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We Are All Here

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Jun 02

Reading          Acts 16: 16-34

Before we get to Acts, I’d like to begin with a story I came across just this week about a woman who was once born a slave girl herself.  Her name was Callie Guy House. She was born into slavery in Rutherford County, Tennessee, outside of Nashville, around the year of 1861. Though her story is not is not as well as known as that of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells or Rosa Parks to name a few, I think you will soon agree that she belongs in that same pantheon of black female freedom fighters.  Like her mother before her who had been enslaved most of her life, she worked as a laundress and seamstress. Sitting in church one day in her early twenties, a so called ‘freed woman,’ she came across a pamphlet that had been circulating amidst the black communities of Tennessee. It carried the idea of financial compensation for ex-slaves, many of whom would be sitting right beside her. She also learned about the existence of pensions that were being made available to families of slain Union soldiers.  And, she recalled something she had learned about the US Constitution that people had the right to “petition their government.” House had soon after found her calling.  She began circulating a petition of her own and what would become her decades long effort to petition the US government for reparations, in particular for pensions owed to ex-slave for years of unpaid labor.  Callie House built what is widely regarded as the first reparations movement in the US.

A widow and mother of five, House co-founded an organization called the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association.  She traveled extensively and worked tirelessly recruiting former slaves and their families to join the cause. She helped create chapters in every formerly slaveholding state. By 1900, she had grown the organization to some 300,000 dues paying members with chapters throughout the country, all of this at a time when lynchings and other acts of racial terror were rampant.  The dues - 5 cents each or whatever someone could afford - paid for House and other organizers to travel, recruit members, lobby congress and press litigation. Funds raised were also used by local chapters in to support medical and burial expenses for destitute former slaves.

Not surprisingly, the US government would have none of House’s petitions. In 1900, when a full 21% of African Americans had been born into slavery, Callie House received notice that the US Post Office had issued a fraud order against her and her organization.  The charges were bunk! They accused her of soliciting money under false pretenses. Her crime? Having the audacity to lead people to believe that reparations were even possible!

We might wonder if House knew the story of a Northern slave, Belinda Sutton Royall, who in 1783, and after 50 years of being enslaved to Royall family in nearby Medford, became the first former slave to successfully petition and secure a small pension from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  This, by the way, is the first known case of reparations for slavery and it happened in our own backyard. In fact, those of you who joined our First Church history walking tour last week will recall our visit to some of the estates on Brattle Street and my mentioning members of the Royall and Vassal families who shared slaves. One of those enslaved persons, Cuba Vassal, whose family would have surely known Belinda, is listed on our own membership records.  Cuba also petitioned the Commonwealth for compensation.

For now, back to Callie House: undeterred by the fraud order, she later filed a lawsuit against US Treasury Department for $68 million in cotton taxes that were traced to slave labor in Texas. As you might imagine, she was never awarded the justice that she or her organization deserved.  In 1917, she spent a year in jail for mail fraud. She died 10 years later on June 6, 1918. House once said:  “My Face is black is true ...but I love my name and my honesty in dealing with my fellow man.”  Amen to that!

And now back to our story from Acts where an unnamed slave girl similarly persists in speaking her truth.  Apparently, she had a lucrative gift of “clairvoyance” as one translation puts it. She had a spirit of divination that allowed her to see the future and, in this case, to see the truth that Paul and Silas were themselves servants of the most High!  


Why did Paul want to silence her? And what happens to her after he supposedly heals her? Scholars aren’t quite sure.  Is this just more evidence of Paul’s or perhaps the writer’s misogynism? What is clear is that the slave girl’s powers, demonic or otherwise, was making money for her owners, money that we she was unable to keep for herself. Maybe her persistence in following Paul was an ingenious way to free herself from this exploitation.  Whatever the reason, Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten, flogged and thrown in a cell for disrupting the status quo of her owner’s industry.  And yet a spirit of freedom, despite what others will do to you, rings through this passage. In fact, Paul and Silas are overheard praying and singing in their cell at midnight, all the while with their feet fastened in stocks! Paul and Silas’s faith and inner freedom has inspired countless Christian captives to sing in their cells ever since.


The story could end there, or even with the earthquake that breaks their chains and flings wide the prison doors, but it doesn’t.  It keeps going and it’s the last part of the story about the Phillipian jailer that I find most compelling! When the jailer realizes he has failed at his task he threatens to kill himself in shame.  Paul stops him and shouts “don’t do it, for we are all here.” At one level, Paul is just stating facts. No one has escaped. But I can’t help but wonder if the writer of Acts has a more subtle point in mind!  We are all here! As in, we are all trapped in the captivity of this world of slavery, and of submission to legal authorities we can’t trust.  Whatever the case, Paul says it: We are all here. And he seems to be saying to the jailer “There’s no escaping without you for you too are our brother in God’s love!”  


