Sermon: Annoying People

Shows several men violently beating two men, with one having his coat torn from his body, while well dressed men look on.

June 2, 2019
Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:16-34

by Eric Anderson

Back in February, I was honored to deliver the sermon at the Hawai’i Conference’s Church Leaders Event at Nu’uanu Congregational Church UCC on O’ahu. I asked the assembly a series of yes or no questions, and they’d raise their hands if the answer was yes. I asked if they knew that the love described in the Bible was greater and deeper than romantic love, and all the hands went up. I asked if they believed that a world that lived aloha would be better than the world we live in, and all the hands went up again.

Then I asked if they had noticed that people could be really annoying, and far fewer hands went up.

Church people can be really kind. Perhaps not entirely truthful. But very kind.

Several people set out to annoy the apostle Paul in Philippi. The first, I must confess, was not a person in the usual sense of a human being. It was the “spirit of divination.” Paul W. Walasky writes (in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2,Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), “She is possessed with a spirit of divination (pneuma pythona), literally ‘a spirit, a snake,’ an allusion to the snake that symbolized the Greek god Apollo at Delphi. Like those young women at Delphi, she divines the future (she is a mantiche, a mantic) for anxious souls who are willing to pay.”

It was the spirit that did the annoying. As Jennifer T. Kaalund points out, she was enslaved by two entities: first by this snake-like demon wrapped around her soul, and also by human fiends who took advantage of her affliction. She suffered; they made money.

Dr. Kaalund writes: “So why is Paul seemingly perturbed by this girl? Perhaps it is because she had followed them for many days. On this occasion, Paul turns and says to the spirit: ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ Was Paul disturbed that they were being followed or was this girl’s declaration difficult for Paul to come to terms with? Isn’t she claiming that she and Paul were not that different at all? They were both enslaved people; they simply had different masters.”

Truth can be annoying.

But with the annoying spirit exorcised, the owners became the annoying people. I grant you that with the loss of their income, they probably thought Paul and Silas were annoying. They snatched up Paul and Silas to bring them before the officials. Now the magistrates and the bystanders became annoying people. They followed the legal processes appropriate to non-citizens of Rome in the first century, namely: listen only to the testimony of citizens, judge them guilty based their mere presence before you, beat them up, and put them in jail so that you can beat them again in the morning.

That’s annoying.

The jailer became the next annoying person. He followed the abusive instruction of the magistrates, imprisoning Paul and Silas where the prison was darkest and the air foulest, putting them in stocks to increase their suffering.

The magistrates resurface as annoying people when the earthquake prompts the jailer to consider suicide. I have to wonder what he thought would happen to him at their hands because of a prison escape that he simply could not have prevented. What fate lay before him that was worse than death?

That’s a lot of annoying people.

What actually makes a difference in this passage?

To some degree, it’s annoyance itself. The young woman’s repeated cries got a response from Paul. We may criticize his motives for freeing her from the demon, but it got a result. I wish that we knew what happened to her afterwards. Did she win her physical freedom as well? I fear she did not, but I very much hope she did.

Later, Paul and Silas would successfully challenge the magistrates because they were Roman citizens, and their treatment had not been legal. Annoyance, again, made a difference.

What I cannot forget, however, is Paul’s shout from the depths of the prison after the earthquake, as the jailer drew his sword: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”

Paul had every reason to be annoyed with the jailer. Every reason to flee the prison. He could not count on any better justice in the morning than he’d received in the evening. But in this moment, he set the annoyance aside and saved the jailer’s life.

The jailer had ceased to be an annoying person, and had become simply a soul in pain.

Honestly, I find it difficult to be so kind to annoying people, particularly those who have power over me, particularly those who have exercised power over me capriciously, particularly those who have exercised power over me abusively. I’ve watched that kindness be demanded of oppressed people over and over again, and I keep wondering why those abused have to offer kindness to the people who give none to them.

Yet it’s these moments that make the greatest difference in this story: a young woman freed from something that prevented her from even thinking her own thoughts. A jailer freed from system that demanded his life for not preventing a literal act of God.

Annoying people, treated, for a moment, like people: people in need, people in pain. Like people.

Just like people.

Annoying people treated like people.

It’s not fair to ask it, but it just might change the world.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Annoying People

No, the prepared text doesn’t quite match the recording – despite some editing of the text to be a little closer than usual.

The image is La Flagellation de Saint-Paul et de Saint-Silas by Louis Testelin, 1655 –, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on June 2, 2019

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