Saturday, May 25, 2013

“God in Community” - May 26, 2013 (Trinity)

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

In the liturgical calendar, the Sunday following Pentecost – that would be today - is celebrated as Trinity Sunday.  Now, Trinity Sunday is different from Christmas or Easter or even Pentecost, days in which we celebrate a specific event, like Jesus’ birth or resurrection or the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Trinity Sunday is set aside to reflect on a doctrine – a belief - of the church.  Now just to say that phrase, “reflect on a doctrine of the church,” a person can almost feel the air go out of the room.  It is possible to ruin a perfectly good worship service by talking about something like the Trinity.  The British preacher Colin Morris once commented, “Any preacher with good sense will call in sick on Trinity Sunday.”

And Martin Luther stated his opinion on the matter: “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”

Our scripture reading from Matthew is a very familiar one, known as the Great Commission.  I memorized it as a child.  “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit...”  This formula “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is about as close as the Bible gets to any kind of developed doctrine of the Trinity – and it’s not really that close.

Despite the difficulties and despite the fact that the Trinity is really not a central concern of the scriptures, we’re going to go ahead and think about the meaning of the Trinity this morning because since we come here and worship God week after week, since we offer prayers and raise our voices in praise to God each Sunday morning, as we have this morning, it is worth considering just who this God is.  It is worth reflecting on the nature of the God whom we worship and serve.

Well, how about it?  How about this Trinity thing?  As I said, you really won’t find a doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible.  Jesus didn’t talk about the Trinity.  I know some would disagree, but for me, understanding the Trinity as a theological construct is not all that important in itself.

The Theology class has been reading and discussing Harvey Cox’s book, The Future of Faith, this semester.  It is an interesting book.  With the college class finished for the year, I was able to sit in on the class last week.  Cox argues that the history of the Christian Church can be divided into three ages.  For the first 300 or so years of the church, the focus was on living out the teachings of Jesus as a community.  This was the “Age of Faith.”  After the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, however, things changed.  The focus more and more became conformity and right belief, and the very meaning of faith changed from a way of living to a set of fixed beliefs.  The Church amassed power as an institution.  This Cox called the “Age of the Church.”

Cox sees us as now in a transition period into what he calls the “Age of the Spirit,” with a focus not on creeds and conformity and right belief, but on community and lived faith – not so much on institutions, but on a living, vibrant spirituality.

Now, Cox’s take is part historical analysis and part deep hope, but if he is right – and I think he is on the right track – what are we doing observing Trinity Sunday?  Why does this even matter?

Well, I am not encouraging rigidly defined doctrines that folks have to subscribe to in order to be considered a Christian.  But as a church that likes to say that faith is a matter of both heart and mind and that you don’t have to check your brain at the door here, it is important for us to think and reflect on the nature of the God we worship.

Who is God?  What is God like?  Does God care for me?  What is my place in relationship to God?  We naturally have a need and desire to describe the Almighty.

In the book of Exodus, God spoke to Moses in the burning bush and told Moses that he was to lead the people out of Egypt.  Moses said to God, “When I go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go, who should I say sent me?”  God simply said, “I am who I am.”  Not, “I am the eternal three-in-one Godhead,” but “I am who I am.”

When you get right down to it, God is a mystery, a reality that we cannot fully fathom or explain.  Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was interviewed in Christian Century.  He said, “The doctrine of the Trinity is… not a tidy description; it’s just the “least worst” way we’ve found of talking about something very disturbing and inexhaustible.  And I suppose that’s why I’ve been trying for many years to write a book on the Trinity.”

The story is told of an aging Jew crossing the street in front of a Roman Catholic Church who was knocked down by a hit-and-run driver.  Half-conscious and lying in the street, a priest ran out of the church to administer last rites.  “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?” the priest asked.  The old man cried, “I'm dying, and this guy is asking me riddles!”

To some, it certainly sounds like a riddle.  The hymn we sang says, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”  What does this mean?

Among other things, the word “persons” trips us up.  The Greek word is persona, and it referred to masks that actors wore in Greek drama – they might play different parts, but it was the same actor.

The doctrine of the Trinity says something about the way we experience God.  It says that the God who created us, the God who saves us, and the God who gives us power and strength each day is the same God.  As Frederick Buechner puts it, “the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery.”

