"Repurposed Doors" Acts 16:11-40
Last Sunday I had the delight of bumping into Roland Stock in the stairwell. In his affirming way, he told me that he noticed I was going to be preaching the following week and that he hoped he’d be present. Still struggling to decide what to do with the text at that point, I shook my head and said, “Roland, this one’s different. I have to show that I went to seminary. I have to deal with the bible.” He smiled and said, “Okay, but just do a little bit of the seminary.”
I appreciated this encounter because it freed me to let go of this need to “make the grade” with my biblical exegesis, even though I feel strongly that it was crucial to my sermon prep. I feel gratitude for this educational experience and honor my teachers who held candles in the dark places I roamed. This is the first sermon I’m preaching that is dictated by the lectionary, which lays out a seasonal cycle of scriptures, used across Christian denominations. In the past, I have preached within themes that felt safe. But my goal as a seminarian has been to become an empowered reader of the bible, in order to move out of a harmful place and into a helpful one in relationship to this text.
Recently two of my greatest teachers in life demonstrated for me the balance that I am seeking to deliver in my message today. A couple of weeks ago, as we were leaving a church meeting, my kids and I walked into the parking lot, noticing the nearly full moon. Kai and Phoenix noticed the bright star next to the moon, and I nonchalantly said, “Yeah, that’s probably Venus.” To my surprise, my children gasped! “Venus!?” I had not realized that they did not know that it was possible to view other planets from earth. When we got home, we did some research (AKA downloaded the Star Chart app) and discovered that we were actually looking at Jupiter. I have never seen my children so taken with wonder and delight as they were that evening. They could barely contain themselves, and at one point Phoenix just stopped and said, “This is the best, best day of my life. My life starts again today!”
WOW! So my hope for this sermon is for knowledge to make space for wonder. Perhaps we can do some critical reading of the text that opens a space for us to bring our questions and experience renewal. The scripture reading is lengthy. The lectionary only includes the story of Lydia’s conversion, but as I began to research, I realized that I couldn’t tell Lydia’s story without telling that of the “slave girl” in the next account. And then as I began to engage in literary analysis of the chapter, I realized that the jailer’s account could not be left out, as it is pretty much the climax of the Philippi narrative this chapter offers. We can’t separate these stories from one another because it is their relationship to one another that shows us where to look.
First, this is a story that is set within empire. Setting the stage with great accuracy, the author charts the apostles’ journey to Philippi, a Roman colony and chief city of the Macedonian district. In other words, they are in the heart of the Roman Empire. This highlight of imperial power as the backdrop for the apostles’ mission is not to be taken lightly. This is also the beginning of the “we narratives” in Acts. However, they are understood, the “we” pronoun brings in a different perspective, that of an eyewitness, that draws the reader in in a different way (Wall 751). The question of how the gospel message is relating to the imperial power, then, is a main focus of readership within Acts 16 (Johnson 291).
Now, it’s important unpack what I mean when I say “empire.” Clearly we all live within some definition of “empire,” and our relationship with it is complex, to say the least. Beyond specifically addressing the Roman Empire in this text, I extend the label to mean anything apart from the Divine that seeks to have sovereign reign over our lives. When Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” he was making a point that this is an impossible choice, because really, both require everything. The question of our relationship to empire, then, is getting at the heart of who or what we are living for, where our desires are anchored, how we assign value, and whose voice matters.
Second, there are two explicit conversion experiences within this chapter, those of Lydia and the jailer (Barreto). In both we see the movement of Spirit – opening Lydia’s heart (16:14) and the wondrous earthquake that released the captives held in the highest security within the jail (16:26). In both accounts, the converts responded favorably. They both, along with their entire households, were baptized. Finally, they both opened the doors of their homes and hosted the apostles and broke bread with them. All of these details are characteristic of conversion experiences in Acts. Thus, these two accounts significantly parallel one another.
