Easter 7C Readings:
If there is “oneness” in the church, the world will know God’s love, argues the Evangelist of John’s gospel. And then the actual oneness of the world to which we are called, in Christ, has possibility.
So what does it take to have oneness? How does the world perceive the church today? Do we love one another?
On this Mother’s Day, oneness just seems to feel more possible! Statistically, Mother’s Day is the third best attendance day of the year, they say, after Christmas and Easter. We can’t help but feel good when we’re centered on “one” thing, celebrating Mom’s, in this case. We’re more together. On the same page. After all, everyone has a mom! Even Harley riders, “love mom!” Though, everyone’s experience of who mother is to them, varies, of course. Being “mothered,” teaches us love and sacrifice, strength, leadership, and vulnerability – just to name a few traits we learn, that are a part of all of us. And, even when we lose our mothers, it never completely ends the relationship, but often makes it, still more complicated.
Even the tradition of Mother’s Day was born of conflict, I discovered. Julia Ward Howe’s idea of Mother’s Day was completely mission oriented – what can mother’s, what can women do, that is unique for them? In 1872 she rallied women to a “Mother’s Day for Peace,” having delivered a Proclamation called, an "Appeal to womanhood throughout the world," in support of, disarmament, if you can even imagine. Women, who so often bore the brunt of war back home when husbands were away fighting, and the consequences of conflict when they returned, and also when they didn’t, were the perfect ones to promote, pacifism, she argued. That was Julie Ward Howe’s mission.
But then Anna Jarvis came along a generation later, in 1908, to create a Mother’s Day more like we have today, simply wanting to fulfill her own mother’s wish, of honoring Mothers once a year, on their special day, with a personal hand-written card. And President Wilson made it official in 1914. But for Anna Jarvis, the holiday soon became too commercialized. And in 1948, after speaking out against Mother’s Day for some 30 years, she was arrested, ironically, protesting the very holiday she had helped create!
Last Friday, I hope you noticed, was the 127th anniversary of – wait for it! – “corporate personhood” in America. That’s right! And a small, but important organization, Move to Amend, organized rallies of protest around the country to begin the nationwide process of repealing its most notable example, the “Citizens United” decision. I’ve been waiting for this – this spark of protest and hope! It was the Supreme Court decision, Santa Clara Co. vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, back on May 10, 1886, that first opened the door to allowing corporations to be classified as “persons,” resulting in one of the most obvious reasons we are so divided as a people today. Corporate personhood is legal, but morally and ethically compromised, especially as we can see how it has snowballed into the greed and excess we know today. Our groaning word-less prayers to the Holy Spirit surely are aimed at this evil spirit of divination walking among us, this global-landless-nation-unto-themselves, a 1% that is virtually irreproachable, which is slowly but surely, imprisoning the rest of us, and tearing us apart. Working for oneness, if that is our mission as believers, is under threat, in so many ways. But because corporations never die, but legally have a quasi-eternal life of their own, it’s sort of like watching a zombie movie. And it’s time that we order it, in the name of Jesus Christ, to come out, and unbind us all.
We see this dynamic of slave and free, oneness and division too, in the story from Acts in our First Reading. Paul and Silas are making new relationships in Philippi, and it’s a tough slog for Paul, starting from scratch, in the diverse society of Greece. But God has led the way for Paul and his companions to meet a woman named Lydia, the business woman and proprietor of purple cloth, who receives the Word, and joins the Way. Having invited Paul into her home, and with her resources – as, she probably had some means, as a seller of the cherished royal and expensive purple cloth – she provides a mission start congregation for all those who are responding to Paul’s message of salvation. Lydia probably was unmarried, but she gives birth to something equally important, the First Christian Church of Philippi!
But it is also here in Philippi, that Paul, not unlike Jesus in Jerusalem, will be severely beaten and thrown into jail, and almost lose it all. It happens as a fluke, it seems. When Paul, intending to do good – although, he’s personally just irritated, and “had it up to here” with the slave-girls’ schtick, which actually nails who Paul & Silas are, with her shouts all over town, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation”! She is not wrong. But Paul, again, acting in the Jesus-like way of casting out demons, ordered the spirit of divination, in the name of Jesus Christ, to come out of the slave-girl. But the girl, with a talent of fortune-telling, brought her owners a great deal of money. In other words, they used her, for their own personal financial gain. It was legal, but certainly by our standards today, not ethical, moral or acceptable, especially as followers of Jesus.
So Paul, does what he can, unbinding the slave-girl from her possession. Unfortunately, she is doubly imprisoned! As far as we know, the slave-girl, now released from the evil spirit of divination, is still slave to her ruthless owners. What will they do to her, now that they have lost this source of income? We see what they are capable of in lashing out at Paul and Silas, calling in favors from their friends in high places in city government, having them stripped, flogged and thrown into prison together, in solitary confinement. It was a near death experience.
But then, Paul & Silas begin to sing hymns from the bowels of the prison. And that’s when resurrection begins to happen. Like the earthquake at Jesus’ crucifixion, the earth moves and breaks open the chains of all the prisoners, and they are free! Or are they? They are free to go, so why don’t they? If they escape, Roman law says that the Jailer is responsible, no matter what, and his punishment is execution. And so this Jailer decides it’s better to commit suicide. And just as he is about to fall on his sword, Paul shouts out that, no one has left, don’t worry, all accounted for – in effect, saving his life!
The Jailer then goes to Paul, and like the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, is trembling with fear and amazement. And overcome by the power of God, becomes a follower of Jesus. The Jailer hosts Paul and Silas at his own home, washing their wounds. And Paul, in turn, washes his whole family in baptism – and the spirit of the Most High God, makes them one, as they dine at table together. And so the young church there is expanded now to, Second Christian Church of Philippi.
Those who once were imprisoned, Paul & Silas, the slave-girl and the Jailer, are now freed. And those who took their privilege of freedom for granted, her owners and the town’s authorities, look more like the enslaved. It’s a gospel story in miniature, from suffering and near death, to resurrection new life, baptism and meal. The lowly are lifted up, and the mighty brought low, as Luke says.
But I can’t help but think of the slave-girl, left behind. For Paul, and Luke the writer of Acts, she is not a concern, in a time when slavery in the Roman Empire is still legal. But in our country, having been through that malaise in our own history, it seems unconscionable that there is no hope for her to be freed. We know that the power of the Holy Spirit continues to call us into action. The civil rights era, of course, has deep roots in the African-American, and other, churches. And today, we see how far Marriage Equality has come. It’s something our congregation, and many in the Church, stand behind, where even a few years ago, such a thing was as invisible and expendable as the slave-girl.
So tomorrow, perhaps inspired by the Holy Spirit, the spirit of the Most High God, we will see the scales fall from our eyes, and begin to recognize our enslavement to “corporate personhood,” and begin to throw off the chains that hold us captive, and separate, and continue to pray for a greater oneness, that might ignite our faith in action.
Until then, we continue to sing hymns of praise and pray to God, that we, with a faith like Paul and Silas, a faith that never dies, a faith that never runs from conflict, and even reaches out to our enemies - is a faith for us - because we are confident that it comes from the Holy Spirit, that is always blowing and at work, to transform the world and set us free.