Anyway, here's another "Face in the Crowd" from three years ago: the Fortunetelling Girl.
"Faces in the Crowd: the Fortunetelling Girl"
We're continuing with my occasional series of sermons called "Faces in the Crowd" -- and today we meet a young woman w/o a name
that's appropriate, I suppose, for she was a slave -- and what use does a slave have for a name?
There were lots of slaves in those days -- more than we realize today
for we have no modern experience of slavery -- and only a vague notion from our history books of what slavery in the US was like, back in the days of the Cotton South
Slavery in ancient times was even more widespread than in 18th- and 19th-Century America -- but there were significant differences
For one thing, ancient slavery was not based upon race, as it came to be in our history -- slaves came from all different ethnic groups
-- some were captured in war, some made slaves as a punishment for crimes, many enslaved for debt, and some sold by family to enable the rest of the family to survive
Now, there were almost no slaves of Roman ethnic origin (except for criminals) -- but that's because Rome was running the show: no one else was spared
And slaves were everywhere, doing all kinds of work -- not just agricultural work, though there were plantation-like farms called latifundiae that supplied much of the grain eaten by the people in the cities
-- but there were slaves who were accountants -- and craftsmen -- household servants and men who oared galleys and professional scribes and entertainers
Probably 40% of the entire workforce in the 1st Century was unfree -- the whole economy of the Roman Empire was based upon slave labor
Even what we would call "working class" families wd have at least 1 slave for domestic labor -- for if you didn't own at least 1 slave, you were considered poor, indeed -- at least, for a Roman
The girl in our story was owned by others -- perhaps a family, but the use of the plural suggests she was owned by a partnership
-- she was a business concern of theirs
she had a gift -- a talent -- that was financially useful: she was possessed by a spirit that cd tell fortunes
So she sat in the marketplace and people came to her to have their futures told -- as people still do today
For if you want to know what genuine pagans believed in back then, well it wasn't Jupiter or Zeus or Cybele -- the major gods were more backdrop than a source of real hope for ord. people's lives
No -- the gods people really prayed to -- & really meant the prayers they prayed -- were gods like Asklepios, the god of healing -- and the various fertility goddesses -- and everybody's favorite, Tyche -- the goddess of luck
People wanted to know the future -- and they wanted an edge to face it with -- so they bought lucky charms, and consulted horoscopes, and recited magical formulas, and read the supermarket tabloids (gotcha!) -- and consulted fortunetellers
The Fortunetelling Girl made quite a bit of money for her owners -- and maybe they let her keep some for herself, as well, though they seem a greedy bunch, acc. to our story
But then Paul & Luke & their company came to Philippi, the Roman soldiers' town planted in the Province of Macedonia, following a vision that brought them into Europe from Asia Minor
Now Paul & co. weren't interested in pagans, whether they told fortunes or not -- they were trying to find scattered groups of Jews living among the pagans, whom they cd tell about Jesus Christ
They weren't opp. to talking to pagans, of course -- in fact, back in Asia Minor Paul had made many converts among the Gentiles -- but always, he had started with the local Jewish synagogue: the Gentile converts he made were those who had already abandoned pagan religion and were trying out belief in the God of the Jews
but every time Paul & his friends walk through the marketplace of Philippi, here is this fortuneteller crying out "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation"
-- which made everyone stop and stare, and Paul was getting annoyed with it
so one day he just told the spirit to get out -- & it did -- and the girl lost her ability to tell fortunes
Now, you might be thinking that this shdn't make any diff. -- lots of people tell fortunes who don't have a genuine spirit of divination -- they're just canny people w/the ability to fool the public
-- nor does anybody ever keep statistical count of how accurate any of these "psychics'" predictions are, so who cares if you get it right or not?
Take Madame Cleo ("call me now for your free readin'") -- she's no more a Jamaican priestess than I am -- but people buy her act, nevertheless
But the fortunetelling girl didn't have the spirit in her anymore, and she wasn't the sort to be able to fake it, so she just -- well, cdn't, anymore
So her owners dragged Paul & Silas into the marketplace and had them accused of being foreigners and agitators and damagers of other people's property, and they were beaten and thrown in prison
and there we must leave them, for the story of their deliverance is a sermon for another Sunday
no -- I want to think about the fortuneteller
Was she really possessed? Or was she just mentally ill? Why shd her "healing" -- whether spiritual or medical -- make a diff. in her ability to give the customers what they wanted?
