Tension Harnessed

I want to begin with some questions, which as this unfolds you may be left initially bemused by. But stay with me and I trust all will become clear.

  • Are you a rule keeper or a rule breaker?
  • Do you value time honored traditions and rely on them as a guide in new situations, or do you recognize that new situations might need completely new responses?
  • Are you and extravert or are you an introvert?

The answer to these questions will indicate your likely approach to the tension created when tradition meets new challenges in how to be Christians in the contemporary world.

The collect for Pentecost 3 tells us that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus himself as the chief corner stone. This collect is particularly associated with the Sunday closest to June 29th, because June 29th is the day in the calendar when we celebrate the holy apostles Peter and Paul.

Both Peter and Paul have their own special day in the calendar, but June 29th is when the Church remembers them as two sides of the same coin. If as the collect says Christ is the chief corner stone, then to change the metaphor slightly, Peter and Paul are the towering pillars of the Christian Tradition.

The durability of custom and tradition and whether these are fit to meet the challenges of the times occupies us as a nation as we head into the 2020 elections. We are also grappling with his tensionit as we undertake the first major restoration of St Martin’s in 40 years. Someone asked me if I thought Jesus was interested in stones? I guess not in the sense of preserving them against the priorities of the coming of the kingdom. Buildings versus kingdom – no in that sense I don’t think God is interested in our stones.

Yet, buildings express something about the nature of human aspiration. What and who does our building inspire us to be in the world? In this sense it’s nothing more than a metaphor for the spiritual temple of Christ’s people at the corner of Orchard Ave and Orchard place.

In the O.T. reading on Pentecost 3, as Elijah’s mantle falls upon the shoulders of his servant Elisha – we can see the power of tradition being passed on. Authority and responsibility have fallen upon us to ensure that our children and their children (metaphorically speaking) will find a spiritual home under the shelter of this roof and within the protection of these walls. In this way, authority and responsibility, two indivisible concepts, pass from one generation to the next.

So back to my opening questions.

Each question highlights two approaches to life. There are two kinds of human temperament and we see this played out in the tension between Peter and Paul. By bringing them together in this combined commemoration on June 29th each year Christian tradition recognizes that we must navigate the tension between two different ways of looking at the world – each represented in Peter and Paul.

In its wisdom, the Church recognized that Peter and Paul are the two sides of the one coin; harnessing the energy of difference in the service of the wider community of the church.

When we are able to navigate the tension between old and new wine, the church remains true to the mission of Christ in the world.

Peter is the expansive, passionate, and loving extravert. He’s the life and soul of the party. He burns hot and fast; a man whose energy requires harnessing within the boundaries of customs and traditions. Peter means rock. He is indeed the rock upon which the Church’s tradition is founded.

Paul is likewise an expansive and passionate man but he’s the charismatic introvert. He’s not an easy kind of guy to get along with and it’s easy to fall out with Paul. His passion is a passion of the curious and the questioning. He burns cool and slow until his energy, kept well in check suddenly blazes with a searing heat burning everyone in the room. When faced with the conflict between following custom and doing something new, Paul’s answer is always why not do the new thing – maybe thinking of Jesus parable saying new wine needs new wine skins.

Peter is the uneducated Galilean country bumpkin, a fisherman by trade who speaks before he thinks. Paul is the cosmopolitan product of the strictest religious faction; a pharisee of pharisees. But it’s Peter who shelters within the well fenced pastures of the Jewish Law, while Paul breaks out into unchartered territory among those hitherto considered as outside Israel’s promise.

There is a curious incident recorded in Galatians 2 when Peter comes up to visit Paul in Antioch, an incident that stimulates reading between the lines.

On entering the gentile Christian community in Antioch, Peter seems to have enjoyed the greater freedom from the strictures of Jewish law. But when the heavy hitters arrive from James, the head of the Jerusalem community, Peter runs for cover as the shit hits the fan over issues of food and circumcision.

Paul is incandescent with rage and confronts Peter to his face accusing him of being two faced. He says to Peter: you enjoyed fraternizing with non-Jews and eating non-kosher foods until these conservatives arrived from Jerusalem, when upon you pulled back and ran for the cover putting as much distance between you and your hitherto non-Jewish friends. If you a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your Jerusalem cronies?

