Ascension of the Lord
Acts 16:16-34
Luke 24:44-53

Needless to say, I was deeply disturbed Friday morning when I received word that overnight someone or several people had crossed the threshold of our space and ripped down the beautiful Pride flag hanging over our door. There was a sense of having been violated with someone entering our property that way. The police officer taking the report said that it would be considered a “hate crime” and indeed that is exactly what it is – an act of hate toward our church and what we stand for. It was a calculated, intentional endeavor.

You may recall that the Pride flag was hung in early March as a response to our own United Methodist denomination’s stand against full inclusion of our LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters. Here we are on 86th Street in New York City between Lexington and Park Avenue and it is easy to think that we live in a bubble – unlike some small towns that many of us may have hailed from.

We must be honest with ourselves about the fact that there is real hate in our country and world. Sometimes, I don’t want to think so, but I know it is true and perhaps it has always been true. We are held captive by so many things, bound up, paralyzed, and captivated.

Twelve people are dead this morning in Virginia Beach. Their families, loved ones, and their communities are devastated wondering why and how and what could possess a person to do such a thing. Our prayers are with them. This is just the latest city and the latest set of victims in a world growing further and further apart.

This was fresh on my mind as I was preparing the sermon for today. Our New Testament lesson is fraught with images of slavery and freedom: being bound up and being set loose.  It occurs to me that hate is a real form of slavery. One is bound, controlled by the bitterness of their own heart. We can be enslaved to almost anything. Yes, there is physical slavery where the body is held captive, subject to the will and direct cruelty of another, but there is also mental, emotional, and spiritual slavery that does great harm.

We can be enslaved to our own rightness and righteousness and think we are right about everything all the time, with little to no room for another view or perspective. We can be enslaved to greed, money, power, prestige, and privilege. Enslaved to indifference, stubbornness, anger, a refusal to change or let go. Just can’t do it, can’t do it, can’t do it!

Make no mistake, whenever we hate someone – anyone – for any reason, when we will them harm or evil regardless of how right we think we are or how wrong they are, we are a slave. Our mind, heart and spirit is in shackles. We are locked up and locked down and bound as any slave on any continent at any time.

Here’s what I have learned: enslaved people enslave. That’s what they do. They live tightly locked up under a dark cloud. They always see the negative and never have a sense of adventure. They live small and petty and are almost always fearful. They die a thousand deaths every day.

But free people set others free. A person who is truly free lives with their arms, lives, and spirit wide open. They recognize their power for good and they want to be on the side of being a facilitator, not captor. They understand that there is something profound about the human spirit that cannot and will not be harnessed nor contained – at least not forever.  They are the ones who say: “Go for it!” “Let’s try!” “Be all you can be and how can I help?”

There are all kinds of modern-day slavery lurking at our doors. People being used and exploited for any number of reasons who get very little for themselves and their good hard efforts while others profit from their vulnerabilities.

And we find such a thing right here in our lesson this morning. It is now after the crucifixion and news of the resurrection is being spread throughout Europe and Asia. Paul and Silas find themselves in a particular town and as they are on their way to a prayer meeting, they are confronted by a slave-girl. Luke describes her as someone “who had a spirt of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”

This contrasts with last week’s lesson that included Lydia, described as a seller of purple dye, a wealthy businesswoman in charge of her household. She engaged Paul and Silas upfront and is welcomed and baptized.

This poor, young, unnamed girl, is mere property, a money-maker, an object to be used and exploited. Nobody cares what she wants or thinks. She is a nuisance, a bother, and her only value is to make good for others.

She is a see-er, a teller of fortunes, she knows things. And you had better believe that she knows things.

When she sees these two gospel leaders and hears that Jesus has been raised from the dead, she knows there is something wonderful and profound about it all. She begins to follow Paul and Silas all around town. Day after day, she aligns her plight with them, following in their tracks, crying aloud: “These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim a way of salvation!”

Can you imagine? I mean really? How annoying it must have been for them? How disturbing that she refused to go away? Perhaps she understands what it means to be a slave to something in a way the others don’t.

These men are slaves too, she says, slaves of the Most High God for there is a force over them that drives everything.

And Paul, not so much concerned about her enslavement, but rather that she is a nuisance, casts out that spirit and Luke tells us that the spirit came out that very hour.

We don’t even need the Bible to tell us what happens next. We don’t need to Bible to tell us what happens when the money supply is cut off and the utility is no longer available. We don’t need a book to tell us how the owners acted when the girl is no longer profitable. Oh – the love of money!

Paul and Silas find themselves under brutal attack. The mob is ferocious. They are stripped of their clothes, beaten with rods, and placed in jail – deep in the inner cells with their feet fastened in stocks. Slaves.

But something happened around midnight as they were praying and singing hymns to God.  Did you get that? Here they are charged, beaten, naked, imprisoned, and victimized. They are there with an uncertain future but have transcended the moment and predicament and find themselves praying and singing hymns and being true to their faith and convictions.

And get this, the other prisoners, even the prison guards, are watching and listening and paying attention and somehow by God’s good grace – I can’t explain it – the foundation of the prisons are shaken, the doors swing open, and chains are unfastened.

The chief guard is afraid, ready to take his own life because he knows what his punishment will be. But he too is set free and his entire household is saved and baptized.

This morning, we also celebrate the ascension of our Lord. Jesus is gathered with the disciples and is lifted up away from their presence while they are standing on the ground gazing.

My friends, are we guilty of standing around gazing when there is so much work to be done? Are we standing and gazing, paralyzed against the powers that be? It is on the ground where things are dirty and murky. Painful. It is on the ground where we see the broken and hear their cries; on the ground there are little children going without and rampant injustice of one sort or another. It is on the ground – messy and bloody – where the wounded need compassion and people are crying out for truth and justice, civility, and common good. It is on the ground where we ask ourselves about our own agency and how we are setting people free.

And by the way, a new flag has been ordered and we hope to have it hung by mid-week.  We’ll hang it high, so high, higher than ever before!