Pastor Keith's Sunday Sermon
September 1, 2013
We finish our summer reading of Acts today with a pivotal story from the latter half of Acts 16, and as we do I hope that together we discover just how human the Apostle Paul can be; a man of faith and a follower of Jesus, yet also a man of his times, which is not to excuse what unfolds. When we let Paul off the hook for what he does and does not do, we let ourselves off the hook, and forgiveness without repentance is a shallow thing indeed, especially when it is us forgiving ourselves a bit too quickly. We ought to be paying attention today to this story because what we will discover may help us as we, too, seek to follow Jesus and serve him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.
So Paul’s life and the lives of two other people, one woman and one man, come together in separate incidents and in each case that life is changed forever. To each Paul had an opportunity to embody the grace and love of God shown to us in and through Christ Jesus. In one case a life is saved. And in the other, well, maybe not. Today’s reading from Acts is instructive as to why each encounter in our life matters and the costs associated with the choices that we make.
So this woman, whose name is unknown or at least unwritten, spends many days following Paul and Silas and crying out – witnessing to the truth – “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She is a slave to a couple of business people of a sort – who make money off of her prognostications. This slave girl tells fortunes, but Paul and Silas are different sorts of slaves – as slaves of God they tell the way to salvation. She might very well know the difference and chooses to use her time letting everyone know which one of them they ought to be listening to and it isn’t her.
Paul seems uncaring but not just uncaring – flat-out annoyed. He puts up with the possessed fortune–telling slave girl for days and days until he just can’t take it anymore. His annoyance boils over and he casts out the demon in the name of Jesus, well and good, and goes on his way. No connection with faith. No moment of teaching. No community connecting or community building – rather he treats her as if he was swatting a pesky fly. And here’s the kicker. I would argue that she is left worse off after Paul casts out the demon than she was before. As a fortune teller she was a slave who earned money for her owners - she was valuable to them – so much so that they will later lie, trump up charges, stir up the crowd and have Paul and his companions beaten and arrested all because what they have lost. But now – who knows what the owners will do to her. She has nothing left to offer them and Paul doesn’t bother telling her about the way of salvation that she has told everyone who will listen that they have to share. No. In Jesus’ name Paul renders her a useless slave to her masters and then Paul and Silas go on their merry way happy, it seems, to be rid of her; men on a mission not to be bothered with the everyday problems of a slave girl.
In the second part of our story from the Book of Acts, the Jailor and his family fair much better. Paul and Silas are arrested on trumped up charges and thrown into the innermost cell, slapped in irons, the crowd having been frenzied to near riot by the slave girl’s owners, who want to teach them a lesson. Paul and Silas commence singing hymns until their very voices are drowned out by an earthquake that causes all of the doors in prison to be flung wide open and their chains to fall away. Lucky them! The way to freedom is now clear. Except. And there is always an except, isn’t there? Except that the Jailor will have to pay for their escape with his own life, a penalty which they become aware of as they see the jailor drawing a sword to take the matters of his death into his own hands. Literally. But here is where things begin to turn for the Jailor. Paul shouts out for him to stay his hand, for despite the doors beginning to open and the chains having fallen away, Paul and Silas chose to stay for his sake, rather than depart and save their skins. Their self-sacrifice breaks hard upon the jailor, whose thoughts turn from suicide to salvation. And Paul and Silas share the good news about Jesus and the Jailor and his entire household eagerly listen and come to be baptized, their lives are changed forever.
Let us quietly ponder this in our own minds: have we ever met people who we think are not worth our time? Who we choose to ignore? With whom we would never willingly choose to build a relationship, if it was up to us? People that we consciously or unconsciously declare by our actions or words or both not worthy of the good news? For to embody and share the good news requires us to invest in a relationship that we are not prepared to build. With them, anyway.
“God,” we say, “ Did you see what we did for you – in prison – the way that we did not walk away when our chains fell off and the doors opened – the way that with a word we prevented that jailor from taking his own life – the way that we witnessed to him and his family – baptized them – the way that they praised you and worshiped you – did you see that God? All the good stuff that we did and do in your name? And God says – you know – I’m sorry – I was busy watching after that slave Girl that I sent to you day after day waiting for you to share the good news with her. “Oh,” we say, “did YOU send her? we would never have guessed.”
The people that we meet who we believe are not worthy of our time are always worthy of God’s time. And since that will always be true, are we willing to change our habits and see Christ in all?