We sit in a period of time when the demographic shift in church membership reflects a generational transition that at the moment does not look good for the future of institutional religion as we have known it. I imagine earlier commentators have said much the same in times of uncertainty and change, only to be proved wrong. In times of uncertainty, when the Christian tradition as we inherit it, seems inadequate to meet the needs of a new age, it’s important to remember that the pivotal points of change in have also given rise to the next great awakening.

It is misleading to view the future as a choice between being faithful to Tradition and reinventing the wheel. The incident reported in Galatians, reflects the enduring tension between fidelity to the tradition as the source of wisdom and experience of new challenges as boundaries expand.

The question is not how does the new replace the old, but how does tradition become renewed in the encounter with new challenges.

In the Episcopal church we deliberately position ourselves in that place of tension. Unlike the current iteration of Catholic authority, we do not seek to impose the tradition upon changing circumstances in the face of new challenges. It’s not an effective response to batten down the hatches of tradition because it does such violence to us as we struggle to live the lives we live. Also, it’s worth noting that what conservatives see as unalterable tradition is only the interpretation of tradition our grandparents handed on. Neither as liberal Protestantism has tended towards do we throw out the baby with the bathwater and invent the wheel all over again.

The Episcopal church remains faithful to the tradition we receive from the past because it’s our task to reinterpret to meet the needs of the times in which we live.

I think both Peter and Paul would agree with me when I say tradition is a poor cudgel, but a brilliant searchlight, illumining new pathways into the future.

It’s the Little Things

The featured image is courtesy of Catholic Online

In the reading from the First Book of the Kings the prophet Elijah is in a pitiful state of mind. He has just come from a major confrontation with the prophets of the Phoenician God Baal which has deeply angered Queen Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of Ahab, king of the northern kingdom of Israel. She’s now out for his blood. Despite his great victory over the prophets of Baal, his courage fails him, and Elijah flees to the southern kingdom of Judah from where he takes a day’s journey into the wilderness where he simply gives up and prepares to die under a broom tree. Yet, God has other plans for Elijah and I’ll return to these later.

By temperament I am drawn to the big brushstroke vision end of the spectrum. This means that for me being faithful in little things does not always come easily.

In her book, No Greater Love, Mother Teresa of Calcutta  writes, “Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .

This is a timely reminder for me and I suggest for all of us.

Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .

Mother Teresa

Last Thursday John Bracken, our Senior Warden, hosted a lunch for previous churchwardens – those still living, that is. Nine were able to accept John’s invitation and gathered around a long lunch table for what in essence became a process of shared reminiscence. We heard how each warden in their time had faced and surmounted difficult challenges. Amidst tales of woe, there was also much laughter as we mused upon some of the absurdities of human behavior.

No one at the table on Thursday imagined themselves as heroes who had achieved great things. In fact, I felt their experience was more akin to an attrition by a thousand small and tedious cuts. Yet listening to the men and women around that table brought home to me my deep admiration and gratitude for all those who when called answered the call to serve. In so doing these former churchwardens revealed a quality that Mother Teresa called the practice of fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that God is doing in our midst.

Sometimes we approach the call to be faithful with gritted teeth. But fidelity is a joyful experience and if we can be careful to note the desire to overreach, we can relax and enjoy being faithful, and take time and trouble in the small things of life.

An important question for all of us to ask ourselves is what sustains our life together in community? As I’ve noted community life can often feel like attrition of a thousand cuts that leave us drained and worn out. Servanthood can be costly and therein lies its real value because there’s no such thing as cheap grace.

Since Easter, increasingly aware of approaching the beginning of my sixth anniversary as rector, I had been asking God what is it that will emerge to sustain me for the next phase of my journey at St Martin’s. God responded with: I’m giving you the roof, Fr. Mark!

Actually, God doesn’t address me as Fr. Mark, but that’s beside the point for I have definitely heard the message of it’s the church roof. All I can say to that is ha God, you’re quite the joker!

This was not the message I wanted to hear. In fact, it frightened me because it immediately raised a question in my mind – will I be able to rise to this challenge? As the reality of a major renovation and the anticipation of a capital campaign sinks in, what I am coming to understand more clearly is that the roof is a catalyst for moving St Martin’s into the next phase of our journey as a community.

So, I want to share with you what I have discerned so far.

