View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin


Sunday, August 5, 2018 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.

Singing into Freedom

“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 97
Acts 16:16–34

God, food of the poor;
Christ our bread,
give us a taste of the tender bread
from your creation’s table;
bread newly taken
from your heart’s oven,
food that comforts and nourishes us.
A fraternal loaf that makes us human.
A warm loaf that makes us a family.

“Psalms for Life and Peace,” Lima, Peru


On Thursday afternoon, I returned to Chicago from South Africa, where I was honored to share an adventure with thirty-nine other Fourth Church folks on our music mission trip/choir tour. One of the gifts I received in South Africa was a total immersion into Africa time. Everyone we encountered tried to help tutor us on it. “We know church is said to start at 10,” the pastor would say, “but on Africa time church starts when it is time for church to start and everyone is ready.” So 10:00 would come and go, and sometime later one or two women would begin singing, and the whole gathered congregation would respond with four-part harmony and, often, with dance. The choir would start to rhythmically process down the aisle, and it would become clear to us Chicago Presbyterians that it was now time for church.

The concept of Africa time reminded me of the Greek differentiation between chronos time and kairos time. Chronos time is more like the clock—the linear, precise understanding of when things are to occur and in what sequence. Kairos time, however, is more about a sense of fullness, of ripeness, a consensus decision that all is now ready for whatever experience needs to unfold. Africa time definitely tilts in the direction of kairos time, and at least for this white, middle-aged, American, Presbyterian pastor, the necessity of relaxing into a different way of considering time felt like a gift. It proved to be an antidote to some of the anxiety, confusion, and chaos I often feel in day-to-day life here in the city.

I imagine, though, that at this point in the book of the Acts of the Apostles the disciples felt more tugged by chronos time rather than by God’s gift of kairos. As a friend of mine puts it, “The disciples are out over their skis a bit. Since the resurrection, things had been tumbling forward at a breakneck pace” (Chris Tuttle, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Durham, North Carolina). First the disciples had spent fifty days after the resurrection looking over their shoulders for the religious leaders or Roman leaders coming after them as had happened with Jesus. Then they experienced the Spirit explosion of Pentecost with all of those languages pouring fourth and thousands baptized. Next came the trial of Stephen and his martyrdom. More arrests, lots of intimidation. There was Saul’s conversion to Paul, and the Jerusalem Council. Conflict within the church: Who will lead? With whom shall we do ministry? Conflict outside of the church: What is our relationship with the powers that be, with other racial and ethnic groups, with other religious leaders?

Talk about anxiety, confusion, and chaos! The Spirit seemed to be running through their world, and they were just about out of breath trying to be faithful and keep up. I am sure they would have definitely appreciated a little more kairos space, perhaps a taste of Africa time for themselves.

Yet as we see in our narrative for today, a space of peace was not to be, at least not yet. Trouble was still on the hunt. Before this encounter with the slave girl we just heard about, a good bit of the trouble the disciples got into tended to be holy trouble, created or at least initiated by them—by their preaching on street corners or in synagogues; by their active refusals to just do things the way they had always been done before; by their insistence that God’s circle of family kept growing larger and larger. Yet in this experience we read today, trouble sought them out.

Paul and Silas came upon a slave girl, someone who had “the spirit of divination,” or at least spoke with some truth-telling authority. Because whatever she was saying seemed accurate enough or sounded good enough, the people who owned her made good money off of her pronouncements and dreams. This young woman started following Paul and Silas around, yelling over and over again her insights about who they were. In response, Paul grew increasingly annoyed by what she was doing or by the fact that she was being exploited. Regardless, he cast the troublesome spirit out of her and set her free to be more fully herself. And then, trouble. “When her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone . . .”

Let’s pause and notice that this time Paul and Silas did not get into trouble over anything they were preaching or saying about Jesus. Their trouble had nothing to do with the gospel. Rather, they got into severe trouble because they cost some powerful people serious money. They were accused of “disturbing the peace” and “advocating the wrong customs.” The fact that they healed the girl was not even discussed. The only thing discussed with the civil authorities was that her healing affected the bottom line for her owners, and preachers messing with their stock options and their earned income expectations was nothing less than intolerable.

To say it plain: Paul and Silas were badly beaten because of their choice to act on the behalf of the liberation of the oppressed, an act that resulted in economic consequences for the oppressor. They were not beaten because of some theological argument or church fight. No, because they messed with powerful people’s ability to make more money for themselves, they were stripped naked and beaten with rods before the jailer pulled them into the cold darkness of the innermost cell and put their feet in stocks.

Honestly, Paul and Silas’s story is the kind of story our tour choir heard over and over again when we visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and listened to some of the testimonies recorded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is the kind of story we heard in Soweto when we learned more about the student uprising in 1976 against being taught purely in the Afrikaans language. Paul and Silas’s story is the kind of story Congressman John Lewis often recounts whenever he reflects on some of the beatings and imprisonment he faced during the Freedom Rides. Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into the darkness because they refused to look the other way and simply accept “that is just the way things are done around here.”

At some level, Paul and Silas knew their own liberation was tied up in the slave girl’s liberation. Their own ability to be fully free in Christ meant that others had to have that same kind of chance of freedom. They had to heal her; they had to use their God-given power to make her whole or else they would not be fully living out their baptisms. And their courage to be faithful landed them in jail.