A lot of things might be said about the Trinity, but what speaks to me most is that the doctrine of the Trinity says that at the heart of God’s being is relationship.  Even God needs community, and within the heart of God is community.

To be created in God’s image means that we are created for community.  Our own identity is found in relationships.  I might describe myself as a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a pastor, a teacher, a learner.  I am a follower of Jesus and a child of God.  Each of these ways of defining myself, each of these parts of my identity has to do with relationships.  I understand myself in relationship to others.  God’s own self involves relationship, and created in God’s image, we are created for relationships, created for community.

Our reading from the Psalms is a familiar one: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth.”  It goes on to speak of the place of humanity in creation, saying “You have made them a little lower than God.”  Translators of the King James Version, apparently feeling that his was too presumptuous, rendered this as “little lower than the angels,” but the literal Hebrew is more along the lines of “You have made them god-like.”

Part of being like God, part of being made in God’s image, is this need to be in community as God is in community.  But the trend is not so good.  Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, described the decline of social capital in America – compared to 50 years ago or even 20 years ago, he found that fewer American are involved in civic groups like Rotary or the Lions or Kiwanis, fewer young people are in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, fewer are involved in PTA, fewer are actively involved in political parties, fewer participate in community organizations of all sorts, and people get together less with friends to play cards or share a meal.  While there has been an overall increase in bowling, there has been a big decrease in bowling leagues, hence the title of the book – Bowling Alone.  The one exception, the one area of growth, was “membership organizations” like AARP or the Sierra Club or the NRA, groups in which most members don’t actually know or relate to any other members of the organization.

Putnam found that this trend also holds true for churches: the number of active church members has decreased, and those who participate in congregations spend less time involved in church activities.  Putnam wrote his book several years ago, but the trend has only increased.  As I have mentioned before, the fastest growing group in our country in terms of religious affiliation is the “nones” - those with no religious affiliation at all.

The dramatic downturn in community participation in recent years has had an effect.  There are fewer people to turn to for help in a crisis, fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients, fewer participants in community groups.

Putnam and other researchers have attributed such findings to things like the mobility of society, in which people move often and don’t establish deep friendships or community ties; to an increase in TV watching and video games and computer use, which keep people occupied without relating to others; and to the increasing number of people who work long hours, sometimes even 2 or 3 jobs, and simply don’t have the time to build meaningful relationships with others.

The problem is, we are not created for TV or the world wide web, or work without rest, or living in isolation.  We are created for community – community with God and with others.

Johann Christoph Arnold related a Hasidic parable.  A rabbi asked his students, “When is it at dawn that one can tell the light from the darkness?”

One student replied, “When I can tell a goat from a donkey.” “No,” answered the rabbi.  Another said, “When I can tell a palm tree from a fig.”  “No,” answered the rabbi again. “Well, then, what is the answer?” his students pressed him.

“Only when you look into the face of every man and every woman and see your brother and your sister,” said the rabbi. “Only then have you seen the light.  All else is still darkness.”

In the end, God is a mystery.  We cannot fully know God.  And yet God has revealed God’s own self to us – as Creator, the maker of all that exists, the one who brought this beautiful world and this whole universe into being and gave the care of this world to us.  God has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who showed us that God is a God of grace and love and justice and forgiveness and peace, a God who will go to any length to be reconciled with us.   And we have experienced God as Spirit, a power ever present to us that strengthens and energizes and convicts and leads and sustains us in the here and now. 

As an academic venture, I have to admit that the doctrine of the Trinity leaves me pretty cold.  One of the questions in that class discussion last week was, “What are the gems of Christian faith we need to keep and what is the junk that you would discard?”  I know that for some, the doctrine of the Trinity might not seem worth hanging onto.  But in a more down-to-earth way, the Trinity is helpful for me as a way of thinking about God because it says that God is a mystery, that we experience God in different ways, and that God is about community.  We worship a God who seeks us, who wants a relationship with us, and we come together as a community in relationship with one another and with God.  When we are truly living this way, living in community, we look in the face of every man and woman, every boy and girl, and we see the face of a brother or sister.