​Firstly, the church roof and tower are clearly physical realities that need urgent attention. Yet, they are also symbols and metaphors for something more than blocks of stone and strips of copper flashing.

​Secondly, roofs and walls are metaphors in stone and slate for the protection and nurturance of Christian community. We have been given a trust to fulfill so that our children and their children (metaphorically speaking) will find a spiritual home under the shelter of this roof and within the protection of these walls.

​Thirdly, in the course of new renovation work we ​will ​have an opportunity to also update our facilities so to become a better resource for the wider community we are here to serve.

​Finally, the building as​ a​ temple is only a metaphor for the community as the temple of God’s presence in the world. Mounting a long overdue capital campaign enabling us to provide for a dynamic future, built on the solid foundations of a strong community will challenge us, ​requiring us to dig deeper discipleship wells in our own spiritual garden.

In First Kings 19 a passage rich in symbolism Elijah, who has slumped down under a broom tree, waiting to die, is roused from his lethargy and given food that will sustain him on his journey to the mountain of God where in an earlier time Moses had encountered God. Whether he realizes it or not, at a point of real crisis when the covenant between God and Israel is in real peril, Elijah returns to Israel’s spiritual wellspring.

However, despite this Elijah still does not know why he’s come. When God asks him why are you here? he continues to cry out in self-pity: why me, God; why has this disaster come to me; how can it be that I am left as the only prophet in Israel? Elijah in his depression and self-pity has forgotten that he’s not alone for at least 100 other prophets of Yahweh have also escaped Jezebel’s wrath.

Elijah is then given a lesson about the source of spiritual courage. He witnesses God’s devastating display of pyrotechnics; which seems thrown in simply for entertainment value.  After the noise and turbulence subside there comes upon Elijah the experience of sheer silence. This palpable silence piques his curiosity and draws him to the opening of the cave. This is as much a metaphor for emerging from shock and depression as it is a description of emerging from the physical cave in which he’s found shelter.

Elijah emerges into the silence to hear once again God’s question: what are you doing here Elijah? Although from the text Elijah seems to give his previous answer to this question, something in him has shifted. Elijah has discovered through the sheer silence of God’s communication that faithfulness is a series of small steps taken one after another. He’s now ready to hear God calling him to return to his mission.

. . . Be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .

Teresa of Calcutta

Happy Father’s Day and Happy Trinity!

The Easter Season comes to a close with three essential recognitions:

  • The first is the Ascension of Jesus at which God embraced the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. Can you imagine what that means? Being fully human is not simply a projection of the divine nature, but that the full humanity of the Our-Space dimension is now incorporated into the energies of the God-Space. If there was only one reason to be Christian, for me, this insight is it because of its implications for the way we live in Our-Space i.e., to be fully human is to be most like the divine.
  • The second concerns the meaning of the day of Pentecost. which I liken to the contra-flow to the Ascension through which the energies of the God-Space flow across the dimensional membrane to infiltrate and infuse Our-Space.
  • The third recognition is the celebration of the Holy Trinity.

Some of us are God people in that our temperament is attracted to the mysteriousness and essential un-knowable-ness of God the creator. I myself have a strong sympathy in this direction.

Others of us are Jesus people in that it’s the intimacy of God in the face, the life and actions of the human Jesus that speak to us because he was like us in every way. Because I’ve admitted my sympathies for the God the creator, I am also attracted to knowable-ness of God in the humanity in Jesus Yet, at times it’s all too close for comfort. Being ever mindful of God radiating through the human face of Jesus requires me to live with greater care and concern for my human neighbors than I feel comfortable with most of the time.

However, there is a third temperamental option – and some of us are Spirit people who just pulsate with the power and energy of the Spirit’s infusion. My temperament makes being a Spirit person the least likely option, Although I am not without passion, to live too closely to it is way too hot, too emotional for me. Spirit people run a gamut. Aat one end, there are those whose passion and energy achieve pioneering things, realigning the experience in Our-Space more closely with the expectations of the God-Space. At the other, lie those who luxuriate in a warm sentimental spiritual bath which celebrates the hubris of individualism. These are those who say they don’t need to be religious to be spiritual, those who don’t need to be a contributor to the work of God’s people in this world to be close to God.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus his followers were faced with reconciling an experience of God that contradicted everything they as Jews had come to understand about God.

