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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

In the Rubble of the Quake - 05/08/2016

This text from Acts so very dramatic. It has all the makings for a Hollywood movie.

On the other hand, this text might seem to be somewhat of a mismatch for this weekend when we observe Mother's Day. At the risk of sounding a little sexist, I think we might rather expect on it Father's Day based on the action that moves it along … it could almost be a set up for a weekend marathon of watching the Bourne Identity or Indiana Jones movies.

We've got exorcism, trumped up charges against the disciples, torture, mob scenes, earthquakes and compromised prison security – the inside guy.

Our story from Acts is quite the contrast to the litany prayer we spoke together for all the mothers God blesses us with in this life … “Come, Mother God, come as friend and comforter healing our wounds, walking our way, come as wounded healer to make us whole,” we prayed.

The Acts story may also seem of a drastically different character then the gentle and patient relationship we have with our God that inspired the song we just sang called Borning Cry … a song that often brings sentimental and bittersweet tears to our eyes.

The story even rubs up against our Gospel reading in that contrasting way – this chaotic account of the ministry of Paul and Silas in the Roman stronghold of Philippi is juxtaposed with the end of Jesus' priestly prayer from the Gospel of John. This is Jesus' elaborate and beautiful prayer to God for the protection of all the sheep placed in the Good Shepherd's charge. “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,” (John 17:11) Jesus prays.

The Acts story has a different kind of spirit about it, that's for sure. Where we pick it up today, Paul and Silas are returning to the place of prayer just outside of Philippi – the same place they had met Lydia, the dealer of purple cloth, in our story from Acts last week. This time, they find in that place of prayer a slave girl who had a spirit of divination.

As we hear about in many instances from when Jesus was in the midst of his earthly ministry, these spirits or demons that possess some people seem to recognize the Divine before anyone else and that is the same here. The slave girl speaks truth about the God Paul and Silas worship and teach others about … she speaks the truth about the salvation brought into creation by this God of ours through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But she also may pose a safety problem – the prayerful and God-fearing ways of the Jewish people, including these new Jesus followers, were not wholeheartedly welcomed by the Romans and their emperor, their Caesar, who demanded that he be recognized as the true and only son of God, the true path to salvation. So that could be one thing that is problematic about this noisy and persistent testimony of the spirit-possessed slave girl … truthful as she may have been.

Another possibility is a very human one that I think we've all experienced. This is the ring tone I have assigned for my middle son. (Play ring tone) 13.2 million people have downloaded that ringtone, so it must speak truth to more people than just me.

I can remember so many times when the children were little and I'd be busy trying to get dinner on table while balancing the baby on my hip and helping my daughter work on her homework or something. My middle son often demanded a little more attention, and probably rightfully so. It's not easy being a middle child. But, as you can imagine, it wasn't usually a very convienient time when he'd launch into this chant – Mom. Mom. Mom. Mommy. It is true, I am his Mom but even in the sweetest voice on the planet, hearing that over and over again can test your patience. There were times when my impatience won and I'd suddenly say “What!?” rather harshly, only to hear something obnoxiously cute like “I love you. I am never going to leave you,” or “Will the sun ever run out of shine?”

Maybe that's part of what is going on here. The girl has been following Paul and Silas around for days, probably interrupting conversations with others, attracting unwanted attention and finally Paul just reaches the end of his patience.

But in this case, he invokes the name of Jesus and it works – the spirit leaves the girl. And with that, the “great deal of money by fortune-telling” this girl's owners have grown accustomed to evaporates as quickly as those powers of divination. From there, things quickly escalate. The slave owners, angry over their financial loss, drag Paul and Silas to the Roman authorities accusing them of undermining the Roman way of life. Others join in the persecution as the mob mentality grows. Paul and Silas are stripped, humiliated, beaten and thrown into jail.

And then things get really interesting as a powerful earthquake throws the whole landscape into disarray. The prison guard, who had gone well beyond typical measures of locking these two disturbers of the peace up as if they had just tried to assassinate the emperor himself, must have been living in terror of his superiors.

I'm mean think about it, he had no control over the tectonic activity of the earth's crust that just unsecured all his prisoners, but he is so certain that he will be held responsible for that earthquake that he tries to take his own life. That's a pretty drastic and counter-intuitive move and makes one wonder about the fear tactics used by the authority this man felt beholden to.

The truth is, all of this chaos, from the plight of the exploited slave girl, to the mob lynching and excessive imprisonment tactics, is rather disturbing.

But in the midst of this whirlwind of earthly powers and violence that tries to drown out the Good News of our Savior Jesus Christ, it's interesting to consider how Paul and Silas respond. In contrast to all the people around them trying to shut them up and push them into the deepest darkest recesses of this prison they seem to remain calm, they do not dignify the false accusations made against them with a response. Shackled in bowels of that prison, they continue to minister to God's people. They sing songs and pray together and others begin to listen. When the earthquake takes place, they stop the jailer from killing himself and assure him that they will not escape.

It is at that point that the jailer asks a rather mysterious question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” We don't know exactly what he means by this question … where it is coming from. Perhaps he too was listening to Paul and Silas pray and sing and was curious about this God who gave them so much comfort and courage. Maybe he was worried about how he would be saved from the wrath of those who paid him to guard the jail. Maybe he thought the earth was not done quaking and he would be swallowed up or crushed in the next tremors.

But really, it doesn't matter, does it? Whatever the reason behind the jailer's question “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” the answer is what Paul and Silas respond. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

And when we get to that point, we realize maybe this really isn't such an odd or mismatched story for Mother's Day. For one thing, it was sexist to suggest that. There are plenty of mothers out there who enjoy the Bourne Identity and Indiana Jones movies.

But seriously, this story is appropriate for this and any day because Paul and Silas in this story remind us of a few things that the powers of the world would like us to forget sometimes.

We remember that it is often out of the chaos and violent experiences in this world that God acts … uncertain times when we can profoundly feel the presence of God in our lives. Just ask anyone who has gone through the experience of giving birth – out of that often chaotic and frightening earthquake of an experience emerges a child that grows our capacity for love, forgiveness and hope. Those are gifts from God.

Paul and Silas help us remember that in the midst of the brokenness and unpredictability we experience in our lives, we can come here and be among each other to sing songs, pray, share the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, and remember that we have already died and been risen to New Life in Christ in the waters of our baptism.

And we remember that like Paul and Silas we also have what it takes to remain confident and courageous when the world is falling down around our ears, when we are falsely accused, humiliated or hurt because Jesus prayed for his disciples, for Paul and Silas and much more than that. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

Jesus prayed that for us and it is through this prayer that we know we don't have to fear – earthquakes, power-drunk rulers, humiliation, our own brokenness, even death because we are held … forevermore … in the safety of Jesus prayer and in the steadfast love of Almighty God.

Alleluia. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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