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Acts 16:16-34

            In preparation for today I looked up the definition of the word integrity: three working definitions are “An unbroken completeness,” “a moral soundness,” and “an adherence to a code of values.” In today’s text in the book of Acts there is a clear example of integrity, of a harmony between the actions of the apostle Paul and his preaching.   According to the book of Acts several disciples including Luke were accompanying Paul to the place of prayer, when they met a slave-girl who had the ability of fortune telling. She begins to follow the group while announcing: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

            Some people say that it takes one to know one, and here the slave-girl is able to recognize her fellow slaves. The difference is that she is a slave to a human master while the disciples are slaves to the Most High God. You may think that you can be fully free, but that is an illusion. In this life you will serve somebody or something. It is your choice to whom or to what you are going to be slave to.

            Luke tells us that the girl follow them for several days; until Paul became annoyed, turned around and said to the spirit, not to the girl, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” Why would Paul do this? Luke tells u that the slave-girl brought her owners a great deal of money. That means that there were many people in Philippi that used her services. Paul was new in town; they could use the free publicity. They could get a lot of benefit from the endorsement of someone who was such a famous fortune teller. But rather that using the slave-girl to help their ministry, Paul frees her from the spirit that was the reason of her slavery. Paul refuses to take advantage of the slave-girl.

            I received this past week a letter from our bishop, the chair of the Board on Ordained Ministry and the Chair of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration. The letter was asking the churches once again that they must have the I-9 forms in file as proof that they have checked the eligibility of employees to work legally in the United States. We are okay because we comply after the first letter, but this second letter gave me the opportunity to think again about the implication of this conference mandate. If we truly believe that allowing an undocumented person to work is wrong, then we should not benefit from their illegal activities; we should not receive offering from them. The question is a matter of integrity. Paul did not take advantage of the slave-girl.

            When her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them before the authorities. Luke now shows us the lack of integrity of the slave-girl owners. They could have accused Paul of loss of income or damage to their property, but instead they bring a couple of unrelated charges. They accused Paul and Silas of disturbing the city and of advocating customs that are not legal for them as Romans to adopt or observe. The owners know how to spin a situation from a purely economical problem to an issue of national security.

            The magistrates had Paul and Silas stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severed flogging, they threw them into prison. The jailer put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. This is the point in which most of us would go into a woe is me prayer time, but Paul and Silas enter into a praise and worship time. Luke tells us that the rest of the prisoners were listening. We are always witnessing to our core values all the time and our family, friends and neighbors are always listening.

            Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. The jailer woke up and assuming that any reasonable prisoner would have escaped moves to take his own life. Many people with less integrity than Paul would have seen this as God's punishment for their unjust treatment of them. Another person with less integrity would have sat and waited to see God's actions; but Paul moves with mercy to save the jailer's life. "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here."

            The world is divided into three categories, those that see the glass half full, those that see the glass half empty and those that believe it is only half a glass. Some Christians would concentrate on the miracle of the earthquake. They would get excited about the power of God, they would expect to receive their own miracle: healing, a job, riches, blessings upon blessings. The church would grow attracting those that want to claim it. They would gather to sing: "My God is an awesome God. He reigns from heaven above with wisdom, power and love. My God is an awesome God." Anything negative they would interpret as a sign of lack of faith.

            On the other hand there will be those that would concentrate on the beating and the imprisonment. They are the ones that see the glass half empty. Under that king of ministry the church would grow attracting those that are motivated by fear. Just like those leading the event in Ocean Grove that wonder what would happen to a nation that stops blessing Israel. The will gather and sing: "We are often destitute of the things that life demands, want of food and want of shelter, thirsty hills and barren lands; we are trusting in the Lord, and according to God's word, we will understand it better by and by."

            Then there are those that know that the glass is neither full nor empty, that it is really only half glass. They celebrate the miracle of the earthquake but remember that before the earthquake there was the beating and the unjust imprisonment. It is indeed easier to talk about a glass half full or half empty. This conversation provides easy answers to the questions of faith and life. But it lacks integrity in the sense of wholeness. When you look at the whole gospel you discover the complexities of life and faith.

            In the African American experience the liberating actions of God in the book of Exodus played a key role for hope. That hope was also found by Latin American theologians as they developed liberation theology. For people that are oppressed, the story of a God that intervenes in history calling the Egyptians to let God's people go can only bring a spirit of hope and praise. But it would lack integrity to only talk about the Exodus without considering that many generations were born in slavery before God heard their cry and liberated them. To ignore the long time that the people waited is to lack integrity.

            The jailer saw the witness of Paul and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." We may be tempted to simplify the story by proposing that God put Paul and Silas through all that in order to save the jailer. But God does not put us through hell in order to take us to heaven. Jesus already descended to hell so that we do not have to.

            The fact is that in the gospel there are no easy answers. There is not a key to understand God's action in the world. Ultimately God Calls us like Abraham to follow God without a clear sign of where we are going. Following God with integrity we know that we will have to carry a cross some time. But we also know that God's ultimate goal is to change it someday for a crown.

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