Texts: Acts 16:16-34 + Psalm 97 + Revelation 22:12-21 + John 17:20-26
A while back, before we’d moved into this temporary space, before the listening campaign a few summers back, before the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance, around the time of the Boulevard Bash (our five year foray into the world of Chicago’s summer street festivals), we were tossing the phrase “One Logan Square” around a lot. It was our response to another phrase we were hearing in the neighborhood more often, the “two Logan Squares” idea. People would say, “there are two Logan Squares — there’s the small corner grocery stores and then there’s the new food co-op” and you were supposed to know what that meant. “There’s Taqueria Moran and then there’s the Boiler Room” and you were supposed to know what that meant.
“There’s the Mega Mall on Milwaukee and there’s the Target on Logan Boulevard near Elston.” But you can’t really say that anymore, because the Mega Mall’s been closed for a year and is about to be turned into luxury apartments with a high end grocery store on the ground level. And people are talking about the “two Logan Squares” less and less. Nevertheless, on the night before his death, Jesus’ final prayer was “that they may become completely one” in the kind of love shared between the Father and the Son. (John 17:23)
God, it’s Mother’s Day, and John’s gospel gives us “Father” language. What to do? I read commentaries that tried to paste the two together by labeling the divine desire for unity as a portrait of motherly love and I thought, “no, thank you, we’ll pass on that stereotype.” There are plenty of mothers who sow disunity in their families, and there are plenty of fathers who long to see their children reconciled. For that matter, there are plenty of childless people who do both. But if the idealized trait is to long for unity in the human family, let’s not limit our projection of that trait onto the feminine divine, let’s say that we are all made in the image and likeness of a God whose desire for unity is imprinted onto every single one of us. And that, for better or for worse, is all I’m going to try to say about Mother’s Day, in this sermon.
But I’m still stuck on the idea of the “two Logan Squares,” which seems emblematic of the sort of divisions we see deepening throughout our world. You hear it echoing in coded talk about the “North Side” and the “South Side” in Chicago. You definitely hear it in the political rhetoric bleeding electric ink into the onslaught of emails and news articles filling my inbox.
Even at a moment when we’re celebrating the election of a Muslim of Pakistani descent as mayor of London, the press is quick to label this as a historic moment in “the West.” This is how we insist on seeing ourselves, always it seems, as an “us” and a “them.”
Paul and Silas run into it as they continue their ministry in Philippi, which is introduced in the story as “a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.” (Acts 16:12) This is where Lydia and her household become followers of Jesus, which commentaries always point out makes her the first “European” convert, assuming that’s something we ought to know. But we don’t know anything about the slave girl in the story that follows, except that she “had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.” (v.16) Not even her name.
Once again Acts gives us a story rich in detail but light in exposition, forcing us to fill in the blanks ourselves. For instance, this spirit-possessed slave girl is making her owners a great deal of money, from which we might assume that her divinations were accurate enough that they generated new and repeat business. She was a slave and she was a powerful fortune teller. She was someone’s property, but she was also profoundly gifted. Gifted enough that when she sees Paul and Silas, she immediately sees them for who they are. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” (v.17)
It takes one to know one, as they say, and in this case it is a slave girl who can see that these men are also slaves. Of course, that’s not how the angry slave owners identify them after Paul releases the girl from her possession. Once they are no longer able to make their money off the girl she disappears from the story altogether and the scene shifts to Paul and Silas being dragged before the authorities where the race-baiting begins.
“These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” (v.20-21)
Its what the Freedom Riders were called when they rode the buses down to Birmingham and Montgomery and Jackson. It’s what the Christian Peacekeeper Teams heard when they went into Colombia, Chiapas, and the West Bank. “Outside agitators” who don’t belong here. Getting involved in business they have no part in. We heard it after we rallied at Lathrop Homes on Palm Sunday in the CHA’s press release, which stated,
“it is important to remember that these plans were crafted with full input from the community (my emphasis added), who were part of the decision making process and worked with CHA, the alderman, advocates, longtime affordable housing developers and other stakeholders to make decisions about the shared vision for the future of their community.”
But, aren’t we part of “the community?” And wasn’t the Lathrop Leadership Team that helped organize the event part of “the community?” Or, as Sojourner Truth put it to the women’s convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, “Ain’t I a woman?”
After they are beaten with rods and thrown in jail. After they spend the night praying and singing hymns to the other prisoners. After the earth shakes and the jail cells are broken open. After the jailor nearly commits suicide out of fear for what will happen when it is discovered that he has lost all his prisoners. After Paul and Silas choose to stay put, even after they were free to walk away. Then the magistrates try to clean up the problem, dismissing the charges and hoping it will all go away. But Paul and Silas stay put until the authorities agree to meet with them in public, saying, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now they are going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not!” (v.37) He might just as well have said, “and ain’t I a Roman?”
But not in our either/or imaginations. He couldn’t be a Roman and a Jew any more than Sojourner Truth could be Black and a Woman too, or Sadiq Khan can be both Muslim and the mayor of London, or the jailor could be both complicit oppressor and liberated in baptismal waters, or we can be both gentrifiers and housing activists.
Our either/or tendencies run so deep. Even as the book of Revelation crescendos to its climactic conclusion, inviting everyone to “come,” it repeats the old divisions. The cosmic Christ can be both the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the root of Jesse’s tree and the descendent of David (Rev. 22:12,13,16); but we are either those whose robes have been washed (in the blood of the Lamb), or we are “dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” (v.15) When, of course, we’re both. Both liberated and still captive to patterns of sin that harm ourselves and others. Simul justus et peccator. Both righteous and sinners. But even our lectionary plays the either/or game, cutting the troubling verses out of the assigned reading for this morning so that we wouldn’t have to be bothered by the presence of those disturbing voices in our scripture, that evidence that we are always struggling with who to let in, with how much of ourselves to invite into the presence of the holy.
As the new life first discovered at the empty tomb pivots toward the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we are being reminded over and over again that resurrection always goes hand in hand with reconciliation, that the Holy Spirit cannot bear segregation. That there is no East and West, just the planet. No North or South, just Chicago. No Black or Woman, no Muslim or Briton, just humanity. Just one Logan Square. And the minute we think we’ve named the last of the lines that still divide us, we discover there are lines that remain unnamed.
Who is that unnamed slave girl in our midst today, whose labor is exploited, who tells the truth about what is really going on, whose story gets lost the minute the main character — someone with power and privilege — shows up?
To her, and to you,
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come,’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Rev. 22:17)
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.