These first followers of Jesus and those for several generations who followed after were not Christians as we understand the term.

We assume a clear-cut separation between Christianity and Judaism. Those we call early Christians simply thought of their new understanding of God as one option within a range of competing visions for 1st and 2nd-century Judaism – particularly in the period following the destruction of the Temple. However, it’s their new understanding of God that makes them stand out and leads eventually to what we now recognize as a separation into two distinct yet interconnected religious traditions.

The followers of Jesus knew God as the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They knew about the mysterious un-knowable-ness of God the Creator. Yet, they’d also had an experience of God encountered within the intimate boundaries of a human relationship with Jesus of Nazareth, who inextricably had died and yet been resurrected to a new life, a life after life after death. After Pentecost, they had come to know God as the all infusing and empowering Spiritual presence in the world. Jesus was no longer with his disciples because he had become Jesus now in his disciples; reshaping them into a new experience of being human that shaped and reshaped the magnetic nature of the way they lived together in communities – communities that eventually changed the ancient world.

Eventually, by around the 4th-5th centuries the immediacy of this early experience of God mediated in three distinct, yet unified experiences had dimmed with the result that a whole host of competing explanations about who and what Jesus was and the nature of his relationship to God arose to endanger the distinctiveness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus.

Was Jesus just a man (Arianism) or was he really a God in disguise (Docetism)? Was the Holy Spirit the spirit of Jesus in the world or was it an independent force that allowed an end-run around Jesus making him redundant because the believer now had an unmediated and individualized relationship with God (Gnosticism).

What we know as the doctrine of the Trinity as distinct from the intuitive experience of the triune God arose as a need not to explain the mystery of God, but to protect the mystery of God and the Christians experience of God from being reduced to only that which human beings in this or that time and place were able to comprehend rationally – a bit like the modern practice of rewriting the creed so that it makes rational sense to us in our day and age. For modern people the doctrine of the Trinity is couched in a philosophical language that is no longer ours and which we don’t really understand. Yet, maybe even in the 4th-5th-centuries it was no better understood because to make it comprehensible was never the aim. 

This brings me to my central point.  

The doctrine of the Trinity is not an explanation of the mystery of God but a protection of God’s freedom from being reduced and imprisoned within the limitations of human understanding.

In the 14th-century the Russian painter Anton Rublev conceived the revelation of the Trinity as three figures seated around a table. What’s most striking about Rublev’s icon is that each of the figures has exactly the same face. They gaze upon one another with exactly the same look of loving intimacy. Except for their dress and location around the table the figures are each mirror reflections of each other. The essence of the relationship between them lies in the quality of their mutual gaze; a gaze of loving recognition of their shared identity.

We are made to be relationship seeking beings. We find ourselves reflected in one another within the context of relationships and communities. In short, human beings are both relational and communal by nature. Why is this so?

The answer is that we are made in the image of a God who is a trinity – a divine community formed out of the interplay of loving relationship. The distinct elements of the divine community that we traditionally refer to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not a statement about God’s gender but God’s mutual relationality. You can come up with alternative terms so long as these are capable of denoting the mutual relationships within the divine community. In this regard I prefer Lover, Beloved, and Love-Sharer to bring home to us a sense of ourselves as reflecting the centrality of relationship and community – the essential attributes of God. For instance, this is in sharp distinction to the attempt to escape gendered language by referring to God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. These are descriptors of function not articulations of relationship.

We thus become free to celebrate the multiple expressions of relationality encompassed within the divine nature. In 2019 the coincidence between the date of the Trinity and Father’s Day enables us to celebrate our human fathers [1]as the all too often imperfect but necessary and much loved expressions of the creativity, protection, and containing nurture of fatherhood of God.

Happy Father’s Day and happy Trinity Sunday!


  • Fatherhood is the masculine principle of creation, and a counterpart to the feminine principle of receptivity motherhood – both equally core attributes of God.
  • When our male fathers embody the divine principle of fatherhood, they become co-creators not just in the sense of biological procreation but as creators and protectors of an environmental and emotional space– within which the mother and infant experience an uninterrupted enjoyment of one another.
  • Fatherhood as a masculine principle is not coterminous with male gender.
  • Fathers need not be perfect but like mothers, need only to be good enough. They will sometimes fail in their early role as creators and protectors of the mother-infant relationship due to their own emotional unpreparedness for their role.

