Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 8, 2016
“Notice the Little Slave Girl”
Acts 16: 16-34 – Common English Bible
“One day, when we were on the way to the place for prayer, we met a slave woman (most translations say slave "girl"). She had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She made a lot of money for her owners through fortune-telling. 17 She began following Paul and us, shouting, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” 18 She did this for many days.
This annoyed Paul so much that he finally turned and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her!” It left her at that very moment.
19 Her owners realized that their hope for making money was gone. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the officials in the city center. 20 When her owners approached the legal authorities, they said, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews 21 who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attacks against Paul and Silas, so the authorities ordered that they be stripped of their clothes and beaten with a rod. 23 When Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the authorities threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to secure them with great care. 24 When he received these instructions, he threw them into the innermost cell and secured their feet in stocks.
25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted loudly, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”
29 The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” 32 They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house. 33 Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. 34 He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God.
This is an odd text. And totally weird for Mother’s Day, which is something those who set the lectionary texts for every week wouldn’t have taken into consideration anyway. As we are reminded every year, Mother’s Day is not a liturgical celebration. Neither is Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day – you get the picture. But then again, for many, Christmas isn’t a liturgical holiday either. For an increasing number of people, there is nothing particularly religious about Christmas. Or even Easter. I looked for an Easter card to send to my mother and they were all about spring and pretty pastel dresses. I finally found one with a cute picture of a lamb. I chose it because I figured Jesus was more likely to have had a pet lamb than a bunny.
So Mother’s Day may not be a liturgical celebration, but still, why did the text, today or all days, have to be about Paul and that little slave girl. And did you even notice her?
But making it about Mother’s Day wouldn’t have necessarily been easier. As I said in the weekly email, “This Sunday we give thanks for mothers. But this is also a complicated day for many. It can be a difficult day for all whose mothers are deceased. A painful day for those who had or have strained relationships with their mothers. Terrible for mothers who have lost a child or are unable to conceive. One woman in my church in Cleveland told me she never went to church on Mother’s Day because over the years as a woman without a child, she felt unwelcome. Shamed, even. But if we do celebrate mothers, then we also can’t forget to celebrate the aunties and grandmas and other guardians raising children. And foster moms. Surrogate mothers who may never meet the child they bore. Not to mention, the dual parenting roles of single dads and double dads. In reality, Mother’s Day can range from beautiful to difficult to painful to terrible. Yet then again, after making all those clarifications and qualifications, we don’t want to take anything away from mothers who just want to hear “Thank you!” Who should hear “Thank you!” So, thank you.
You may not realize that I’ve been trying avoid the actual text for today… but that little slave girl keeps shouting, “Don’t skip over me. Tell them my story.” So, OK. But, let me tell you, her story may be just as dark as the original call for a Mother’s Day. Julia Ward Howe called for a Mother’s Day of Peace in 1870. Just five years after the Civil War, she called for a nation-wide gathering of women, mothers, to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, [and] the great and general interests of peace.” But first, before we do that she said, “Let [us] meet, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.” To bewail. Five years since the Civil War. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose over 600,000 men in a country of 31 million. Or, equivalent to today’s population, 6 million dead on American soil. In order release human beings from their status as property.
The original call for a Mother’s Day wasn’t to demand respect and appreciation but to work for peace and to mourn their dead. And if we think of the little slave girl, maybe that’s even why she was a slave. Maybe her mother was dead.
Maybe she was like little 8 year old Jeannette from Guinea whose father gave her away after her mother and brother died. Hers is one of too many examples of the modern slave trade as detailed in the US State Department’s annual Report on the Trafficking of Human Persons. Jeanette worked 18 hours a day, but was never paid. She slept outside and ate leftovers from the garbage, or was denied food all together. She was beaten and worse. She wasn’t allowed to leave, but even if she was, she wouldn’t know where to go.
Or was she like 12 year old Ouare from Ghana whose parents died, so his uncle sold him to traffickers who then took him to Burkina Faso to work as a cocoa picker. All the profits of his labor went to his new cocoa masters – and his uncle.
Or was she like Rania from Morocco who signed a contract she couldn’t read to become a cleaner in Cyprus, a way to make money for her family? But when she arrived she learned she had been purchased for a prostitution ring instead. She couldn’t leave. And she knew that if she could in fact return home, she would have been the victim of an honor killing for damaging her family’s reputation, at the hands of her brother. This story is repeated by the tens of thousands all over the world. In the US too, as much as we’d rather keep silent about it.
The State Department’s annual Report includes so many gruesome and unspeakable stories of men, women, and children whose suffering cannot be imagined – in mines, sugar plantations, cocoa fields, as domestics and sex workers. Stories from credible sources so terrible, they’re not spoken of in polite company or from proper pulpits. But this little slave girl made Paul pay attention to her. And so, must we.
Now Paul said little except to describe her as annoying. According to the NRSV, he was “very much annoyed.” That’s because for several days she followed Paul around shouting, like a carnival barker who won’t give up: “These people are the servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you.”
It would seem that all she is doing is trying to help them. She’s not insulting them, she’s doing marketing for them. But no matter how helpful, someone shouting all day long would get tiring, and so Paul finally snapped. He flipped around to cast the spirit out of her that allowed her to predict the future. To shut her up. But that got him in trouble with her owners who made money off of people willing to pay to hear her tell their future. So now what? She was now worth nothing. And therefore Paul and his companions were put in jail for interrupting their commerce. The state/the Empire sided with the loss of the owner’s profits instead of considering the freedom of the child. Just like when slaves escaped in America. The authorities sided with the owners and sent the slaves back. And the state/the Empire arrested people who got in the way of their commerce.
