Sunday, May 12, 2013

Going Forth By Staying Put


Mother's Day Sermon

Going Forth By Staying Put


Acts 16:16-34


According to the bureau of labor statistics, American mothers are busy people. On an average day, full time working American mothers with children 12 and under spend about an hour per day playing, reading, and talking with their children, about 1 ½ hours providing primary physical care, almost 2 hours in travelling back and forth, picking them up and dropping them off for ball games, church activities, and other organized time. That’s all on top of career expectations, trying to keep healthy and stay fit, being active and involved in church, caring for aging parents, and balancing relationships with spouses, family members, coworkers, and friends. Mothers are truly busy folks. It is no wonder, then, that according to the American Psychological Association, women (28%) are more likely than men (%20) to report high levels of stress, with 54% of married American women reporting that in the last month that they had incidents in which they were likely to cry, %52 percent reporting that they felt irritable or angry, 49% reporting that they had lain awake at least one night, and 48% that they had stress headaches, and 47% experiencing fatigue—all in the last month. Money and work are the most common factors for stress, according to the APA, but I imagine other factors such as concern for our families, the business of our lives, and other pressures build upon us as well. We are busy folks, and it is likely that our mothers know this better than the rest of us. Many mothers understand that their calling and work is to be missionaries to their own families, to serve and nurture, and stand by their families in the day to day, in times of joy and the times of need.

So we come together on this one day a year to celebrate mother’s day and reflect about what Scripture might have to say, not only to our mothers, but to all of us, as we try to balance work and family schedules, serve as faithful members to our churches and communities, and take care of elderly parents and friends in need. And it is hard, isn’t it, because the Bible seems to speak to another time and another place, and may not speak to the kinds of anxieties and stresses that we have today. However, as I was preparing for today, I felt like these two incidents from Acts really can speak to us, especially as we think about what it means to be missional in our everyday lives. Now some of us have been on mission trips. Others spend time in community service or doing local ministries. In a real sense, when we go to another country to build a church, or when we go to a local homeless shelter to feed the poor, we are learning what it means to be missional. But what I think today’s stories tell us is that being missional doesn’t always mean going to exotic countries or serving people who are in extraordinary situations. Sometimes, if we pay attention to what God is doing in our midst, being missional means recognizing what God is doing right where we are and allowing ourselves to be the conduits through which God is going to act.

This is what’s going on in these two stories in Acts. In the first story, Paul and Silas are in the city of Philippi ministering and witnessing to the people there when, day after day, they encounter a young slave-girl who was possessed by a spirit of divination. Apparently this spirit gave her the ability to tell the future and reveal secrets—and her slave-masters used this girl to make a profit from those who would seek out her services. Anyway, whenever this slave girl saw Paul and others going to the place of prayer outside Philippi, she would cry out “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Of course, the irony in this text is profound. Here, a girl who is enslaved not only to an evil spirit, but also to human masters who are exploiting her for profit, is proclaiming Paul and his company to be slaves. Anyway, regardless of her status, Paul found her caterwauling particularly annoying, so he turns around and casts the demon out of her in the name of Christ Jesus. The owners of this girl don’t take too kindly to this, because their ability to make a profit is lost. So, the irony of this event is that Paul’s act of liberation for the woman, leads to his and Silas’ own enslavement, due to pressure by the slave-girl’s owners.

The next episode in this little story is in the jail of Philippi, where Paul and Silas have been put in stocks in the innermost cell. While Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, there is a tremendous earthquake, so profound that everyone’s stocks, chains, and doors are opened and the prisoners have the opportunity to get free. When the Macedonian jailor enters into his prison to see all the doors open, he draws his sword to kill himself, thinking that his career and his livelihood are over. However, Paul calls out to him to say that they are all there. Astonished by this, the jailor asked to be saved by the same power that has saved Paul and Silas, the same powerful God that freed the Macedonian slave girl. This then becomes the opportunity for Paul to witness to the jailor and his family--and that very night the jailor’s entire family is baptized.

