by the Rev. Dr. Rhonda M. Lee
I am going to tell y’all about two types of organizations to which I have made gifts, and then— eventually—I’m going to relate those gifts to the Scripture for today. So please, stay with me.
Last year, I donated to a fundraiser to establish an online platform owned, operated, and controlled by sex workers, to allow them to advertise their own services, rather than rely on a company whose interests might be in conflict with those of the workers.
And over the last several years, I have donated to funds that help pay for abortions for people who want and need those services but can’t afford them, or who live in a place where abortion is illegal or hard to obtain, and need financial help to travel. I plan to continue to make these donations as long as I have the discretionary income to do so.
(In case anyone is wondering, I have also contributed to diaper banks and baby formula banks, for parents who need such assistance.)
I thought of those gifts last week, when I read again the story of the enslaved girl who annoys Paul.
The evangelist Luke—who wrote the book of Acts—tells us this girl had “a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.” Her only fault—and here I am using the word loosely—is that she opened her mouth for the spirit of divination to tell the truth through her, and the spirit told that truth repeatedly. The way Luke tells the story, the girl followed Paul and his companions around, crying out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” All true. But whether it was her voice, her persistence, or the fact that truth-telling spirits weirded him out—whatever his reason, Paul turns on the girl, “very much annoyed,” as Luke writes. Paul commands the spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ, to come out of her, and it does.
That’s the last word the Bible has to say on that young girl.
We hear about her owners: they have Paul and Silas arrested for damaging their property. That’s not the official charge, but that’s what they’re angry about, because as Luke says, they “saw that their hope of making money was gone.”
We hear quite a bit about Paul and Silas, how they were stripped, flogged, and thrown into prison, immobilized in the stocks.
We hear how they’re freed by a miraculous earthquake.
We hear about how they prevent their jailer from killing himself for, as he thinks, shirking his duty. Paul and Silas call out to him compassionately, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” Not wanting him to come to any harm, whether self-inflicted or not, Paul and Silas had stuck around the prison even after the doors were flung open and their chains loosed.
We hear how the guard was so moved by this inconceivable turn of events that he gets baptized along with his entire family, joining the Way of Jesus.
I’m glad Paul and Silas intervened to save their jailer’s life. What happens next for every person considering suicide should be that there is a caring community saying “Do not harm yourself.” Do not harm yourself, for we are with you.
But although we learn more about the enslaved girl’s owners, about Paul and Silas, and about their jailer, neither in this passage, nor anywhere else in the Book of Acts, do we hear what happened next to the enslaved girl who has lost the one thing that made her uniquely valuable in the marketplace of that time.
No longer valuable to her owners, the girl becomes even more vulnerable than she already was. She’s young; she has no family; she may be a foreigner, sold far away from her original home. Her most likely fate, at this point, is probably to be sold into a life of sexual slavery, with no say at all over her time or her body.
If there is a less-protected character in the entire biblical library, I can’t think of one. Even the infant Jesus had Mary and Joseph to snatch him up and carry him into Egypt when Herod threatened.
By now, you have probably figured out that I’m angry with Paul for letting his annoyance get the better of him. Even if we acknowledge that having spirits cast out of one is generally a good thing, not a single soul in this story checks on the girl, afterwards, to see how she’s doing. No one offers to walk her safely to the home of Lydia the cloth dealer, whom we met in last week’s passage from Acts, where maybe she could find a bed, and learn how to dye fabric the rich shades for which wealthy people will pay dearly.
As far as we know, no one—no disciple of Jesus Christ—asks what’s next for the girl who has supposedly been freed. No one asks how she’s supposed to get along now.
If I read about this girl in the newspaper, instead of the Bible, I would pray for her. I might even be moved to see if there were some material way I could assist her—beyond prayer.
In fact, I do read about this girl, or hear about her, in the news. At least, I’ve heard about her modern-day siblings in reports of human trafficking.
And I know, not this girl, exactly, but plenty of people who can identify with her, who make a variety of decisions as best they can under a variety of conditions that range from less-than optimal to utterly desperate. I identify with her myself. Our stories don’t make the news, as we move on from particular crossroads in our lives—and many of us would thank God for that,
because we don’t want our business to be all over the news. But our stories are real, whether our crises happened decades ago or just this morning, and God knows these stories, and God loves us.
The examples I used at the start of this sermon, of certain financial gifts I have made, are rooted in my conviction that Christians need to wonder what might happen next to our vulnerable friends and neighbors, and help—as we can—to create conditions for the best possible outcome.
The less control sex workers have over their labor conditions, the more likely it is that serious harm will come to them. The more likely it is that they will turn to someone else for what is sometimes called protection, but is better named exploitation, exploitation grounded in violence.
And regarding abortion funds, if someone has decided they cannot see a pregnancy through, I trust they are better equipped to make that decision than I am. In my view, the ability to make such a decision should not be reserved for people of means.
Although the story of Paul’s annoyance with the enslaved girl has always bothered me, last week it fed into a stew of rage bubbling inside me. Last week, I know I was not alone in wondering, “What happens next?” although you or I may not have phrased the question quite so calmly, or in a manner so free of profanity. Because, hearing the news of yet another mass murder of children, ten days after yet another mass murder of African Americans, a day before the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, at a time when already-high suicide rates are climbing, you and I are angry, we are devastated, we are far beyond frustrated with a culture, a politics, an economy that are so deeply soaked in blood, that are fed by human sacrifice extracted by firearms. You and I sit horrified before the fact that guns are currently the leading cause of death for American children, having pulled ahead of motor vehicle accidents.
So what are you and I supposed to do now?
I know St. Luke’s cares what happens next to people caught in hard situations. You join circles of support for recently-released prisoners. You furnish dwellings for newly-arrived refugees, and drive these new neighbors all over town to help them get settled. You buy groceries for neighbors whose food stamps don’t stretch to the end of the month. You make lemonade and cookies for mourners to share after funerals. You support each other through addiction and recovery. And you pray.
I saw a lot of posts on social media this week saying God doesn’t want our “thoughts and prayers”; what we really need is political action. I hear in those comments a disgust with hypocrisy, a revulsion toward politicians like Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, who has prayed for the victims of six mass shootings in his state in seven and a half years, and who just last year signed no fewer than seven laws to make it easier to get guns.
But I can never abandon prayer, because it is the foundation of my life. And as a priest, I will never say that prayer is ineffectual or that you or anyone should give up on it. Through prayer, I realize the various ways I need to repent, I receive infusions of strength to live with as much integrity as I can, and I’m also reminded that I need to act to help reveal compassion, justice, and hope in the world. Those actions, when I do them in the name of Jesus Christ, are also a prayer.
So, friends, what can you and I do now? First, what we are doing this very minute: we need to keep praying and worshiping God, and listening for divine guidance together.
We can talk with each other and with our neighbors; share our rage and our sorrow, and find the places where they overlap.
And at the intersections of our common rage and sorrow, I think we will find hope. Why? Because if enough of us are angry and grieving about the same things, we will find ways to come together to change them.
No coalition of people will agree on everything; to return to one example with which I opened this sermon, I am happy to work for child- and parent-friendly public policies with people who disagree with me about abortion.
Coalitions like North Carolinians Against Gun Violence and the Poor People’s Campaign are rallying people like you and me to work peacefully for changes we can agree on; changes that will make you, me, our children, and our communities safer, changes that will help us all thrive. Organizations like Democracy North Carolina are working to ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to vote—whatever their political preference—so that our elected officials will better represent their fellow citizens.
What happens next? Let’s talk about it; let’s pray about it; let’s find steps to take together. And as we do, Jesus will walk with us and guide us.