Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Easter 7C: Acts 16:16-34

This morning’s story from the Acts of the Apostles has always fascinated me.  Here we have the tale of Paul and Silas being dragged before the magistrates and accused of “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans.”  They get thrown into prison, into the innermost cell with their feet fastened in the stocks.  But this is not what fascinates me.  What really gets my attention is what happens next.  “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God”[1]
Now we are not told what songs Paul and Silas were singing nor are we given insight into the words of their prayers. We can perhaps imagine the prayers we might have been saying that night.  If you or I were in that prison, convicted for doing what we knew in our hearts to be the right thing, to be the very thing that God required of us, we might also be found offering up prayers to God.  My prayer might sound something like this, “Dear God, you got me into this mess, now please, get me out of here!”  And then, when a violent earthquake shook the foundations of my prison and threw open the doors and released my chains, I suspect I might get the heck out of their – as fast and as far as I could run. 
But that’s not the story of Paul and Silas.  No, in this story, Paul and Silas are praying and singing and, we are told, the other prisoners were listening to them.  Then the great earthquake happens and the prisoners are free. [2]  The jailer when he sees what has happened assumes that everyone in that prison has done exactly what I would have done and he is prepared to take his own life to avoid the punishment that will surely come upon him when the authorities discover that all the prisoners have escaped.  But that is not what happens in this story.  In fact, Paul shouts out to the jailer, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”  Are you kidding me?  They don’t take this opportunity to run?  Apparently the prayers they were praying and the songs they were singing were not the same prayers I would have offered.
Susan Bock in her book Liturgy for the Whole Church wrote a dramatic reading called “A Story of Freedom” based on this story.  I’d like to read a short bit of the dialogue:
“Paul:   Freedom, you know, is a funny thing. Because it’s possible to be locked away in the innermost cell of a prison, and yet still, somehow, your heart can sing, like a stream running free!

Jailer:  And it’s possible to believe you’re free, but you might just as well be bound hand and foot, because you can’t seem to choose for yourself what’s really right and good.

Paul:  Like the slave girl who followed Silas and me through the streets of Philippi. Talk about bondage! Even her thoughts weren’t her own!

Slave Girl:  But my owners were even less free than I, they were so bound by greed, which steals your heart and makes you treat others as things to be used . . . ”[3]
Paul and Silas and the other prisoners don’t flee.  Perhaps it is because they are already free.  They are already free. 
My brothers and sisters in Christ, are you free this day?  If not, what is holding you captive?  What prevents you from responding to Christ’s invitation?  What will it take for you to hold out your hands and let go? 
I’d like to walk you through a simple meditation. It is a meditation I have sometimes used with youth groups.  It might make you uncomfortable. It might not feel “Episcopalian.” It might make you feel a bit self-conscious.  But I invite you to be open to the experience this morning.
I invite you to close your eyes.  Clench your hands together in a fist.

What is it you are holding on to? Is there something that is knotting you up inside? Is there  something you don’t want to let go of? Is there something you are struggling with? Is there  something you don’t want anyone to see? Is there something you don’t want God to see? Whatever it is, notice that it is there. Notice what it feels like, without judgment or blame, simply observing  and allowing the knowledge of what you are holding to come to the surface. And if you are not sure what it is, that is fine. Simply notice whatever is there.

Now, if you wish, open your hands.

It may be that you don’t feel ready to do that, and that’s O.K. You can go through this whole meditation with your fist clenched. We recognize that in God’s eyes, whatever is hidden in our clenched fist is already known and seen and loved.  At the same time, we recognize that this is a gift to be received willingly.  The invitation is there for you to open your hands, whenever you are ready. When you have unclenched your fist, notice what that feels like. Does it feel freeing? Does it feel scary? Does it feel like nothing is there? What is in your hand now?

Push whatever your hands are holding toward God.

Whatever was worrying you or scaring you or tying you up in knots, whatever you were carrying with you, whatever you were afraid to let other people see, push it toward God and let God catch it. Let God take whatever it was from you. Let your hands be empty.

Now, hold your open hands in front of you again with the palm facing upwards.

Now that your hands are empty, allow God to put a gift into your hands. This may be a gift of encouragement. It may be a challenge or an instruction. It may be a new perspective. It may be a message of love. Maybe you don’t know what it is or you’re not sure anything is there, and that’s O.K. But whatever it is that God wants to give you, allow God to place it in your hand. What does it feel like?

And how does it make you feel? Take a few moments and simply notice whatever is going on for you.

See this gift entering into your body, traveling through your bloodstream. What does it feel like? Allow God’s gift to spread through you. If you don’t feel like you have received a gift, or are not sure if you want to receive the gift, you can keep standing with your hands open, or, if you wish, press your open hand to your heart. It may be that you discover something in that movement that you didn’t find in your open hand.

Finally, hold out your hands to offer your thanks to God.

Whether it is for a gift you have received this morning, or for anything else, use this gesture to offer your thanks to God for anything you wish. When you have offered whatever thanks you wish, you may open your eyes.[4]

Susan Bock’s dramatic reading continues with these words:

“Freedom, indeed, is a strange and wonderful thing, coming, as it does, from someone, or something, outside all our locked doors, . . . or from someplace deep inside, where no one can touch it, or steal it away. God wants us free! And when we are all bound up in the deepest innermost cells of our darkest prisons, . . . convinced we are hopeless, abandoned, and lost, . . . God will come find us, bringing light to our darkness, and whispering love to our hungry hearts. God will find us in our chains and break their hold, and bring us again to the light of day.”[5]

Freedom is a gift from God.  Come and take the gift.

[1] Acts 16:25.
[2] Acts 16:26.
[3] Susan Bock, “A Story of Freedom: A Dramatic Reading for Three People,” Liturgy for the Whole Church: Multigenerational Resources for Worship (New York: Church Publishing, 2008), 128.
[4] “Hand Meditation,” Confirm not Conform Weekend Retreat, (Cincinnati: Forward Movement, 2009, 2012), 18-20.
[5] Bock, 129.