’t accuse Paul and Silas of stealing their property, or taking away their source of income. No, instead, they accuse Paul and Silas of not upholding the Roman Power Structure. Paul and Silas are thrown into jail, not because they have healed a slave girl, but because they are a symbol of rejecting the Domination System of Roman Rule. Paul and Silas aren’t “Roman” enough; they aren’t true patriots; they don’t accept the common values of the citizens of the Roman Empire. They are rocking the boat.

And Paul and Silas can’t even do prison “right.” They aren’t the right kind of prisoners to fit in with this society’s values. After being beaten and humiliated, they do not cower in the corner of their cell, they don’t fall asleep, resigning themselves to their fate and punishment; instead, they start singing. These guys don’t fit in no matter where they are – free or imprisoned.

And then it is the jailer’s turn to have the rug swept from beneath him. Literally and figuratively, this guy’s foundation crumbles. The jail is torn apart by an earthquake, the doors are opened, and everyone’s chains are unfastened. This jailer’s societal structure of who is “free” and who is condemned is suddenly switched. Assuming that the prisoners have escaped, it is the jailer who must now submit to Roman Rule. He draws his sword in order to do the “right thing” according to the Roman Domination System. His failure as a jailer now requires his death in exchange.

He could have followed through with it. He could have done what the slave-owners had done, run towards the Roman Domination System for answers.

But then, there comes a moment of grace. Can you hear it? It’s coming from deep within the rubble of what are now the prison walls. Listen carefully. Paul calls out, “We’re still here! We haven’t escaped!” And the jailer stops in his tracks.

He wants to see this with his own eyes.

And what does he see? He sees a group of people who are so unaffected, so freed from the Roman Domination System that it doesn’t matter where they are. Prison doesn’t shackle them.

And then, another moment of grace. Here is where a choice is made. The jailer could have killed himself, thus following the proper code of Roman Society. Or, he could have re-shackled the men, bound them back up and counted his lucky stars that he didn’t get caught. With either choice, he could have responded to this situation by running head first back into the Domination System, back into the way things “should” be because that is the way things always have been. But he doesn’t. He rejects the system altogether. He looks to Paul and Silas, two men who have been rejected by the system for not being Roman enough, and basically says, “What do I do now?”

He says, “What must I do to be saved?”

And what does the jailer want to be saved from? We don’t really know. Maybe he just wants to know how to get out of this little pickle of having to deal with escaped convicts. But maybe he wants to know how he can live a life that is free of fear, free of domination, free of systemic abuses for which he is both a victim and a beneficiary.

The jailer asks what he must do to be saved, and Paul responds, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” It would be so easy for us to just interpret this response as some sort of ethereal, esoteric, solely spiritual action. But I don’t think that getting in to heaven is what is on Paul’s mind. What Paul is trying to tell this man is to make Jesus the Lord of his life, the Power of his life, and to reject any system that puts one person above another, that creates winners and losers, those who have too much and those who have nothing. The whole household will be changed, will be saved, because it will no longer be controlled by Roman values, Roman Systems, Roman law.

And suddenly, Paul and Silas become equals in the eyes of the jailer. He washes their wounds and feeds them supper. A man who was, just an hour ago, in such depths of despair that he was about to commit suicide is now rejoicing because he has a hope that goes beyond the rules and structures of an oppressive system. Unlike the slave owners, he has found hope because he did not dig his heels into the way things “should be” as defined by some system. He did not become even more entrenched in a system that corrupts and is corrupted. Instead, even while still living in the same house, still occupying the profession of a jailer for the Roman government, he has decided that this is not what will define him.

He will be defined by being a child of God, not a slave to the Roman Empire. And that has made all the difference in the world - a literal difference between his willingness to live or die.

This is going to happen to us, or has already happened for many of us. The rug is going to be pulled out from underneath us. The system is going to fail us.

The stock market will crash. Oil will spill by the thousands of gallons per day into the ocean. The breaks will fail. We won’t get that promotion. Someone will tell us that we aren’t good enough to get into that school, and we’ll believe them. The banks will go belly up. There will be e coli in the spinach.

But when this happens, will we go running, head first, back into the system, relying on it to rescue us and make things right? Or will we listen to the ways that we can be saved by rejecting the system altogether?

When tragedy strikes, when the system fails and we suffer, it is common to place blame, to demand that someone be responsible. We want someone to pay. There was plenty of blame to go around when my six year old brother was killed in a car accident. There had been a petition going around for years to fix that stoplight. The tiny car he was riding in was flimsy and unsafe. The man who hit him was mentally unstable. Back then, no one knew of the dangers of having a small child in the front seat.

My parents had the right to sue everybody. And no one would have blamed them if they did. But somehow, even in their deepest grief, they were able to see that that would not have brought them healing. Suing the city, the driver, the car company, the insurance agencies, and the hospital would not bring their son back. It would only entrench them even deeper into a system that might have made them financially secure, but would force them to spend all their time reliving the tragedy instead of remembering the joy that their son brought them. Insisting on placing blame and reacting to this by clawing with all their might onto a system that has failed them would ultimately cause them more pain, not bring them grace. Instead, they asked, “what can we do to be saved?”

And they weren’t saved from grief. They weren’t saved from a kind of sorrow I can now only imagine. But even in their grief, grief that will never go away, even twenty years later, they are freed just the tiniest bit from a system that would tell them what was a socially acceptable way to respond, to grieve, to go on breathing. Instead, they are on a daily journey to discover how they can be saved, even after and in the midst of this horrible tragedy. They are choosing to make Jesus their Lord, their Power, and their Hope.

This is what is being offered to us today. When the system fails us, when we are on the losing end of a corrupt institution or when life is simply just not fair, we are offered the chance to respond. We can force ourselves ever more deeply into the ways and constructs of a Domination System, looking for ways to punish, to get even, or to get ahead. Or we can listen for the grace to be saved and to follow God as our light and source of hope and peace. That is how a system gets changed. That is how a life gets changed. May we choose the grace.

Thanks be to God.

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