We speak of God in various ways, all of which are attempts to describe a mystery greater than we are.  We may describe God as Father, Friend, Rock, Protector, Judge, Help, Mother, Lord, Savior, Shield, Shade, the Ground of our being, and this is just a start.  All of these various ways of thinking about God have to do with God’s relationship to us.  One of the simplest descriptions of God we find is in I John, “God is love.”  And we experience that love in community with one another. 

For me, the doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt, however imperfect, to draw us closer to the truth that God is Love.  Not a hypothesis, not a research project, not a theological puzzle, but Love.

How do we describe God?  We can only use metaphors.  Our understanding is limited and our language is limited, and so we can only say that God is like…

When we say that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or that God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, we are trying to express something of what God is like.  But any of the words we use to describe God are inadequate.  Even all of these thoughts and words and ideas about God, all taken together, still fall far short of describing and understanding the fullness of God. 

I have talked before about Brian Wren’s hymn that we sang this morning, “Bring Many Names.”  But I think the last verse is especially powerful as we think about the nature of God: “Great living God, never fully known, joyful darkness far beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing, everlasting home, hail and hosanna, great, living God.”

Our God is a great, living God.  And while God is never fully known, God is closer than our breathing.  That is relationship.  At the heart of God is relationship, even within God there is community, and we are invited into relationship with God and with each other.

To be a community of faith means that we are a family, that we look into each face and see a brother or sister.  And it means that the God whose very nature is community is here in our midst.  Amen.
 

“The Language of the Spirit” - May 19, 2013 (Pentecost)

Text: Acts 2:1-21

We visited my family back in Indiana this past week.  While we were there, my niece and nephew Hope and Parker brought home their high school yearbook.

When I graduated from high school, we all went around and signed each other’s yearbooks, with notes about great times we’d had or comments about the future – “I know you will be a huge success,” “I expect to see you in the White House some day,” things like that.  The notes were written something in the vein of going-away notes -- “Have a great life.”

This has changed.  High school friends can easily keep in touch through Facebook and twitter and text messaging and chat and through that archaic relic of the past – email.  Nobody signed yearbooks at Hope and Parker’s school, because there is not that same strong feeling of parting ways that graduating classes used to have.

While sharing information has never been easier, understanding is something else altogether.  There is a big difference between talking and really communicating.

Communication can be a challenge because we are all different.  Men and women are different.  We hear differently and do things differently.  We are different ages.  We have different occupations, different interests, different educational backgrounds, we are introverts and extroverts, we have different life experiences, and when you get right down to it, it’s a wonder that we can understand each other as well as we do.

The scripture for today, the story of Pentecost, is about how God’s Spirit overcomes such differences to bring understanding.  Jews dispersed throughout the world came to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost.  Luke reports what happened for us here in Acts, and it is obvious that it is an incredible, wonderful work of God. 

There was something like a great rush of wind, it was like tongues of fire descending on the disciples, and they began to speak in various languages.  Everyone understood the message in his or her own language. 

The crowd was astonished.  “Aren’t these people speaking just a bunch of Galileans?” they asked.  There were some hecklers, doubters, who saw all that was happening and said, “Those Galileans have been hitting the bottle.  These people are drunk.”

Peter uses this as an opportunity to address the crowd, saying, “These people are not drunk; it’s only 9 in the morning, for heaven’s sakes!”  Peter said that what was taking place was the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.  Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

The disciples were given the boldness and power to speak, and this was the fulfillment of God’s promise, said Peter. 

Why did God choose to miraculously enable the disciples to speak every language under heaven rather than do what would have been just as easy -- give everyone in the crowd the ability to understand the language of the disciples?  The disciples could have simply preached their regular stump sermon, as it were, and the Spirit could have given the crowd understanding so that they would know what was being said.

It could have happened that way, but it didn’t.  It seems to me that the difference between those two possible ways is that God’s way shows a profound respect for all people.  It respects their language and their culture.  And this should inform our theology of mission—it says something about the way we go about ministering to others.  We need to meet people where they are.  Rather than asking others to become a part of our culture, we need to translate the gospel into their culture.  And I’m not just talking about the cultures of China and India and Nicaragua and the Congo; I’m talking about the cultures and languages (plural) of Ames, Iowa. 

In the long list of nationalities present that day, there are groups generally looked down upon by others in the world.  In fact, this kind of prejudice and stereotyping is even found in scripture.

