Improvisational Gospel

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:16-34

Theologian David Ford uses the term “improvisation” in his book Self and Salvation to describe our worship and our singing. God gives us God’s good gifts and the church takes those gifts and transposes them, giving them back to God in offering. We take the tune God gives and we improvise with it, playing it in our context, with our particular gifts and our particular voices to bring further glory to God. Or the principalities and powers give us violence, despair, and hopelessness and we take that and improvise, transpose, and turn it into something for God’s glory. This is the meaning of worship and witness.

Acts 16 is a story about this kind of improvisational singing. Here is a story of two people who knew the improvisational power of the gospel. Paul and Silas are in Philippi when this possessed girl starts following them around shrieking at them, pointing at them; she knows who they are and she screams to the town who they are.

A friend of mine points out that like most forms of madness or fundamentalism, she has a firm grasp on a single strand of truth and does it to death. Paul is not amused; verse 18 says, “But Paul is very much annoyed…” Paul improvises. He turns and shouts, “Come out of her!” And it does.

But there were some men who were under the impression that they owned her and they profited from her possession. When they drag Paul and Silas before the authorities, they don’t talk about their loss of profit, they wave the flag and start talking about Philippian patriotism: “These men who are outside agitators are Jews who are threatening our community’s values and our morals.”

Well, that’s all the crowd needs to hear and the politicians are not stupid. They see an opportunity, join in, have Paul and Silas beaten, and then have them thrown into the innermost cell of the local prison. That means that there was a ring of outer cells, perhaps with a small window looking outward. But in the center, surrounded by all the other cells was a dark, dank, dungeon. No fresh air, no light. Into that darkness Paul and Silas are thrown and to add to their torture, their feet are placed in stocks where they can’t move around. Bleeding, broken bones, and bruised Paul and Silas can only wait on the morning that promises more of the same, if not worse.

It was, says Luke, about the midnight hour. I wonder if jazz trumpeter Miles Davis thought of this when he played “Round Midnight”? Or maybe Wilson Pickett “In the Midnight Hour”? Paul and Silas improvise and start praying and singing to God and to one another and to anyone else who might listen. They’re one of the great duets in history but perhaps sounding nothing like Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo and more like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

As they start singing, maybe Paul has to spit a loose tooth out on the ground, yet Luke says all of the prisoners were listening to them. New Testament scholar Paul Duke says the word Luke uses is the word for the most attentive, enraptured kind of listening. The kind of listening that happens when you lean forward in your seat, head raised, eyes closed so you won’t miss a note or a word.

Out of the darkness of the innermost cell there arose singing that echoed throughout the rest of the prison. They sang with pain and passion; they sang with power and praise. It rang off the walls and began to shake the foundations.

We take what God gives us or, like Paul and Silas here, we take what the principalities and powers give us. But in every circumstance we know we are not alone. There God is present in the Holy Spirit and there is a brother or sister nearby with whom we improvise and join our voices in singing. We sing to one another and we sing to God. And we sing to let the authorities know that they don’t own us!

I wonder what Paul and Silas were actually singing in that hole? I bet it wasn’t “Our God is an Awesome God” repeated over and over. Or “Everyday with Jesus is Sweeter Than the Day Before.” No, they had to sing from the depths of faith.

Maybe something of Isaiah’s poetry? James Carroll remembers being in jail for resisting the Vietnam War and deep in the night hearing William Sloane Coffin from the next cell over belt out Handel’s “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” based upon Isaiah.

I think it is likely they were singing a Psalm; perhaps Psalm 139, “Even the darkness is not dark with You. The night with You is brighter than day.” Had they known it, they might have sung, “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure for lo, his doom is sure. One little word will fell him.” Or maybe this, “Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come. Tis grace hath brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home.”

With that there begins a rumble and a tremble and something shaking all around. “There’s a whole lot of shaking going on.” The floors heave, the chains and stocks fall off and when the dust settles, a door is standing open. In the midst of darkness we worship the Almighty and we look and a door has opened. When we worship God, God shakes the foundations of every place that holds people down in prison, in chains.

Who knows what jail is being shaken every time we sing?

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