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"Sing, Sing a Song" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

Sing, Sing a Song

A sermon for Northminster Church

Preached by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

May 12, 2024

Acts 16:13-26



I. Intro - Power of music

-start by talking about power of music

-I rewatched Hamilton this week and like it always does, it made me cry. Specifically a song toward the end of the show that’s sung right after Alexander and his wife Eliza have lost their oldest child, Phillip.

-Eliza’s sister Angelica sings this: “There are moments that the words don’t reach/There is suffering too terrible to name/You hold your child as tight as you can/And push away the unimaginable/The moments when you’re in so deep/It feels easier to just swim down…”[1] 


-Storytelling happens in between, but a bit later Angelica comes back in to sing these words: “There are moments that the words don’t reach/There is a grace too powerful to name/We push away what we can never understand/We push away the unimaginable…”[2] 


-This is a moment of reconciliation and forgiveness between Alexander and his wife, but for me it puts into words that for which I haven’t had words for over a year - the loss of our child. And so I cry every time I watch Hamilton.


-To be fair, I’m an easy crier. I also cry every time I watch A League of Their Own and the women start singing their theme song while walking around the museum dedicated to their league.

-Used to well up every time my St. Louis church sang The Lord’s Prayer which they do remarkably well. Would just stand and listen.


-A couple of years ago there was a commercial that revolved around a lesbian couple falling in love and getting married. I cried every time I saw it, but of all things it was an ad for Las Vegas.


II. Transition

-Maybe I’m not the best gauge but, of course, music has a power and magic all its own.


-All you need to know this is true is to hear the 24 notes of “Taps” played over a service member’s grave. Or the lone voice of a Soprano in the quiet stillness of a dark sanctuary at the end of a Tenebrae service.


-Great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Music is the universal language of mankind.”

-Jazz musician Louis Armstrong, “Music is life itself.”


-Martin Luther wrote about the power of music on multiple occasions. Favorite quote of his is this because it starts so well and ends in such a thoroughly Luther-like way, “…next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits...A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs."[3]


-Biblical text tells us over and over again that music is a way for us to connect with God as it’s one of God’s greatest gifts. Nowhere is this clearer than in Psalms, which is as you know, a collection of poetry and songs including Psalm 29:4 in which the Psalmist writes, “For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.


-So though it might seem odd that Paul and Silas take to singing in such a serious moment as they find themselves in this morning’s verses, we shouldn’t be surprised.


III. Exegesis

-Imprisoned and in pain after being beaten and then whipped, Paul and Silas are in their cell singing and praying. Finding comfort in well-worn words and melodies. Pouring out their fear, their pain, their need for release to God.


-As Johnny Cash sang, “If they freed me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine, I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line. Far from Folsom Prison, that’s where I want to stay. And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.”

-I wonder if Paul and Silas would identify with The Man in Black’s song?


 -Because this isn’t Paul’s first run-in with a prison cell.

-In fact, Paul’s in prison so often it’s reasonable for us to ask why. Why did this erudite, passionate, opinionated, dogged, Roman citizen get incarcerated so often?


-Sarah Jobe, a prison chaplain, “suggests that the frequency of Paul’s imprisonment is not descriptive of a heroic political prisoner.”[4]


-Rather it “describes someone ‘poor, homeless, and of an ethnicity that marked him as part of an occupied people.” Jobe notes that, in these ways, Paul ‘looked a lot like those who get overpoliced and thrown in jail today.’”


-Often when we tell this story in church we focus on being a “metaphor for the power of worship to shake the foundations of despair.”[5] 

-As I have done, we talk about the power of music in moments of stress. Or hardship. The comfort of a familiar melody or tune when we’re sad. The prick of grief that’s felt when a song provides the words we can’t supply.


IV.Transition - But Acts 16:16-34 is about more than the power of worship.


-it’s about more than what’s possible when a group of dedicated believers gather together in the presence of God. Understand, quite a bit is possible when this happens!


-it’s about more than the universality of music


-As commentator Jerusha Matsen Neal points out, this story of Paul and Silas “is about powers and principalities, about economic interests and prejudice. It is about the power of God—and it is about prisons.”

-We can’t ignore the slave girl mentioned in verse 16 as she’s the conduit for Paul and Silas ending up in the jail cell. Did you catch that? After several days of being followed around by this woman who’s identified variously as a “soothsayer,” a “psychic,” and a “fortune-teller,” Paul gets tired of being yelled out. He gets tired of having this girl trailing around behind him shouting at the top of her lungs - as anyone would - as so he exorcists her. He orders the spirit that’s giving her the ability to see things about others out of this girl and in doing so angers her owners.


