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The Forgotten Woman

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Paul may have freed the slave woman from her possession by a pithian spirit… but he did not free her from being a possession.

Today’s texts: Acts 16: 16-34 and Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

There is an amazing cast of characters in the story we heard today from the Acts of the Apostles.

There are Paul and Silas, of course. As they begin to expand the reach of Christianity out of the Middle East to the edges of Europe, one of their first stops is the city of Philippi in Macedonia – what is now in the northeastern part of Greece. It was a major Roman outpost with Greek heritage and only a smattering of Jews.

This story is bracketed just before and just after the part we heard today by two encounters with one of the prosperous residents of Philippi, a woman named Lydia, a business woman who dealt in purple cloth – the fabric used for the rich and royal people in the Roman world. And although she would have dealt regularly with the rich and famous of her region, she also is described as a “Gentile God-worshipper” – in other words, someone intrigued by Judaism, even if not a Jew herself.

Then there are the city officials who bow to the will of the slave owners and the anti-Semitic feelings of the crowd and send Paul and Silas off to jail.

And of course there is the jailer, moving from utter despair when he thinks the prisoners have escaped to a whole new sense of hope as he and his household join this spiritual movement that Paul and Silas represent.

fortune-teller (1)Oh yeah, and there is one more character – the unnamed slave woman whose ability to tell the future was making a good living – for her masters. Let’s call her the forgotten woman in this story.

You might wonder how she can be forgotten when the part of the story we heard today seems to revolve around her interactions with Paul and Silas, interactions that set off the chain of events that followed.

Well, consider this.

Here she is, shouting at Paul and Silas day after day, calling them “servants of the Most High God” who are “proclaiming a way of salvation to you.” We might think that was a flattering sort of thing to say, even if her voice got more than a tad annoying.

But in the context of her time, the “Most High God” was probably Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. And was she saying they had the way of salvation as good news or as mockery?

Whatever she was doing, whatever she was saying, Paul had had enough of it. He decided that she had an evil spirit that was possessing her body, that was allowing her to be a fortune teller.

The spirit in this case was known as a python spirit or a pythian spirit, after a figure from Greek mythology, a dragon who guarded the Delphic oracle that was killed by Apollo. A female priest at Delphi then channeled Apollo’s voice and predicted the future. That pythian spirit seemed to be in this unnamed slave woman.

So Paul told the pythian spirit: “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave her.” And the spirit did leave. Now the woman was merely a slave with no magical powers to produce income for her owners.

You can imagine that she was a fairly lucrative slave. Fortune telling is still a pretty good business these days. The Madison Yellow Pages list about 30 psychics in our area. The average salary of a fortune teller in the U.S. is about $42,000. And as I look into the future…I see that it may get better J

Well, the market value of this fortune-telling slave woman suddenly dropped to zero.

St PaulHer owners, of course, were outraged. They were not concerned about her. They were concerned about their loss of income. So they did what aggrieved slave holders and con artists do. They took Paul and Silas to the civil authorities and played on the anti-Semitic feelings in this Roman outpost with only a miniscule Jewish population. Go to court, intimidate the authorities and play on the prejudices of the people. It’s an old story.

Wait. Somebody got left behind in this story.

Paul may have freed the slave woman from her possession by a pithian spirit… but he did not free her from being a possession.

Her owners may have sought revenge against Paul and Silas, but they sent this nameless woman off to a life of poverty and misery.

There’s nothing to suggest that this newly-forming Christian community in Philippi took her in – although that surely would have been a nice twist to the story.

So you’ve got Lydia and her friends forming the first Christian community in Europe – women blazing the trail.

You’ve got a jailer getting rescued by Paul’s compassion for him and his household getting baptized.

You’ve got the slave owners feeling vindicated, the city officials playing to those with wealth and to the crowds.

You’ve got Paul and Silas in the next part of the story proclaiming their Roman citizenship.

But the slave woman? She appears to have been forgotten.

That’s where we can enter into this story.

There is no shortage of places where the prison cells of life – whether real or metaphorical – keep people trapped and where it is hard to sing hymns and utter prayers.

