Sermon: A Surprising Liberation

“A Surprising Liberation”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
June 2, 2019

Psalm 143
Hear my prayer, O Lord;
   give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness;
   answer me in your righteousness. 
Do not enter into judgement with your servant,
   for no one living is righteous before you. 
For the enemy has pursued me,
   crushing my life to the ground,
   making me sit in darkness like those long dead. 
Therefore my spirit faints within me;
   my heart within me is appalled. 
I remember the days of old,
   I think about all your deeds,
   I meditate on the works of your hands. 
I stretch out my hands to you;
   my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
Answer me quickly, O Lord;
   my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me,
   or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit. 
Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning,
   for in you I put my trust.
Teach me the way I should go,
   for to you I lift up my soul. 
Save me, O Lord, from my enemies;
   I have fled to you for refuge. 
Teach me to do your will,
   for you are my God.
Let your good spirit lead me
   on a level path. For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life.
   In your righteousness bring me out of trouble. 
In your steadfast love cut off my enemies,
   and destroy all my adversaries,
   for I am your servant.

Acts 16:16-34
One 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. While 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.’ She 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.

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

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 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. 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. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.He 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.

Paul and Silas, stuck in jail, singing hymns of praise to God. What a beautiful portrait of an unshakable joy in God, no matter the circumstances. And what a beautiful witness to the power of song, a power we particularly celebrate today.

These two singing missionaries are in prison on charges of disturbing the city of Philippi with their preaching. Philippi was a city in northeast Greece, at the time under rule of the Roman empire. Their cultural context helps explain an otherwise baffling part of this morning’s scripture passage: the jailer’s attempted suicide.

You see, the jailer is a Roman, a citizen of a culture built around honor and shame. For him, doing a good job is the same as being a good person, and failing at his job means he has failed as a person.

So when an earthquake rocks the jail, busting open the cells, the jailer assumes  the prisoners have all escaped – that he has failed at his post and therefore become a failure himself. The only acceptable thing to make up for his failure, from an honor-shame point of view, is to take his own life.

If we haven’t grown up or lived in an honor-shame culture, this sounds so extreme. It’s difficult for us to imagine the impulse not just to end our job when we fail, but to end it all.

But I think we can all relate to the jailer’s feeling of shame: that when we mess up, it’s not just that what we did was bad, but that we are bad. Whether it’s others’ disapproval or our own internal critic, we all have known feelings of worthlessness, of having botched something important, of not being good enough for a particular position or not being good enough for a particular person.

So perhaps we can also relate to the jailer’s reaction when his sentence, so to speak, is lifted. He has pulled out his sword and is just about to do the deed when Paul calls out to him that all the prisoners are still there; none have escaped. He has not failed after all; his life is spared.

The effect of this sudden reprieve is enormous. In the blink of an eye he goes from impending death to a new chance at life, from worthlessness to value. He has been literally saved from death.

Which makes it a bit ironic that he then asks Paul & Silas what he must do to be saved. He has already been saved from death, so what could he possibly be delivered from now?

Perhaps it’s the cult of honor and shame holding him hostage just as surely as the stocks and chains held his prisoners.

We may not live in a classic honor/shame culture, but we do live in a culture that takes every opportunity to tell us what we’re worth (or not) – through advertisements that remind us we aren’t fit enough, rich enough, or young enough; through social media that reminds us our lives aren’t nearly as beautiful as other people’s appear to be; and through workplaces that define our value by how many hours we work, how much we produce, or how available we are, even on vacation.

The problem, whether it’s personal shame we feel at our private shortcomings or general shame at not measuring up to mirage-like social standards, is that it is all too easy for us to place our worth in the wrong things. Like Paul and Silas’ jailer, we can become so used to a distorted view of what makes us valuable that we end up on the brink of causing real damage to ourselves.

If that’s the problem, you may ask, then what’s the answer? Paul and Silas have it: “Trust in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Put your worth where it’s always been – as a unique and beloved child of the living God – and there you will find deliverance, redemption, healing, restoration, liberation.

Jesus has always been in this business of removing shame, restoring people’s sense worth to them, reminding them whose they are and how inestimably valuable they are. Think of him eating at table with tax collectors whose actions surely earned them the scorn of their fellow Judeans. Think of him stopping the stoning of a woman charged with adultery, sentenced to die for overstepping prescribed social boundaries. Think of him touching and talking with those struggling with leprosy, hemorrhaging, disability, or mental health issues, providing vital affirmation to people declared unclean and unfit by the mores of the day.

I wonder where we might need be invited to shed our shame and reclaim our own worth today – where we might need to be saved by a Jesus who could care less what others think of us, who has no regard for whether we can produce or please others or keep up, a Jesus for whom even our own imprisoning opinions of ourselves are no obstacle to lovingly embracing us.

