A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 22, 2015
University Baptist Church
The story of Silas
I’m Silas, companion of Paul, missionary and a convict. You may have heard a song about me. “Paul and Silas bound in jail had no money for to go their bail. Keep you eyes on the prize, hold on.”
I was a Jew, appointed by the Jerusalem church to accompany Paul and grant him credibility. Paul was causing such a ruckus and he was moving faster than the rest of us with his reforms and new ways of looking at theology. He rightly thought that the Gospel ought to be available to everyone, not just the Jews. This was good new to the Gentiles, but threatening news to the Jews. I accompanied Paul to let the Jewish converts to the Way know that the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem approved of Paul (however grudgingly).
My big claim to fame is recorded in the 16th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and I were arrested, beaten, put in stocks and thrown into the inner-most prison. We were arrested for messing with commerce. You see, we had removed a spirit of divination from a poor young slave woman and her owners didn’t like losing money. So they had us arrested. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last time. Hanging around Paul meant pushing the envelope and eventually ending up in prison. I would learn that being a Christian in general conjured up suspicion and antagonism.
So there we were in that dark, prison. We knew there were others there, too. We could hear their snoring, their moaning, their complaining. We didn’t know how long we’d be there or if we’d ever get out. So we started singing to pass the time. Nothing too great. What we lacked in pitch and rhythm, we made up for in enthusiasm. You can handle things better if you sing, don’t you agree?
Around midnight there was an earthquake. It was so violent that our shackles became unbolted from the walls and the door to the cell was jarred loose. While we could have walked out, we wanted to be taken seriously and decided that we could make more of an impact by staying put. It worked. The jailer and his whole family became converts and we even got our accusers to apologize.
Even now, artists depict me with broken chains in my hands. I’m holding on to the chains, just like I’m holding on to the message. It’s like that song,
“O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
that in thine ocean depths it flow
may richer fuller be.”
So I don’t know if it was the singing, the earthquake or the message, but I’m gonna hold on to the one who meets me at the midnight hour. I’m here to tell you that even in the dark cold nights of your soul, God is awake and beckons us to live as though we are free. When we do that, no prison can hold us. That’s the real Gospel. That’s what we preach and what we sing. So when you sing, think of me. But also think of all who are stuck in their own self-made cells. Sing of a new reality taking shape.
I’m Silas and that’s my story.
An old spiritual about Paul and Silas being bound in jail became one of the key songs of the Civil Rights movement. In slavery, songs were used to get through the drudgery of work, but also to transfer coded messages about resilience and freedom. “Following the drinking gourd” was a reference to go north to freedom. “Crossing the Jordan” meant crossing the Ohio River. “Moses” was Harriet Tubman, conductor of the Underground Railroad. “Heaven” meant the northern states as much as it meant the great beyond. So keeping your hand on the plow and holding on meant to be committed to the way of freedom. The Civil Rights movement’s documentary “Eyes on the Prize” had as its theme song, “Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on”—a version of what the choir just sang.
Paul and Silas, bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Paul and Silas began to shout
The Jail door open, and they walked on out…
The only chain that a man can stand
Is the chain of hand in hand…
Got my hand on the freedom plow
Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.
When it’s hard to hold on, hold on.
When people laugh at you. Hold on.
When people fight against you. Hold on.
When people misunderstand or even insult you. Hold on.
When you don’t think you can do it anymore. Hold on.
That’s the message for today. Hold on.
And here’s the good news. Even when we feel our grip slipping, there is one who is holding on to us. It’s the one who sustains us by grace.
It takes courage to hold on.
Kim and I attended Amanda’s championship swim meet this past weekend in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In swimming, you are holding on a lot. You are holding your breath, pushing against the water and trying to hold your place against the swimmer next to you. All of that work that you have done throughout the year, comes down to those final couple of races. I told Amanda that if the 200 fly seems too long, remember, it only takes a little less than two and a half minutes. Motivate yourself with the idea that it will soon be over. I get this from marathon running. I envision the finish line and stopping. If I can just hold on…Luckily there are people in the stands and on the side of the road cheering us on. They help us hold on.
Now Amanda did very well. She got her best time each time she got in the water, all nine races. I’m very proud of her. But I’m even more proud of the women on her team that did not get their best times. They worked just as hard as Amanda, but something was off. Maybe their bodies had changed. Maybe they ate something that didn’t sit well. Maybe their minds weren’t in the right place. But they kept swimming. They refused to give up. They gave it their all and did not receive the same kinds of accolades as others. That took even more courage and more grace. To face defeat and to help root someone else on, to help them bask in the glow. That’s courage and grace.
In today’s scripture lesson, Paul and Silas held on to their message against great odds. They too displayed courage and grace. Redemptive stories of resilience help me to hold on.
As the story opens, we encounter a woman who had a spirit of divination. She was a psychic, who could see the truth that people liked to hide. She had a gift for seeing the truth, but the truth did not set her free. Instead, it confounded her. She became obsessed by it. She could focus on nothing else. It was a kind of madness. Have you known people like that or have you been like that?
This woman pestered Paul and Silas. She followed them around and made awkward comments about them at the most inopportune times. She knew who Paul and Silas were and would not stop braying her little truth. She followed them for days, the scripture says. Paul and Silas ran the risk of falling victim to her ranting and ravings—being sucked into the vortex of her madness.
So, they chose to release her. Luke says that they said to the Spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ, come out.” And immediately she was cured.
Maybe it was the case that Paul and Silas told her to get some professional help, maybe some medication. But she was cured. Which made her happy. But there were others who were not so happy. In particular, her owner, who was invested in keeping the power-structure the way it was. If she was in her right mind, then there were some truths that were just too inconvenient. He might have to find work with his own skills rather than to use someone else.
