20 May 2007

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter - "Annoyance and Astonishment"

Preaching Texts

The Reverend Jerry Falwell died on Tuesday of this week. Some of you who are my age or younger may not know who the Reverend Falwell was or why he is important enough to be mentioned. In 1979, Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a political action group for conservative Evangelicals and Baptists. He also founded Liberty University and served as pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church for 48 years.

Reverend Falwell was known for making blunt statements regarding his faith and the direction toward which he believed our society should steer. In 2001 he suggested that the attacks on September 11th were God’s vengeance on America for gays, feminists and the ACLU. He later apologized for those particular remarks, but he made others throughout the years that to some were just as divisive and harsh.

It should come as no surprise that a man who was o polarizing in life would also be somewhat so in death. The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an editorial that spoke about Falwell’s legacy of division, to which one reader responded:

It was with shock, and dismay, that I read your May 16 editorial, and cartoon, concerning Jerry Falwell. Agree with him or not, this was a man who did what preachers do. He railed against what he believed was sin, and preached that repentance from it would bring salvation. When he decided to enter the political arena, he knew, in advance, that he would be met with vicious opposition, such as your own. In spite of that, he did what he felt God wanted him to do, and willingly took the abuse from his opponents.

Upon his passing, one would think that even his detractors would grudgingly admit that he was a man who fought the good fight for what he believed. You can imagine my revulsion, then, when I saw that, even in his death, you couldn't pass up another chance to denigrate him and what he stood for.

Now I’ll be honest: I don’t know if I ever agreed with the Reverend Falwell when he issued a public statement on anything. I certainly felt that at times his ministry was more harmful than helpful. There were times when I was very much annoyed with the Reverend Jerry Falwell, just like the writer of the letter to the editor was very much annoyed with how the Star Tribune portrayed the Reverend Falwell. But I also know that Jerry Falwell and I had one thing in common: we both confessed that “Jesus is Lord and Savior of the world.” And like it or not, very much annoyed or not, when Jerry Falwell said that “Jesus is Lord,” well, I agreed with him, because he was speaking the truth.

Paul knew something about being very much annoyed when someone was speaking the truth. In today’s reading from Acts, he and Silas were on their way to a prayer meeting in Philippi when they were interrupted by a very annoying spirit who was speaking the truth: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us that “this went on for many days.”

“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!”

“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!”

“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!”

“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!”

The message was the truth, but the messenger was annoying. Thank goodness that doesn’t happen very often in the church, huh?

There are a number of things that annoy me about these few short verses of Acts 16. First, Paul allowed a spirit to control this woman for several days after his first encounter with her: shouldn’t compassion have compelled Paul to heal her at the first opportunity? Secondly, when Paul did heal this woman, it was his annoyance with the spirit that drove the healing, not Paul’s concern for the woman’s well-being: again, where was Paul’s compassion for the sick? Thirdly, after the woman was healed, she disappeared from the story entirely: We don’t know what happened to her. We don’t know if she was able to find a new way to care for herself. We don’t know if she became a follower of Jesus. All we know is that she was annoying, but she spoke the truth: Paul and Silas were slaves of the Most High God, and they were proclaiming to the people a way of salvation. Very annoying or not, this woman spoke the truth.

God can accomplish astonishing things when God’s very annoying people speak the truth. In Isaiah 20, God’s people were planning a war, but God said “No.” To make God’s word clear, Isaiah marched naked around Jerusalem for three years as a sign of what would happen if the people went to war.[1] In Jeremiah 13, God sent Jeremiah to tell the people that God could no longer be proud of the people. To make the point, Jeremiah bought a new pair of undergarments, wore them every day without washing them, then buried them in the wet river sand. Later, he dug them up, strapped them on and shouted that this is what had happened to the people who once were God’s pride.[2] In Luke 7, even Jesus grew annoyed by one of God’s very annoying people. Jesus was trying to quietly eat a meal in a house in the region of Tyre, but a Gentile woman found out he was there and pressed Jesus to heal her daughter. “Let the children be fed first,” said Jesus, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus must have been tremendously annoyed to say something like that. But the woman persisted by reminding Jesus that even the dogs get to eat the scraps that fall off the table, and Jesus, astonished, healed the woman’s daughter.

Paul and Silas encountered this annoying woman who told the truth about who they were and what they were doing. Because of that truth, and through Paul’s impatience and annoyance, God would soon be doing astonishing things yet again. We read that Paul and Silas were arrested, attacked by a crowd, stripped naked, beaten with rods and thrown into prison, all because they had deprived the slave girl’s owners of their means of making money off of her demonic possession. Never mind the injustice of these men profiting from the slave girl’s disability: when the church crosses swords with those who seek to keep unjust systems in place, this is what happens.[3] But here the astonishment begins.

Paul and Silas were beaten soundly by an anti-Jewish crowd, though they were Roman citizens and thus exempt from such punishment. But rather than complain and fight, the writer of Acts tells us that Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God about midnight – and their fellow prisoners were listening to them. Can you imagine the intrigue these two men must have created in their fellow prisoners? Who would pray and sing to God after being treated so horribly because of their faith in that same God? Then came the earthquake: the loosing of their chains, the opening of the jail doors, and suddenly everyone was free to do as they wished. And they wished to stay put – not just Paul and Silas, but their fellow prisoners as well. When the jailer saw what had happened, he prepared to kill himself, because he was certain that the prisoners had all escaped and he would be held responsible. But Paul said, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” Not “we are here,” meaning Paul and Silas, but “we are all here,” meaning all the prisoners. An entire Roman jail, full of men who were likely awaiting some horrible punishment for their crimes, stayed in their cells rather than running for the hills. The Bible doesn’t tell us why they stayed, but I’d like to hazard a guess. I say they stayed because they, like Paul and Silas, were now slaves to the Most High God, from whom they had received a way of salvation. I say that the astonishing thing that happened that day in the Philippi prison wasn’t the earthquake: I say the astonishing thing that happened that day was the miracle of faith given to these prisoners, to stay when they could have run. I say the astonishing thing was the conversion of the jailer, who invited Paul and Silas to baptize his entire family. I say the astonishing thing was that by the end of the story, the prisoners, Paul, Silas and the jailer are in bondage to God, a joyful bondage that is stronger than any Roman chain could ever be.

All of this comes about because of one very annoying slave girl who told the truth. God took a flawed vessel and used her flaw to speak the truth, healing her of that flaw in the process. Could the same be true for us? Could the annoying people around us who speak the truth be doing God’s work? Could astonishing things happen through the annoying people in our lives? Could we be the annoying people through whom astonishing things happen? All things are possible for God – and we pray, not that we might be astonishing, or that we might not be annoying, but that God would give us eyes to see clearly in either case.

[1] The Lutheran Handbook, © 2005 by Augsburg Fortress. Kristofer Skrade and James Satter, ed. p., 160.

[2] Ibid., p. 161.

[3] Bishop Roy Riley said this at the NWMN Synod Assembly in 2004. Though I don’t think Paul and Silas were purposely “crossing swords” by healing the slave girl (remember, they were annoyed after several days of hearing her, not offended at her slavery and possession from the start), the statement is true: when the church stands up to unjust systems, the system often punishes the church for its prophetic speech.

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