What Kind of Change?

June 2, 2019

Series: June 2019

Category: Communion Sunday

Speaker: Rob McClellan

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.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

“What Kind of Change?”

          There’s a folk singer named David LaMotte, and like all folk singers he does a fair bit of talking between songs, noodling softly underneath as he tells a story that sets up the next song.  Regularly, when he introduces a Chuck Brodsky song, he says something like, “You know, I often hear people say they can’t make a difference.  They get down and think it’s hopeless.  They think they can’t change things, but you’re changing things all the time,” he explains.  “On the most basic level, every time you breathe, you take in oxygen and exhale out carbon dioxide.  So, without lifting a finger, you are changing things around you all the time.  The question is not whether you will change things, but what kind of change you will make.”  LaMotte is calling into question a fallacy many of us carry deep within us, that we can have no impact on the world. Perhaps this is because we have such a global perspective, but we feel so small in the world’s shadow.  The problem is there’s a danger in believing our own impotence, because it make us more comfortable with acting carelessly or destructive, interpersonally, communally, societally, or as a species.

Equally bad is accepting this falseness makes us less likely to be aware or concerned with the unintended consequences of our actions.  Look at our story today.  Paul and the apostles come across a slave girl who is acting as a “diviner;” she’s doing fortune-telling.  Perceiving her to have a demon, hey want to set her free.  They do accept they can create change.  Their problem is they don’t recognize what other consequences the change they bring will create.  As we are told, the slave girl brings in “a great deal” of money for her owners.  With a revenue stream newly cut off, they are mad, and they capture and beat Paul and Silas, who’ve robbed them of their livelihood.  We are left to wonder what they do to the slave girl.  It’s sort of like the conundrum you face when you see a parent being too hard on their child in the grocery store and you’re afraid to intervene because of what it might mean for the child when they’re in the car or back home.  True to form, in the story we never hear of the girl again. 

This can shake you up if you see the Bible as a book of clear heroes and villains, for our heroes’ efforts have wildly backfired.  If, however, you recognize the Bible as a memoir of our ancestors, a travelogue of those who, like we, have tried to walk with God, we can simply recognize their missteps here, and allow them to help us avoid our own.  Modern day parallels abound.

My spouse, who is also a pastor, often speaks of an experience she had bringing a group to Haiti.  They had sense enough to work with an organization that had been on the ground for decades.  In training the volunteers, the organization shared what was the example par excellence of trying to do right, but getting it awfully wrong:  A wealthy U.S. church carrying really good intentions and probably a good amount of white guilt comes to Haiti.  They see a village connected to the rest of civilization only by a dirt road.  Because Haiti is terribly deforested, when the rains come, the road washes away and so yearly the villages have to come out and rebuild it by hand each year, together.  We’ll come back to the together. 

Why not pave it for them?  So goes the thought pattern of the well-intended, well-resourced church.  They bring in modern construction equipment, materials, and pave the road.  And then they leave.  The problem is they take the equipment with them, along with the kind of resources it would take to maintain said equipment, much less the road.  The road does hold up for a while, just long enough for the community to lose the habit of rebuilding the road, but eventually even paved roads need repair.  By that time, however, the church has found a new cause.  Nobody in the village knows how to repair such a road or has the equipment.  Moreover, it turns out the road repair had a secondary function, or maybe a primary one.  The yearly ritual of rebuilding the road served to build what sociologists call social capital.  It binds the community together, keeping them close-knit and invested in one another.  Without this practice anymore in the intervening years, the fabric of the community frayed.  Even were returning to a dirt and yearly rebuild possible, the know-how or will to maintain it has been lost.  More harm than good. 

It’s enough to make you want to do nothing, to try not to change anything.  As LaMotte reminds us, though, we can’t avoid changing our surroundings, so we just have to be more aware and intentional and wise about the changes we contribute to.  As I’ve quoted in here before, Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor, reminds us that trying to remain neutral never helps the victims in the world.  It only aids those who are in power.  We must choose sides, he maintains.  We just must do so wisely.  We need more reflective decision making, deeper more revealing relationships that help us be more aware of what is really going on, and a greater consciousness of our interconnectedness.  There is hope, however.  People can change.  They can evolve.

Look at how, in this short episode, the apostles manage to evolve and expand in their consciousness.  Perhaps because they have now experienced captivity, or simply time to reflect, time to pray, their perspective widens.  In a moment that must have felt like a divine gift, there’s an earthquake, the prison doors swing open, and their shackles are released.  Talk about hitting the Jackpot!  But, the apostles don’t cash in.  Instead, they notice their jailer in angst and recognize what their escape would likely do to his livelihood.  They see him draw his sword in order to kill himself.  So, what do the apostles do?  They stay in their cells, sacrificing their own freedom for his salvation. 

The Christ consciousness always pulls you in the direction of expansion.  You start to recognize what’s going on around you and to be moved, as Jesus so often was, by compassion for those you encounter. 

Lamotte’s song, called, “We Are Each Other’s Angels,” takes as its driving metaphor communion, the bread and cup.  When we take communion, we are ritually taking this kind of expansiveness into our being.  We take in the bread of life so that what comes through us is life.  We take the cup of reconciliation, so that we exude transformative love.  LaMotte says we are invited to join God in the sacred action of creation.  He invites us to ask, “What will we create new this day?”  May that be your prayer when you partake today, “What will I create new this day?”  “What will we create new this day?  Amen.