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Sermon for 2018 Joint Ministerium at First Lutheran, Columbia Heights
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Most High God. Amen.
“One day, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination. While she followed Paul and us she would cry out. She kept doing this for many days. Paul turned and said to the spirit – ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.” (Acts 16:16-18 in part)
Well that would make for quite a parochial report. The exorcism of a troubling spirit; well-being restored to a young girl in the name of Jesus Christ. If that weren’t enough to get a bishop’s attention, Paul and Silas and Timothy might also have noted in their annual reports the baptism of Lydia’s whole household, which is the first bold thing they accomplish in Philippi in the verses right before the text we heard today.
But even that doesn’t conclude the marvelous things that happened in that city. Before chapter 16 comes to a close, the jailer, who secured Paul and Silas in the stocks, will credit these same apostles with saving his very life. Like Lydia, he and his whole household will also be baptized into this new faith in the Living God.
According to the author of Acts, such were the early days of the church. Power and drama and seemingly unstoppable success for those who bring good news in the name of Jesus Christ. Not quite the landscape we face today. With rare exceptions, our ministries – our holy experiments, our efforts at renewal – unfold at a very different pace.
Have you ever dreamed of preaching before thirty or forty thousand people, as a few rare ministers do in our day? Have you ever coveted the healing power to walk into a hospital room where someone lies unconscious and dying, aching to have words powerful enough to raise them again to life? Like Stephanie or Molly? Have you ever planned a program, trained the leaders, printed the brochures, broadcast the invitation and then waited … and waited … and waited … for that first person to walk through the door?
Most of our efforts at faithfulness in ministry pale in the radiant grandeur of these stories of the giants in the early days of the church. I suspect that every one of us here – deacon or pastor, intern or guest – knows deep down how hard it is to wait for God’s right time to come around to bless the labor of our hands.
And so in place of joy we may harbor frustration. Rather than missionary zeal we may find ourselves impatient and distracted. Despite our promise to trust the power of the Risen Christ alone we may get sidetracked by gimmicks and all manner of cleverness, which are often preferred by the people we serve.
And in that regard we are somewhat like the Apostle Paul. Did you catch that I left out a few details when I quoted Acts 16 at the start of the sermon? Paul’s exorcism of the girl-slave was not as heroic as I made it sound. Listen again.
“One day, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. And Paul, very much annoyed, turned and (spoke) to the spirit …” (Acts 16:16-18 in part)
Paul was at wit’s end. Exasperated. Annoyed by the attention this girl was drawing to him. She was not honoring his ministry on the terms he preferred. So, not out of any compassion, really – but annoyance – Paul cast the troubling spirit out of her so that he might be on his way. We don’t even know that he paused to look her in the eyes.
What we do know is that a slave-girl, who loses her talent for gathering coins, becomes a slave-girl without value. And if it was hard in the ancient world to be born a slave it was even worse to be a slave-girl with no money-making potential for her owners. Paul and Silas are not thrown in jail for protesting a human rights violation; it is because they damaged someone’s property and were accused of stirring up trouble as outsiders in that community. The movie trailer ends with these two slaves of the most High God flogged and thrown into prison. And they are not even there because they particularly cared about the girl.
Most days, it is hard to see the full consequences of our actions. It is a good thing to advocate for a living wage; another thing to work alongside that to create jobs for those on the lowest rung of the ladder. One thing to be outraged by our president’s mean-spirited immigration quotas; another to do so while taking into one’s home a family with no place to live. (Turn those equations around if that helps you to hear them.)
Friends, it is one thing to join the chorus – creation, human beings, salvation not for sale – as we do with Lutheran churches in the Lutheran World Federation around the globe; another thing altogether to examine our own lives in light of those commitments and to use our money and privilege differently because of our unity in Jesus Christ. Unity with others around the globe enslaved today; trafficked as objects for sex; belittled because they dare to speak up. Among the millions of migrants and refugees on the move many have been forced to leave home because of climate change and profiteering at the expense of God’s good creation. Do we not understand that we can’t buy back the creation once it is ruined?
A friend of mine once shamed me into visiting two young women in the county jail in the town where I lived as a young pastor. I had expressed my righteous outrage that two eighteen-year-olds would break into an elderly neighbor’s house and beat him with a hammer, demanding that he give them money for drugs. He had known them both since they were kids. My friend gave the nudge I needed, reminding me what Jesus had said about visiting those who are in prison. And so, off to jail I went.
Visiting hours for clergy were on Tuesday evenings and I’ll admit the first week I went more out of duty than delight. There are so many incarcerated in our country that I suspect many of you have also taken your ID and your clergy card and gone to see someone in lock-up. There’s a certain awkwardness and an intimacy to such visits with nothing more to offer than the dignity of showing up.
My experience was even a little more interesting because there was no visiting room for women. So I was locked in the cell with the two and with any other women who happened to be in county jail on a Tuesday. And there I stayed until the jailer with the keys remembered I was there.
When we are out of fancy programs and disabused of having any miraculous powers and still asked to bring a good word to someone in trouble, there is ample space for the Risen Christ to draw near. And so I went Tuesday after Tuesday for nearly half a year until the young women stood trial and were sent off to the women’s penitentiary several hours away.
I never really did figure out what to say in that setting but that didn’t keep us from talking. Somehow God showed up. What began as a duty became something else as I came to glimpse life from their perspective. The broken dreams, the demons that had already stolen their freedom years before when they were very young girls. Who was more transformed in those visits I’ll never know but we all know how the ministries to which we are called keep calling us back to the Most High God, to life in Jesus Christ.
Who is bound? Who is free? The one who lives, who serves, who dies in the grace of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. AMEN.