By the way, the role of hosting and eating in Acts is huge. There is a good deal of evidence that points to the authorship of Luke and Acts being one in the same. Whole books have been written on meals in Luke and Acts. From Luke, we know how and with whom Jesus ate. In Acts, the post-Ascension community continues in meal sharing in ways that demonstrate a growing number being added to the table, a table that also symbolized barriers being broken down between communities – like Jews and Gentiles. The tables in Luke and Acts are symbolic of radical hospitality. There is no table in the story of the slave girl. The comparisons do not end here, however. If we are to take into account how empire relates to the story, we must also consider that both Lydia and the jailer were heads of households, so both were people of means. Their source of income was directly tied to empire. The reference to Lydia being a “worshipper of God” is used in reference to both “proselytes,” or Jewish sympathizers (13:43) and to “women of high standing” (13:50) (Matthews 1950). We also know that Lydia was a dealer of purple cloth, which connects her status to the imperial elite (Aymer 543). The jailer, of course, works in line with imperial authority as a means of livelihood, though we do not know the details of his position.
These two characters live off of the empire, probably in a complex way, and there is no indication that these livelihoods were changed as a result of their conversion experiences. Indeed, the comparison of Lydia and the jailer create contrast for the story of the slave girl. In fact, I suggest that parallels between these accounts highlight the significance of the “outlier” in the chapter, which is her story. I suggest that she is the brightest star in the sky. Our job is to read critically and to wonder. So who was she? We know she was among the least in the empire, a slave girl. But she had a gift. There could be a whole sermon dedicated to dissecting the gift alone, but we’ll stick with what we know. The text literally demonizes her gift, because Paul responds to her in exorcism language. This bothers me quite a bit. I have friends that have accompanied me on my spiritual journey that have seen the deepest parts of me, have walked with me in places the church could not, and have spoken Love and Light into my life. And these people do not identify as Christian. In fact, the church has historically demonized their categories and shut them out. But they have invited me in and offered me guidance, and I honor their ways of knowing.
So, what would happen if we moved away from demonizing the slave girl and reclaimed her as “truth-teller” –an accurate identity? Let’s start by naming her, because we can’t value something we can’t name. In leaving her nameless, we dismiss her agency. So I propose we name her “Aleta”, a Greek name meaning “truthful one.” Welcome, Aleta. One of the biggest questions about this passage, for me, was the significance of Aleta labeling Paul and his crew “slaves” of the Most High God. Why did she call them slaves? What was it that she, a slave herself, recognized in their actions, their way of being? What was she rubbing up against here? And notice the position of the bodies – She’s following them and they are walking ahead, backs turned to her – FOR DAYS! Why were they walking away from her? Was she not one of the ones they had come to share the gospel message with? Was she not worthy of their attention? Juxtaposed to Lydia and the jailer, why was Aleta of seemingly lesser value? And what do we make of her actions? I’m thinking that someone who spends the energy to follow a crew around for days, calling out behind them, is really saying, “Look at me. Listen to me. I want to be seen. I want to be heard.” Perhaps even, “I know who you are.”
And finally, unlike the accounts of the Lydia and the jailer, there’s no indication of Spirit’s moving here. In fact the text clearly indicates that Paul acts out of annoyance toward Aleta. He turns and silences her gift, silences her – slams the proverbial door in her face. And that is the end of all that we know of her…. Even her owners make no mention of her in their accusations of Paul and Silas to the authorities. Instead, they appeal to fear and prejudice. Her story is used by this narrative as a literary springboard for moving toward what the author would have us see as the climax – the imprisonment of the apostles, and their miraculous release, where once again they seem to be subverting empire. But I’m not ready to leave her.
We might be tempted to say, “Wait, it says the spirit left her!” It must have been a demon, and Paul’s response must have been the work of the Spirit. My question here is “Can the church silence voices without it being ‘of the Spirit’?” Let’s ask our LGBT brothers and sisters, Palestinian voices calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israeli occupation, Survivors of Sexual Abuse, those with Psychological Diagnoses, or maybe let’s start with women and children! The church, like Paul, has embodied the empire it claims to be subverting.
But here’s the thing – In this congregation, I recognize that I’m preaching to the choir on these issues. Not to say we don’t have room to learn and grow. But I am truly and deeply proud of this congregation in the most loving sense of the word. At the same time, does it profit us to simply read a text and pat ourselves on the back? Can Aleta challenge us as well? If we have power and access, what is required of us? Is it possible to critically examine how we image a “slave girl” given our own nation’s history of slavery, and how it’s all too likely that her story could be glazed over in predominantly white spaces? Can she draw our hearts to women of color whose stories are cut short, whose voices are silenced, and who can easily remain nameless to us?
