Still Easter

A Sermon for 16 May 2016 – 7th Sunday of Easter

A reading from Acts of the Apostles. We continue to hear in this season of Easter of the adventures of the apostle Paul and Silas. Listen for God’s word to us.

“One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, 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. But Paul, very much annoyed, 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. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God. When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.” (NRSV)

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

It’s still Easter – though our memories of that glorious morning the last Sunday of March have about faded. For those of us who were there, can you remember the sound of the birds singing as we sat for a moment of silence at the Sunrise Service in the old sanctuary on The Hermitage? Remember the joy we felt around the tables in the fellowship hall that morning? The glorious music of the 11 a.m. service that day and the fun of plastic Easter Eggs all over the yard as the children enjoyed a few moments of adventure after the service? It seems forever ago – but it’s still Easter. The seventh and final Sunday of the season for this year. Next week we celebrate Pentecost: the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the Church. But for today: Easter: one last shred of this annual church season when we celebrate crazy things, ridiculous things. Impossible things coming to pass! Things like publicly crucified men being found alive again. Stone-sealed tombs somehow being opened. Disciples once crouched in fear-filled grief finding themselves shouting Alleluia! Easter causes upside down, turned-all-around, unexpected stuff.

Certainly it seems that way in our Easter-tide tale for today. Paul and Silas are stuck in jail praising away. It’s ridiculous! They have been dragged before the magistrates, unjustly. And their accusers say they have been committing crimes against the state. You see the story goes that after Paul and his buddies arrived in Philippi to find the circle of devout women, witness to Lydia, baptize her and her household as the first European converts, and begin a church back at her house; Paul and Silas continue to make their way to the place of prayer. Each day they go outside the city to praise together. One day a slave-girl starts following them. According to the story it doesn’t bother them at first. She would lag a bit behind and periodically shout out: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). It’s too bad we only have the words without the vocal cues. If the scriptures were written more like a script, then we might know the inflection in the girl’s voice. Was she being sincere, acting something like a herald of good tidings as Paul and the others made their way out to the circle to pray? Or maybe her words dripped with sarcasm: she was a slave too. Maybe she spit: “You’re slaves just like me; is it really any better to be indebted to the Most High God?” What we know about her is that she had the spirit of the python – that’s the literal words in the original Greek. Which could in fact have linked her and her seemingly psychic powers to the Greek Temple of Delphi (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2; David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, ed.; 2009, p. 523). It’s possible the spirit that possessed her was in direct conflict with the Spirit of God that possessed Paul. A clue to us listeners that the Most High God is about to do battle with all sorts of opposing forces. And remember, because of Easter, we know who wins. . . . Whatever tone the girl takes, eventually her proclamation grates Paul’s last nerve. Highly annoyed, one day, he finally tells the spirit of the python to come out of her. Which kinda leaves us wondering if Paul knew that a confrontation with that spirit would lead to all sorts of trouble. I mean, maybe, at first, he was afraid to order it out; but when he no longer could stand the girl’s annoying parade, he finally says enough! . . . And so the real clash begins. You see, this young girl made a LOT of money for the men who owned her. They put her to use fortune-telling in the city and as soon as she was free from the spirit that secured their income, her owners were furious! That’s why Paul and Silas find themselves in jail. Beaten bloody. Humiliated in public – without due process of the law. The slave owners who find their lucrative business dried up, seize Paul and Silas and drag them into the marketplace. . . . Those slave owners must have been shrewd men; for they knew to twist the truth just a bit toward their favor. They wanted Paul and Silas stopped. They shout out to everyone: these Jews are “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe” (Acts 16:21). Which probably is true. I mean Paul and Silas were testifying to others about the Most High God – the God who in Jesus Christ had conquered even death. The God who certainly reigns supreme over the ways of the market, over the ways of Rome, over even Caesar. See, Easter causes craziness. Paul and Silas are attacked by the crowd. Then at the command of the magistrates, they are brutalized by the police, before they are thrown into the deepest dungeons of the prison so that no hope of escape would ever flicker. Bloodied, their feet are bound in the stocks. An attempt to crush their spirits as surely as their bodies.

Still they’re praying. They’re praising! According to the story, at the latest hour, midnight, Paul and Silas are singing away at the top of their lungs, offering prayers to God. It’s ridiculous! Everyone else is overhearing and I wonder if they thought it just as radical as it sounds to us? Easter is the only explanation. Their hearts could not be broken because they trusted the God to whom they had become enslaved. They entrusted their lives to Easter – to the God of Life who would use them as that God sought to re-make the world.

I once knew a very proud momma who every chance she got would try to get me to visit the ministry her son had begun. It was in a pretty rough area of Chicago that I never did like to go visit. But that momma wouldn’t let up until one day I finally set a meeting with her son to find out all the fuss. After parking on a street that looked a bit like an old war zone, I climbed the steps of a huge building. Inside I asked for Glen. . . . It was an odd experience, walking from bright bustling hallways through locked-down corridors leading to parts of the building not yet refurbished. I remember Glen telling me as we walked that when the South underwent desegregation, nearly 500,000 African Americans flooded the city of Chicago all of a sudden and no one was ready for it. Seemingly overnight, areas like the one in which he and I were standing that day became dead-end urban ghettos. It was obvious to me that Glen and his friends believe in Easter and the craziness it causes. Glen, his wife, and fellow professional pioneers moved into that dying neighborhood back in the early 1970. . . . It was remarkable to listen to this man who not only cared, but could figure out exactly what to do first to make a difference. Glen explained that they first sought to stabilize the neighborhood through improved housing, legal assistance, medical access, and other empowerment ministries. Then, in the early 1980s when the community development ministries they had begun were busting at the seams; a mammoth vacant complex on the corner of a nearby city block finally became available. The building, which once had been home to a thriving Catholic girls’ school, had sat empty for several years with all sorts of vandalism – the electrical, plumbing, and heating all having been pillaged. In 1983, Circle Urban Ministries decided to buy the abandoned facility for $80,000. Bit by bit, as they got the funding over the next three decades, they brought back that old structure in order to transform an entire neighborhood. It’s unbelievable! Everything from a charter Kindergarten through 8th grade school, to an emergency food pantry, to a community church, to an after-school mentoring program, to a college readiness ministry, to legal and medical clinics, to a half-way home for single young moms, to a gym for physical activity in the neighborhood and a library for mental enrichment – all of it are under the roof of this one gigantic, once abandoned facility. That old building slowly over the decades became a haven for the slew of ministries finding home-base there. It’s incredible. Sure it took steady, slow progress over nearly thirty years. But an entire neighborhood in what once was one of the roughest areas of Chicago is finding itself transformed. Thanks to Easter and a few people trusting so deeply in it; men, women, and children here and now are receiving new lives – kinda like the jailor did when Paul stopped him from harming himself and opened him to a whole new world where God can cause the most unbelievable things to occur. . . . That’s the kind of craziness Easter causes. Those are the kind of ridiculous, impossible things God ends up doing through folks who are willing to trust.

It’s still Easter – in fact, the beauty is that even though the church calendar brings the season to a close, Easter never ends. It’s the season, the celebration, that changes everything forever. The question is: will we keep entrusting our lives to Easter for God to re-make the world through us?

In the name of the Life-giving Father, the Life-redeeming Son, and the Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

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