Sermon: “One Day in the God Business”

16 May 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 16, 2010

“One Day in the God Business”

Acts 16:16-34

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

Some days are just like that, aren’t they?  Even in the God business.  No good deed goes unpunished!  Those of us who do church work, whether volunteers or pastors, sometimes get to complaining about it – we have to admit what we do can be tedious, or thankless, or difficult.  But we might feel a little better by comparison, if we stop to think about what poor Paul and Silas went through!

They were just on a mission trip, tending to God’s business.  The teller of the story is most likely Luke, the famous physician and author of the books of Luke and Acts, but he was a part of a larger mission team led by Paul and Silas.  Their group probably included many followers of Jesus they had accumulated on their Second Missionary Journey to this northern province of Greece – people like the wealthy businesswoman Lydia, the dyer of purple goods we met last week down by the riverside.  Luke says they were going as usual to their place of prayer just outside Philippi, when they ran into a slave girl who was a diviner of the future, a prophetess of Apollo.  And she was dramatic. 

If she was what they called a “pythonic priestess,” she may have been one of those who actually wore, draped around her neck, a live Python – the sacred snake who carried spirit messages between the world of the living, up here, and the underworld of the dead, Hades.  So this slave girl, who made a good living for her masters by telling the future, “dial a psychic,” started following Paul’s group, crying out in a loud voice, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  You’d think having her along as a kind of unofficial PR agent, or sideshow barker, would have been encouraging to the missionaries.  But instead it says, “She kept doing this for many days.”  And – whether it was the endless repetition or her “in your face” style of working the crowd – for whatever reason, we read that Paul became “very much annoyed,” so much so that he turned on her and performed a sudden and unasked-for exorcism. 

I say “unasked for,” because of all the cases in the Bible where a person who was sick or demon possessed and asked, or even begged, for healing, this is not one of them.  We don’t know, but she might have been as angry as her owners that the exorcism made her worthless in the marketplace.  Who knows what lousy slave job she got after she lost her “spirit of divination” – garbage detail, field labor, prostitution even?  Thanks for nothing, Paul!  So her owners “seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” The charges?  The same as it has always been for so-called “outside agitators,” since the dawn of time:  disturbing the peace.  But also a touch of racial profiling:  Did you catch that part?  “They are Jews,” the girl’s owners say.  And that clinches the deal.  You know: strange clothes, foreign ways, that weird invisible god of theirs.  So the magistrates order them stripped, beaten bloody with rods and jailed – they are chained in stocks in what the text calls the “inmost” part of the prison – the darkest, most sweltering and airless part of the jail.  (By the way, the ironic conclusion of Chapter 16 was that their accusers had to make a public apology to them, because it turns out their papers WERE in order: Paul and Silas were Roman citizens after all.)

My point is, though:  The biggest problems in the “God business” come when it is most successful.  When no one really practices Christianity, or when it isn’t done well, no one cares.  Nothing happens.  People just get bored and fall asleep in church, go home and come back for more.  But when the Holy Spirit really goes to work and inspires a congregation, people’s lives are really changed.  Maybe they leave one job for a more ethical one that pays less, or they go into recovery or get their abusive spouse arrested, or maybe they find the courage to stand up to the “principalities and powers” of this world and work for justice – and that’s when things can get ugly.  People whose lives run under Caesar’s tyrannical domination system -- where might makes right and you have to take what’s coming to you before someone else does -- people like that don’t like it when Christians make them look bad or reduce their profitability.  It was the amazing success of the early church – especially with outcasts, women, the under classes, and slaves – that shook up Roman society and made the rulers of the empire outlaw Christianity.

But that was then; this is now.  What gets in our way when we get going in God’s business?  Before we can answer that, it probably would help to look at what we believe God’s business is here – what God wants us to do as a church.

The vision statement our Vision Task Force drafted after a year-long discernment process calls us to Make Jesus Your Mentor: Pray, Share, Welcome. It is printed in your bulletin.  It takes us through a 3-year cycle, with the common lectionary – the scripture readings we use in worship – to “cover all the bases” of doing ministry as Jesus taught his disciples to do.  So if Jesus is our mentor then we’ve named pray, share, welcome as our core curriculum – the 3 Rs of Christianity.  We’re a school for active and involved disciples and we help people learn to pray, share, and welcome in Jesus’s name.

Since we’re beginning a new church year, as we do every spring, we explored this year’s “Share” priority at our leadership retreat yesterday.  What we learned was not all that surprising, but I thought you’d want to know.  Turns out we have a lot of enthusiasm for sharing our faith with the world through our actions, but more traditional faith “witnessing” with words makes us a little “squirrely.”  People don’t mind putting their faith into practice in the community or work place by being a person of compassion and honesty.  But nobody here much likes the idea of old fashioned, door-to-door evangelism.  (The Good News about that, by the way – as we learned at our Connecticut Conference UCC meeting last week – that’s considered almost everywhere to be something between ineffective and obsolete.  Now evangelism is all about the internet – websites, blogs, e-mails, U-Tube, Facebook.) 

So knowing our preferred style is a very low-key invitational evangelism, there is Good News in our scripture lesson today.  Sure, Paul and Silas were missionaries in a foreign land.  And yes, they were preaching the gospel in public in a way that would probably make many of us feel uncomfortable.  But the Good News is that they also didn’t have to really go out of their way to do God’s business.  The Holy Spirit essentially blew these people who needed them into their path – the slave girl and the jailer.  I’ve often said that nine-tenths of a church’s ministry is just staying out of the way of the Holy Spirit.  Or letting it guide us to people closest to us who need help.  And what we discovered at our retreat yesterday was that we do share our faith around here, in some very ordinary ways – but ways can still be life-changing, even world-changing.  We never know exactly whose lives we may touch just by being open on Sundays and having church school and worship available. Every Sunday, whether we know it or not, we may be changing people’s lives just by sharing the Good News of God’s love with our actions.

When you stop to think about it, the best part of this story is the end – with the conversion of the jailer.  Paul and Silas really didn’t do anything spectacular to get his attention.  Yes, the earthquake was frightening, but I don’t think the earthquake was what made the jailer want to convert.  He had a long time to observe Paul and Silas – the way they were during the trial and their awful beating.  (Maybe even it was a beating he was ordered to give them.)  He was also in a position to witness the way they arrived at the dungeon, bleeding and broken – how they still somehow found voices and strength to sing hymns long into the night, to comfort the other prisoners.  But the main event, I think, came after the earthquake.  If this had been an action movie and not the Book of Acts, you know that when the stone walls crumbled, the doors flew open, and the shackles fell off, they would have run away.  It would have been a “great escape,” maybe even a good chase scene through the streets of Philippi!  In fact, the jailer was so sure that was what had happened, he was ready to kill himself instead of waiting for whatever more painful and creative execution the Romans might think up for him. But look what Paul and Silas did instead: they reached out in love to their worst enemy.  They prevented his suicide. 

That’s the real miracle, not the earthquake.  No wonder the jailer converted.  Wouldn’t you want faith like that?  And yet, Paul and Silas were just going about doing the ordinary things Christians do – praying, singing, reaching out with compassion to people who needed them.  It was just another day in the God business, but the Holy Spirit still managed to work signs and wonders.  And God still offers us, right here in Brookfield, the chance to do the same. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


Acts 16:16-34

16One 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. 17While 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.” 18She 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. 19But 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. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.


25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly 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. 27When 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. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He 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.


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