The Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C

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Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

This is Mother’s Day. When I was a kid, my mother said a lot of things to me that I thought were in the Bible. This could have been because she said them with great emphasis and authority. Or it could have been because we only had three types of reading material in our house: Life magazine, the World Book Encyclopedia and the Bible. If it didn’t sound like the magazine or the encyclopedia, I assumed she got it from the Bible.

Anyway, my mother would come into the room my two bothers and I shared, and she would start shaking her head as she surveyed our mess, and she would say, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” as she ordered us to get cracking on a clean-up. I looked and looked in the Bible, trying to find that text. It’s not there. John Wesley, who founded the Methodist Church, said it.

Whenever one of her children complained to her about life – she would look at us gravely and say, “God works in mysterious ways.” Sounds like the Bible, right? Well no, turns out to a paraphrase of a hymn by 19th English poet William Cowper, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”

If I was on the edge of adolescent despair, facing some obstacle I thought myself totally incapable of overcoming – a term paper, a college entrance essay, a job application – she would look over her glasses at me and say, “Do your best, God helps those who help themselves.” Bible? Not exactly. Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac.

As a pastor, I have talked with many people who attributed things to the Bible that aren’t there. Most ministers have had similar experiences. One of the worst cases I have heard of was Jewish biblical scholar and Rabbi Rami Shapiro. He had to prove to one of his students at Middle Tennessee State University that the expression “That dog won’t hunt.” is not in the book of Proverbs. (John Blake, CNN.belief.net, 6/5/2011)

There are other common sayings that we have all heard while uncertain of the source. As I thought about the story of Paul and Silas in jail, the line “Stone walls do not a prison make,” came to mind, but I could not remember the source. I knew it wasn’t the Bible, but beyond that, I had no idea. Shakespeare? Franklin? I guessed Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” but I was wrong. It is Richard Lovelace, a 17th century English poet, from his poem “To Althea, From Prison.”

Biblical or not, the lines “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage;” really get at the heart of the fascinating story of “the prisoners who would not leave and the jailer who did not die.”
This story take place in Philippi, where Paul and Silas have been meeting with the local believers at their place of prayer down by the river. One day, as the evangelists walk through the marketplace, they are followed by a shouting slave girl who is said to be psychic – so much so that people pay her owners for her services. As she follows them, she manages to annoy the always prickly Paul and he turns on her and performs an unsolicited exorcism, casting out from her the demon that is the source of her visions and, incidentally, much of her owners’ income. They are not amused.

The owners find a way to bring a complaint against Paul and Silas and get them beaten and thrown into jail, where the jailer makes sure they cannot escape by putting them in stocks and a cell in the middle of the jail.
At midnight, while Paul and Silas are keeping everybody awake singing and praying, an earthquake comes and breaks them loose, the doors fall off, the shackles come unfastened. Paul and Silas and all the prisoners are free – but they don’t go anywhere.

Meanwhile, the jailer wakes up and sees the doors open and prepares to kill himself. Why? Well, because he knows he will be blamed for the escape. He knows he will be executed, so killing himself is his best option – he thinks. But Paul calls out, “Don’t do that, we’re all here.”

“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage;”

Paul and Silas are the people in this story who are in jail, yet they are the people in this story who are the most free. They are free to praise God and sing hymns, free to stay where they are in prison rather than feeling the need to run and hide, they are free to speak God’s truth whenever they wish, wherever they are, and to whomever God puts in front of them. On the other hand, the jailer is not free. The jailer is bound up in chains of duty and obligation, of fear and failure.

“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage;”

Most of us live within a variety of invisible prisons, things that limit us, that hold us back, that fill us with fear and anxiety, and worst of all, that keep us from experiencing and living out the evangelical freedom that comes from knowing that God loves us unconditionally; that nothing that we do and nothing that we are can possibly separate us from the love of God, which is shown to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

In our heart of hearts, we want to be like Paul and Silas. We want to be able to praise God and sing hymns no matter what dire circumstances life throws at us. But, unfortunately, most of the time, we are more like the jailer – believing that we have failed, believing that anything bad that has happened to us is our own fault because we didn’t help ourselves, or we weren’t clean enough, or God is mysteriously punishing us for something we didn’t even know we did wrong, or, or, or. Well brothers and sisters, it may not be in the Bible, but it’s still true: “That dog won’t hunt!” Which is another way of saying “That simply is not true.”

“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage;”

The old Lutheran Book of Worship Prayer of Confession says it best, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” No we cannot free ourselves, but Jesus can and did. When we find ourselves on the cusp of despair, when we have lost all hope, when we cry out with the jailer, “What must I do to be saved?” the surprising answer is this, “Nothing – Jesus did it all. The earthquake of the cross has broken your shackles, and opened the doors of your heart. As Paul said, all you have to do is believe.”

And that, my friends, is in the Bible – from beginning to end.

Amen and amen.

One thought on “The Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C

  1. to the michael goldman and boy;s life magazine. cbs anchor woman cindy hsu recently got involved in dirty coraption business with not normal cbs anchor otis livingston to steal money from boy’s life magazine employees bank accounts. never trust cindy hsu and otis livingston they crooks and belong in jail !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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