Monday, May 17, 2010

Singing in Prison Sermon

Acts 16:16-35
May 16, 2010

Singing is kind of my thing. I love to sing. I sing in the shower, in the office, in my car, basically wherever I am. Much to my husband’s chagrin- I LOVE karaoke. In my opinion- what could be better than singing loud and proud even if you can’t really sing? I entertained myself for five hours in the car this week with singing. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly to do with one of the weirdest talents God has blessed me with. I memorize song lyrics really easily. I can listen to a song once or twice and know the chorus- give me four times and I know all the words. What exactly am I supposed to do with that? I don’t memorize other things easily- just songs.

I guess this will come in handy if I ever go to prison. Jail seems like a very unlikely place to be singing, and yet this is Paul and Silas’ response to their imprisonment. Prison is not where Paul and Silas planned on sharing the Gospel with others, but their worship within the jail walls became a very important part of their mission.

Paul’s mission was very clear to him. After his conversion to Christ-follower on the road to Damascus, he understood his role in life as an evangelist. His role was to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world. He would tell everyone he could, regardless of their background. Paul says in Galatians that we are all one. In Christ, he says, “there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” The message of Christ is for all.

In Acts we read that this mission took him to the city of Philippi. Philippi had a small Jewish population that worshipped by the river. There he met Lydia, a seller of purple who received the message Paul and his companion Silas had for her and she became a follower of Christ. From there they left Lydia and went into the city, hoping to continue their mission.

Sometimes on our way to our mission we encounter distractions. You know what this is like. I got on a mission to do a load of laundry the other day and on my way to the washer I got distracted. I paid a few bills, I loaded the dishwasher, I realized 30 minutes later that my original mission of starting a load of laundry was still not accomplished; the laundry was sitting on my bed- still dirty. Sometimes we get distracted from our mission.

On the way to what they see as their true mission, Paul and Silas got distracted by a slave girl. This was a girl who made a lot of money for her owners by seeing into the future. She was a fortune teller. She saw something in Paul and Silas and proclaimed for several days, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” Paul and Silas are on a mission, they don’t need the distraction of this possessed woman as they work around the city. However, sometimes the distraction is our mission. Sometimes, the distraction is an important part of our journey. Paul finally stops to cast the spirit out of this woman in the name of Jesus Christ. The spirit leaves her and the woman is healed. There is some debate about whether or not Paul did this because he was annoyed with the distraction of because he had compassion for her. Whether he was annoyed or compassionate, Paul ultimately realized that ministering to this woman was part of his mission and not a distraction from it.

A month or so ago a woman came in my office seeking some help. To be honest, some days this seems like a distraction from my mission. If I spend 15 minutes helping someone- that puts me 15 minutes away from away from crossing another item off my to-do list. As horrible as it sounds, this woman was a distraction to me. But through our conversation I saw in her a deep and genuine spiritual need that matched her physical one. She wasn’t just asking for help, she was asking for prayer in the midst of her difficult situation. I prayed with her and gave her a very small amount of help from the Elder’s fund. Two days later the woman returned to my office with a sincere thank-you and some snacks that she had purchased with her food stamps for the youth group. Even though she seemed at first like a distraction, this woman was my mission. Sometimes the distraction IS the mission. I hope that God continues to put distractions in my path that remind me of my true mission. Ask yourself this morning, “What ‘suffering slave girl’ may annoy you on your way and yet draw you back to the heart of God’s call?” (Huey)

On the way to their mission, Paul and Silas encountered another distraction. Their healing of the slave girl did not make her owners very happy. Their source of revenue was now gone, so they trumped up some charges against Paul and Silas. The pair are beaten and thrown into prison. In the midst of this unexpected setback, in a seemingly hopeless situation, Paul and Silas start to sing. I don’t know about you, but usually when I’m singing it is because I’m happy. I don’t often find myself singing when I am stressed out or frightened. Paul and Silas’ reaction was different from mine. Again, their mission was to spread the gospel and they wouldn’t let a little jail time stop them. With their feet in the stocks, in the middle of the night Paul and Silas are singing and praying. This makes me think of the song “Blessed Be The Name of the Lord,” when it says, “blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering, when there’s pain in the offering, blessed be your name.”
As followers of Christ we have no guarantee that every day will be easy. In fact, difficult times are inevitable as part of being human. Our response to challenges and trials is the interesting part. Preacher Martin Copenhaver talks about Paul and Silas’ reaction to their imprisonment. Copenhaver says, “But how do they react to this experience- the damp stone, the chains, the bruised limbs, the rejection, the defeat of their plans? They hold choir practice. They sing. Their voices echo off the stone walls, fill the jail and runneth over into the street outside. Would you do that? Would you sing under those circumstances? Paul and Silas can sing because they live by a story that can be set to music.”

