Sermon: When God Shakes Things Up

20 May 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
May 20, 2007

Seventh Sunday of Easter

When God Shakes Things Up 

Acts 16:16-34

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

My reading, and my understanding, of this famous Bible story about this dramatic, earth-shaking jailbreak by Paul and Silas was changed forever late one October afternoon in Berkeley, when I was just beginning seminary.  John had just called me from his office in San Francisco saying he was for sure leaving work right at 5 p.m. and would take the next bus across the Bay Bridge to come home.  I had been studying this very passage, writing my take-home, midterm exam for Marcus Borg’s New Testament class, so I dug back in to work, so that I could finish in time to make us some dinner.  Suddenly my cat made a flying leap from the window sill over my head, running at full speed into the next room to hide under the bed.  I glanced out the window to see what had startled her, but saw only our beautiful 4th floor view of the San Francisco skyline, the sparkling bay waters, and the Golden Gate bridge.  I had just enough time to look back down at this chapter of Acts in my Bible when the earth began to shake.

Only, unlike other minor earthquakes I’d experienced in the 5 years I’d lived in California, the Loma Prieta Earthquake didn’t stop after just one or two jolts.  When things kept shaking, I braced myself in the doorway as my kitchen cabinets flew open and glassware crashed to the floor.  The cat had the right idea.  When it was over, I saw the power had gone out.  I moaned out loud when I saw my computer had crashed, because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d saved my file.  What a disaster!  I could have lost my whole exam!  I thought it was the end of the world.  But then I noticed that every car alarm in the neighborhood was going off.  I looked out the window and could see plumes of smoke rising at various points all across the landscape, and I realized how serious things must be.  When I finally found a battery radio I could turn on, I heard news bad enough to make me forget about school entirely – the Bay Bridge had collapsed and hundreds were presumed dead. My husband should have been one of them.

In the hours that followed, my phone kept ringing, but it was never John.  My dad was the first one to call, because he’d been watching the World’s Series.  It was all my friends and relatives from the East Coast, checking to see if John and I were OK.  No one locally could get through.  And all I could tell them was that I had no idea where he was. I was so grateful that after the first hour, the news was corrected about the Bay Bridge – in fact, only one section of the bridge had collapsed, and only a few lives had been lost.  Still, John had said he would be on the 5 p.m. bus across the Bay Bridge, and now the power was back on and we could see TV pictures of that bus headed out of the city, which had stopped just short of the collapsed section. Where had the passengers gone?  All I could do was hope and pray he was all right. 

I was shocked at the devastation I was seeing on TV as I waited to hear from John.  The Cypress Freeway had collapsed and cars had been crushed between the layers.  The San Francisco Marina was burning, and that was where some of our best friends lived, but we were unable to reach anyone by phone.  But as cut off as I was, the great thing was I knew I was not alone.  In my whole life, I’d never had so many people praying for me at once, and I had never been so glad to have so many connections with other Christians.  One after the other, they were calling to tell me how much we were loved and to share words of faith and support with us. I was alone in the house that night, but a strange peace surrounded me. I had never before felt God’s presence so palpably surrounding me and holding me close.  Finally, the phone rang again, about 10 p.m., and it was John. He had to confess that he had NOT left the office on time after all, and was safely camped out in their downtown high-rise with other stranded commuters.

What I learned that night was perhaps what Paul and Silas had learned that night they spent in a Macedonian jail.  Sometimes it’s when things seem to be going most “wrong” in our eyes, that God is most able to perform acts of amazing grace and compassion. When our world shakes apart, and the pit yawns before us, God’s love pours into the gap to save us. The Salvation Army has a new slogan that goes something like this:  “When acts of nature tear the world apart, sometime it takes an act of God, through people like us, to put it together again.”  God promises us steadfast love not historical preservation of all that is or ever was.  God promises to use us to build this amazing Reign of Love and Grace, if we can stand strong among the ruins and listen for God’s still-speaking, quiet voice calling us to new miracles of discipleship and service in Christ’s name.  Without faith, we might see only the earthquake and disaster, like the jailer, and be tempted to give up on life entirely.  The eyes of faith help us to see God through the earthquake, breaking our shackles apart and inviting us to new life in Christ.

