Earlier this spring, right after Easter, I went down South with my family to visit some of the sites that had been significant in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. So we were in Atlanta. We saw the house where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born. And just a little ways away we saw where he’s buried. We went to Montgomery and we saw the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which is where King was pastor while he was leading the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and ‘56. And we saw the famous Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, where law enforcement officers with clubs fell on and beat peaceful demonstrators who were beginning a march to Montgomery on behalf of voting rights.
It was both a heartbreaking and inspiring trip. It’s good to remember our heroes. It’s good to have heroes. Men and women like King, and like Rosa Parks, who triggered bus boycott by refusing to move to the back of the bus. Men like John Lewis, who is a congressman now. He was young man who stood firm at the head of that march in Selma, when the police fell on them and beat them, then took them to prison.
It’s good to be inspired by their courage and their moral conviction, and to remember their example, and to remember that there is still work to be done to fully accomplish their ideals. It’s good to have heroes to remind us what a righteous life looks like.
There were a lot of emotional moments for me on that trip, but I think probably the most intense moment was the lunch counter exhibit at the civil rights museum in Atlanta. In 1960, in the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, four black students sat down and were refused service, as they expected. They refused to leave, and eventually they were arrested and taken away, but others followed them, followed that example, and these lunch counter protests spread across the South.
So at the Atlanta museum there’s a small lunch counter. I remember a little lunch counter in the dime store in the town where I grew up. Those little, metal chairs that swing around. So you sit down on one of those chairs and you put on headphones, and you put your hands on the counter in front of you, and you close your eyes, and it’s about as close to being at one of those lunch counters in the ‘60s as I could imagine.
It’s a very effective exhibit, you hear the sounds, you feel in your seat the kicks. People lean in close, you can hear them breathing, you can hear their hatred. They whisper insults. They whisper threats. You hear the crowd in the background. It is extremely intense. So much so that the museum has staff members who are there to comfort people when they finish the exhibit, and I have to say it was kind of strange for me as a white woman to be comforted by an African-American woman who wanted to make sure that two minutes of racial hatred wasn’t too much for me.
But it was effective. It was a great reminder, and we through the exhibit revisited the history of the whole lunch-counter protest movement which spread across the South. In Tallahassee when the students were arrested and taken to jail, they did not post bail. They stayed in jail. The motto became, “Jail, no bail.” And it was a tactic that also spread across the South. Partly to overwhelm the system, but partly because many people didn’t have money to post bail.
The civil rights movement was largely a faith-based movement, and the protestors in those years spent a lot of time in jail, and the story of Paul and Silas was an important story to that whole movement. The hymn that became one of the most prominent in the movement—“Eyes on the Prize,” it goes, “Paul and Silas bound in jail, had no money to go their bail. Paul and Silas thought they was lost, dungeon shook and the chains came off. Keep your eyes on the prize.”
Martin Luther King himself was jailed more than once, and in 1963 he spent a week in terrible conditions in the Birmingham City Jail, and he wrote a letter there that has become a document that we still hold up for its eloquence. It’s called “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And it talks about the theology of the movement and of the non-violent tactics they used, and it’s very critical of the white church for being slow to respond to this call for justice.
Paul was also certainly known for his letters, and some of those were actually written while he was in prison, but in the story we heard today from the book of Acts, he and Silas spent their time in jail singing hymns and praying to God, while the others prisoners listened. Which is to say they kept on evangelizing right there in jail.
They had been imprisoned in Macedonia for casting out the spirit that enabled that slave girl to tell fortunes. But the owners of the slave became outraged, because when she couldn’t tell fortunes she couldn’t make money for them anymore, and so the owners stirred up the people against Paul and Silas, and took them before the magistrates, where they were accused of disturbing the city.
Which is ironically close to the charge against the lunch-counter protestors, who were charged with disturbing the peace, as if their non-violence had been the thing that was unpeaceful.
In the story of Paul and Silas, of course, there’s an earthquake, the walls of the prison fall down, the chains come loose, and the jailer is out to kill himself, to take his own life. And Paul stops him, and reassures him that no one has run away, because the jailer, under the Roman code of honor, would have had to kill himself if he failed in his duty and let the prisoners escape.
But Paul says, “We’re all here, don’t worry.” And the jailer says, “What do I need to do to be saved?” And Paul’s answer is so simple; he says, “Believe.” That’s it.
So the jailer takes Paul and Silas home, washes their wounds—they also were beaten—and Paul and Silas baptized the jailer and his family. and the story ends with great celebration.
Paul and Silas had gone to Macedonia in response to a dream that Paul had, in which a man pleaded with him to come and preach the Gospel there. And Martin Luther King actually talks about this passage, this story in Acts, in his letter from the jail. He wrote, “Just as the apostle left his village of Tarsus, and carried the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so I am compelled to carry the Gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
The Gospel of freedom.
The story of Paul and Silas, and the story of all those civil rights demonstrators, Martin Luther King in jail in Birmingham, they all point to a veryimportant question, which is, “What does it really mean to be free?”
Because you can be free in spirit like Paul and Silas, and I think maybe like Martin Luther King. Even when your body is behind bars, they can’t hold your spirit down. But the reverse is also true: you can be imprisoned when you’re walking around on the streets. You can be enslaved to different things. But the Gospel, the Gospel is always pointing toward freedom.
So many of the characters in this story aren’t free. The slave girl is possessed by a spirit, the jailer is possessed the Roman code of honor, he’s enslaved by that, in the sense he has to kill himself if he fails in his duty. The owner of the slave girl is possessed by his own greed. And when the sun rises again in the morning the only ones who really are free are the believers, Paul and Silas, and the jailer, and his newly baptized family.
So the good news of the Gospel becomes a vehicle of liberation in this story, as it should be today for us.
It’s a good story for the Easter season, because liberation is what Easter is all about. When we celebrate the Resurrection and say that it’s about being set free from sin and death, we mean that we’re being set free from all the things that hold us back from fully flourishing.
And yet there are still so many ways that people aren’t free. You still have people who are unjustly imprisoned, who are held back from flourishing by poverty and injustice. Who are enslaved, like the owners of the slave girl, to their own greed. So many in our society are tragically captive to addiction. It’s a list that could go on and on, I’m sure that each of you probably could think of examples of your own to add.
And there are no simple fixes to end all these things. I wish could leave you with a simple answer to how to do that, but I can’t.
That’s the reality, but I would like to leave you with three questions to ponder.
The first is, are there ways that you yourself aren’t fully free? And the second is: do you see other people, either nearby—your friends and family—or out there in the greater world—do you see other people who aren’t fully free? And the third is the most important: where does faith make a difference? Where can faith make a difference? In the need to take action? Can it really set us free?
Because the good news of the Gospel is always pointing towards freedom. Freedom to flourish in God’s love, and with God’s grace.