Consider some of the folks in Jerusalem that first Pentecost.  The Elamites?  They were thought of as cowering refugees.  Jeremiah 49:36 reads, ”I’ll let the four winds loose on Elam…they will be blown in all directions, landing homeless Elamites in every country on earth.  I will terrify the Elamites before their enemies.”

The Medes?  They were considered ruthless, heartless killers.  Isaiah 13:17: “Against Babylon, I’m inciting the Medes, a ruthless bunch indifferent to bribes, who are without mercy even for children.”

And the Cretans?  They were just a pack of liars.  Titus 1:12 reads, “It was their very own prophet who said, ‘Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.’” 

For the Elamites and Medes and Cretans, other languages were too painfully steeped in a history of stereotyping.  They needed to hear the good news in a language that would not snipe at them with insults.

Now, there was another option for the disciples.  Many, perhaps most of the people there would have understood Greek.  Why not simply speak in Greek, and be generally understood?  And if a Parthian or Pamphylian didn’t get it, a friend probably could have translated the gist of it.

But again, this was not God’s way.  There is something powerful about hearing in the language of home.  In our native tongue we are most able to hear and understand the deepest truths.

If we really want to understand, we need to hear in our own language.  I am absolutely amazed at students who come here from other countries who not only have to learn what can be difficult subject material, but learn it in what is not their native language.  And not only learn it, but teach it, as some of you do.  It can be done, and in time it becomes more natural, but it is certainly not easy.

Words are important.  Language is important.  When it comes to faith, we all wrestle with this language business because we are trying to put into words realities and experiences and a mystery that is so often beyond words.

Increasingly, the language of the church is like a foreign language to much of our culture.  Kathleen Norris wrote a wonderful book a few years back, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.  After being away for a number of years, she came back to the church, but what she found most daunting and difficult was the language.  In her book she reflected on some of those churchy and theological words that can be dense and off-putting.

More recently Marcus Borg made the same point with his book Speaking Christian.  The subtitle pretty well says it: “Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power -- And How They Can Be Restored.”

In the same vein, Frederick Buechner wrote,

If the language that clothes Christianity is not dead, it is at least, for many, dying; and what is really surprising, I suppose, is that it has lasted as long as it has...There are (religious) words that through centuries of handling and mishandling have tended to become empty banalities that just the mention of them is apt to turn people’s minds off like a switch.
This past week we noticed a church ad somewhere (it wasn’t here in Ames so don’t try to guess) that had a tag line of something like, “Preaching the power of the blood - Christ died for your sins.”  I’m sure this church thought of itself as a very evangelistic church, but they were speaking the language of a particular segment of the Christian community.  I’m not sure it translated very well to the intended audience.

It is possible for our language to become an insider’s language that is meaningless to those on the outside, and perhaps can actually turn people away.  There are a growing number of people who have not grown up in the church, and for them, merely repeating religious jargon is not going to get it.  It may be English, but it may as well be a different language.  If they are going to hear, we are going to have to speak a language they understand. 

The Good News is that just as at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit can take our efforts, meager as they may be, and allow others to hear the truth of the gospel.

There have been times when I have preached a lousy sermon, and afterwards people will share how much the message spoke to them and how wonderful it was.  And there are Sundays when somebody will say that the sermon helped them so much with this particular area of their life, and I didn’t know I was preaching about that at all.  That’s the Spirit at work.

There are times when we are really hurting, and we try to talk to someone but it kind of comes out as an incoherent jumble, but the Spirit gives them the ability to really listen with patience and compassion and empathy, and they understand what we are saying, really understand. 

We can read and study this passage in Acts and never be completely sure just exactly what happened that day, or how.  But we know it was something wonderful and powerful and something that transformed the disciples from 98-pound weaklings into people of unbreakable faith.  But perhaps the question about Pentecost is not so much “What happened back then?”, but “Do you believe it happens now?”  Is the Holy Spirit powerful enough to overcome all of those things that divide us to bring us together that we might truly hear one another?

We believe the answer is yes.  We have experienced it in moments of inspiration when suddenly we understand.  We have experienced it when we have connected with another person in a way we didn’t expect and really heard each other.  We have experienced with one another when a word spoken in love becomes a word from God for us.  We have experienced it as we look back at our lives over time and see how God has brought us to new understandings of life and faith.

