A sermon preached on May 16th, 2010 based upon Acts 16:16 – 30.
Most of you are aware of the health challenges facing our brother Al Booth, but for those of you who aren’t, let me give you some background. Al is a much beloved member of our congregation, known for, among other things serving as our head cook, and channelling Santa Claus at Christmas time. This past March 30th Al was working at the church, providing hospitality for a bunch of visiting clergy, when he began to feel sick. His wife Gail left work to take him to the hospital, where within a couple of days, Al was given a diagnosis of a complex form of leukemia. Al would undergo a strong dose of chemotherapy to kill the active cancer cells, and then remain in the hospital until his body regained its strength. He would then be discharged to recuperate at home, returning for regular doses of maintenance chemotherapy. Eventually Al would undergo a bone marrow transplant, which would offer the possibility of a cure.
The gravity of the diagnosis wasn’t missed on Al and Gail, but nonetheless, buoyed by the love and prayers of their family and church, and appreciative of the very competent care he received from the oncology department at Morristown Memorial, Al approached his treatment with a positive attitude, maintaining his distinctive sense of humor. The initial treatment went well, and four weeks after entering the hospital Al was discharged, minus his beard and what little hair had been on his head. His recovery was two weeks ahead of schedule, and it allowed Al to make a brief cameo appearance in our Easter service, startling and inspiring those of us present with his portrayal of the risen Jesus appearing on the road to Emmaus.
Otherwise Al was confined to home, recuperating. He managed to plant some peas in his garden. A couple of weeks ago he went back into the hospital to receive the maintenance chemotherapy, which went fine. When I visited Al during that time he wanted to talk about how the plans were going for the upcoming outdoor worship service, fishing trip, and picnic that had been his brainchild. After just a couple of days, Al was back at home.
A couple of days later, however Al spiked a fever in the early evening, and Gail took him up to the emergency room, where Al’s numbers were found to be lower than expected. They managed to get his fever under control, but Al and Gail spent a sleepless night as they waited until the early morning for a room to open up.
Unfortunately, there was no room on the oncology ward where Al had previously spent his time, so he was placed on a regular medical ward. When I visited Al there, I found him exhausted, with no appetite, devoid of his usual sense of humor. His room was cramped with a view that consisted of a brick wall. The often noisy front desk was just outside his door.
Later Gail would describe to me shortcomings in the care he was receiving: nurses who didn’t understand that he was a cancer patient, meals that repeatedly came with foods he had specifically been restricted from eating, blood spills that were left uncleaned. Al was supposed to be in this room only as long as it took for a room to open up on the oncology ward, but he was left waiting for several days. An order to move Al was written, but over the weekend no one followed up on the order.
And so this past Monday morning Gail had had enough. She started making a stink with the staff, and after a couple of hours on the phone she succeeded in getting him moved.
I arrived that afternoon to find Al and Gail in his new room back on the oncology ward. The mood had clearly lifted. Although Al’s numbers still stank, now at least Al and Gail were smiling, their contagious sense of humor restored. The room itself was larger, with a lovely view out the window.
Al’s exact words to describe what he had been experiencing on the previous ward was “failure to thrive,” the expression used to describe babies who waste away because of neglect. Back now with nursing staff who understood Al’s needs and with whom he had developed relationships of trust, his hope was restored.
At Morristown Memorial they’ve created one of the best oncology departments in the country that includes a wide range of alternative therapy treatments to compliment the traditional treatments. Al, and Gail as well, receive massage and Reike treatments, and listen to wandering musicians who play soothing music.
Not surprisingly, Al’s physical being quickly followed the lead of his spirit. His numbers began to climb, his appetite improved, and by the Friday Al was back home, once again looking towards the future.
Watching Al and Gail go through this experience, I was struck by the power of our environments to impact both our spiritual and physical vitality. Quite literally, the first ward was killing Al, and it wasn’t so much the individuals who worked there, as it was a system that wasn’t tuned into his needs. And in contrast, the culture of the oncology ward was for Al truly life-giving.