Do we live by a story that can be set to music? The story of God’s abundant love and blessing in the midst of all circumstances? Are we able to praise God even when things seem bleak and scary? We have a choice to make in the face of difficult times and trials- we can choose to let them overwhelm us or we can choose to sing- which will we choose?

Of course to be able to sing when times are difficult you’ve got to know some songs. If you were ever to find yourself in a circumstance where you didn’t have access to your hymnal, or your favorite CD’s, or even your Bible- how would you worship? What would you sing? Paul and Silas knew the story by heart. They knew Christ’s story well because they had told it over and over again. Which of God’s stories do you know well? Which ones do you need to know better? For years I have been working on memorizing the 23rd Psalm word for word. I want to know this Psalm by heart because it comforts me. When I am in distress, I want the words of the Psalmist to pop in to my head instead of the words of fear and doubt that might want to creep in. Some things we know by heart. Dee and I went to the nursing home to do some visiting this week. We went in to visit Ms. Clarice Qualls. Ms. Clarice doesn’t communicate much. She doesn’t speak to you when you speak to her, and yet when we said the Lord’s Prayer- she said it right along with us. Some things you know by heart. What do you know by heart? What do you need to work on knowing by heart?

Something miraculous happened when they were singing. As Paul and Silas sang, the earth began to quake and the jail became a place that could no longer hold them. The earth had shaken so hard that the doors to the jail were now opened and everyone’s chains were loose. Clearly this was a sign from God that they should run and be free- right? Running for freedom is not the path they choose. When you choose to follow Christ- your life becomes not just about you anymore. Paul and Silas were not only concerned for themselves, but they had concern for others. They had concern in this case particularly for the jailer. If they had run for their freedom- the jailer might have been put to death for letting all the prisoners escape. The jailer wasn’t even going to wait for that punishment- he was getting ready to take his own life when Paul made it clear that no one had escaped.

Paul and Silas took time to share the story of Jesus with the jailer. Again, he wasn’t a distraction from their mission, he was their mission. He was their mission as much as the slave girl or Lydia, the seller of purple they had met by the river. Rather than serving their own interests and running for freedom, they chose to take time to form a relationship with the jailer. Eventually, he and his entire household became followers of Christ.

Christianity is not about the self but about others. I have seen this in a dramatic way in the stories from the Nashville flood recently. Last week I sat with my sister-in-law Christy and she told me the story of how she was evacuated by boat from her condo in Bellevue. She got in a boat to go to a clubhouse, and was then taken by boat to a clubhouse on higher ground. Eventually she was bussed to the Jewish Community Center where a Red Cross shelter had been set up. She told me that at each step of the way it was not a professional rescue worker that helped her- but it was a neighbor with a boat, a neighbor who had access to a bus- it was neighbor helping neighbor in the face of horrible circumstances. That’s what I see in the recovery effort as well. While money from the federal government may eventually come, what you see right now is people helping each other- being a community and proclaiming together, “We are Nashville!” Don’t you think that’s just a little glimpse of what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like? I sure do.

So I leave you with some questions this morning. What is going on in your life right now that seems like a distraction but might actually be part of the mission to which God has called you? What stories will you tell and what songs will you sing when times get tough? And most importantly, have you realized yet that being a follower of Christ is not all about you but about others? I pray that God would open our hearts to receive the answers to these questions, as we seek together to be the kingdom of God on Earth. Amen.


Linda Pischke said...

Thank you for the reminder that distractions are often God's will for us. I encounter this in jail ministry when offenders ask for just one more thing. Sometimes I am frustrated by their constant needs. Then God reminds me how blessed I am and how little they have.
Linda Pischke

Sunny B. Ridings said...

Linda- Thanks for your comment and thank you for the work you do in jail ministry. It is vitally important. May God continue to distract us in a good way and keep us singing in the process.

Sunny B. Ridings said...

Linda- I just went to your website- can't wait to read your book!

Linda Pischke said...

I appreciate your comments and the fact that you checked out the website. The book is almost finished. It will be available to organizations who want to use it for fund raising.

Maria said...

Sometimes the distraction is the mission. I'm going to mull that in my brain and keep that in my heart when my students, friends, and family are between my and my to-do list! I always (usually) stop and deal with the distraction but I don't always do it with a cheerful heart.
Thanks for the reminder.