Morning Worship Column: “God Does Best Work in the Dark and Always has the Last Word”

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“Paul and Silas were preaching the Gospel. What is the gospel might seem like too basic a question for this audience, but there is so much noise and spiritualized narcissism that masquerades as gospel. They were preaching liberation to the poor and transformation to the poor in spirit in an unjust world; anything else is nonsense,“ said the Rev. Raphael Warnock at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning worship service.

His sermon title was “When Prophets and Profits Collide,” and the Scripture reading was Luke 16:16-26.

Paul and Silas were preachers and teachers of the most high God, Warnock said. They stood in a grand tradition of bearing witness to the love and justice of God. They were preaching the gospel in the name of Jesus, “a brother who was born in a barrio called Bethlehem; nurtured in a ghetto called Nazareth, that dreamer who was an undocumented immigrant to Egypt and a radical rabbi turned rabble rouser,” Warnock said.

Jesus, he said, preached his first sermon, failed his ordination exam and was run out of town. Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah, saying he was anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captive, sight to the blind and let the oppressed go free.

“Then he preached a sermon that makes congregations mad,” Warnock said. “He said, ‘Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.’ Not next week, not someday, today.”

Paul and Silas, Warnock said, were engaged and active in this work in Philippi, where a slave girl with a spirit of divination followed them around “heckling the preacher.”

“She declared about them what they had already proclaimed about themselves. She was not in control of herself, of her own destiny,” he said. “This is not just a political problem, it is a spiritual problem. You are controlled by the assumptions of those who think they own you.”

The slave girl was oppressed and suppressed in three ways, Warnock said. She was a female in a male-dominated culture. She was a child in a world that did not value children because they might not survive. She was a slave.

“She was brilliant and beautiful but she was bound and broken,” he said. “She was spiritually colonized.”

Paul was tired and on his way to something else, when he told the spirit to come out of her “in the power and name of Jesus Christ. There is power in the name. She was set free at that hour. She was broken, but now she was healed. She was down, but now she was up,” he said. “God can give you a new chapter. I can see her celebrating, shouting and singing like the people in my grandmother’s church who sang, ‘Glory, Glory, Hallelujah since I laid my burdens down.’

“Except, there is a report in the text, that her gift brought her owners money,” Warnock said. “Her gift was their gig and they were banking on her bondage.”

The owners seized Paul and Silas and took them the local authorities.

“When the prophets have a head-on collision with the profits,” Warnock said, “at least three things happen.”

First, there is an assertion of propaganda. The slave girl got control of herself and little bit of power and her owners claimed that Paul and Silas were disturbing the whole city.

“They set one girl free and they disturb the whole city,” he said. “When Martin Luther King Jr. was supporting sit-ins at lunch counters and freedom rides on buses, he was alive. When he talked about the redistribution of wealth, he was dangerous. The Dr. King who has been resurrected would never have been assassinated. During the Poor People’s Campaign, he said that when property rights mean more than people, racism, materialism and militarism cannot be conquered. It is the Prophetic Mission versus the Profit Motive.”

Second, the politicians get involved. The owners asserted that Paul and Silas were Jews, but Paul was a Jew and a Roman citizen.

“You can’t be a Jew and a Roman; you can’t be a Muslim and an American. They are different and inherently dangerous,” he said. “We need to see the long-form birth certificate. Their patriotism is doubtful and we want our country back.”

“I will be glad when Obama’s turn as president is over, because I am tired of seeing another brother exposed to racial profiling while he is living in public housing,” Warnock said. “Every system of oppression exists because someone benefits. Ninety percent of Americans want reasonable gun reform, but Congress believes in power over principle and they have gerrymandered themselves into districts of national irrelevance.”

There is an emerging American electorate and the powerful are reacting with voter suppression. Warnock said it was fine to have public policy arguments but we must make sure everyone can vote.

“They are afraid that these people might vote twice when it is hard enough to get people to vote once,” Warnock said.

Third, when prophets and profits collide, the anxiety of the people comes into play.

“I can understand why the owners are mad and the politicians are responding to the owners, but the crowd joined in against Paul and Silas. This is the most confusing line, because the crowd should have been with them,” Warnock said. “As the world was changing around them, they were driven by fear and bigotry and attacked Paul and Silas.”

But that was not the last word, he said, God always has the last word.

“It is midnight, it is dark in our country and I am glad because God does his best work in the dark,” Warnock said. “I was made in a dark place, my mother’s womb. Rubies and pearls are found in dark places, so we have no right to despair.”

When Warnock was growing up, the 11th of 12 children, he played checkers with his brothers.

“In the dark ages before video games, they would whoop the socks off me. Then one day I got to the other side of the board. When you do that, they have to king you. A king is stronger than an ordinary man,” he said. “My brother asked what I was going to do next and I moved my king across the board to the corner. He made another move and again asked what I was going to do. I thought again, for about 15 minutes, and then moved back across the board. As long as you have a king in your corner, you are in the game.”

“Wickedness for a while may reign, but God reigns with a heart of love. We will be set free one day,” he said. “All the children of God [in the jail in Philippi] experienced their chains unfastened to the glory of God.”

The Rev. George Wirth presided. Eva Moris Amro, a scholarship student with the International Order of King’s Daughters and Sons, read the Scripture in Arabic and English. Amro has a master’s in geography from Bethlehem University in Palestine. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Motet Choir, which sang “Be Thou a Smooth Way,” by Ralph M. Johnson. The Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund supports this week’s services.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.