So this got me thinking about the various contexts in which we live out our lives – the cultures established in these place – in our families, in our work places, in our church. Are they life-giving? Or life-killing? Do they foster hope? Or promote despair?
It was with Al’s story – and the whole theme of the impact of our environments on our bodies and spirits – that I read our story this morning from the book of Acts. Paul and Silas have recently arrived to a new city in which they have been preaching the Gospel. They’ve made a few converts, established a few friendships.
There’s this slave girl in town who is possessed by a demon which empowers her to tell fortunes, and this ability has been earning her masters some money. They don’t care that the demon oppresses her spirit; they just like the money she brings in. Instinctively, the slave girl is drawn to Paul land Silas as they preach in the power of God. Eventually Paul turns his attention to her and casts out the demon. This is very good for the girl, but a problem for her owners who no longer can turn a profit on the girl’s affliction. They have power and money in that town, so they pull some strings to try and put Paul and Silas out of business, quicly arranging to have them arrested.
Having challenged the status quo with the power of the Gospel, Paul and Silas are thrown into an environment – jail – specifically designed to break their spirits. They are stripped, beaten, and locked up in chains in the utter darkness of the deepest dungeon. There is nothing subtle about this place; its whole purpose is to produce “failure to thrive” big time. Apparently the other prisoners who preceded Paul and Silas in this prison have already succumbed, sitting passively, silently in the darkness, pretty much having given up hope.
So, it is very striking that in this particular case, the environment doesn’t triumph. The jail doesn’t do in Paul and Silas, instead, Paul and Silas transform the culture of the jail.
Why does this happen?
There are a number of ways to answer this. First, something has changed in the way Paul and Silas approach the world as a result of having come to know Christ. Paul in particular now sees that dying is no big deal. In his encounter with the glorified Christ on the road to Damascus, he was lifted up into what he refers to as the “seventh heaven.” From what he has seen there he knows that Christ awaits him in his life beyond death — that it’s exquisitely beautiful there. If this is his time to die, so be it. The possibility of his impending death does not cast him down into despair.
Their encounter with Christ has also led Paul and Silas to expect to be surprised by the holy spirit actively at work in this world. The world may often seem to be God-forsaken, but they have come to know that it isn’t. When they come to the limits of what they can do, they know it is time to watch and wait for what God will do, and to be ready to cooperate when the Spirit begins to flow.
It is also the case that having encountered Christ, Paul and Silas now possess a sense of mission and purpose that can’t be taken from them simply because things don’t turn out the way they would prefer. Their mission now, wherever they are, whatever they are doing, is to share the good news of Christ with those who are living without his love and hope. Paul and Silas find themselves in prison, and there are people there who need Christ for sure, so it is a terrific place to carry out their mission.
You can’t underestimate the power of the bonds that make up the body of Christ. It is not insignificant that Paul and Silas have each other. It’s not for nothing that the Mormons and the Jehovah’s witnesses send people out two by two to knock on your door. (Or that Al and Gail have each other.) They fortify each other.
They are also fortified by the knowledge of the praying community that loves them from beyond the walls of the prison. I am continually struck by how much it means to people in our congregation to know that we are praying for them when they are going through a time of crisis. The prayers lift them up.
It is also important to recognize the component of obedience in faith. Sometimes obedience means doing things that you don’t especially want to do, but you do them because your master has commanded you to do so and you trust that your master has your best interests at heart. Very possibly, Paul and Silas were impacted by the environment they found themselves thrust into. Their bodies naked, bruised, shackled in total darkness — how could they not help but feel their spirits cast down?
But their Lord has commanded them to sing songs of praise, and so that is what they do. And perhaps they begin by just going through the motions, but before long the singing takes over, and their spirits are lifted, and the whole space is transformed. I’ve experienced this; perhaps you have too.
I suspect that Paul and Silas asked God to deliver them from that dark prison cell, but I don’t think they were rigidly locked into a specific outcome. The bottom line for them was, “Thy will be done.” Being faithful, praising God, sharing the good news — this was the most important thing.
