An Abolition Sermon for Jailers

This sermon was first preached for Easter 7 at a hybrid online and in-person service of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on May 29, 2022.

Relevant lectionary texts can be found here.

Photo by Oskars Sylwan on Unsplash

“These men are slaves!” the enslaved girl cried out. Day after day she raised her voice, “These men are slaves of the Most High God.” She followed them. “These men are slaves of the Most High God. They are telling us the way of salvation.”

Scripture doesn’t tell us this enslaved girl’s name. Even though she is there, boldly proclaiming a message of Good News. She doesn’t get a name in scripture so I am going to give her one. I chose Cassandra, which means “seer” or “one having insight.” Cassandra practiced divination, meaning she was able to understand the future. In the eyes of her slave owners, that’s what made her valuable. She was able to bring them a great deal of money with her clairvoyance. Scripture seems to equate her abilities with this spirit that possessed her. Which is interesting because there are all kinds of prophets throughout scripture with similar gifts for understanding what is to come. Typically, though, those prophets had visions and illuminated a reality that threatened the rich and powerful. Cassandra’s situation was different. She was exploited by the more powerful for their own financial gain. Where prophets in general are typically a threat to things like Empire and capital, Cassandra’s gifts were big business. But she didn’t own her labor or benefit from her skills. She was alienated from her work. Her labor was appropriated by her owners.

Her enslavers were quite comfortable with her possession by a spirit, as long as it made them money. And everyone else seemed ok with it too.

Paul didn’t seem that concerned about Cassandra. Paul was a transformed man, an apostle who gave his life in service to the Gospel. But he was also born into Roman citizenship, a major point of privilege when living under the Empire. Humans owning other humans as slaves was likely normalized for him. And he was also a prominent religious leader, who came from a family of religious leaders. And then and now, many prominent male religious leaders with privilege in the Empire have failed to take the bodily autonomy of women seriously. We see that today in everything from the leaked Roe document to the news of widespread sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. So as far as we can tell, Paul didn’t seem that moved by Cassandra’s plight.

But Cassandra, like many prophetic women, kept raising her voice.  I am reminded of my sister in ministry Teresa, who helped organize an interfaith protest against the NRA’s annual meeting in Texas this weekend. Teresa, an Asian American clergy woman, who is pregnant, kept raising her voice even as the private security at the NRA assembly physically assaulted her, leading to her hospitalization.

Like my friend Teresa, Cassandra’s voice was inconvenient. But Cassandra didn’t shut up. And she didn’t go away. “These men are slaves of the Most High God. They are telling us the way of salvation!”  Her voice was considered valuable when it was making her slave owners money. But when she spoke her own mind or proclaimed the Good News, she was a nuisance. Even to Paul.

Paul relieved Cassandra of the spirit that had possessed her. And not because he wanted to end her exploitation. Not because he wanted to heal her. But because Paul found her “very much annoying.”

So he sent the spirit out of her. And the Bible implies that she was no longer able to practice divination. Or at least, her enslavers assumed she would no longer be able to. Seeing their profit margin threatened, they were furious. They dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities and declared them “outside agitators” when they said, “These men, these Jews are disturbing our city…they are doing things outside of Roman custom.”

If you remember, Paul was a Roman citizen. But he was about to see the ways that privilege is conditional. Many of us with various layered identities have experienced that. If we cozy up to our oppressors, we might be granted some access to security or comfort. But as soon as we speak up and challenge the power structure, all of that goes away. So Paul was a Roman citizen, but as soon as he threatened some rich enslavers’ capital? As soon as he betrayed the Empire, even in the smallest way? Suddenly he was just one of “these Jews.” Step out of line and there is hell to pay. 

The mob enforced the status quo the way it always does. With violence. We saw that again in Buffalo this month when a white supremacist hunted down Black people in the grocery store to fight the perceived threat of whiteness being “replaced” in this country. 

Paul and Silas were stripped and beaten. They were cast as criminals and were arrested. They were thrown into prison, still bloody. Their feet were fastened in stocks, not only to ensure their captivity. But to humiliate them. 

Paul and Silas come off as pretty shameless, though, because they were up all night praying and singing hymns loud enough that all the other prisoners could hear. At midnight, an earthquake came. And it was so strong that it shook the very foundation of the prison. And all of the chains fell off and all of the doors flung wide open.

Human beings build institutions that we think are unshakeable. We create systems that seem to take on a life of their own. They become such a part of us that they seem universal, unchangeable. Sometimes God and Mother Earth team up to remind us that there are things deeper and more eternal than the structures we build for ourselves. I am reminded of years ago when I was in Sierra Leone and I visited Bunce Island, the largest British slave castle on the Rice Coast of West Africa. Bunce was a fortress made of stone and one of the chief processing points for tens of thousands of kidnapped, enslaved people to be sold and shipped off to South Carolina and Georgia. Seeing the rooms where enslaved people were held, the blocks where they were displayed to be sold off…hearing the tour guides tell us about the horrors that happened on that island…the best adjective I have for that place is that it was haunted.

215 years ago when Great Britain abolished the slave trade, Bunce Island was shut down for slave trading. And it only took a few decades for the buildings and stone walls to fall into decay. When I first visited in 2011, I saw giant stone walls that had been overrun by verdant, wild vines. Leaves burst through windows. Trees grew in stone cracks. This once unshakeable, rock solid fortress, representative of an evil institution of death that seemed too big to fall, was choked out with lush, wild, uncontained overflowing life life life. 