How many times does the worst disaster that has ever happened to someone turn out to be the best thing?  My father thought his world was ending when he had to move from his hometown in the mountains of Kentucky to a big city in North Carolina in the summer between 8th and 9th grades.  But it was there, in high school, that he met my mother, found the congregational church, and got to start the newspaper job that became his life’s work.  My husband was in terrible pain with impacted wisdom teeth that laid him up to miss more than a week of college.  But that gave him the time to think about how much he was hating the math and science of his engineering program – and on a whim, he drew a newspaper cartoon that landed him a job and his life’s work.  My college boyfriend dumped me after graduation for a friend I worked with, and my personal misery at that newspaper job increased to a point where I was finally motivated to take a leap of faith and head for acting school on the opposite coast.  With very little money or prospects, and all alone, I met the man of my dreams and found my true calling in a new home church and seminary that had strong programs in worship and the arts.

In our scripture today from the Acts of the Apostles, we mustn’t forget how bleak things were looking for Paul and Silas, just because we know the happy ending of the story.  I would seriously doubt that Paul was certain of success at the moments when things were taking a turn for the worst.  I would imagine he (and Silas) must have felt pretty discouraged, and even mad at themselves, when their irritation at the slave woman led them to exorcise her spirit of divination, because it landed them in jail. They must have been pretty frightened that night behind bars, with the town merchants riled up against them, not knowing whether they would be allowed to live or die the next morning.  They must have been terrified, too, to live through an earthquake big enough to shake a stone building off its foundations, break iron chains, and throw open prison doors.  Our California earthquake just broke a few glasses in my kitchen, and I was never the same.

And yet look at what God was able to accomplish through Paul and Silas – that couldn’t have happened if Paul hadn’t been so annoyed by the slave girl that he decided to set her free from the spirit that kept her bound.  By casting out that spirit he may have ended her servitude, because she was no longer of any value to her owners. And by landing themselves in jail, Paul and Silas could witness to the other prisoners with their hymns and prayers, not to mention manage this miraculous conversion of the jailer and his family.  When God shakes things up in our lives, our faith opens our eyes to ways we can be of service in God’s Realm, which looks so different from our own.  We can choose whether we will focus on the fear or on the faith.

I want to close with a quick story about my friend Jane in California.  Jane, like me, had a year not too long ago, like the one I’ve been having.  It started with just a little fall, and a couple of slightly sprained ankles.  But because she was 70, and living alone, she decided it would be wise to recuperate in a convalescent hospital for a couple of weeks, to get the physical therapy she needed.  Only one night she was a bit reckless and got up for the bathroom alone, and fell and broke both wrists.  Before she knew it she was in the nursing home for about 6 months instead of 2 weeks.  But Jane is a person of very strong faith and she was determined that if God had put her in that God-awful place that it must be so that she could do some good.  She first thought she must be there for her roommate, but her roommate was about 150 years old and could neither hear nor see, so she gave up trying to communicate with her.  To her surprise she discovered she was being called to a profound ministry of care with the nursing home staff, who often were terribly discouraged by the sad condition of their patients.  More and more often, they would take their breaks in her room – she was such a compassionate Christian listener. 

What is God shaking up in your life?  How has God positioned you to maybe make a difference for someone?  Is your job or relationship in trouble?  Are your kids or your parents having difficulties with transitions to new stages of life, or circumstances?  Are the terrors, or politics, of this world getting you discouraged?  Or is death or illness in your family changing everything for you forever?  This story reminds us, once again, that when your world begins to shake, it may be because demons are being cast out and captives are being set free.  Trust God to show you what to do next.  The promise of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit will disrupt business as usual in our lives, in our church and around the world.  We can trust that God will help us find ourselves, like Paul and Silas, in a place to receive God’s love, and bear witness to that love, no matter what.  Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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