A sermon by Sid Burgess for Edgewood PC, Birmingham, AL
Graduation Sunday, May 20, 2007
Text: Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97
The Jefferson County Jail is a pretty depressing place. It’s not the location—right in the heart of the city, overlooking the site of the proposed new entertainment district. It’s not the cost—room and board are free, courtesy of county taxpayers. And it’s not the staff, all well-trained professionals. But the accommodations are somewhat confining. They do have room service, but I’m told it’s a bit slow. Company on the inside is often less than congenial; company from the outside is severely restricted. The food is bland and you have to pay for coffee—even then, it’s only lukewarm and always instant.
Of course, this is just one jail, at one particular point in time, but I doubt prison conditions have ever been more appealing, anywhere. If fact, I suspect they have often been much, much worse. So, one wonders where Elvis Presley may have gotten the inspiration for his 1957 hit song, “Jailhouse Rock:”
The warden threw a party in the county jail
The prison band was there and they began to wail
The band was jumpin' and the joint began to swing
You should've heard those knocked out jailbirds sing
Let's rock, everybody, let's rock
Everybody in the whole cell block
Was dancin' to the Jailhouse Rock
While I seriously doubt that the jails in Tupelo or Memphis were so hip, “Jailhouse Rock” could have been inspired by our text today from the Acts of the Apostles. Surely, if ever there was a jail that rocked, it’s the one that held Paul and Silas in Philippi:
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to
God . . . .
26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that
the foundations of the prison were shaken;
and immediately all the doors were opened
and everyone’s chains were unfastened.
Reading the Books of Acts carefully, you get the clear impression that that the authorities—both religious and civil—are powerless to suppress the Good News of the Gospel. Back in chapter five, in the wake of the mass conversions of Pentecost, the religious leaders have the apostles arrested and put in the public prison. “But during the night,” says the narrator of Acts, “an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out”(5.19). In chapter 12, mean old King Herod has Peter arrested, and put him in prison “under the guard of four squads of soldiers.” “Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell,” and the angel led Peter past all the guards and then through the prison gates (12.3f).
The Acts of the Apostles wants to make it perfectly clear that no attempt to suppress the Gospel will succeed. No wonder Paul and Silas can sit in their dungeon cell, praying and singing praises to God!
Trying to create a sermon appropriate for graduation Sunday, I thought for a while that this story about jailbirds was particularly inappropriate. But then, I thought back to my own experience in youth. I remember feeling all but imprisoned in a small town high school where football was sacred and I, therefore, was . . .a sacrilege. I remember a terribly depressing freshman year in college, “bound hand and foot” by demanding academic requirements, challenging social situations, and the ever-present concern about expense money. And I recall what it was like trying to get started in a career— adjusting to the always competitive, sometimes hostile, world of work. I remember all too well what it was like as a young adult, tying to pay bills and establish credit, plus tying to sort out personal relationships, or suffering loneliness in the absence of same. At times, it felt as if I could hear the steel door slamming shut, locking me in and locking me out from what I had imagined as the happiness of adult freedom.
Considered from that perspective, the experiences of Paul and Silas in the slammer do not seem so distant. Dragged down to the courthouse, charged by the locals with disturbing the peace, beaten with rods, thrown into jail, bound with shackles. Figuratively speaking, that’s just another day on the job for some folks. Just another day in the torment of family discord. Just another day under pressure to make the grade, pass the exams, meet the budget, pay the bills . . . . Just another day to contend with the ravages of age.
Any single circumstance, any combination of the above, would qualify any one of us to sing the blues, to shout in protest, to rattle our cages. Instead, here are Paul and Silas, jailed behind stone walls and iron bars, singing hymns and praying to God, as if they were back at Montreat for the summer youth conference: “Let's rock, everybody, let's rock.” And suddenly, the jail does just that—rocks its foundations. The doors are thrown open, the chains fall to the ground. Like the psalmist says, “The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth”(v.5).
The early Christian evangelists want is to know—want us to believe— that just as death could not hold Jesus in the grave, so no prison on earth can hold back the powerful proclamation of God’s determination to rescue and redeem all of Creation.
Just how bad is it where you are? How difficult is your situation? How challenging are your circumstances? You know, popular wisdom says , “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” By contrast, biblical faith says, when the going gets tough, God takes action. Listen again to these verses from today’s psalm
God guards the lives of God’s faithful;
God rescues them from the hand of the wicked.
11 Light dawns for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart.
Seeing Paul and Silas down in the dungeon in Philippi, I want to know how they can sing and praise God when in such desperate straits. I want to know how they can do it because I have a feeling my time is coming, as surely suffering, in some form, in some fashion, comes to all mortal flesh. How, St. Paul, can you pray and sing praises to God while confined against your will? And, I can hear St. Paul, firing right back at me, how can you not praise the God of our salvation!
Because, through the Risen Christ, we have an advocate in the innermost life of God—sitting right there at God’s right hand. While others may ignore us, reject us, even condemn us, we still have an advocate in the innermost life of God. And we have it on good authority, the authority of Holy Scripture, that God is at work, here and now, to create a new heaven and a new earth— when “justice will roll down like mighty waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5.24). We can’t say when, but we can say where—where is right here on God’s good earth. For now,
We see only broken and scattered signs that the renewal of all things is underway. We do not yet see the end of cruelty and suffering in the world, the church, or our own lives. (Declaration of Faith, X. 2)
Our privileged life here in the Western world— all of the advances in science and technology not withstanding . . . . Our privileged life gives us no immunity to illness, to injustice, to the pain of death. Agony, heart ache, grief—at some point, at sometime come to us all— to the old and the weak, to be sure, but even to the young and strong. We make mistakes; we suffer from the mistakes of others. Our bodies are susceptible to injury and illness. Natural disasters strike, accidents happen. Injustice, unfairness, oppression abound in this world.
But none of the above, not even death itself, can separate us from the love of God made known to us by Jesus Christ. Therefore, sing with Paul and Silas. Rejoice and sing.
Let the whole world rock and roll with praises to God. Amen!