One of the really interesting facets of these stories is that Paul and Silas don’t really do much special in order to be missional. Especially in the second episode, all Paul and Silas really do is stay put, rather than running away, when God provides them an opportunity to witness to the Philippian jailor. And really, in the first story, with the slave-girl, Paul doesn’t set out to do anything special. He is just so annoyed by her following them around and screams them that he basically just turns around and yells at the spirit within her and orders it to come out. So, I guess what I’m trying to say, when I look at these examples, we don’t really need to engage in huge projects, special events, and fancy ministries to be missional. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against mission trips and service projects. I think programs and special events in churches are great. But being missional is more about one’s attitude, one’s day to day practices than it is about international trips and mountaintop experiences. When Paul and Silas are in the prison in Philippi, they are doing missional work simply by staying put.

So often churches think that the more programs they offer, the larger and more splendid their facilities are, that they are doing more and more the missional work of God. But look, Paul and Silas were just walking through the streets down to a clearing by the river, when God gave them an opportunity to touch this slave-girl’s life. Paul didn’t need a program or a budget or a building to be missional. Paul didn’t need a degree or a committee to study the matter. He just got annoyed and turned around and cast out the demon that was inside of that girl. Now, I know what some of you working mothers are thinking: does that mean it is OK to turn around when I’m driving my annoying kid from baseball practice and shout at them to high heavens. Well, I’m not so sure about that. The point is that Paul and Silas looked for the moment that God was giving them. Sometimes a confrontation with a neighbor or coworker may lead to their liberation from something that is enslaving them. But you have to use discernment to know whether God is in that moment or not. I think also that Paul and Silas must have used discernment to realize that the earthquake that had led to their freedom was also an opportunity for them to spread the Gospel.

You see, in the midst of our hectic and stress-filled lives, being missional is about finding those in-between moments when God is giving us an opportunity to transform lives, whether those be the lives of our children, our coworkers, or even strangers we might meet. You see, I suspect that God does not want to burden us with more stress. You see, God does not need our committee assignments, and church programs, and a myriad of other activities to show God’s power. If we become aware of it, God is offering us moments every day where God is going to do real and transformative missionary work through us. Sometimes, mothers, that may mean taking a moment at the stoplight on the way to soccer practice to say a little prayer with your children. Sometimes, it may mean offering an agitated and stressed out parent at that soccer practice your ear for a few minutes so that they can vent and cry. Sometimes, for those of us who are retired or off of work and may have a little more time, it may mean allowing that stressed out mother with a toddler to have your place in line at the supermarket. Sometimes, parents, it may mean keeping the faith and continuing to address a destructive or potentially addictive habit that your teenager has taken on. It is wondrous to read in the story of the Philippian jailor that, before Paul baptized him and his family, the jailor washed Paul’s wounds. For some of us, it could be that being missional means allowing a stranger to wash our wounds, whether that’s allowing a friend to speak an encouraging word, or asking someone for their blessing, when we’re having a particularly difficult or stressful day.

I recognize that mother’s day can be a difficult day for some of us. Some among us may have never been blessed with the opportunity to be mothers. Others among us may have lost their children, whether through accidents, or illness, miscarriage, or even war. And still others, like myself, have lost our mothers recently. So, while today is a great day to celebrate those of us who are mothers, I think it important to keep in mind, that through Christ, we are all offered opportunities to be mothers to one another. Paul tells the Thessalonians that he sees himself as their mother, their nursemaid in Christ, and yet when he is far away from them, he feels orphaned. So in our community and our faith life, God is giving us opportunities every day to be missional, to be mothers to one another, and to be mothered by one another. Church, I hope and pray for you that you will take the opportunity that God is showing you and be a mother to someone in need in the days and weeks ahead. If you do, maybe it will become a habit for you—and you’ll know what its like to be a missionary, without having to go anywhere at all.