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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I love to tell the story...

Easter 7C
Acts 16:16-34
The Rev. Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook

Let's review:
*Paul and Silas preach the good news of Jesus. Good.
*Paul gets ticked off with annoying slave girl. Bad.
*Paul casts possessing spirit out of girl. Good.
*Owners of girl get mad, have Paul and Silas arrested, flogged, and thrown in jail. Bad. Bad. Bad. Bad.
*Paul and Silas praise God anyway. Good, if surprising.
*Earthquake. Bad.
*Opportunity for Paul and Silas to escape. Good.
*Jailer starts to kill himself to avoid dishonor. Bad.
*Paul and Silas and prisoners don't leave. Ummm...foolish, but good, I guess.
*Jailer and family become believers in Jesus's saving love, are baptized, and fix a great dinner for Paul and Silas. Definitely good.
      I'm not quite sure why, except in the interests of time, our lectionary cuts this short of the biggest plot twist in the saga, in which the police and magistrates discover that Paul and company are Roman citizens who've been unjustly imprisoned, thus leaving the authorities apologizing profusely and scrambling for a quiet cover-up!
      All that in half a chapter from the Book of Acts; it's like watching a ping pong game on fast forward! So I want to look at it instead in slow-mo, and pause at a few select points.
First of all, the slave girl. Another woman, in last week's reading from Acts, just a few verses earlier...Lydia gets named, maybe because she has some resources of her own, or maybe because she eagerly receives Paul and his companions rather than being annoying, or maybe because Lydia welcomes them back at the end of this chapter. But like so many others around whom the story of faith is told, the slave girl remains anonymous. We know, when we call upon the communion of saints, that the foundation on which we stand was built, piece by piece, by countless numbers of people we'll never be able to name.
      In fact, as far as we can tell this young woman remains a slave; she may have been freed from the spirit that possessed her, but she's still a captive. We so often want "happily ever after," but we're reminded right here that that's not how the gospel plays out in the midst of this world; until God renews all of creation on the last day, the liberation of humanity will be incomplete. We're called to that vision of freedom for every one of God's beloved children, for all who are enslaved by poverty, hunger, mental and physical illness, and lack of education; by judgments about gender, race, sexual orientation, capabilities, or physical beauty; by politics or tradition. However, as we go about our baptismal work of restoring the dignity of every person, we need to remember that not succeeding every time is not a reflection of our efforts being pointless, but of the world’s brokenness.
      Next, the earthquake. I'm not sure if living in California makes this story from Acts seem more real or less. Certainly if you've lived through a good-sized one, you have some recollection of what it is to feel the supposedly solid earth moving. It always takes me a few moments to even figure out what's happening, because it so doesn't fit with my experience of how ground is supposed to behave. We understand, though, that big earthquakes shake things up, permanently alter the landscape, and create a distinct "before and after." We shouldn't be surprised, then, that it's an earthquake that brings down the walls and opens the doors in this midnight angel unlocking cells here, as occurs elsewhere in the Book of Acts...because this is a story of complete upheaval for the jailer (another unnamed character) and, by extension, the political and social powers. One moment, he knows how his world works, what's stable and secure, and a few minutes later that life is in pieces around him. Turning his sword on himself in shame is a last remnant of the old order, and then that bit collapses too, as Paul shouts to him that all the prisoners are still there, a crazy twisting of the story's landscape. No gradual conversion here; this is before and after with the cataclysm of God's power as the tipping point.
      And there's the next pause: this is an escape story without an escape. Paul and Silas don’t leave. Imagine watching The Great Escape and everyone staying in the camp after the tunnel was completed; it makes no sense. It makes no sense except, of course, in a story about lives in which Jesus is the model and forerunner. Christians aren't called to rescue themselves by escaping from danger, any more than Jesus walked away from the cross. I'm not talking about being foolish or subjecting ourselves to abuse; Jesus did the dying to save us and he wants us to be around and healthy to share his love. I mean not running away from opportunities to be the voice and the hands of Christ simply because a situation feels awkward, or we don't know what to say or do, or we're fearful of embarrassment, or we might get dirty and sweaty in our labor. I can picture Paul standing there, every bit as surprised as the next person about the quake, weighing his options...then seeing the jailer about to kill himself and suddenly resisting the urge to do all the sensible things, and instead responding with selfless love. Talk about permanently altering the landscape!
      A lot of people, both Christians and others, suppose that we believe everything will be fine and dandy once we have we can really "have" him anyway, since I think it's more like he has us. Faith, of any kind, is no bulletproof suit to protect us from life's challenges and pain, nor does it make sense out of that which is beyond our comprehension. It just doesn't work that way. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is a testament, however, to the power of sharing our experience, whatever it may be, no matter how up and down it is, good or bad, as the best way to witness to God working in our life. We, like so many before us, can tell the story of how we've found freedom in the unconditional love of a God who knows us each by name, how our lives have been shaken up and rebuilt on a new foundation in Christ, how we've created meaning by staying to share God's peace and justice rather than running away in uncertainty or fear. We can tell how the one who is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end of Paul’s story, the slave girl and the jailer’s story, our story and every story, has given us the water of life and the grace to live that life to its fullest.

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