I have to say that when I volunteered to handle this Easter 7 sermon, it was because I have three or four file cabinet drawers with folder after folder of sermons that date clear back to the ‘80’s. When I got home last Sunday, I opened the appropriate drawer, located the folder tab labeled Easter 7C and found – two sermons, one which I had printed out from somewhere with a font so tiny I could barely read it, and the other that I had used when I was at First Lutheran in South Bend, and which was very specific to whatever was going on there then.
So. Stretch the brain. Read some sources. I was interested in pursuing Lydia, the seller of purple cloth, but she didn’t turn out to be very important. (Sorry, Lydia.)
But praise to God – now that was a rich vein to mine. Praise to God. Praise is powerful. Praise is healing.
Listen again to these verses from Psalm 97. “The Lord is King; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad. … Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name [verses 1 and 12]
Throughout the season of Easter, we have been rejoicing and giving thanks – because we do indeed believe that God is really King, and that through the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, we have been made right with God – even when evil seems to have the upper hand.
To put it in kid terms, sometimes life throws dirt and stones at us – yet we can plant vegetables and flower seeds in the dirt, and we can use the stones to make platforms to stand tall on so that we can be who God has called us to be.
The idea is clear – it is to be able to praise God and say thank you even when evil seems to be in control.
Today’s story in Acts is a great illustration of the power of praise, especially in the presence of evil. Paul and Silas are in Macedonia, and they’re telling everyone there about what God has done through Jesus.
Paul casts an evil spirit out of a slave girl who has been making money for her owners through her evil-spirit-driven prophecies. And that gets him into trouble. Her owners have lost their source of income, and they are so enraged that they drag Paul and Silas to the local authorities.
A crowd, supportive of the owners, stirs up the furor so that the magistrates are compelled to act decisively. They have Paul and Silas stripped of their clothing and beaten severely, then thrown into jail – into the innermost cell. Their feet are clamped into stocks as an extra precaution against their escape.
I’m not sure what I would have done in their place. But what Paul and Silas do is take the opportunity to praise God and sing hymns. Praising God, they are filled with strength and hope. It’s hard to lose hope when you praise.
Paul and Silas are not alone in the city’s lock-up. The other prisoners are listening to the praise, to the songs.
Then they hear the terrifying sound of an earthquake so strong that the jail cell doors swing open and, wonder of wonders, the shackles fall from their ankles. What is amazing is that they are all so full of wonder that they don’t even think about escaping.
The poor jailer, terrified that the authorities will torture him for allowing the prisoners to escape, prepares to kill himself. Paul reassures him, stops him. And the jailer turns rescuer and host.
He takes the men to his own home, asking what he must do to be saved. You don’t have to ask Paul and Silas twice to proclaim the word of God!
Soon the whole household is convinced and baptized. Then the jailer puts food before them – sort of like coffee hour with cake after a baptism. Imagine the rejoicing – the jailer has been transformed, he and his family have become believers in God.
A good story, right? Full of hope and rejoicing. Nevertheless, we know that Paul was ultimately put to death in Rome. Despite all that he had done, evil still seemed to have the upper hand.
We know from our own experiences that life is a jumble of good and bad all mixed up together. That sometimes the dirt and stones come rolling down like an avalanche on us, and we can barely breathe, much less praise God. Much less plant seeds in the dirt and build platforms with the stones.
Sometimes evil seems to be in control no matter how much we praise God. And even if our own lives are going well, all we have to do is watch the news from around the world to know that in spite of what seems to be our individual good fortune, others are suffering from evil that is caused by other individuals, other governments (think Russia against Ukraine), by the economy, by the supply chain, by the shortage of baby formula, by school shootings.
God! Do you realize that the term “another school shooting” is a thing?!
But to praise God for all he has done for us though the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus gives us strength even when we feel powerless. To praise God brings us healing even when evil and sickness and death seem to have the upper hand.
You all know how I seem to cry at the drop of a hat. It’s not a new thing. Years ago, we lost two grandbabies, one just a few days after his birth, and a year or so later the second one lived almost six months. The blessing was that the doctors at Children’s were able to devise a kidney dialysis machine for infants – which is still in use.
After his burial on a Thursday, it was my turn to preach – I was at Saint John’s at the time. The focus was – praise without ceasing. I warned Kevin McMurry, who was our organist, that I might not make it through the sermon, that he’d better be ready to finish reading it for me.
But to my surprise, I made it through – dry-eyed. Apparently praising God had a good effect on the tear ducts. To praise God for all he has done for us gives us strength even when sickness and death seem to have the upper hand. To praise God gives us hope even when despair threatens to overwhelm us.
Before Jesus went through the evil events surrounding his death, he prayed for the disciples. That prayer includes this astounding proclamation. “God, you have given me glory. And now I’ve given these, my disciples, that same glory, so that we may all be one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved these disciples even as you have loved me.
This love, God’s love, is the love that fills us through the grace of Jesus and binds us together as one body, so that no matter what happens in our lives, we will still want to praise God together.
The love we offer to one another as God has loved us is an act of praise. And when love and praise for God shape our lives, then others will find themselves wanting what we’ve got.
So, let’s light up the world with our praise and thanks to God – because through our praise to God as one body, we help to make God’s transforming, healing and strengthening love visible to this world.