Paul and Silas could have just left town, but they held on. They were about to expose a sin that hounds us even to this day. It’s the temptation of materialism. We are all drawn to it. It’s the spider web that the fashion industry, the makeup industry, the hair replacement industry, the weight-loss industry, the housing industry all use to make money. And we are drawn like flies to it. It is too often equated with Christianity, co-opting the very message of liberation.
The story goes that one who thought they could own the woman were upset with Paul and Silas. They were messing with commerce. Her healing was not good for business. God forbid that foreigners would take the jobs of natives. None of them thanked Paul and Silas for healing the woman. Instead, they were dragged in front of the City Council. See how quickly materialism begets racism which begets xenophobia which begets violence? They said, “These men are Jews, you know. They threaten everything that is moral and right for any good Roman.” That’s about all they needed to say. Add a little patriotism to the smoldering embers of racism and you have violence.
We love our scapegoats—those on whom we can throw our weight and blame for everything that is wrong with the world. Since one small faction of people who call themselves Muslim do horrendous things, then Islam must be a violent religion. Send in the drones. Do you see how easy it is to vilify an entire group of people? It feels good, which is scary. Alan Turing says in “The Imitation Game”, “Do you know why people like violence? Because it feels good.”—to the perpetrator, not the victim.
We want victims. We want scapegoats. It helps us make sense of our crazy-making world. And it helps us avoid looking at ourselves. The people of Philippi wanted a victim, and it was not the now free slave woman. No it was the foreigners. The police stripped them and the crowd beat them until they were all bloodied and busted up. Then they put them in chains and threw them in the inner-most prison where they could hopefully be forgotten. Most people didn’t come out of the inner-most prison. They could have given up and apologized, maybe called in a favor from the church. But they didn’t. They held on.
Paul and Silas were in the prison and were faced with deep despair. They had a decision to make. They could give in to what other people said about them. They could have reacted with vengeance toward their captors or their opponents in the streets. That’s probably what I would have done. They could have turned their faces to the wall and given up. Or they could hold on and in the process, use the darkness of that prison cell to look even harder for God. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
They chose to hold on and used the only medicine at their disposal. They sang. Their music echoed through the bars and the rocks of that prison. It echoed off the walls, getting stronger as the night poured in. Their prison duet was them holding on for dear life and not letting those lost in their violence and their judgmentalism have the final word. If the Gospel was real, then it could not keep them in prison. It could keep them in physical prison, but not the psychic prison.
Is there a song like that that pulls you out of your despair? Is there a tune that tells the truth and helps you hold on? If so, hum it in your mind. Bring it to memory when you are in that dark night of the soul. When forces that don’t want your best good have bound you and chained you, remember that they don’t control your mind and they certainly can’t control your spirit. Especially if you keep your hand on the Gospel plow and hold on.
Paul and Silas were singing at the midnight hour, that fulcrum when night begins to become day.
They were singing and remembering who they were.
They were remembering that a power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity.
They were remembering that Jesus was also imprisoned on trumped up charges.They remembered that each of their fellow prisoners needed hope, too.
At the midnight hour, the music that they shared with each other and with the guards and with God reminded them that their purpose was not to curse the darkness, but to witness to the power of God which is all about the morning. The power of God is more powerful than prison walls, more powerful than fear, more powerful than confusion, more powerful than isolation, more powerful than even violence. It was the music that gave them the bridge to hope. It came at the midnight hour, when they needed it most.
The story goes that the prison walls shook. Was it the singing that started the earthquake? I don’t know. But the singing reminded them of who they were and whose they were. It helped them hold on. The singing set them free.
St. Augustine said that “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”
The story does not end with Paul and Silas walking free. There is someone else that needs to be saved. The jailor. He is the embodiment of a powerless cog in the larger machine. He sees that the prison doors are open and believes he has failed in his duty. He is ready to take his own life when he hears Paul and Silas still sitting there in the rubble, still singing, maybe clinking their chains in percussion. They tell him to hold on. There is a better way. And they preach the Gospel to him and lead him and his entire family from hopelessness to faith.
Myrna and Robert Kysar said, “The Gospel is an earthquake of immeasurable magnitude. It shakes the foundations of human oppression for commercial gain, destroys the edifices of power and shame and glory, topples the social structures that enslave us, and frees us to seek salvation for which we so fervently yearn. There is a new Lord at work in the world, swinging open the doors to life and shattering the fetters by which we are bound.”
So this is the Gospel. It is the power to hold on when all the world says it is madness. Because there is a better way.
There is hope even in the deepest darkest dungeon.
When ogres and monsters crawl around us.
When slavery seems to be the only reality.
When finding a decent job is fleeting and making ends meet is a constant struggle.
When despair clouds our vision.
When it’s too dang cold for anything.
There is another reality.
And it’s telling you to hold on.
Hold on because we need you.
Hold on because your words and your presence are vital to another’s healing.
Hold on because as sure as spring is coming, there is another power afoot.
Hold on because even though you think you are alone. You never are. There are people who are around you all of the time. We even sing with you.
We remind you of the words when you have forgotten them. We are here to help each other hold on.
It’s as close as a song.
Sing it. It will help you hold on and it might help someone else hold on, too.
When tyrants tremble sick with fear and hear their death knells ringing
When Friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile our thoughts to them are clinging.
When Friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes the cloud grows thin I see the blue above it.
And day by day its pathway clears since first I learned to love it.
The peace of God restores my soul, a fountain ever-springing
All things are mine since I am loved, how can I keep from singing.
Hold on, friends. Hold on.