God’s Grandeur: Pentecost 2019


Learning to read was a great gift to our granddaughter Claire – who has continued-on to become an avid reader. As a 3-year-old she would mimic her parents reading in bed. Lying on their bed she wanted to show us that she too could read a book. She would gabble away to herself in her 3-year-old language, clearly delighting in some gripping yarn, all the while completely oblivious to the fact that she was ostensibly reading the book upside-down.

When Claire first started reading whole books, I would ask her what she was reading? I’m reading a chapterbook, she would reply. I was struck by her response, which was to tell me about the type of book she was reading and not its content. By referring to her book as a chapterbook she got me thinking about the nature of story. Chapters organize the development and progression of  more complex stories. That was the point she had grasped; she was no longer reading books with a single simple story but was now reading books where the story progressed in stages by means of chapters.

Chapter 1

The term theology often has an adjective attached. For example, there is systematic, moral, pastoral, soteriological (salvation), ecclesial, mystical, and process theology, etc., etc. To call myself a theologian always seems somewhat pretensions and overblown, yet even if I think of myself as more of a practitioner, I guess theologian is an appropriate title for who I am and what I do.

But what kind of theologian am I? I suppose the adjective the I would attach to the title theologian would be narrative. As I continually assert in the entries of this blog, narratives are the building blocks of meaning. We make sense of the world around us, including making sense of ourselves to ourselves as well as to others through the construction of stories.

Constructing a story to make sense of her 3-year-old world was what Claire was doing when she lay on her parents’ bed mimicking their reading. It was irrelevant to her construction of a story that she was holding her book upside down. At 3-years of age, the problem for the rest of us was that only she could understand the story she was making.

The Bible is in a sense like one of Claire’s chapterbooks. It builds the story of God chapter by chapter. It’s primarily a story about God told from our perspective and each chapter is our attempt at making sense of our world.

Chapter 2

For Christians, the Story of Jesus forms the penultimate section of chapters in the long Biblical story. The the story of Jesus builds through the chapters chronicling Jesus’ birth. We read of his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, before coming to a close with his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church as the continuance of Jesus’ ministry in the world.

The Jesus chapters form the penultimate part of the chapterbook of God because as Patel, the hotel manager in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reminds us: Everything will be alright in the end and if it’s not alright, it is not yet the end.

Continuing with my analogy of the Bible as a chapterbook, Pentecost is the final chapter in the story of the Jesus cycle. In the previous chapter of the story called the Ascension, the all too human Jesus has passed through the membrane separating the parallel worlds of Our-Space and God-Space. As parallel dimensions, Our-Space and God-Space occupy the same location although separated by a permeable membrane that allows energy to flow from one to the other.

At the Ascension the post-resurrection but still human body of Jesus passes through the membrane from Our-Space to God-Space. In doing so Jesus does not jettison his humanity like a worn-out suit of clothes in order to don a new divine suit on the other side.vIn the Ascension, it’s his very humanity that is embraced and incorporated into the nature of God’s self.

In the present chapter called Pentecost, energy passes in the opposite direction, i.e. from God-Space to Our-Space. Having received Jesus’ full humanity into the divine nature, God now sends the divine Spirit back through the membrane to empower us – now constituted as the community called Church – to continue the work begun by Jesus.

Chapter 3

We have two ways of talking about Pentecost – the 50th day after Easter. The first focuses on the pyrotechnics of the day: wind, fire, and an experience of instantaneous translation between the speakers of myriad of languages. The second is to develop a wider perspective with a focus on the fruits of the day itself.

Tom Wright describes Pentecost as:

the moment when the personal presence of Jesus with the disciples is translated into the personal power of Jesus in the disciples

Pentecost Day Sermon 2017

This is how Luke tells the story.

Awe came upon everyone, ….All who belonged were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

Acts 2

Luke’s description of the early Christian community is a description of what Our-Space infused with the energies of God-Space looks like. Equality and magnetic inclusion become the hallmarks of such a community where the phrase: from all according to ability -to all according to need – is lived out in real time. This produced among the first Christians the most magnetic community that drew increasing numbers of people into a new way of being human – in a new kind of community – namely –a community investing itself in those who had yet to become members.