Terri Pilarski, an Episcopal priest, tells of a family that arrived on a warm June day: a mother, grandmother, and five children ranging in ages from 17 to 3.  They had traveled from a refugee camp in Cameroon to Sudan.  There they caught a plane that flew them to Paris, then to the United States.  The littlest ones were teary-eyed and clingy, hanging on to the bone-thin hand of their grandmother.  The mother and older children had that glazed look that comes from extreme fatigue.  Refugees from Rwanda, this family was being settled in the U.S. by a local agency.  While they waited for repairs to a house,  the family would temporarily live in the church.

Sunday School rooms had been converted into bedrooms and a living room.  Downstairs was a full kitchen, and the bathrooms contained showers.  The afternoon of their arrival, members of the church greeted the family and gave them a tour of the church.  The family spoke a native dialect of Rwanda and a little French, but no English.  A translator followed the tour, interpreting for the family.  “Watch the children outside, do not let them run off the property; cars will zoom by fast, they could be hurt.  There is food in the fridge; don’t eat the rabbits in the yard or the birds.” It was clear that this family was in a whole new world. 

By the next Sunday, the family’s biological clocks were catching up with U.S. time and they were able to worship with the Korean Methodist Church that shared the building with the Episcopal congregation.  It was an amazing sight: a Methodist service spoken in Korean, held in an American Episcopal Church, attended by Rwandans in full native attire.

At the lunch that followed, a few members of both the Episcopal and Methodist congregations were able to speak with the family in sparse French.  French was a common language shared among this group of Koreans, Americans, and Rwandans gathered for a meal.  But it wasn’t just the French spoken; the shared meal itself was a common language of love and hospitality.

Members of the church dropped by during the week to bring the kids some things to play with: soccer balls, used bikes, tennis rackets and balls, and sidewalk chalk.  The kids were delighted.  Laughter filled the air, another common language.

Soon the house was ready and the family prepared to move out of the church.  A van arrived to take their few belongings: three suitcases for seven people plus seven beds with linens, two scooters, two bikes, and a few balls donated by the church.  The sum total of their possessions.

Before they left, a daughter turned and offered the priest a few gifts – a small wooden picture with strands of colored wheat, and two coasters with psalms inscribed.  They were gifts a nun had helped them make in the refugee camp in Cameroon.  A family with virtually nothing, and yet they came bearing gifts of gratitude.  Thankfulness, another common language shared.

Despite all the differences of language, and culture, and food, and customs, a bond was formed.  Regardless of the inability to speak to one another through words, the church members and the family members were able to communicate a shared compassion for one another and a common love of God.  It was an experience of the Holy Spirit.

It is the Spirit that brings power to the church.  Pentecost is called the Birthday of the church - when the Spirit came, the church was born.  The Spirit took folks gathered from all over the world and made them one.  And it’s still happening today: amidst all of our diversity and together with believers from all over the world, in the Church we are one body of Christ.  It is the Spirit that gives power and understanding to the Church.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

“Freedom in Christ” - May 12, 2013

Text: Acts 16:16-40

We have been reading from the Book of Acts these past few Sundays.  Acts is the story of the early church – it tells of the spread of the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world.  We have read the account of Peter raising from the dead the much-loved disciple Dorcas.  We looked at Peter’s vision from God in which he is told not to differentiate among people and that he should not call what God has made unclean, and Peter defends his ministry among the Gentiles to church leaders in Jerusalem.  Last week Susan brought the message and we looked at the story of Paul going to Philippi and meeting Lydia, a Gentile businesswoman who was a dealer in purple dye, and baptizing her and her household.  Lydia was the first Christian believer in Europe.

This morning we continue reading in Acts chapter 16, picking up right after last week’s scripture.  This is one of the great stories in the New Testament and it invites us to think about freedom in perhaps a different way because nothing is as simple or obvious as it first seems. 

While still in Philippi, it appears that Paul and his friends regularly visited the place of prayer where they had met Lydia.  (You might remember that they are staying in Lydia’s home.)  In Philippi as in many cities, there was a place of prayer by the river, a place where Gentiles who were drawn to Judaism would gather.  These Gentiles were sometimes called “God fearers.”