There is no shortage of places where despair puts people on the brink of suicide and where the care of another might just bring them back.

There is no shortage of places in our world where the forces of greed exploit people.

Let me tell just one story.

APBooks--fishermen-slavesA week ago, I had a chance to hear some of the Associated Press reporters who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Their 18-month investigation documented slavery in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. Their stories led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves and traced the seafood they caught to supermarkets and pet food providers across the U.S.

They also won the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics from UW for the care they took to get the enslaved individuals in their stories to safety before the stories ran, in the process, saving their lives. They did free them from possession. They documented their names and showed their faces. They were not forgotten.

So there are people in our world who are making a difference.

There are places in our world where people can form caring communities like Lydia and her friends gathered at the river.

There are places where we can work together to overturn the tables of oppression and exploitation like Jesus did in the Temple, like Paul and Silas did in Philippi.

There are places where we can help rescue the slaves – and they exist in our world, in our city – be they economic slaves like the seafood workers or sex workers, be they undocumented immigrants robbed of their wages or workers in the new economy that are on a high-tech treadmill that has no stop button.

The Associated Press offered rescue to the slaves in Southeast Asia, Project Respect does it in Madison as it helps women and men escape from sex trafficking here.

No one of us can find all those places of exploitation and imprisonment and despair.

No one of us can find all those place of redemption and transformation.

But each of us can look for the place where we might make a difference, where we can make sure no one is forgotten like the slave woman in this story was forgotten.

In a letter that Paul wrote to a different community – the community of Galatia – he had words that went well beyond the story in Philippi but well could be applied to the people he met there.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek,” Paul wrote. “There is neither slave nor free; nor is there male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

There is neither Jew – that would be Paul and Silas –
Nor is there Greek – that would be Lydia and the jailer as well as the slave woman.
There is neither slave – the woman –
nor free – her owners and exploiters.
There is neither male – Paul, Silas and the jailer –
nor female – Lydia, her friends, the slave women.

All are equal, embraced by the message of Jesus and by the love of God, who created each of them – and each of us – in the divine image and likeness.

That reading we heard from the end of the book of Revelation is filled with vivid imagery – alphas and omegas, clean robes and trees of life, city gates and bright morning stars.

Let’s just take a few of those.

Tree_life1That idea that “those who wash their robes may have the right to access to the tree of life” seems a bit odd, but think of it this way. We all get scuffed up on the journey through life. We have to clean up now and then and while doing the laundry is hardly glamorous work, it does give us a fresh start with our clothes.

And we’re not really talking about clothes here. We are talking about cleaning up the world around us, going to all those places I mentioned a few moments ago and helping to transform them, letting the tree of life grow and nourish those in need.

And we’ve got an important companion as we go to those places to “do the laundry.” In Revelation, it’s called an angel. For us, it is the people who sustain us when we get discouraged, who inspire us by what they do.

And out there on the horizon is the bright morning star, an image of Jesus serving as our guide.

In this last chapter of Revelation, which is the last book in the New Testament, there are images beyond the ones we heard today. There is a river of life-giving water, crops producing fruit each month, the leaves of the tree healing the nations, no more darkness, God’s light all around.

It sounds so fantastical, so unreal. But what if we have it all wrong? What if the world we are living in now – a world tormented by violence, by exploitation, by greed, by anger, by insults, by racism and homophobia and distrust – what if this is the unreal place? What if this is not how it is supposed to be?

Imagine this. After Paul and Silas gathered at the river with Lydia and her friends, after they were jailed and freed, they went back to Lydia’s house for a final visit before heading on to the next city.

What if they invited Lydia to find the slave woman and bring her into this community?

What if love replaced rejection, light replaced darkness, the tree of life brought healing to the nations?

What if?

There’s a gospel song written by composer Andrae Crouch, who died last year. He based it on some of the words and images at the end of the book of Revelation. It catches the spirit of hope of a people who knew the pain of slavery and the hope of the future, the longing for that vision of Revelation to be reality. So let’s sing “Soon and Very Soon.”