One photo from Bunce Island I took in 2011.

That is how I picture Earth, our Mother, in this story in Acts. Shaking the foundations of the jail and springing open doors and dissolving chains. Scripture says that the earthquake was violent. Upending systems can feel that way. But the story reveals to us, then and now, that what is really violent? Is our carceral system of incarceration. 

The jailer in the story…the same jailer who dragged Paul and Silas into the inner cell of the jail, who put their feet in stocks to trap and degrade them, saw that the earth had conspired to release the people imprisoned there. He was sure that everyone had run away. And his first reaction? Was sheer panic. He had had a front row seat to the ways that the Empire treats people who step out of line. He had enforced it, himself, with his own two hands. He knew that the cost of his failure was death. And so he was ready to end his life.

All of us who live under Empires decide every day how much to participate and how much to resist. And it is easy sometimes to look down at jailers or any of our modern equivalents, to distance ourselves, to feel good about the ways that we don’t enforce the violence of Empire in such an overt way. This Memorial Day weekend is a good reminder that as much as our society lionizes agents of Empire like soldiers, the system doesn’t actually care about them. Soldiers are asked to kill and be killed, and when they are no longer useful? When the United States can no longer exploit their bodies to exert power and extract oil? The Empire chews them up, spits them out, and leaves them for dead. As a spouse of a disabled veteran, who now organizes for peace, I can tell you that soldiers like jailers are participants in these systems. And also victims of it.

This story of Paul and Silas is another example of the ways that our carceral system of prisons and policing are not good for anyone. Mass incarceration harms Black and Brown people, as the intended targets, creating a criminal underclass to exploit. And it hurts every day white people, cutting us off from our siblings of color and our own souls. But it also harms the police, jailers, corrections officers, and other participants in this system. This system perpetuates the moral injury of its agents. The fall out of the soul cost of this kind of work is clear.  We can see that with the rates of things like domestic violence in police families or substance abuse. The Empire paints a romantic picture, but the truth is, this system hurts all of us. 

As the jailer in the story draws his sword, Paul shouts out, “Wait!  Don’t hurt yourself. We are all here!”

We are here.

We are here. 

One of the things that I love about the abolitionist movement, one of the main reasons that I think it is so in line with the Jesus movement, is because there is a strong principled stance that while accountability is essential, no one is beyond redemption and that we do not throw anyone away. While Empire tosses people aside, devours the vulnerable, crushes all in its path, the Gospel says, “Wait. You don’t have to participate in this harm. There is a way out. We are here. We are here.”  

This jailer had dragged a bloody and bruised Paul and Silas into the inner jail. He had locked them up. And now he ran to Paul and Silas. He brought them out of the prison himself. And he fell down before them sobbing asking, “What do I have to do in order to be saved?”

And the answer Paul and Silas gave was, “Jesus. Jesus is what it takes to be saved.”

The jailer had a choice. He could return to the systems of death and destruction that he had served before. He could worship a God of violence and control. A false God that many of us worship. A bloodthirsty God that trades in fear. A God that demands the sacrifice of elementary school children. That is hungry for more and more and more and will never be satisfied.

Or he could choose to betray that false God. He could leave the life he knew. He could risk it all and chase after the abundant life that Jesus was offering him …and offering to us, too. A world where Empire no longer reins. A world where everyone has what they need to thrive. A world beyond prisons, beyond cages, beyond chains. A world where the voices of women and other marginalized genders are listened to and taken seriously. A world where bodily autonomy is the given, that consent is the norm. A world where children don’t barricade classroom doors and hide behind desks. A world where teachers don’t have to make silent unspoken agreements every day to give up their lives because others won’t give up their guns. A world where we don’t fear for our Black teens walking down the street or our Black grannies going to the grocery store. A world where we aren’t haunted by our nightmares but have the space to dream. To build. To create. To celebrate.

Jesus is coming to our prisons, literal and metaphorical, and shaking things up. He is offering us something more, something better. But it is something new. And so we have to be brave and choose to participate in it.

The jailer in Acts had seen enough. Scripture tells us that in that same hour he took Paul and Silas to his own house. He didn’t “accept Jesus” and then somehow think he could go on in his normal life as a jailer. He knew that accepting Jesus meant betraying Empire. And he knew, intuitively, that it meant righting the wrongs of the harm he committed. The jailer spent the night providing First Aid to Paul and Silas. He fed them. He washed their wounds. And then he and his family were washed in the waters of baptism.

Beloveds I am so weighed down right now by all that we are seeing. I am afraid. And I am tired. And I am guessing you might feel the same. Our ancestors in the faith faced the evil of Empire too, with trembling and with courage. I preach this to you now because I need desperately to hear it. Take heart. All throughout history when things felt impossible, where systems seemed unchangeable, when we feared it would always be that way, God comes to us…shaking the earth at its foundation. 

With God? The gates of the prison swing open.

With God? The chains fall away.

With God? All of us have a chance for redemption, to make things right, to choose better.

As everything collapses around us, God is holding open the door for us, ushering us into another world.

And like those who came before us, with courage and with trembling, we can say yes to the invitation, and step into a new way of being.

Thanks be to God. 

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