What are we to make of her story, esp. in today's rational, skeptical, "enlightened" climate?
Most of us skip over these stories as merely colorful encounters that set the stage for the talky parts of the Bible we're really interested in -- morals and theology and God-talk generally
But the fortunetelling girl is an early example of something more widespread that has to do with the phenomenon of the spread of Xtny
I was reading a book a year or two ago on "Christianizing the Roman Empire" by Ramsay MacMullen, a professor at Yale U
& he was addressing himself to a qtn that has puzzled many historians, viz: Why wd so many people in so short a time drop old & comfortable religions and adopt a radically different one (Xtny) which had been so intensely disfavored for so long?
In the space of only 3 or 4 hundred years, the Roman Empire went from an officially pagan society to an officially Xtn one -- a staggering success, but WHY?
Well, some have suggested that economic upheaval, or war-weariness, or social advancement by Xtn emperors, or barbarian invasions, or even epidemics of plague -- or some combination thereof -- had so weakened people's allegiance to the old religions that they just sort of wandered into the Church looking for something better
I was expecting MacMullen to make some such argument -- but I was wrong
For Prof. MacMullen had the novel idea that if you want to know why people did things, you shd ask them -- and so he researched what reasons people gave at the time for Xtny's success
And the answer v. often was, because Xtny worked -- & their old religion didn't
Some wandering holy man came into the Temple of Whoozis one day, and pronounced an exorcism on the whole shebang, and got himself chased off by the priests
-- but instead of going on as before, with a harrumph and a how-dare-he -- in several cases, the priests themselves, as well as the worshipers -- reported that it just wasn't the same
They reported that their god had been whupped by that guy's new god -- and so they sort of gave up on the old and went to try out the new
Now, that doesn't mean you have to believe it happened just that way -- but that's THEIR story, not mine, or the Professor's
And it brought yet another qtn to my mind
For in our everybody's-got-something-to- contribute, pluralistic, non-judgmental day and age, it wd be in extremely poor taste to suggest that people shd become Xtns because Xtns are right, and everybody else is, well, wrong
But if we're not any more right than anybody else, why wd anybody want to change from what they are now, to what Xt can make them?
I mean, what wd be the point? And does this have something to do with the struggle of the last 35 years to reverse the membership decline of mainline Protestant churches like the UMC?
Cd it be that what is so often lacking in our churches is not morals or theology or God-talk, but power?
St. Paul said, "the kgdm of God does not consist in talk, but in power" and he also criticized those whose religion had a "form of godliness, while denying the power" of that same godliness
And I seem to rmbr that once upon a time, John W. described what his new Methodist movement was about by saying that it was a society "having the form, and desiring the power, of godliness"
-- and that was why so many people who had never shown an interest in Church before suddenly found themselves attending Methodist meetings -- because they had found something that had less talk, and more power, for their lives
Now, this doesn't mean that we wd do well to start casting out spirits here on Sunday mornings -- I have lots of friends in churches that emph. casting out spirits, and they're not escaping the central problem of our day, either
And that is, What Difference does it make to be a Xtn? What do we really have to show for our faith? Where is the power to make life work?
Because that's what people are looking for -- not more talk.
People want to be loved.
They want to know that their lives matter.
They want things to work.
They're tired of defeat.
They want to know God.
They want to pray and hear an answer.
They want to come home
-- which means they want to know if there is a home to come to.
A friend of mine was talking w/me some yrs ago about the teenagers who wd come over and hang around with our kids and clean out the leftovers in our refrigerator -- she had them, too
& she said, "Oh Art, they're all just looking for a home"
And so they were -- and so are we all
The Church's job is to point the way toward that home -- & even be a little foretaste of that home
& we shd nvr be intimidated by those who think that it is pushy or arrogant to say, "I know the Truth"
For there is a test for Truth, and it is simply this:
The Truth that will set you free is the power to cast out spirits, renew deadened life, free those in slavery, reconcile former enemies, bring you joy for sorrow, forgive your sins, & give you hope
this power comes in the Name of JC -- & in no other
So, come: let us help each other find the power that makes life work again. Amen.