-Why? Because she is a slave and Paul has now ended her usefulness as a fortune-teller and therefore ended that revenue stream for her owners. As The Voice translates the owners’ reactions, the girl is now “worthless.”


-With the owner’s reaction, “the economic roots of slavery and violence” in this text become even more explicit.

We’re told in verse 16 that this unnamed slave girl “made a lot of money for her owners.” Perhaps it’s because she does have some kind of ability for “the words she speaks about Paul and Silas are technically true.” They are “slaves…but slaves of the Most High God! They will proclaim to you the way of liberation!” And it’s possible her words could be useful to Paul and Silas as they surely could have drawn a crowd.


-Whether out of frustration, irritation, or a desire to liberate this young woman even in a small way Paul exorcizes her. It’s the “first example of exorcism in Acts,” and we should pay attention to the fact that no matter why Paul makes this choice, this first exorcism “actively rejects the benefits that may have accrued from this woman’s bondage.”


-”When the slave-girl’s owners realize that their revenue stream has been disrupted, they go to the magistrates with a complaint that seems unrelated.” Paul and Silas are accused of being troublemakers and disturbing the peace. They make sure to mention that Paul and Silas are “from some Jewish sect, and they promote foreign customs that violate our Roman standards of conduct.”


-Interestingly, the money they’re going to lose doesn’t come up in the slave-owner's accusations.


-They focus on Paul and Silas’ other-ness. That they’re outsiders. That they don’t value the same things we do. Oddly, economics comes nowhere into their argument. 


V. Good News in Text

-Brings us back to Sarah Jobe’s point which is that “Acts 16 narrates a leveraging of cultural superiority and social fear for the preservation of an economic system that grounds the status quo….”


-”Paul and Silas are not imprisoned because they break a law. They are imprisoned because they are imprisonable people—vulnerable people—who threaten the bottom line of the powerful.”

-But perhaps what’s most telling is that it isn’t until Paul reveals his status as a Roman citizen that the city officials feel any worry over what they’ve done.

            -keep in mind, Paul doesn’t mention this until after:

                        -ground shakes foundation of prison

                        -doors open

                        -chains fall free

-prison guard thinks everyone has escaped and almost ends his own life before Paul stops him. In response the guard asks what he must do to be liberated.           

-Paul and Silas go to this man’s home, clean up, share a meal, tell him the Good News of Jesus and have a baptism.

-Only to have police show up and tell them they’re free to go.


-It’s then Paul reveals who they are. It’s then he points out the treatment he and Silas received was unjust. It’s then he insists the city officials should tell them to leave face-to-face after what they’ve been put through. It’s in being identified as a Roman citizen - despite the miraculous happenings at the prison - that makes the difference to the city officials. Then the “powerful are afraid, [for] the powerless have more power than [they] supposed.”



VI. Good News in the World


-So is this text about the power of music? Yes, but that’s not all it’s about.


-It’s also our reminder to pay attention to the roots of slavery and economic injustice that are present in the biblical text and face them honestly. No, it’s not much fun to step away from this just being a story about the power of good, Christian worship but as we know being people of this book means striving to understand all of its complex layers.


-This text is also our opportunity to learn more about incarceration and incarcerated people in our own community.

How does this text illuminate the [prison] system in the U.S. and right here in Lewisburg?


“How does our system fuel fear and violence—even as it promises to create safety and order?


How might we better respond to persons newly released from prisons? “How might we as the church outside prison walls better attend to the preaching, singing, and prayers of prison congregations?


How might we bind up wounds, share meals, and receive instruction for our salvation?


-Because the Good News this morning is that when their cell door opens Paul and Silas don’t make a run for it. When their binding chains fall free they don’t immediately scramble to the door. When their song is interrupted by the ground shaking, the foundation cracking under their feet, Paul and Silas don’t take the first chance to make a hasty exit.


-Instead, although they are free, they make sure to keep their jailer from harm. They minister to him and his family. They share a meal. They baptize him.


- “It’s a beautiful vision of hating the system, but not those trapped by it” or employed by it. And I’m betting, sitting around that table with their former jailer Paul and Silas sang a song.

[1] Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Martin Luther, from the Foreword to Georg Rhau's Collection, "Symphoniae iucundae".



[4] Sarah Jobe as quoted by Jerusha Matsen Neal in, “Commentary on Acts 16: 16-34, May 29, 2022 from WorkingPreacher,

[5] Neal, ibid.

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