Seventh Sunday After Easter (C) - Acts 16:16-34
In 2002, after my first attempt at college, I dropped out and moved back in with my mother. This meant that I also started attending church again. There was a Lutheran church in the little town where I had gone to school, but it was a Wisconsin Synod church, people who make the Missouri Synod look about as conservative as Bernie Sanders, and so that was right out. I tried a whole bunch of other congregations, but church in Michigan just wasn’t like church back home, and I much preferred sleeping in on Sundays. That meant it was quite exciting to return back home, at least in that respect. It won’t surprise you that my upbringing in the church was very important and meaningful to me. The opportunity to plug back in was wonderful, and I signed up for a whole bunch of ministries right away.
Which is how I found myself, each Sunday morning that year, an hour before worship began, facing down a room full of Kindergartners. To be fair, a “room full” means just eight, who were of course never all there on a Sunday. It was a perfectly manageable number of children. Of course, this was in the day before people started getting worried about things like Safe Church Policies, and so I was in the room alone with them. Just me and eight children. Good thing I’m such a stickler for proper behavior and rule-making, and am so good at enforcing rules with an iron fist, to provide the carefully-structured though playful experience that young children need.
So, obviously, it was a disaster. I can still remember one Sunday morning when I had given up trying to get them to sit down in our story circle and listen to the Bible story for the day. So we moved to the art project. Seven children sitting around the table making a much bigger mess with fingerpaints than I ever expected were possible. And what could I do about it? Nothing, because I was busy sitting in the eighth child-sized chair around the table, holding a little boy who was screaming and sobbing. Because a fly had entered the room. He was afraid of flies, you see. I remember sitting there, rocking the boy, watching the others spread green paint to places even the Kindergarten teacher would never have thought to cover in protective paper, thinking, “Well, this is my life now. How did I get to this point? What did I do wrong?”
The story about Paul and Silas that we get in our reading from Acts today is about as much of a disaster as I was as a Sunday school teacher. It begins with a weird little story about a slave girl who has the questionable gift of divination. This girl follows Paul and Silas around, shouting out to anyone who can hear, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” And she’s right about them. That’s exactly who they are and what they are doing. But we’re told that Paul is annoyed with her, and so he casts the spirit of divination out of her. For clarity: Paul does not cast it out because it is evil, or because it is wrong, or because it is hurting or harassing the girl. This is not a healing. This is not a great miracle ascribed to the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul is ticked off, sick of listening to this girl day after day, and for HIS comfort, casts it out of her.
And for just a moment, I’d like you consider what this does to her. She’s a slave, and her owners make money off of her powers of divination. Her existence is mostly to be a source of income for them. And then, the spirit of divination leaves. But Paul and Silas haven’t released her from slavery, have they? No, they haven’t helped her. Instead, they have reduced her from a money-making possession of her owners to a worthless possession of her owners. I wonder, how will they treat her from now on, now that they can’t get anything useful out of her…
In any case, we do know that her owners are angry. They take Paul and Silas before the authorities. And what’s interesting is, see, they basically have a case of property law to bring before the magistrate, but instead of accusing the disciples of robbing them of their income, they accuse them of public disturbance, moral corruption, and being politically subversive. Funny, how you can hit people in the wallet, and they accuse you of political dissidence. Another good example of that might be calling Pope Francis a Marxist for pointing out that the gospel tells us to care for the poor…
In any case, Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten with rods, and thrown into the innermost cell of the prison. But instead of feeling sorry for themselves like a certain Kindergarten Sunday school teacher I know, they sang and prayed, turning their jail cell into a sanctuary. And when God sends an earthquake that sets them free, they don’t go running for the doors; they trust that God is maybe doing something with them where they are, and even though it seems like a disaster, maybe they should say. So they do, which is crazy, but which turns out to be right! The jailer gets the opposite treatment of the slave girl, and gets to keep his job, his dignity, and his LIFE, because they have remained where they were. More than that, he gets to hear about Jesus, and he and his whole family are Baptized.
