Whether we like it or not, we are quickly learning that everything has a price. The latest proof of this economic fact is the announcement last week by Frontier Airlines that water will now cost $1.99 on its flights, and…here’s one that is even better…passengers will now have to pay for the privilege of carrying their own luggage on to the plane. The airlines tell us that they have to pay for the cost of jet fuel over which they have no control, and someone at Frontier has determined that the two cubic feet in the overhead bin is worth somewhere between $25 and $100, depending on whether or not you make a reservation to carry on your one carry-on item. I predict that you won’t even get a happy flight attendant to assist you in heaving your heavy bag a foot over your head as you rent the space.
When I am the least cynical, I blame this phenomenon on the computer spreadsheet. We have found ways to categorize everything in terms of numbers. After all, physicists tell us that the universe itself may ultimately be a math equation, so everything must be digitized, even the space above a plane seat. When I am a tad more cynical, I see a desire not simply to digitize, but to monetize everything in order to set its price and maximize value. These days the space on the outside of a bus is a billboard, rentable to the highest bidder; an arena built with public money a naming opportunity for a corporation; the very corporation itself in existence solely to maximize value for its shareholders, a theory that, when I was in business school a generation ago, had not yet taken over as gospel truth. And finally, when I am at my most cynical, which may turn out to be when I am most honest with myself, I realize that this phenomenon is taking place because we human beings are greedy and are trying to get as much for ourselves as possible, and anyone who disagrees will be left at the gate, so to speak, holding his bags.
It is not solely a modern day phenomenon. Look at today’s reading from Acts. The set up for the story is that some people own a slave girl. That fact in itself is a strong example of monetizing everything…and everyone…and a symbol of greed taken to its ultimate end. When Paul rids the slave girl of the spirit that makes her a source of income for her owners, they are furious and strike back, literally strike back, getting Paul beaten. And then they do the same thing that we are doing in these days of economic distress; they blame the outsider for their own sinfulness. In the story in Acts, the owners tell the authorities that Paul is a Jew, not a Roman, and as such he is advocating strange customs. That attitude will preach as an example of 21st century sinfulness, keeping the Bible alive for our own day. It is so similar to the arguments over immigration and a hundred other issues that we currently face. The stranger who comes among us is taking away our lives as we have known them, and we are not happy with it.
A sermon usually had better have no more than one point, or else you listeners won’t remember it by the time your Sunday dinner is cold, but I am going to tell you two points that are equally important in today’s lesson from Acts. First, the writer reminds us that we all too often bow to a pagan god. We worship “the market.” Everything has its price, and all things can be bought. Paul is telling us, though, that the job of the one sent from God is to call the world to task when it seeks to monetize everything and everyone. He sets the slave girl free from a demonic spirit so that ultimately her owners might be free as well from their greed, free from their need to control and own. They don’t see it that way, though. We never do when we think that we are about to lose a dollar or a long held attitude.
The second point that the writer of the book of Acts is telling us is that the outsider who is setting us free from our own greed, setting us free from our own loyalty to a false god, is not someone to be feared, but rather someone who saves us, someone who can bring us wholeness. The outsider does not diminish us, but rather gives us life. In this story, Paul is cast as the stranger who advances strange customs. He is upsetting the status quo. But when the earthquake comes and the jailer is scared about what is going to happen (after all, he will lose his job or worse), Paul the outsider saves him from his own demise. The jailer could see only death; the outsider Paul brings new life.
That new way of looking at old situations, that resurrection moment, is why it is so important for us to continue to welcome and learn from the outsider. Our own vision is too limited, potentially deadly. The outsider, far from bringing us down, will offer a new vision. It has been the case with immigration, as new generations of people from around the world bring new life to this nation. And it has been the case with the church, for every time that we have opened our doors a bit more, those who have come in have enriched us. When the doors have been unlocked, we have seen yet more faces of Jesus in our midst, yet more resurrection appearances of the risen Christ. That action is how the church stays as alive and vital today as it was 2000 years ago when the book of Acts was written; we keep setting people free and in the process see Jesus.
So, what are we to make of the good news today? We stand in this curious place between Ascension and Pentecost, admitting that we cannot see Jesus any longer as we once saw him and simultaneously waiting for a new way to experience the presence of God. It is somewhat like opening a long-closed door and squinting as sunlight starts to stream in. We are not yet certain what we are seeing, but gradually our eyes will adjust to the light, and clarity will prevail. As we open doors and announce freedom from slavery, we will see marks of the divine as we have never before imagined God. We will start seeing new life and love where once we saw fear and death. Eventually, we are going to have a Pentecost experience, and we will speak in new languages, and will rid ourselves of all the chains that bind us, all the lesser gods that blind us. One of these days we will see Jesus, and we will be set free. Amen.