Chapter 4

This image of Christian community frightens us – and so it should! For it stands as a perpetual indictment upon the values and practices thatwe live by in our own society.

Luke’s story in Acts 2 raises serious questions for us. Chief among them is how is this vision of transformation and risky living shaping the story we currently tell ourselves about American society? Clearly, there are several answers to this question because there are always competing visions. What matters is not the competing visions for our society, but the kind of Christianity that informs these visions?

As Episcopalians we pride ourselves on espousing a tolerant inclusive Christian vision. Yet, while heavy on tolerance and inclusion we run light on accountability. We like faith as a comfort as long as we can remain unchanged by its disturbing imperatives.

Many of us understand faith as personally life changing. We also understand that there is a connection between personal transformation and the process for social change – the WWJD -what would Jesus do, question. Yet, we also expect our faith to let us off lightly by making few demands on us. We do not expect to be made accountable to the imperatives of our faith.

The presence of God’s Spirit in the world of Our-Space demands of us transformation along the lines experienced by the first Christians.

To make a start:

  • We cannot engage in acts of charity towards the less fortunate while failing to confront systems that deprive whole communities of access to the fruits we expect to enjoy.
  • We cannot reject calls for personal accountability in our communities – leaving when we fell challenged or uncomfortable might be an option for members but not disciples.
  • The story we live by tells us we need to feel troubled if the fruits of our own material success blind us to the inequalities in wider society.
  • We need to stop expecting our faith to insulate us and allow it to disturb us.


Next Sunday, Trinity Sunday, signals the beginning of my 6th year at St Martin’s. I view my first five years as the period when we together stabilized the parish community and prepared it for new change and growth by deepening our encounter with spiritual resources, chiefly the Bible. So, what will the next five years bring us? More particularly, how will our challenges open us and to unforeseen possibilities? All I know at the moment is that without challenge, the stability we have achieved will slowly dissipate over time.

Pentecost reminds us that in looking forward to the next stage of community life, we know three things:

  1. In a community where many of us earn our daily bread in the financial investment sector, we of all people should know that the more we invest, the richer the return on our investment.
  2. Therefore, our community is only as real as the energy we invest in transforming whatever challenges lie ahead into opportunities.
  3. That which we can imagine for ourselves; that which through hard work and effort we can build by ourselves, pales in comparison to that which God – working through us – can and will empower us into.

Let us not forget that Pentecost celebrates:

the moment when the personal presence of Jesus with the disciples was translated into the personal power of Jesus in the disciples. 


Now herein lies both our challenge and our opportunity!

Nobody’s Free until Everybody’s Free

Easter 7 Year C  Acts 16:16-34   

A sermon from Linda Mackie Griggs

It’s sad that I almost forgot about a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer. The daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, she was a community organizer and civil rights, voting rights, and women’s rights activist who was poll-taxed, literacy-tested, censored, arrested and mercilessly beaten in her struggle for justice and equality in the 1960’s and early 70’s. In her speech at the founding of the Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 she made the declaration that you just heard.

“The changes that we have to have in this country are going to be for the liberation of all people—because nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Fannie Lou Hamer

Hamer was outshone by other bright figures in the movement—M.L. King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, but her courage and persistence in the face of so many obstacles deserves more than a footnote in history.

That’s why it’s sad that I almost forgot her. Growing up in (barely) post-Jim Crow Virginia I didn’t hear much about her—certainly not in school–so I suppose it’s understandable. Threats to the racial status quo were rarely part of the standard school curriculum in my part of the country. But those of us who didn’t learn enough about Fannie Lou Hamer missed out. And since she has shown up on my radar twice now in the past few weeks, I’m taking the opportunity to see what she still has to say.

Today’s lesson from Acts is all about freedom and becoming free. It’s also about what still enslaves us.

The Acts of the Apostles, or Acts, is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author. Luke’s Gospel ends, and Acts begins, with the same event; the Ascension of Jesus into glory at God’s right hand, which we celebrated this past Thursday evening, marking 40 days after the Resurrection. This period we are now in—the ten days from Ascension to Pentecost next Sunday, marks the birthing of the Church. Acts chronicles the first steps of the Body of Christ as the growing communities wrestled with what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

It isn’t called “Acts” for nothing. It is one adventure after another as Paul, Peter, Silas, Timothy and the gang encounter mobs and demons, shipwrecks and assassination plots, miraculous healings and impossible escapes as they make their way around the Mediterranean world spreading the Good News and expanding the Church by leaps and bounds.