Returning to the symbolic importance of tables, what if we examine our tables here within the walls of CMCL? What about the tables we gather around monthly to hold committee meetings, to discern vision, and to do the work of the church? Who sits at these tables? How are people being heard or silenced in these contexts? As the amazing individuals on our hiring committee discern who will be the next leader of children and youth, are we inviting voices of youth to be present at that table? They are wondering this….
Let’s move deeper to the tables of our hearts and what we choose to host or turn away. Many of you are probably familiar with the Rumi poem “The Guest House.” It reads,
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes As an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still treat each guest honorably. [S]he may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
What does Aleta have to teach us about the truths we turn our back on every day? The ones that come dressed in annoyance, rubbing us the wrong way. Do we take time to turn and look and listen, or do we turn and silence them? I mean the things other people say or do that hook us in seemingly negative ways. Perhaps like Aleta’s referencing Paul and company as “slaves.” The things that cause us to react to something in ourselves that scares us, making us want to slam the door and keep it shut out. Does anyone else struggle with this the way I do?
There is a type of prayer known as The Welcoming Prayer. The Welcoming Prayer is a spiritual practice of sitting with these difficult things that we notice hooking us - loneliness, bitterness, pain, fears, anger, the self doubts and insecurities, anxiety…. The Welcoming Prayer teaches us to practice turning in love to these voices, and welcoming them to sit with us. Why in the world would we want to do this? Because love turns toward and not away, and this practice moves us toward freedom over time by uncovering our deep desires hidden beneath the visceral responses…deeper truths. These desires are waiting to be noticed, like planets shining in the dark night sky. And cultivating them may be the key to our freedom.
This past week I was challenged to host one of my deepest and pain-filled fears at the table of my heart. There we had an honest conversation. I told my fear that it did not define me; sitting at the table did. Its power was leveled in this space of radical hospitality. It may return again, but I will continue to practice. Because, in the words of Prince, “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
The Welcoming Prayer lays the doors of empire – the ones that say who is in and who is out – on their sides, transforming them into tables. Here we partake of the bread of life and the sweet juice of communion. The elements are shared by all who eat, and, both literally and symbolically, unify what is inside each of us! Empire dictates who should eat with whom, how hierarchy should be maintained, and who is included or excluded from the table. But this new communion table has been constructed from a door. It represents the challenge to undo hierarchy, and the hope that barriers will continue to be broken so that more will be gathered in love. It’s a reminder for us of the way that Jesus ate as a challenge to empire. I heard a quote recently that said, “Jesus was killed for the way he ate.” I think there’s some truth to that.
This table is an invitation to welcome every one and every part of ourselves. There’s nothing more subversive, is there? When I began attending CMCL, I struggled to come to the table. But I was invited. And the pieces of me that I felt deemed me most unworthy for participation in church were the ones that were called out as gifts. May you continue in the deep and hard work of love, dear CMCL community. May every door become a table, so that every table may offer access to deeper love, awareness, and freedom. This subverts empire. This is a response to Divine Wisdom and Jesus’ example. Do this for the sake of your hearts, for the sake of community, and for the sake of the world. Let it be so.
Aymer, Margaret. “Acts of the Apostles.” Women’s Bible Commentary. Eds. Carol A. Newman, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012. Print.
Barreto, Eric. “Commentary on Acts 16:16-34.” Luther Seminary, May 2010. Web. 17 Apr. 2016. Johnson, Luke Timothy. Acts of the Apostles. Ed. Daniel J. Harrington. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical: 1991. Print. Sacra Pagina.
Matthews, Christopher R. “The Acts of the Apostles.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version: With the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible. Fully Rev. 4th ed. Oxford. Print. Organisasi.org. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.
Squires, John T. “Acts.” Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Ed. James D. G. Dunn and J. W. Rogerson. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003. 1256. Print.
Wall, Robert T. “Acts.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander. E. Keck. Vol. X. Nashville: Abingdon, 2002. 751. Print.