And it still happens today. At times property rights seem more important than human lives. There was more outrage in Baltimore over the burning of a CVS than the death of Freddie Gray and the string of others like him. Was looting really the biggest problem during Katrina or people trapped? And then there are the people too poor to pay their fines, so the state/the Empire puts them in jail.
Just this Thursday, Colorado Springs and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado announced a settlement that will finally end the practice of jailing people who are too poor to pay their court fines. Over the course of one year, a man named Q-Tip spent a total of 90 days in jail for holding a sign asking for money. Jailed because he couldn’t pay his fine. He was among 65 more people that the city will give payouts for putting them in jail.
Officially, debtors' prisons have long been illegal in the United States. But some courts still send people to jail when they are too poor to pay. Last year, the Justice Department stepped in to stop the practice in Ferguson, Missouri, too.
The ACLU of Colorado discovered nearly 800 cases where people had gone to jail in Colorado Springs. Most of them were homeless — ticketed for things such as panhandling or sleeping in a park overnight.
The ACLU argued that people with means can simply pay a fine and move on but the poor get sentenced to jail. “That's a two-tiered system of justice that violates the principle of equal protection under the law."
Q-Tip was arrested for panhandling, but as he explained, "In our world, there's a difference between a panhandler and a flyer." A panhandler comes up to you and asks for money. All I did was "fly a sign." We’re all familiar with those cardboard signs written in black marker asking for help. And now I know they aren’t panhandlers; they’re flyers.
Q-Tip said, "My sign always said, 'Have a beautiful day. And God Bless You.'" And courts in Colorado and other states have ruled that there's nothing illegal about just holding a sign that asks for money. That's free speech. But police in Colorado Springs issued citations because flyers are embarrassing and bad for property values. Once again, property over persons.
The state/the Empire put Paul in jail because the slave girl’s owners couldn’t make money off her unique gift anymore. Their property was useless. But in a twist, those who arrested them got in trouble when they discovered that Paul was a Roman citizen. When the authorities discovered this violation of his privilege… Well, listen to the story that continued after our reading for today, starting with verse 35:
After spending the night in jail, including the earthquake and how they didn’t use the opportunity to escape, “At daybreak, the court judges sent officers with the instructions, “Release these men.” The jailer told Paul, “The judges sent word that you’re free to go on your way. Congratulations! Go in peace!”
37 But Paul wouldn’t budge. He told the officers, “They beat us up in public and threw us in jail, even though we are Roman citizens in good standing! And now they want to send us away secretly? No way! If they want us out of here, let them come and lead us out in broad daylight themselves.”
38-40 When the officers reported this, the judges panicked. They had no idea that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. They hurried over and apologized, personally escorted them from the jail, and then asked them if they wouldn’t please leave their city. Walking out of the jail, Paul and Silas went straight to Lydia’s house, saw their friends again, encouraged them in the faith, and only then went on their way.”
The layers of injustice and privilege are obvious. And usually overlooked in this text and many more. The same as people jailed for the crime of being poor. Obviously wrong and mostly overlooked. Not to mention people living in prisons run by private corporations meant to profit their investors, not rehabilitate offenders. They’re invisible. And it would never happen to a person with privilege. Or maybe it does. There was a scary article in The Atlantic recently that said that 47% of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency. It was called “The Secret Shame.” And people keep it silent from their families and friends and neighbors even though they might be in exactly the same boat. Their pain silenced. Just like the slave girl who is never heard from again.
What ever happened to her? How would she survive on her own, no longer able to make a living off her unique skill? Did she have a family to go home to? Would they accept her if she did? Perhaps it didn’t matter to Paul. Or maybe she became one his followers. I can only hope that she wasn’t abandoned like those truly on the margins of our society once they are given their freedom.
Freedom isn’t easy. And if the little slave girl hadn’t kept shouting at Paul, he wouldn’t have noticed her either, and we wouldn’t have paid attention to her story behind the obvious and overlooked layers of a scripture text begging for us to notice. And to notice the layers of privilege and injustice woven into the fabric of our nation too. Property over persons.
Did you know that slavery is actually still legal in Colorado? Someone noticed that in our state Constitution there’s an exception for prisoners. “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” They can still be considered, and treated, as slaves. A coalition movement called “No Slavery, No Exceptions” has worked to put the question of finally ending all slavery, ending all exceptions, on the ballot this fall.
In the aftermath of the bloodiest war on American soil, Julia Ward Howe’s original proclamation for a Mother’s Day observance named the need to commemorate and bewail. And then to work for peace. Then and now, such a call doesn’t begin because everything is kept OK by virtue of silence but because something can be done by speaking to end the suffering and shame of victims. Too often in an effort to keep things peaceful and pleasant such things go unnamed in the pulpit, unnoticed.
Where is the hope in this story? Are we asking from the perspective of privilege or those who are considered property? The little slave girl just wanted us to notice her. Maybe our suffering and shame in silence will be noticed too. And we will feel less alone.
 Estimates of 620,000 in a population of 31 million. That number, however, is considered by some as too low. See http://www.history.com/news/civil-war-deadlier-than-previously-thought
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world