It is exciting and fun to read, but there is more to the story than action, drama, and the occasional earthquake ex machina. Today’s passage is about encounters with various kinds of enslavement: Paul, Silas, and their companions arrive in Philippi, a colony that is under Roman political domination. They encounter a woman possessed both by master and spirit. The apostles are imprisoned and tortured for threatening to upend the cultural and political status quo. The shackles aren’t just in the inner chamber of the dungeon—they are everywhere in this story—political, cultural, economic, and spiritual.  This story is about how the bound became free; but not all of them. It’s about whether, at the end of the tale, we will not only celebrate those who have been liberated, but remember that one has been left behind.

…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.

Paul being quoted by Luke

This is a woman twice-bound: possessed both by a spirit and by her owners, for whom she is a source of income. As she hounds Paul for days, identifying him to everyone as a follower of Jesus, we wonder what is wrong with her message. Is she not speaking the truth that the missionaries serve God and proclaim the Good News? Yes, but the context is important. The word Luke uses for the spirit of divination is very specific—pneuma puthonos, or spirit of Python. Python is the mythological snake, slain by Apollo, which once guarded the Oracle at Delphi. So when Paul, finally fed up by being badgered by this spirit, orders it to leave the woman, he is exerting power, not over a demon, but over a vital cultural norm of the Roman community; the worship of pagan gods. Anti-Jewish sentiment was already powerful in the colony, and what Paul has done is a major insult.

So the woman is freed from the spirit, but remains bound to her masters, who now see her as useless to them, and for this they publicly blame Paul and his friends:

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.

Christians were perceived by Romans to be a threat to the order and organization that made their civilization—the Pax Romana—possible and successful. Obedience and conformity to societal norms were hallmarks of the Roman way of life, and these upstart Christian Jews, who worshiped just one God, refused to pay allegiance to the emperor, and whose worship included cannibalism (body and blood, really?) were not to be tolerated.

One of the characteristics of Empire is its need to preserve itself, often regardless of the cost. And thus the brutal treatment of Paul and his friends is accepted as justified. But the jailer arguably shows himself to be as much victim as perpetrator in this situation. Imagine knowing that your only choice in the face of disaster is to kill yourself: Is he not as bound by the Empire as are his captives? So in the aftermath of the earthquake and in the presence of God’s mercy, is he not also freed? He is free to feed the hungry prisoners and to bind up their wounds. And he is freed to spread the Good News to others, adding to the growing tally of baptized believers.

Richard Rohr would describe the liberation of the jailer in terms of transformation through the Spirit: transforming the jailer from being a hurt person hurting people into being a wounded healer healing people. Because God’s liberation is not just the liberation of the oppressed. It is the liberation of the oppressor. The freedom into which most of the people in this story emerge is not a freedom to do whatever they want. It is the freedom to follow God’s call to serve and proclaim, free of the shackles of fear of difference and unrealistic expectations in others and ourselves; freedom to be vulnerable and to serve with joy. It is freedom from the need to commodify our relationships–of objectifying others as a means to our own ends, and instead being freed to relate to everyone as the beloved children of God that they are.

This story calls us to celebrate God’s liberating power. It calls us to celebrate the courage and trust it takes to surrender to the freedom of the Kingdom work of healing, compassion and justice.

And this story calls us to do something else. Something we almost forgot.


Remember the slave girl? Remember that, freed of the spirit of divination, she is no longer of monetary value to her masters. She is now silent; she hasn’t said a word since Paul’s exorcism. She is the one person in this story for whom freedom is not complete.  The potential future scenarios for a woman no longer of worth or profitable use in the first century Roman world are not pleasant to contemplate. Her fate is a lingering question, a part of the story that remains unwritten. What are we to make of it?

Let her silence speak to us. Let it speak for all those in every age who remain economically culturally, politically, or spiritually imprisoned or enslaved. Let this silent nameless woman speak for them.

Never forget: Nobody’s free until everybody’s free


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