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Passage

Reader: Jeremy Williams.

Easter 6   Text: Acts 12: 1-19

It’s pretty much all there isn’t it … in the 12th chapter of Acts.
There’s vile and violent behaviour. In King Herod we see some of the worst we’re capable of as human beings in relation to other human beings. There are these over-the-top security measures -- 4 squads of soldiers, chains, 2 other soldiers placed on either side of Peter while he sleeps, more guards in front of the prison … all assigned to ensure the confinement of one man.

We’ve got the church praying. In the face of inevitable disaster and overwhelming power, the church is praying.

We’ve got the quiet intrusion of an angel, and a miraculous deliverance.

We’ve got this hilarious, most human response to surprise in Rhoda, the maid, who’s so over the moon in her excitement that she leaves Peter standing outside while she runs to tell the others.

We’ve got the community who’s been praying with all their heart, yet when met with their heart’s desire, they can’t believe it could be true.

And we’ve got Peter, telling the story of what happened … one he can hardly believe himself, but here he is -- the evidence of it!

And then there’s us … sitting here this morning, receiving this story that’s been handed down through the generations, somehow preserved … like the Christian community has somehow been preserved … and for what?

What do you suppose we’re to do with this story?

Before we go there, I want to say something about what we’re not meant to do with this story. We’re not meant to beat ourselves up or anyone else with this story. I’m thinking in particular of a woman whose wounds continue to run deep. It happened something like this. Her husband was gravely ill. With the encouragement of her church she brought him to a faith healer who had come to town. If she truly believed, how could she not take him?  That was the message that eroded her gut sense, her inner wisdom, that said transporting him out of the house was a cruel endeavour.

Somehow they made it back home that night. It was for her to continue praying for a cure. In the following weeks, her husband’s condition worsened. Clearly she didn’t believe enough ... she mustn’t be praying hard enough. What else could explain his decline? The church withdrew their support … and her children, caught up in the same mindset, blamed their mother. So she came to be cut off from her community and her children. Equally bitter, if not more so, was the fact that she and her husband never ventured those conversations about what it was for him to be dying, for her to be left, even what it was they had shared in their life together … for to entertain the possibility that he might die was a sign of doubt, a sign of weakening faith. It’s now a few years since his death and you won’t find this woman anywhere near a church.

I’m guessing hers isn’t the only story among us this morning of unanswered prayer, as we might call it … of things not going the way we hoped, in spite of our earnest pleading. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. And who knows why? We may never know why.  It seems to me where we run into trouble is when we have to know what we cannot know, and so we come up with explanations for things that are well beyond us … explanations therefore that can only be totally inadequate.
That’s the story of Job’s friends, who finally were no friends at all. Sometimes things don’t go the way we hoped … even though we prayed long and hard.

And sometimes when the odds are zip, and we pray long and hard for people like Peter, and Jim Loney, and Nelson Mandela, Leyla, Omar Khadr, Tim Soerens and his wife, those Chilean miners -- our prayers are answered and they taste the sweet taste of freedom. Sometimes that’s the way it goes … and no one is more surprised than those who have been earnestly praying.

So what are we to do with stories like this one in the 12th chapter of Acts?
I don’t think we are meant to receive it as a guarantee, as a formula that all we have to do is pray, and what we want will come to be. I think what we’re receiving through stories like this one is an invitation to something far more gutsy than that, far more expansive than that, far more boldly candid.
I think these stories invite us to face into the impossible messes we are up against, the destructive forces, all that drives us to despair. I think these stories invite us to face into whatever that may be, and imagine that it’s not all said and done … that’s it’s not over … that there may yet be another possibility, another outcome.
I think stories like this one in the 12th chapter of Acts give us reason and courage to stay present in the face of whatever it is, and to pray. When we may be tempted to settle in a place of no faith, no hope, these stories have a way of urging us to push through, to reach out, to keep going, to trust that we are not left to ourselves alone.

There’s this beautiful piece that Steve Garnaas Holmes offers. He’s reflecting on that little passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus says: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without God. [Matthew 10.29]
Here’s what Steve writes … listen to this:

God does not go around pulling birds out of the air.
God is not a guy sitting at a control panel.
God does not “plan” your victory or defeat,
cancer, your accident, the moment of your death.
Things do not happen “for a reason.”
Stuff happens. Birds are free.
So are germs, and hurricanes, and idiots.

Love is God,
the pure energy of being, setting us free,
with us in every moment and movement of our freedom.

Jesus didn't say
sparrows don't fall without a plan,
he said they don't fall without God.

God's plan is not a mechanical routine.
God's plan is that you are free,
and that you thrive and love.
God's plan is that whatever happens
God is with you with love and grace.

Stop trying to figure out God's plan
and pay attention to God's presence.

After all that's what you want:
not luck
but to be with God. [1]

I wonder this morning if we might join our voices in celebrating that affirmation by saying together what’s known as A New Creed.

Before saying this together, let’s take a moment to be aware of some impossible circumstance, our own or someone else's, so that these words then become something of our prayer breathed into that situation.

We are not alone,
    we live in God’s world.
 We believe in God:
    who has created and is creating,
    who has come in Jesus,
       the Word made flesh,
       to reconcile and make new,
    who works in us and others
       by the Spirit.
We trust in God. 
We are called to be the Church:
    to celebrate God’s presence,
    to live with respect in Creation,
    to love and serve others,
    to seek justice and resist evil,
    to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
       our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
    God is with us.
We are not alone.
    Thanks be to God. [2]

[1] Steve Garnaas Holmes, "With God," posted on www.unfoldinglight.net

[2] United Church of Canada, General Council, 1968 alt.