It’s funny, but without any of these things, the jailer wouldn’t have been Baptized. God works through a slave with a spirit of divination. God works through the slave-owners and the magistrate, and their evil. God works through Paul and Silas, through their annoyance and misbehavior, through their humiliation, through their incarceration, through their patience. God works through an earthquake. Somehow, God works through everyone and everything, even in those things you’d least expect.
It’s one of the things that delights me most about the ministry Barbara and Andy are doing in our nursing homes. When they first came to me to talk about doing a worship service, I *think* they were already doing it up at River Terrace. They didn’t seek permission first, and they certainly didn’t sit down and try to figure out what the RIGHT way of doing things was. They just did it. They simply said, we’re called to bring the Good News of God’s love to these people that the rest of the world has forgotten. And so then they took me out to dinner one night and told me about their ministry, and asked me how we might add Holy Communion to the worship that was already taking place. And I have to be honest: That was not an easy question. There are rules about these things, you know? And part of my job, like it or not, is to uphold and enforce those rules. But Andy and Barbara were so earnest and so passionate about their work, I couldn’t say no to them. I wish we all had that kind of passion for the Gospel! So we found a way to make it work. And now they’ve been extending our celebration of the Eucharist here on Sunday mornings to, what, forty, fifty people, every month, for something like two years now? When we gather for worship on Sunday morning, sometimes we get disheartened by the size of our congregation, and we need to remember: Those fifty people are now a part of our congregation too, simply because Andy and Barbara had the courage to reach out and try something, something new, something unexpected.
God constantly works in ways we don’t expect. In fact, it almost seems like no matter what we do, whether we succeed or we fail, God manages to bring good news to the world. Let me say that again. Even when we FAIL, God still works through us. Perhaps that’s what Martin Luther meant all those years ago when he told us to sin boldly—but to believe more boldly still. To not be afraid of failure, of sin, of the mistakes and even willful errors we make, because God can use—well, even the gravest of sins, when we nailed God himself to the cross. What greater failure of humanity could there be? God comes to dwell among us, and we kill him, we destroy him. And then, God turns that utter failure into the greatest Good News that ever has been. The cross, an instrument of death, becomes the instrument of our salvation.
I’d like to end my sermon with some wonderful success story about getting through to one of those Kindergartners, but I really WAS bad at that age range at that time in my life. So instead, I moved to the Junior High class. I had my share of failures there, too. I remember, one year, I had twenty-one students in my class. A little overwhelming, and it showed, because there was one Sunday morning in April when I actually yelled at them. I mean angry shouting, loud and shocking and upsetting, the more shocking because I NEVER yell at ANYBODY. But they had just gotten on my nerves that day, and I lost control of my temper. And I just thought, “Now I’ve done it, I’ve lost them for the rest of the year. They’re going to feel bad, and hurt, and I won’t be able to get them to do anything or learn anything else.”
And then two weeks later, Brandon stopped me in the middle of a class conversation. Brandon was one of those kids that never entered church until it was time for him to do the Confirmation thing. And then his parents dropped him off every week, and picked him up after church was over, and never set foot in the building themselves. Brandon hated Church. His parents were making him do it, but they obviously didn’t even value it, and he got that message. I suspect that Brandon hated mostly everything—his family, and his school, and most of all himself. Nobody in his life ever gave him even a hint of a message that he mattered. He usually came into class, and sat in the back, and didn’t even take his coat off. I had gotten him to open up and participate a little in class, but only a little.
But that day, we were talking about the prophet Isaiah, and the wonderful poetry and imagery he used in his later prophecy. The message Isaiah was proclaiming was clear. God’s gift to us was renewed life, a different quality of life, eternal life, life that mattered and was abundant. And Brandon couldn’t believe what he was hearing. For the first time, he stopped the class to ask a question. And it was simply, “You mean, we get to have real life?”
Whatever else happens in Brandon’s life, I know that right there, in that moment, he knew that even if nobody else did, someone—someone as important as God himself—loved him. In that moment, in the most unlikely classroom, in a teacher who thought he had failed, in a teenager nobody cared about, God was at work.
And God is at work in you. In your successes and in your failures, God is at work. God will change the world, and he’ll do it through you, with you, despite you, God is proclaiming good news to others. God is changing people’s lives. God is at work.