While Paul and his companions were on their way to the place of prayer, they would pass a slave girl who would shout out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God!”  She would follow them and keeping shouting out.  This happened for days.  Apparently, they passed by her every day, and every time, she would follow and shout, “These men are servants of the Most High God who proclaim a way of salvation!”

And as you might imagine, Paul became annoyed.  It’s more than a little distracting.

This girl was not only a slave, she was also possessed by a spirit that appeared to give her special powers.  Scholar Paul Walasky explained that this was not uncommon in the ancient Greek world.  People would come to such people, called “mantics,” and ask them questions, which they answered while in a trance-like state.  This sounds rather exotic to us, but in that day, this was seen as performing a useful function in society.

What this all added up to is that this girl was a lucrative small-business enterprise for her owners.  She is used by people who have figure out how to make money off of her.  For her to keep shouting that Paul and his friends are servants of the Most High God, you might think that this would not really help their business.  But on the other hand, maybe it reinforced the idea that she had special powers, special knowledge, so maybe it would help their business.

Either way, Paul walks by, this girl begins to shout at him yet again, and he has had it.  And so he heals her – he exorcises the spirit from her not out of compassion or deep concern for her well-being, it seems, but impulsively, because he is just so annoyed.  Paul orders this spirit to leave her, and it did.  The girl was made well and is in her right mind. 

But now, this girl has lost her ability as a fortune teller.  She was no longer plugged into the Psychic Friends Network.  Rather than being happy that this girl has been made well, they are angry at their loss of income. 

And so they have Paul and Silas dragged into court.  Their complaint was not that these men had healed the girl and thus deprived them of a lucrative source of income.  Instead, they were charged with disturbing the peace and engaging in un-Roman activities.  Disturbing the peace is always an easy charge to bring.  In the Civil Rights era, marchers were some times beaten and rather than charging those who were responsible for the beatings with assault, the marchers would be charged with disturbing the peace.  If they hadn’t been there stirring things up, none of this would have happened.  

It isn’t much of a trial.  Paul and Silas are charged and the crowd gets worked up.  Who did these people think they were?  Paul and Silas are beaten with rods and then thrown into prison.  They were apparently considered to be a security risk, because they were placed in the innermost cell and their feet were put into stocks.

They had healed a girl of a spirit that possessed her, and this is what happened.  Sometimes you just can’t win.  Here we have a good illustration of “no good deed goes unpunished.”  You have seen it happen – it’s probably happened to you.  You try to do the right thing, and it only gets you into trouble.

The story is told of the man who stood at the gates of heaven when St. Peter stops him and asks what good has he done in his life.  And St. Peter adds, “We’re really looking for examples of true greatness.”

The man thought for a minute and said, “I saw a group of skinhead bikers harassing a young woman.  I was afraid of what they might do.  So I went to the leader and told him to leave her alone or he would have to deal with me.  He laughed at me, so I kicked over his bike, told him to back off, and ordered the whole group to get out of town.”

“Wow!” said St. Peter.  When did this happen?  “Oh, about 3 minutes ago,” he replied.

Sometimes it really does seem true: no good deed goes unpunished.  I read that in Cincinnati a pedestrian was prosecuted for slipping a quarter into a parking meter that had expired.  The do-gooder faced a hefty fine for her trouble.

If we expect to be rewarded for doing good, we might want to think again.  Being rewarded for our thoughtfulness or concern or kindness can’t be our motivation for doing the right thing because chances are, it’s not going to happen.

In fact, maybe we ought to expect to get into trouble for doing the right thing.  That was certainly Jesus’ experience.  And that’s what happened to Paul and Silas.  Bringing freedom to the oppressed changes the way things are.  It always shakes up the status quo, and that is threatening to people, generally the ones who are in power.

So Paul and Silas are beaten and then thrown into jail.  Now if it were me, at this point, I would be a little bit – well, a little down.  Depressed.  First off, I don’t like being beaten up.  Probably just me, but I don’t enjoy that.  And then, you are stuck in jail, which was a lot more unpleasant then that it is now.

A few years ago, when they opened the new Story County Jail, CCJ had a fundraiser before the jail was officially opened.  It was called “Slumber in the Slammer.”  They had a tour of the new jail, there was food, local celebrities were on hand, and if you made a contribution and chose to, you could actually spend the night in jail.  It was fun!  The facility was fresh and new wanted to and you got to hang out with fun and interesting people.

