The challenge of liberation

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

June 2, 2019—Easter 7C

Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26       


          God never closes a door without opening a window, or so they say. If so, this prayer is Jesus praying that open window into being. Praying into the uncertainty of what is to come: his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion, followed by his resurrection and then his ascension. Which is all to say: he’s leaving. And so here in John 17 we find him praying not only for his current disciples who will have to say goodbye, but for us: for all those who will believe in the future. He prays that God might be present to and in us, and that we might be united with God through him.

          He is praying into a long future, aware that he won’t be here (not physically, anyway). He is praying, as I said, into uncertainty. Praying that the spirit he leaves us with will be enough to guide us. Will be enough to open that window.

          Honestly, that is sometimes a bit of a toss-up.

          One of my favorite writers, Liz James, wrote during the midst of her divorce: “I don’t believe it’s true that bad stuff always makes room for better stuff. But that doesn’t make it not a useful idea… So, when I’m ready, I ask myself ‘If this disappointment were a small part of a bigger, better story – how would you tell that story?  What would be the next part?’”[1]

          If Jesus’ death were part of a bigger, better story, how would you tell that story? Well, you’d tell it with the resurrection: Jesus’ crucifixion already IS part of a bigger, better story! But then Jesus leaves again, ascending into heaven, and we are left behind.

If THAT is part of a bigger, better story, what would it be? Well, Jesus starts us off with the gift of the Holy Spirit, breathing through and between us, giving us life, giving us words, inspiring us to the work of the kingdom. That’s a pretty great opener to our chapter. But, what then? What do we make of this story that is far more challenging than the one we wanted with Jesus walking the earth doing messiah stuff all over the place?

Honestly, it’s an uncertain, exceedingly imperfect kind of reality. We see that even in the part that makes it into the Bible! The Book of Acts, after all, is a story of the early days of the church, when followers of Christ are muddling their way through life beyond that “window” opened up by the door that closed when Christ ascended into heaven.

The story we hear today is (quite frankly) bonkers. We have this slave girl, whose worth to her masters seems to be the spirit that possesses her and allows her to tell fortunes. Which, okay, but that’s a very strange definition of possession. Nonetheless, she annoys Paul and Silas by following them around for several days, proclaiming that they are slaves of God.

And I don’t know why this annoys Paul so much. He himself has said the same thing. Is he annoyed that she is somehow putting herself on his level, by speaking the same truth? Is he just annoyed by the repetition, as the judge was annoyed by that persistent widow in Luke? That would be interesting, because the widow was glad when the judge granted her request. But the result in the Acts story (written by the same author as Luke, remember) is more mixed.

Paul casts the spirit of divination out of the slave girl. Thus, one might say, freeing her of the spirit. But she is still slave to her masters, and her masters are … not happy. Her value to those who still own her has been greatly diminished, without her occult powers of seeing the future. Her own future, then, has become decidedly more tenuous.

But nonetheless, the theme of liberation and imprisonment continues in the story, shifting back to Paul and Silas. Having decreased the value of powerful men’s property, they are thrown into prison. But they are men of God, and they pray and sing, bringing an earthquake that opens the doors and breaks the chains of all those in the prison.

Which is great good news of liberation for Paul, Silas, and all those who were in the jail. Not such great news for the jailer, who is so afraid for his job (which was to keep the town safe from law-breakers, right?) that he considers taking his own life. Paul, however, reassures the man that it wasn’t his fault: it wasn’t a jail-break but a sign of power from God that invites the jailer himself to believe.

Cool. But it’s still not such great news for that slave girl. She has been liberated from the spirit, but is still slave to her masters. Who are, as we noted, still exceedingly angry that she’s not so valuable any more.[2]

If this exorcism is part of a bigger, better story for her, what would it be? If the power of the risen Christ that dwells in Paul and Silas is part of a bigger, better story for her, what would it be? Does it just leave her there, trying to justify her worth to her masters? Does it hope her masters see the power of Christ and allow that liberating message to enter their souls and prompt them to free her?

Honestly, the book of Acts doesn’t tell us. It leaves that part of the story hanging, leaves the liberation decidedly incomplete. Leaves us with questions of unintended consequences, when we try to do a good thing, but never quite know what might happen as a result. Leaves us with the reminder that we need to pay attention. Pay better attention than Paul and Silas perhaps, as to what those consequences might be.

Because liberation is complicated. And our intentions, no matter how good, can lead to unexpected results. And the story that we are writing—the bigger, better story that is unfolding after the very hard fact of Jesus leaving us here—that story is long and complicated. Even in the Bible, for God’s sake, a slave girl is left precarious while Paul and Silas (and all those other prisoners) get to go free.

This is NOT unmitigated good news. Liberation is not a simple thing, especially when we don’t even ask the enslaved person what they really need! Nothing is simple, when we are trying to write a kingdom story without Jesus to speak the actual words. Without Jesus, who would surely have sat down with that slave girl for a heart to heart.

This story is a hard story. It’s a flawed story. And it’s an important, true story about the process of liberation, and how long it takes. How it takes many stages. How it requires paying attention and not just saying, “There you go” and walking away. “You’ve overthrown your dictator; there you go.” “Your divorce is final; there you go.” “We’ve abolished slavery; there you go.” “We’ve dismantled the Jim Crow laws; there you go.” “We’ve passed the Civil Rights Act; there you go (are we done yet?)” “We’ve … well, tbh, we aren’t even sure we’re ready to admit the lasting social and economic effects that remain in the wake of all that. Liberation is exhausting.” 

It’s true. I read it in the Bible. Jesus died, rose, and ascended. And we are left to write the bigger, better story in the wake of that disappointment. He has left us a spirit of truth and discernment and inspiration to assist us. And the early church has left us some stories to remind us that we aren’t the only ones who are fumbling our way through. May we have the humility and the tenacity to keep at the work, no matter how flawed we might be. May it be so. Amen.

[1] Liz James,

[2] Jennifer T. Kaalund,

Clare Hickman