Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, halleluuuujah.
Leonard Cohen sings this way better.
Ever since the devastating event this Tuesday, his song got me through the week. I held onto it for dear life. Like those hallelujahs, I was cold and broken. Still am. Singing helps. Crying helps. Praying helps. Reading scripture helps.
Today’s scripture in Acts brings us two people, Paul and Silas, who sing to the Lord in their time of need. They are imprisoned in Phillipi, where they were staying with a woman named Lydia. Lydia leads the synagogue there, and after hearing Paul bring her the good news of Jesus Christ, she asked him to stay and continue his teaching. While in Phillipi, they encounter a slave girl who had a spirit of divination. Therefore, she knew and spoke out loudly that they are “slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” She did this for days. Eventually Paul couldn’t take it anymore. I must admit I’m not sure why that is. I would think that this free advertisement from a girl people know to speak the truth would be welcomed. But maybe it was just too much of a good thing. We don’t know how old the girl is, but anyone who ever had a child tell them the same awesome story over and over can maybe sympathize with Paul. In any way, he’s done. So, he drives out the spirit of divination from the girl in the name of Jesus Christ. Blessed silence follows. Until the owners of the girl show up. They are not happy. They made good money using this girl’s spirit of divination. Without it, she was worth less to them. And money rules. Therefore, they drag Paul and Silas in front of the local authorities, the magistrates. They accuse them of observing and advocating unlawful Jewish customs in Roman occupied Phillipi. Paul and Silas do not defend themselves. They are stripped naked and beaten with rods. Still not satisfied that justice is served, they are then thrown in jail with their feet held together in a stock. In severe pain from the flogging and unable to walk in their jail cell, they pray and sing hymns to God. Other prisoners hear this.
Music and singing actually have a history in all the prisons of the world. In the concentration camps of Germany, it was even used against their prisoners. These were death camps, so the only shred of dignity these people could hope for was to die in peace. Instead, they were bombarded with the works of Bach and Wagner, invading what little space still belonged to them, their very body. Their resistance came in the form of singing. Singing hymns to God. They reclaimed their space; they took back just a tiny bit of dignity. Singing praise in a time of profound grief defiantly celebrates our faith in God. No matter how cold and how broken it may be. Paul and Silas do not face a fate as grim as the Jews in concentration camps. We haven’t been beaten and jailed. But there are many ways to experience prison, I think. Prisons can be physical, but they can also be emotional, and social, and spiritual. Grief and fear I think, are the names of our current prison we experience as a society.
In our scripture today, Paul and Silas are rewarded by God for their faith. An earthquake opens both their doors and stocked feet. Yet they do not flee. Neither do any of the other prisoners, apparently. Paul’s and Silas’ hymns must have had a profound impact on them. Their guard is so impressed by this, that he converts right then and there and sets a feast before Paul and Silas. I’m afraid in our modern-day history, this victorious outcome is not often how it goes. I’m going to share just how victorious this outcome really was. I will finish this story in Acts for you because our lectionary reading next week will not. Next week marks the end of Easter season with Pentecost. Easter, that joyous season that brought us back our favorite song of praise: Hallelujah.
Back to the story: The next day, the magistrates sent word to set Paul and Silas free. But Paul refuses to simply leave. He sends word back that he will not leave in secret. As a Roman citizen who was unjustly flogged and incarcerated, he demands the magistrates show up themselves to set them free. They do, and even apologize. Again, not how triumphant this usually works out for prisoners!
But none of this is the actual victory. The actual victory over the magistrates and for God, happens when Paul leaves. We know from the letters of Paul, that Phillipi now boasts an established active Christian church. The magistrates tried to keep this influence out of their city, as it isn’t conducive to their grip on power. But Phillipi would be forever altered by the two churches. One Jewish, in the house of Lydia. And one gentile, in the house of Paul’s former jailer. Now this is a proper foundation for a people following Christ, a union of two peoples in the name of Christ. Even better, this diversity enables the young church to reach and grow into all areas of society in Phillipi. I really do hope that that put a severe wrench in the financial plans of those slaveholders.
This young church was one of many that sprouted up and was part of the movement that by today evolved into a world religion. From tiny mustard seeds nourished by defiant faith grew a mighty tree. That is a victory! That’s a good ending. That is God’s ending.
Therefore, I think it’s a real good idea, to always remember the lesson Paul taught us when he laid the foundation for his jailer’s church. While we cannot control our jailers, we can sing and praise God. Whether we feel jubilant or depressed, whether we are free to be ourselves or imprisoned by expectations, whether we are healthy or battling a disease, whether we are free or imprisoned in any way and must fight for change, and yes even when the name of our prison is overwhelming grief and fear, we make our song and praise to God. Because while our struggles do have real and oppressive power over our lives here, they are NOT the ultimate power in our lives. The ultimate power, the One who holds us close, and knows us intimately and loves us deeply. The God revealed to us not only in the glorious and triumphant resurrection, but also in the lowly and agonizing cross of Jesus Christ.
God alone writes the ending. And God’s endings are good.
Like Julian of Norwich knew: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
If it isn’t good, it isn’t the end.
Therefore, even cold and broken, while tears may still run down our cheeks, and even at the grave we defiantly and faithfully make our praise and song to God: Allelujah, allelujah, allelujah.