It wasn’t like that for Paul and Silas.  It was not remotely like that.  They are not just in jail, they are in the high security area and their feet are in stocks.  They can’t move.

It had been a hard day.  Getting beaten by rods tends to take it out of you.  Prison conditions were not good.  It is surprising they are even awake at midnight, but then it is hard to get comfortable when your feet are in stocks.  So, what do they do?  Paul and Silas are praying and singing hymns at midnight.  What an image: singing hymns at midnight in jail.

William Willimon told of a visit a number of years ago by Bishop Emilio de Carvalho, the Methodist bishop of Angola.  The bishop was asked what it was like to be the church in a Marxist country.  Was the government supportive of the church?

“No,” the bishop said, “but we don’t ask for it to be supportive.”  “Have there been tensions?” he was asked.  “Yes,” said the bishop.  “Not long ago the government decreed that we should disband all women’s organizations in the church.”  What happened?  “Of, the women kept meeting.  The government is not strong enough to do too much about it.

“But what will you do when the government becomes stronger?”  “Well,” he said, ”We shall keep meeting.  The government does what it needs to do.  The church does what it needs to do.  If we go to church for being the church, we shall go to jail.”

What a great attitude.  We need to be smart, we need to be aware of what is going on, but we are not responsible fro what others do.  We are ourselves responsible before God.

The bishop went on, ‘Jail is a wonderful place for Christian evangelism.  Our church made some of its most dramatic gains when so many were in jail.  In jail, you have everyone there, in one place.  You have time to preach and teach.  Sure, twenty of our pastors were killed during the revolution, but we came out of jail a much larger and stronger church.”

And then, as if anticipating the next question, Bishop Carvel said, “Don’t worry abut the church in Angola; God is doing fine by us.  Frankly, I would find it much more difficult to be a pastor in Illinois.  Here, there is so much.  There are so many things.  It must be hard to be the church here.”

Paul and Silas are in prison, in chains.  They are worshiping God, singing hymns at midnight.  Like the bishop said, jail can be a wonderful place to be the church.  And then, a powerful earthquake hits.  The foundations of the prison are shaken.  Doors fly open.  Stocks come apart.  Chains are unfastened.

The jailer was an employee of the empire and responsible for the prisoners.  If a prisoner escaped, the jailer would be liable for whatever punishment the inmates might receive.  In a corrupt system, this tended to discourage jailers from being bought off, and it made for tighter security.

The jailer was very afraid.  And he had reason to be afraid.  His future was over.  He drew a sword to kill himself, assuming the prisoners had escaped.  But Paul called out for him not to harm himself, because everyone was still there.

The jailer had heard the songs and prayers and knew that something was very different about Paula and Silas.  Now he knew for sure the difference Jesus had made in Paul’s life.  He believes in Christ.  He washes Paul and Silas’s wounds.   He is baptized, along with his household.  And then he has Paul and Silas sit down to a meal.  (Since the earthquake was around midnight, I suppose this was an early breakfast.)

It is interesting is to think about this story in terms of who is really free.  The slave girl was freed from her demons while her owners were captive to their greed.  Paul and Silas are in chains in prison, but singing hymns at midnight, they are free.  They have found a freedom in Christ that surpasses the difficulties of the moment.  Meanwhile, the jailer is imprisoned by fear. 

Later, Paul writes these same Philippians: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry, of having plenty and being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  Paul knew what real freedom is like.

We would all claim to be free.  How free are we really?  We have to pay our monthly mortgage or rent, most of us.  We are bound to our job or to school.  We may have fears about money or health or children or parents weighing us down.  We may be carrying a load of burdens and worries.  Some of us may be nursing bitterness and anger.  We may be trying to live up to others’ expectations.  We like to think that we are free, but maybe we are really as free as we would like to think.

Paul and Silas show us what freedom really looks like.  It is not so dependent on outer circumstances, but rather on the inner peace of God. 

For Paul and Silas, the grace and peace and hope they had in Christ could not be taken away, and in light of that, other things did not matter so much.  They were free, free enough that they could sing hymns at midnight in jail.  May we too know the peace and joy and true freedom that are found in Christ.  Amen.