The glory of this story for me is that the jailer wakes up! Those first century light bulbs are turned on.  The foundations of that entire prison complex and along with it the prison of his own mind have been shaken to the core. As David Forney has said, “The irony of this passage is that those who seem to be in prison are actually free in Christ, and the jailer, who supposedly has the keys to freedom, is actually the one who is shackled to his duty.” Paul’s solidarity with him creates a come to Jesus moment for the Jailer!  He sees his life anew and asks a question, in Eugene Peterson’s translation: “Sirs, what do I have to do be saved, to really live”? Peterson’s translation continues: “They said: Put your entire trust in Jesus. Then you’ll live as you were meant to live -- and everyone in your house included!” The jailer not only lets them go free, but first he washes their wounds. In turn he is washed and baptized, with his family. He then invites these would be prisoners into his home breaks bread with them.


Are you catching the echoes of Holy Week here?  A trial of sorts, the crowds ganging up, the stocks, the Easter earthquake, a sure prisoner’s tomb breaking open,  the freedom of new life, then the echoes of footwashing and of a last supper that becomes a first meal and taste of freedom everyone, even those who had betrayed!  It’s like the gospel in miniature!

If there is a thread in this action packed story, and one for us to pick up and run with, its that God’s spirit of truth and love and justice has the power to break every chain, to bring freedom to every soul, to bring repair to the widest of breaches.  And to access that jailbreaking power, we need to put our trust in God!


We are told an earthquake shook the foundations of that first century prison!  I wonder if we aren’t beginning to experience some tectonic shifts that are shaking the foundations of our own prisons of inequality in this country, let alone of our own ways of beings.  Can we catch the spirit of the slave girl’s persistence? Can we catch the spirit of the Callie House’s insistence and that of so many others whose stories of struggle and courage and conviction we have yet to hear?  Can we hear those clairvoyant voices today, the women of color and others, who are continuing to petition our spiritual and civic leaders? And can we, like the jailer, join in the work to free others and ourselves, to heal wounds,and share our meals?  We may be hearing the early rumblings in national calls to repair the grievous breach of America’s original sin of racism and white superiority, to heal the still gaping wounds of slavery’s living legacy, most evident today in in a profound wealth gap between whites and blacks and in the scourge of mass incarceration that is over 2.2 million people, almost 70% of whom are are persons of color.


Our story from Acts ends powerfully with a meal, a taste of God’s freedom, and one that is shared in completely new relationship with one another. This was the hallmark of Jesus ministry. When we “do this in remembrance” of him, we not only remember the reality of violence in our world that took his life but we share in the lasting invitation to share in God’s nourishment and to bring prisoners and jailers, slaves and free, to a table of new life at which we can hold ourselves accountable to our human sins. In the words of Callie House, its a chance to love our names and to love our honesty with our fellow human beings!  


Here, at First Church, we are finding ourselves in the midst of a season of truth telling honesty with our past and present. We are finding ourselves wrestling with a call to wake up, to trust in God, to wonder what we can do to be, in the words of Isaiah, repairers of the breaches that are evident all around us.  For me, this work begins in remembrance, of remembering and acknowledging the ongoing reality of trauma and terror in our own American story, in this church’s, in the stories of our own ancestors. It means remembering the courage or Callie House, and that unnamed Slave girl, and the jailer. I believe this is leading us to know  a new way of salvation, a new and yet very old way of transforming our lives and our relationships. For me, this work is inviting me into what is increasingly feeling like a spiritual practice, not merely of remembrance and truth telling but further into a spiritual practice of reparations! Not reparations in the relatively esoteric terms of a national movement to raise the trillions dollars owed to descendants of enslaved persons or indigenous peoples.  For me, it’s a spiritual practice that starts personally and locally. It involves real relationships with persons of color who have not had the advantages or privileges that I have had.


A quick example... A few weeks back, we were sitting with a close friend, a descendant of slaves, who is facing a rent increase and possible eviction. He knows about our conversations about reparations. When we offered to help with his monthly rent he shared with love in his heart a better idea, an inspirational five year plan that would allow us to join him on his own journey towards homeownership, a plan he is still holding onto notwithstanding his current circumstances.  His faith and hope are inspirational and we are committed to not eating out or hitting ‘confirm purchase’ as much in our online shopping as much, in other words, to making decisions that are good for our bodies and souls! Its an experiment that we promised to revisit with each other. It’s just a beginning, and it began in breaking bread and talking, as we sometimes do, about the deep nourishment that God provides.

Indeed, what must we do to be saved, to really live as Jesus calls us to live, especially when we realize that “we are all still here”, still held captive in a prison that is today our market driven, white supremacist system? What must we do to break the chains of our duties to succeed, of our privilege, of our thinking that we need the best for our kids, emphasis on the “our”.  What must we do to find that deeper sense of freedom, joy and truth that sets ourselves and others free?  


We may not be slaveholders ourselves! We may not be jailers!  But we are standing in the midst of a still unfolding story and we have responsibility to act  in the here and now. I believe that the Spirit is once again shaking the foundations. As we will soon sing, we will need God to draw us by a different kind of tether, the Spirit’s tether, the tether of our call to covenantal love that continues to bind our hearts and our struggles to one another.  May this tether save us from ourselves. May it be what corrals us into loving conversations about a spiritual practice or honest remembrance, repair and reconciliation. And may we too taste and share in God’s freedom and love. Amen.


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