Sermon – 23 May 2004

This morning I am going to concentrate on the first reading ? a snapshot in the life of Paul, on his travels with Silas. A snatched glance at what life was like for them as they preached the Gospel far from home.

They freed a slave girl from the things which imprisoned her. The freed her from what harmed her. They freed her from those who were exploiting her for financial gain.

And in return for all this ? they are thrown into jail. Not any old jail either. They are rounded up by coalition forces acting for the occupying power. And they are thrown into Abu Ghraib prison.

Bear with me ? for that is contentious I know.

Paul and Silas are thrown into prison for no good reason. They are locked up by foreign soldiers. Coalition soldiers from the ruling foreign power which cannot keep order in the streets. They have no access to a fair trial. Mob rule is the order of the day, despite the presence of magistrates. They are beaten. They are stripped naked. They are hit with rods. They are thrown into the darkest part of the prison, away from the light of day.

Where else are they but Abu Ghraib?

All we need is the official photographer to come round and take photographs of them in the stocks and release the pictures to the world?s media and their identification with the prisoners in Baghdad will be complete.

I am not alone in feeling outrage at the pictures which we have been seeing over the last few weeks from the prison in Baghdad. I know I am not alone in being shocked to the core by the images which have hurled around the world.

Like everyone else, I had hoped o­n seeing them for the first time that it had nothing to do with the chain of command. However as time has gone o­n, this seems less credible.

And anyway, it is all very well hoping things like that at this distance. What use is that to the person in the next cell hearing the abuse taking place? What difference does it make to the prisoner if the boot is o­n a coalition foot, a Roman foot, or o­n the foot of o­ne of Saddam?s jailers?

Let us return though to Paul and Silas. For they sit in that cell. They wait for what is coming to them. What do they do? What can they teach us?

At midnight, they sing and they pray. At the darkest hour, they open their throats and sing God?s praise. In the deepest jail, they open their hearts to God and pray. And the prisoners listen.

And there is an earthquake.

When people sing the songs of freedom and pray for God?s justice to come, sooner or later there is always an earthquake. Sooner or later the earth will rumble and the jails begin to rock. Sooner or later justice will come and the reign of God will break out. Gospel will be freed from her prison and God?s truth be known.

Thinking back over the last century or so, you can hear that earthquake rumble beneath the prisons where Ghandi was incarcerated in India. You can feel the shake of the buildings of Birmingham Jail in Alabama where Martin Luther King was sent. You can feel the rocks begin to shake and the earth begin to move underneath Robbin Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.

When the songs of freedom are sung and the voice of the people cries out for justice, that earthquake rumbles o­n.

There is a miracle in the story of Paul and Silas. And it is not the earthquake that is the miracle. It is that when they are free to go they sit and wait. They have the opportunity for vengeance. They have the opportunity to land their gaoler in trouble which will see him treated as badly as they are have been treated. So badly that he would prefer to take his own life rather than face up to his failure. But Paul and Silas stay still and wait.

They meet the gaoler with dignity and grace. They share their faith with him and he responds with kindness and hospitality.

Gospel breaks free, in other words. Gospel breaks free from the place where she is imprisoned. Gospel breaks free from hard-heartedness, violence, injustice and despair which have kept her imprisoned. Gospel breaks free and kindness and hospitality break out, liberated at last from their bondage.

I have thought a lot about the gaoler this week. More disturbing than the photographs coming from Abu Graib prison is the support for the actions of the guards being voiced in some parts of the world. Some of those said to be responsible are said to be Christians.

If faith can let us dehumanise other children of God to this extent it is no faith worth believing in.

I don?t often tell you to pray for miracles, but this week, pray for a miracle. Pray that Paul and Silas are amongst those who are imprisoned in that place.

Pray that there are those who will rise up from the chaos in Iraq who will fight with songs of freedom and strive to give voice to the prayers of justice. Pray that the cycle of violence will cease from its incessant spinning.

Pray until the walls of unjust prisons shake. Pray until the corridors of power hear the rumble of the earthquake that is God?s justice o­n its way. Pray until Paul and Silas are free from their imprisonment without fair trial. And pray for a miracle ? that they will sit down in peace with their gaoler. Pray that kindness and hospitality are liberated from what binds them. And pray that all that is good be set free.


Update: Abu Ghraib prison to be demolished –


  1. Anonymous says

    Re: Sermon – 23 May 2004
    Very powerful sermon! Thank you!

  2. Anonymous says

    Re: Sermon – 23 May 2004
    An extremely moving sermon Kelvin and we must hope that you have voiced the thoughts of the majority.  I will be praying.

  3. Anonymous says

    Re: Sermon – 23 May 2004
    contentious maybe but hopefully only for the small minority. A powerful and thought-provoking sermon and who says the Bible is irrelevant to modern life?!

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