Maybe we need Jesus to rescue us from the cutting things we whisper to ourselves when we look at the mirror in the morning. Maybe we need Jesus to deliver us from desperately seeking the approval of a parent or a partner who just cannot give it. Maybe we need Jesus to liberate us from equating how hard we work or how well we can provide with our worth as humans. Maybe we need Jesus to free us from the fear that we will forever be defined by a difference in our ability or physique, by our sexual orientation, by our accent, by our cultural or racial background.  Maybe we need Jesus to whisper gently to us that the sexual abuse we suffered as a child or the assault we suffered as an adult does not make us any less deserving of wholeness and love. Maybe we need Jesus to release us from the suffocating shame of a mistake we made years ago.

During a disagreement with a friend awhile back, this friend sent me an email that incensed me. I don’t even remember now what was in it, but I remember that my righteous indignation about it kept me up at night, fuming, to the point that I finally decided to write a blistering reply so I could stop going over it in my head and get some sleep.

If you have ever heard the advice that it’s a bad idea to send heated emails at 2am, let me just affirm for you that that is good advice.

I did not follow this advice, and instantly regretted not following it as soon as I hit send. I was then up the rest of the night, first trying to look up whether you can recall an unread email (nope), then hastily writing and sending an apology email, then worried sick about the effect my words would have on the other person.

I waited, nauseous with anxiety, to hear back. When the reply finally came, my friend did something totally unexpected: my friend asked me to meet for dinner.

Well, I thought, at least I got a reply, that’s a good sign. But I had to wait a few days for our dinner date and of course it was torture. When I finally pulled into the parking lot at the restaurant, my body was vibrating with dis-ease: from the guilt of having said unkind things, but also from the shame of being the kind of person who would write such things and send them. That was never the kind of person I expected to be; I would have liked to have thought, and still would like to think, that I am better and kinder than that.   

I found my friend waiting for me in a quiet corner booth. Before I even sat down, I said, “I wrote some really unforgivable things and I’m so sorry. I understand if you want to end our friendship.”

That’s when my friend surprised me: “Oh, I don’t want to end it,” my friend said. “I mean yes, what you said hurt, and yes, I want to talk about it. But I know you are human and I know we all do and say things we wish we could take back.”

I was floored, to say the least. I had spent the last few days already sentenced, in my mind, to a vicious excoriation followed by friendship excommunication. But my friend surprised me with a grace I felt I in no way deserved. And in doing so, my friend gave me back myself.

What a shock it must also have been for the jailer, to discover that his prisoners, though nothing stood in the way of their escape, had voluntarily stayed in an open jail to prevent him from killing himself. What a reprieve it must have felt like, what a liberation!

And what a risk it was for Paul and Silas to stay put – trusting that sacrificing their own physical freedom would save their jailer instead of encouraging him to double down on their imprisonment.

Christians often talk about Jesus dying on the cross as a way to pay for our sins – to save us from the eternal punishment we deserve for all our wrongdoing. But I wonder whether his death on the cross – a death used by the Romans as a tool for public humiliation and decried by Jewish law as cursed and deeply shameful – might have served a different purpose.

Like Paul and Silas staying put in their prison cells to shock their jailer out of ending his own life, maybe Jesus’ crucifixion was in part meant to shock his followers out of believing that their worth was defined by what the world thought of them, or even what they thought of themselves. Maybe the deep risk he took, his enormous self-sacrifice, was in order to communicate that the very worst can happen to us – or, like Peter who denied Jesus, like the email I wrote to my friend, that we can do the very worst – and it will not be the end, it will not be the final word on who we are.

Watching the divine Jesus undergo the ultimate shame of death on a cross and yet live, we come to understand that shame is a human construction, on the other side of which is freedom. The ground shifts beneath our feet, and we are liberated as certainly as Paul, Silas, and their jailer were liberated by the earthquake that toppled the prison walls.

My friend’s forgiveness helped me recognize the feeling of liberation from shame, but later, for a whole host of reasons, our friendship ended. Ultimately, I wasn’t enough for that person.

That is life: sometimes we don’t get the long-delayed validation from the person we want to please. Sometimes we aren’t forgiven by the person we’ve harmed; sometimes the voice in our head remains stubbornly critical of our flaws no matter how hard we try to make it kind.

That’s when it’s hardest – but also most important – to be liberated from the imprisonment of shame. That’s when we need the assurance from a loving Messiah that we are enough, that we are good, that we are loved – yes, loved to the point of shameful death on a cross to free us from the prisons we’ve built for ourselves.

Because when we can learn to embrace that assurance, my friends – to trust in the Jesus who extends it so extravagantly to us – we will find that we are more than enough. Amen.