I think this is similar to the spirit found in people who best respond to a life threatening diagnosis. They want to get better. They are determined to do all in their power to get better. But it isn’t fear of death but rather their love of life that motivates them. They simply want to give it their best shot, come what may. It is a little like athletes who go out onto the playing field determined to give their very best effort. Having done so, they can accept either victory or defeat.
So as the story progresses, Paul and Silas transform the atmosphere of that dark prison through the power of their songs of praise. The other prisoners are listening, struck by the change these men have wrought.
And then the earthquake happens, breaking open the prison cells. The God of surprises does the unexpected. It is telling that Paul and Silas don’t rush out the open doors as quickly as possible, demonstrating that getting out of jail wasn’t the most important thing. Suddenly there is a soul present who finds himself in utter despair. It’s telling really. The jailor, who moments before appeared solidly established as a part of the power structure, now concludes he has failed to keep his prisoners locked up and that he has no choice but to take his own life.
As such, he is ripe for the good news which drives Paul and Silas, and so instead of fleeing the prison, they go to the jailor and share Christ with him. The jailor puts down his sword and discovers a far firmer foundation to stand in life.
There is a word of caution here for all of us who are tempted to find our identity in our place in the power systems of this world. What is it that allows me to get up each morning and say yes to life? Is it my job, my money, my status, my power in the system? How precarious such a foundation is shown to be in the story of the jailor.
Victor Frankl was a Jewish pyschiatrist who survived a German concentration camp. He experienced first hand how critical a sense of meaning and hope is among prisoners; those who lost it were certain to die soon. Afterwards he wrote passionately about the one thing your captors can not take away from you, and that is the dignity of choosing how you will respond to a given situation. In the deepest darkness the choice to stand with the light appears more brightly.
It is clear that Paul and Silas have a hold on a kind of freedom that is theirs in Christ that is greater than the veneer of freedom exhibited by the jailor and the others in power.
There is an interesting detail at the end of the story. The authorities realize that things had gotten a little out of hand the night of Paul and Silas’ arrest, an awareness that is heightened in the discovery that they are in fact Roman citizens. The authorities want Paul and Silas to slip quietly out the back door of the jail, as if nothing ever happened. But Paul and Silas refuse. They will walk out the front door in the light of day, their heads held high, witnessing to the travesty of justice that has taken place here.
So here’s what I would hope you would take away with you from this sermon:
Take some time to consider the various contexts in which you live out your life. In what ways do they eoncourage your creativity, promote a sense of freedom and possibility in your life? Or do these settings lead you to feel stifled, helpless, cautious, and compelled to take a passive posture?
Having looked closely at how you and others repond to the cultures you share, ask yourself where it could be possible to make changes to improve life giving quality of environment. What concrete steps can you take?
The serenity prayer once again provides simple wisdom: Lord, grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change, the courage to change that which I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
In oppressive contexts the things we cannot change stand out; that which can be changed may require more thought. In the bleak prison cell that Paul and Silas found themselves in there were some serious restrictions on their movements because of the chains and the darkness and the beatings. Paul and Silas quickly identified something they could do, however: they could sing hymns of praise to God. They could project music into the silent darkness, and in doing so significantly change the atmosphere of the place. Their songs captured the attention of their fellow prisoners, challenging the assumption that despair would have the final word in this place.
Consider the fact that it really isn’t good for human beings to be alone. We need to partner with people we trust – drawing strength from one another – as we intentionally set out to improve the life-giving qualities of the settings in which we live out our lives. Consciously build your team of the people who can work with you to promote hope over despair.
Finally, do whatever you need to strengthen your faith. Take time to pray. Go to church. Read the Bible and other books that inspire and challenge your thoughts. Sing alone and sing with others. Remind yourself that you need not fear death, and that God truly is actively at work in the world actively seeking to reconcile and make peace and give life. Watch for, and develop your capacity to recognize where God invisibly is nudging things along. Welcome setbacks as new opportunities to carry out your deepest mission – to be a follower of JESUS, calling others to his great love.