But late that night, scripture says, those two disciples locked in a cage in the darkness, bleeding and battered, sensed the dawning of a kairos time, and they began to pray by singing. All of the prisoners, scripture reports, all of them listened to their songs. I wish we knew what they sang. What songs poured forth in the night—songs that captured everyone’s attention, including God’s? Were they chanting the hymns of Paul’s youth—the psalms? Were they singing the Christ hymn recorded in Philippians (Philippians 2:5–11)? We don’t know. We just know they sang songs of prayer together, held captive, in the dark.

Congressman Lewis has often talked about the power of music as a way of both praising God and remembering who is really sovereign, as well as reminding one’s self who you truly are as God’s child. Music, singing, is a robust tool to keep one going—particularly in times of need or struggle. “Without music,” Lewis has said, “the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings. . . . Music helped create a sense of solidarity.” Indeed, music is power. It is a kind of liberation in and of itself.

In addition to the gift of Africa time, our tour choir group also discovered the pivotal role music plays in South African culture. Music was everywhere we went—the harmonies, the dancing, the drums, the joy and laughter and clapping. That kairos fullness of sound popped up in all kinds of places and at all kinds of times but especially in church. I have never experienced the amount of member-led singing during worship as we experienced last Sunday in the Presbyterian congregation of Gugulethu. Every prayer, every reading of scripture, every announcement, all the pieces of liturgy, were surrounded by and injected with music. I, personally, found tears welling up, deeply moved not only by how good it was but by the power the singing and dancing contained. The whole physical structure would vibrate with that power.

Even when I did not speak the language, I could understand in my soul the prayers of praise and lament and thanksgiving being lifted up through the voices and through the dance. It all evoked this sense of freedom, liberation, lightness that did not necessarily seem to fit the daily struggles many of those parishioners experienced outside of the sanctuary, at least not through my chronos-driven, white, American Presbyterian pastor eyes. Now, hear me clearly: I am not saying the power of the music erased their very real struggles against the legacy of apartheid and all its consequences, struggles that will last for generations given the continued remnants of segregated neighborhoods and the impact of decades of poverty. (We could make similar statements about lives here in Chicago.)

Rather, what I am saying is that our South African siblings know in their bones what Paul and Silas knew—that the music sung as prayer gives God the space, the room, to build you back up, to remind you who and whose you are, to pour into you the courage and determination needed to keep moving towards honest freedom. The music clears out some of the clutter and creates room for God to work.

While in Cape Town I asked an Anglican priest, Father Michael Lapsley, about the role of music and the power it conveyed. Father Michael was deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement, so much so he was expelled from the country in the mid-1970s and severely injured by a mail bomb. He is now involved in trying to keep the healing of the country going by working on the healing of memories. Father Michael told me that South Africans, particularly black South Africans, had indeed sung and danced their way into freedom from the evil of apartheid. Now, he said, some of what we experienced while we were there is that they are currently trying to sing and dance their way into fuller healing from all the memories of the trauma that still linger and threaten to capture their spirits.

As soon as he said that, though, he laughed loudly and remarked, “One of the best parts about the music, truthfully, was that the white South Africans, the ones imposing apartheid, thought all of the singing and dancing meant black South Africans were happy with their oppression! So they had no idea what was coming—how the music would be used as a powerful tool for liberation from their oppressive regime!” The subversive power of music gave Father Michael joy.

Getting back to our text, the jailer holding Paul and Silas was similarly clueless about what was really going on through the singing. But once the foundations shook and everyone’s chains (not just Paul’s and Silas’s) fell off, the jailer grew terrified at the clear power the singing evoked. He, like those in power in South Africa, had no idea music could be such a tool of liberation! He had no idea how music created a holy space for God to enter and act. He had no idea that music could start to soothe battered bodies and pour courage into the ones singing for their lives. He became so frightened that he almost ended his own life.

But Paul and Silas stopped him. “Don’t do it,” Paul called out. “We have not left. We are all still here.” Then Paul shared the good news of the gospel with the jailer and baptized his entire household. But why? Why did he and Silas not let the chips fall where they may and allow that jailer to die at his own hand? I believe it is because Paul and Silas knew that their own liberation was intricately tied to the jailer’s liberation, just as it had been with the slave girl. They knew that just as they had been in chains, he too was in chains, just not chains one could see. They knew that in order for them to be fully free in Christ even that jailer had to have the same chance for that freedom. So they allowed the power of their music to fuel their determination to not hate him but to offer him the chance for redemption and healing, too.

One last South Africa reflection evoked from this text: One of the churches with whom we shared a concert chose to focus on the 100th birthday of Nelson Mandela. As a part of that focus, they played aloud one of his speeches, a speech he made in April 1964, two months before he was sentenced to life in prison. Here is the part the congregation wanted us to hear:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

As they played that part of his speech, the choir still sang softly, surrounding Mandela’s words with harmony and fullness. As we all swayed in time with our African siblings from Timbilethu, music filling the room, Mandela’s words ricocheting off the walls and into our hearts, I sensed the foundations could have shook right then and there and I would not have been one bit surprised, because at that moment our freedom, our liberation from the chains of being part of the powers of oppression or being part of those oppressed, our freedom from that was so close I could almost taste it. For what Paul and Silas knew, what Nelson Mandela knew is true—none of us is free until all of us are honestly free. So we will just have to keep singing and dancing our way towards it as we go. For the freedom work must continue not just over in South Africa, but also here, with us, in this church, in Chicago, until the foundations shake again with God’s power. Amen.