Learning Time for May 29, 2022 at Harrow United Church

How do we see God at work in our own lives?

Audio file of learning time

The link to the video of the service is below.

In some sectors of the job market, the pool of qualified candidates is very small. There are times an applicant knows who else might be in the running. It happened last week to someone I know. They were one of two offered interviews. They received an email from the other candidate, who had a scheduling conflict, and asked if they might trade interview times.

They are competing for a great job. What would you do?

One option would be to politely decline, and tell yourself, “I need to take care of my future. I am within my rights to say no. It’s a tough world, and I need to be tough.”

Another option would be to do what the hero in this ongoing, true story did. They thought about what they hope the other person would do if roles were reversed. They took to heart the teaching of doing unto others as you’d have others do to you. They agreed to trade interview slots.

If this was a movie the payoff would be the potential boss hears about the good heart of the hero and decides that’s the kind of person they want in their company. That hasn’t happened. The interviews are next week. Honestly, the happy ending for me is that this person remembered to think about the other person, and be kind.

There are sad and terrible stories in the world right now. Are there more bad things happening, or do we just hear about them faster and more often, because of all the ways the world is connected?

We have two good stories today from the Book of Acts. The first is about a strange encounter between the Apostle Paul and a woman held as a slave. Her owners made a lot of money exploiting her ability to tell fortunes.

The story says the woman was possessed. It’s hard for us to know what that means, as we look through the lens of the ancient world. Anything not understood could be called magic. It wasn’t a big leap from calling something magic, to naming it as demonic.

The woman had an unusual capacity to read people, and tell truths about them, for which her owners charged big money. The woman herself did not share in the profits, as she was property of the household- she was owned as a slave. We don’t know her name.

This unnamed woman with the strange gift saw something powerful when she looked at Paul, the travelling missionary. She began to follow him, and his companion Silas. She’d call out after them, “These are faithful followers of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!”

The woman did this for many days, and it annoyed Paul. He lost his temper, turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave this woman!”

The spirit left her that moment. That was the end of the profitable business for the slaveowners. The story suggests Paul cast out a demon. The Gospels described Jesus doing similar things. The point may be that Paul did things that Jesus did. God was with him in ways similar to the way God was with Jesus.

I’d love to know more about the unnamed woman. What happened to her after she was no longer a money-maker for her owners? We don’t get the rest of her story, which is so often the case with women in the Bible.

Her owners were upset with Paul and his friend Silas. They grabbed them, and dragged them before the magistrates, who held court in the marketplace. They said, “These people are Jews and are disturbing the peace by advocating practices which are unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

This feels like an echo of the Good Friday story. The writer, who has already shown Paul doing a Jesus-style exorcism, now has Paul and his friend brought before a Roman authority, accused of religious crimes.

The crowd turned on the accused. Perhaps as much to appease and calm the crowd as to see justice done, the magistrate had Paul and Silas stripped, flogged, whipped and thrown in jail. The magistrate warned the warden to carefully watch the prisoners.

The warden threw them into the innermost cell of the prison and chained their feet to a stake. About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the other prisoners listened.  Suddenly a severe earthquake shook the place, rocking the prison to its foundation. Immediately all the doors flew open, and everyone’s chains were pulled loose. When the jailer woke up and found the doors wide open, he drew a sword and was about to commit suicide, presuming that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all still here.”

What a great story! After the earthquake, which miraculously broke open the prison doors and pulled loose the chains, Paul and Silas could easily have led all the prisoners out of the jail to freedom.

The jailer must have thought that was exactly what happened. They were on the verge of committing suicide, rather than facing the consequences of losing all the prisoners.

This was the ancient world. There were no photo i.d’s or fingerprints. If a prisoner escaped custody, they could literally disappear. Just leave town, go somewhere your face had not been seen.

So why didn’t Paul and Silas take off? They lived in a hard world. They had no reason to expect fair treatment from the Roman legal system. The answer lies in what Paul said to the jailer: “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all still here.”

Paul recognized if he fled the jail, the consequences for the jailer would be terrible. Paul set aside self-concern and thought about the fate of the jailer. Do unto others.

The jailer, who knew Paul and Silas had been arrested, stripped and beaten for their missionary work, was that night converted to their faith, and became a follower of the way of Jesus.

Paul and Silas helped the jailer. They refused the opportunity to escape. The story ends with the jailer doing things to help Paul and Silas. The jailer took them into his home, bathed their wounds- they’d been flogged after all. After another kind of bathing, in which the jailer and his family were baptized, the jailer invited them to his table, and they shared in a feast.

When Paul and Silas were put in jail, they spent their time before the earthquake singing hymns and praying, and talking to fellow prisoners about the Jesus Way. The jailer would have heard all those words, spoken and sung.

But it wasn’t the singing and praying that impressed the jailer and made him want to be a follower of the Jesus Way. This is good for preachers to notice. It wasn’t the preaching, praying, or even the singing- even though the singing probably helped the prisoners keep their spirits up.

What caught the jailer’s attention was that Paul cared about him and helped him. Paul gave up the chance of escaping the jail- he limited his own freedom, out of compassion for the jailer.

We’re hearing more details this week of yet another horrific mass shooting in the United States, this time of children and adults at an elementary school in Texas. There’s a powerful faction of American society that believes so much in their God-given, and constitutional right to bear arms, that they block any efforts to limit that right. Their rights are so very important to them. Freedom as they understand it, is so important to them.

When another mass shooting happens, and it will, we will hear again how many of the people who block efforts to restrict access to deadly weapons, are praying for the victims and their families.

Here is a link to my recent opinion piece for the Kingsville Observer on this issue: https://www.kingsvilleobserver.com/post/compassion-courage-needed-to-end-u-s-gun-violence

In the Paul and Silas story, the jailer was not convinced, or converted, by the prayers he heard. He was impressed by what Paul and Silas did, to protect him from harm.

I believe words are important. I hope they are. I am in the word business. I get paid to stand up and say these words, and to lead prayers. But if words and prayers are in no way connected to our actions, they may not be meaningless, but they will actually, mean less, than they could. Amen

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