Now You Are Free

A message given Sunday, May 20, 2007
by Rev. Scott Summerville
Asbury United Methodist Church

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Those words were penned by Emma Lazarus in 1883 in anticipation of the arrival from France of the Statue of Liberty – those words now fixed upon the pedestal of that statue.


On the cover of your bulletins this morning there is a photograph of a group of people at a demonstration. I don’t know where this was taken. When I look at this picture I see the old familiar words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But there is a tension here. The words of a lovely sentimental poem placed upon a placard of someone marching in a political demonstration are no longer simply the words of a sentimental poem. The words become a statement, a declaration, a challenge.
I am thinking today about old words, familiar old words, and how sometimes they come alive in the present in powerful ways. As we look at this photograph on the bulletin cover and read these words, we are taken directly into the vortex of the social conflict and the political struggle going on over immigration.

People will look at this picture and have entirely different reactions. How we see things has a great deal to do with where we are coming from. That is supremely true of the issue of immigration.

When we hear the words, immigration…. immigrant… illegal immigrant… immigration reform… Green Card… border…. fence…. amnesty…. guest worker….. our emotional reactions will be deeply shaped by where we have come from. At the most primal level, for some of us the words apply to them – to the other; for some of us the words apply to me.

There is the old joke about the pig and the chicken going to the ham and eggs breakfast. The pig says to the chicken, “For you, this is a donation; for me this is a real sacrifice.” For some the issue of immigration is a cause; for some it is a fear; for some it is about their very identity as a person. As a nation we are struggling to come to terms with this issue beyond the “them and us” mind set. It is a tough issue.

We have deep national traditions of gathering in people from afar, people longing for opportunity and freedom. This nation has been historically a sanctuary for the persecuted, a place where in theory there is no barrier to one’s possibilities other than one’s own inner limitations.Now among us are millions of people who have come across the borders of the United States illegally, not to steal or to terrorize, but most often to do those things which more affluent people wish not to do for themselves.

Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.” By and large, the great majority of illegal immigrants are present among us as those who serve. We should all support efforts to bring this issue out of the closet and address it in a way that is true to our national traditions, true to our ideals, and respectful of law.

I hope that the national legislation unveiled during the past week will lead to fair and hospitable treatment of those millions of human beings who live and work among us and whose status is now: illegal. I present this photograph as a conversation piece. This is a time to talk and examine our hopes and fears, and to work for the just treatment of all persons. As I said I am focused this morning on old words and how they sometimes come alive in the present.
If you spend much time in church, you will get used to hearing the words of the Bible. On a typical Sunday you will hear the reading of two or three passages of Scripture. In the hymns that are sung and the prayers that are spoken you will hear other words and phrases taken from the pages of the Bible. You may also encounter the words of the Bible in your own personal devotions or in Bible study with other members of the church. The preacher hopes every Sunday that his or her preaching will bring to life some part of the Scripture for the congregation, so that the word that is read becomes the word that is experienced as a new word, as a word for this moment in time.

There are times when life itself makes the Scripture real to us in new ways.

In the 1950’s , 60’s and 70’s in this nation it was African-American preachers who were leading their people and the nation out of the evil legacy of slavery and segregation into an era of equality. Many of these were people of extraordinary talent and courage, but more than their personal qualities of leadership, they helped their listeners rediscover the power of the Scripture to come alive in a transforming way in the present.

So when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. achieved the peak of his spiritual power and moral leadership, it was when he reached back into the Exodus story of the Hebrew people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, their long bitter sojourn in the desert, and their arrival at the Jordan River and the promised land. When he said, “ I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the promised land, and I may not get there with you, but I have seen the promised land,” he was speaking directly out of the pages of Torah, of the Bible, of the book of Deuteronomy. He was seeing with the eyes of Moses from atop Mount Pisgah, to the other side of the Jordan River. He was seeing the promised land to which he had brought his people, a land he would never set foot upon. He was taking an ancient passage of the Bible, an ancient story of people long dead, and making it come alive in a moment of liberation for the people of his own time.

The reading today from the Book of Acts is a fascinating story.

This Sunday we hear these words form the Book of Acts:

16:25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.
16:26 Suddenly 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.
16:27 When 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.
16:28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
16:29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.
16:30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
16:31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
16:32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.

It is lively; it has a comic book action quality to it. The Book of Acts was written by the same author as the gospel of Luke. He is a great storyteller. In the story in Chapter 16, Paul is in the city of Philippi, in the Roman district of Macedonia. He is traveling with Silas, and together they are preaching and teaching and building up the church. In Philippi they come upon some men who are Roman citizens and who own a slave girl. It was perfectly socially acceptable in that time for people to own slaves, and it was easy to end up as a slave. If your city was defeated in war, you either get killed on the spot or sold as a slave. It could happen to anybody. And if you were born of a slave, you remained a slave. Once you were a slave, you had no rights whatsoever. Men could purchase slaves to do any sort of work for them. They could also purchase slaves simply because they found them physically attractive and intended to use them for sexual gratification. A perfectly legal, socially acceptable thing to do.

