Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
May 27, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz

I like surprises if I know about them ahead of time. When I'm driving down a street searching for an unfamiliar address and the road I'm on turns into a dead end I experience irritation. Soon enough I find the turns that lead me, in a more roundabout way, to my original destination. Nevertheless, in those few moments of uncertainty, I feel some frustration.

Like most people, I like things to go my way. The way I've planned things is the way I think is best. I've directed my resources in a way that fits my timing and seems the best way to get to where I want to go.

Of course, the unexpected often occurs. When it's a small interruption it's fairly easy to readjust and go with the flow. But, when something unexpected changes the course of a major endeavor it's much more difficult to accept.

Our readings from Acts this morning are stories of the time of developing the early church and spreading the words of Jesus. It was a time of new creation and things were not always what they seemed. Perhaps the most startling and challenging for the followers of Jesus was the turning upside down of their expectations about him.

The triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with palms waving was an exhilarating time for his followers. Finally, their king had arrived; life would certainly be good from now on. Then, not too many days later, their "king" is nailed to a cross. They mourn and bemoan that life, as they know it has ended and now will be dark and gloomy. Then, not too many days later, the stone is rolled away from the tomb and the miracle of resurrection is revealed. Jesus shows himself to many and people are relieved that he, even in different form, is once again among them. Life will be good now. Then, after many days of appearing before them, Jesus announces he will be leaving them to join his Father and they see him ascend into the heavens.

"Now what?!" his followers, feeling abandoned, must have wondered. "Where will this unexpected turn take us?" "We've just gotten used to being comfortable again and things are changing!"

As Jesus was leaving he promised them that the power of the Holy Spirit would be with them and guide them. That must have puzzled his followers. How could they trust in something intangible; a power that they couldn't see, couldn't touch?

Our second reading from Acts tells a story about powerful forces at work that are felt but not seen. "Suddenly 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."

We all have had experiences of the earthquake kind that appear unexpectedly in our lives creating chaos; a job loss, a health challenge, a relationship change, major transitions. This story has something to tell us about how our response to the shaking of unexpected earthquakes in our lives may ultimately lead us to a new sense of freedom.

In this story, Paul and Silas were traveling to a place of prayer. As they quietly walked along, a young slave girl began following them, continually shouting out proclamations about them doing God's work. Paul, perhaps weary and a bit stressed, finally turned to her in exasperation and commanded the spirit working in her to come out in the name of Jesus Christ. It did and he was relieved. Finally, some return to quiet! But, his return to peacefulness was soon interrupted.

The owners of the young girl, who were making quite a bit of money through her divination gifts, realized that Paul had put an end to that. The crept up on Paul and Silas and seized them and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. "These men are disturbing our city," said the slave owners. "They are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." They were threatened by Paul's different interpretation of the law. So were the judges and other members of the crowd. Paul and Silas were attacked, stripped of their clothing and given a severe flogging. Then they were thrown into prison.

Traveling to a place of prayer had led them to a stay in prison; this was not something they had foreseen. And yet, Paul and Silas did not let that unexpected turn derail them from their purpose. The surrounding prisoners listened in amazement as these men, who had been attacked and beaten, prayed and sang hymns to God. Paul and Silas were communing with the Spirit that emboldened them, loved them, and supported them. "Who were these men?" the prisoners wondered. This was unexpected behavior. Usually, new prisoners would huddle in a corner, sullen and uncommunicative or else be cursing and swearing. As they witnessed this peculiar behavior they wondered about this God these men prayed to.

Around midnight, as Paul and Silas continued to pray and sing, a violent earthquake occurred so shaking the prison that the chains around the prisoners were released. The prisoners were free to go. But, something surprising happens. Paul and Silas, who are now able to leave, don't. Think about this. If you had been beaten, thrown into prison and fastened in stocks and you had a chance to go, wouldn't you run as fast as you could?

Something mysterious and empowering is happening here. Paul and Silas didn't leave; the jailer expected them to flee as the others had and he was ready to kill himself because of it. But Paul shouted to the jailer, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." The jailer could not believe it! He fell down trembling before Paul and Silas; he knew something beyond what he could see was at work in this turn of events and he surrendered to it. He listened to their words of salvation and had a conversion experience.

When an unexpected turn in our lives feels like an earthquake our natural first response is to feel threatened, to flee from such news or fight it with resistance. But, we have the opportunity to choose a response that opens ourselves to the movement of the Spirit in our lives.

Throughout this story we witness an amazing commitment by Paul and Silas to the work of the Spirit. They continue to pray. They open themselves to the possibilities of the moment and God working through them in unexpected places. When they began their journey that morning they may have expected some conversion moments with people in the place of prayer but I doubt they imagined one happening in a prison. That morning the ground they walked on was solid; later that day the earth shook violently. One minute they were in chains; the next they were free to leave.

Unexpected turns, unexpected results. So much of our life is truly like that and yet we resist the concept. What if we were to start out each morning by reminding ourselves to "expect the unexpected?" Chains that bind us might be loosened if we were more open to the wind of the Spirit blowing through our lives in surprising ways. Cultivating such openness in our daily lives can start with some small steps.

A friend once shared with me her response to the things that occurred in her day unexpectedly; things like the car battery being dead or forgetting something for work. "I used to get all upset," she said. "I'd think `this is horrible' or `another thing has gone wrong.' Then she told me about her new spiritual practice. "Now when something unexpected happens I say `Well, that's inconvenient.'" That framing of the situation totally changed her response to it. She gave into the fact that such turns in her day would always occur and she stopped giving them so much resistance.

Certainly, it's easier to use this response in small matters. The difficult thing is how to respond when an unexpected turn in our life truly feels threatening. Our reminder, from both of the scripture stories this morning, is to turn to God; to open ourselves to the Spirit for comfort and guidance.

Next week we celebrate Pentecost and the power of the Spirit moving through our lives and through the life of the Church. The breath of the Spirit often blows in unexpected places shaking things up and creating new openings for life. Our radical response to such change can be to open up our hands instead of clenching them so we may be more open to new possibilities. God's vision for us encompasses much that we cannot see. Our faith calls us to believe in the promise of God's presence among us as we negotiate unexpected turns.

Religion writer, Loren Mead, has said the following: "God's promises always arrive with surprises in them. The form of the new world and the new church is not in our hands. What is in our hands is the chance to respond to God's call."

Let us respond with a sense of hope and possibility to the unexpected that comes before us. May we be open to the surprising ways God moves in our lives. Amen.