In the case of the slave girl in Acts 16, the girl is being exploited; her masters are making large sums of money with her, because she speaks in a strange prophetic way; people believe she can see into their futures. Imagine what people would pay to hear such a person. According to the understanding of the day, it was not the young woman who was speaking but a spirit within her, a spirit that was possessing her. In that sense her owners were not only exploiting her; they were exploiting her affliction. Her whole existence has been turned into a sideshow for their financial profit.

When Paul encounters this girl, he is concerned about he – the person she is – and speaking to her, he sets her free of this possessing spirit, which relieves her soul, but which means a major loss of money for her masters. Her masters could see that the Christians were dangerous to their way of life, their accepted customs, and their profits. The bottom line was that these Christians were hurting them in the pocketbook, so the masters of the slave girl arranged to have Paul and Silas thrown into jail.

The second part of the story deals with the miraculous way in which Paul and Silas, while praying to God in the night, have their chains broken off as the doors of the prisons are flung open as an earthquake engulfs the scene. When the dust settles, Paul gives a sermon. It’s a lively story. It is a story about social injustice, economic exploitation, the conflict between human rights and human greed, as well a story about the power of faith and prayer.

This particular story took on an entirely new and deeply personal meaning for me five years ago. It is one of those stories of the Bible that I had heard many times, but which suddenly and vividly came to have a direct meaning in my life. I’ll tell you why:

When she graduated from college in 2001, our daughter went to New Orleans and was a fifth-grade teacher in one of the wards on New Orleans that was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. One of the tragedies of New Orleans has been that historically the institutions of the city have been so permeated with corruption that they have not functioned for the benefit of the people, and as always, the poor suffer the most. The school system was part of the rot, part of the corruption. In a series of events, whose origins were never explained, scores of teachers in the New Orleans school system found themselves facing charges – baseless charges – that threatened their jobs and their reputations. This happened to our daughter. She was later fully vindicated – fully exonerated – and restored to her position; but for half a year she was tormented, and so were we along with her.

The details of the story are far too complex to elaborate here, but there was one detail of the story that I want to share with you, because it has to do with Chapter 16 of the Book of Acts.

During the time in which our daughter was tormented by unknown, unseen people in the bowels of the New Orleans school bureaucracy, she got a lot of advice. Fortunately she got good legal advice. She got good advice from the staff of Teach for America for whom she worked. She got all kinds of daily advice from her parents and advice from colleagues and friends.

One afternoon after the children had left the building, after most of the teachers had gone home for the day, she was in her classroom, when the door opened. The teacher in the class next to hers entered. She was a woman who had taught in that school for many years. She was African-American. She had been very open with our daughter about her Christian convictions. She knew that this young, white girl from New York was down here in the middle of New Orleans, in way over her head, struggling to keep order and teach these children, and now she was in real trouble, caught in the mysterious machinations of some evil institutional power struggle she could scarcely comprehend. But this woman had not come to give advice. She had come to declare a word of faith and power. The first two words she spoke to our daughter were, ‘Paul and Silas!”

How many of us would greet a friend in crisis with the words, “Paul and Silas?” Not many– but those were the words she spoke: “Paul and Silas, Paul and Silas…. Now you are free! You are in prison, and now you are free!” Those were the words she spoke.

This was not like anything else anyone said to my daughter in all those agonizing months. It was not a word of advice. It did not offer her any specific path to resolve the dreadful situation she was in. It was a spiritual message, a message spoken from above and beyond the dynamics of the moment. It was a message of spiritual liberation. The message was not, “Too bad, so sad, how terrible; why don’t you do X? Why don’t you do Y? Maybe you should get out of town.” It was a message so unusual that it did not fit into the customary categories of life for a young college graduate from an affluent background, from a liberal church. All around her was advice on how to resolve a problem. From this woman came a word out of the blue: now you are free .

This episode and this encounter with this older teacher changed forever the way I hear the words of the story of Paul and Silas. Paul and Silas get chucked into prison, because they chucked out the evil spirit from the slave girl and made her masters angry. Paul and Silas were beaten before they were put into jail; they were humiliated; they were stripped of their clothes and beaten and put in jail. And they were free. “Paul and Silas, Paul and Silas; now you are free.” Sometimes the word of God comes to us in ways we are not looking for. Sometimes we want reassurance that everything will be the same; that justice will prevail; that the germs will be defeated; that everything will be okay.

But sometimes the word of God comes cutting through everything else; the future and the past are swept away; there is no agonizing about what has been; and there is no agonizing about what is to come; the message in the moment is simply: “Whatever has been, whatever may come; in this moment, by the grace of God, you are free.” “Paul and Silas, Paul and Silas – you are free.”

Whatever has been, whatever may come; in this moment, by the grace of God, you are free.

So be it.
Grace and peace to you.

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