Sermon: Paul's Last Nerve

Inspired by Acts 16:16-34 

I couldn’t help but preach on the Acts text today. Though Jesus’ prayer from our Gospel reading is a beautiful one, stories always seem to preach better. And what a great story we have from Acts! It’s one of those stories that seems like it was written for the screen! It’s got a demon possession, an exorcism, a beating in the public square, an earthquake, a near suicide, a musical number, a jailbreak, and the scene ends with an entire household faith being transformed! I mean, if that doesn’t have Oscar winner written all over it I don’t know what does! The only question is, what genre would this movie be: horror, drama, musical, take your pic!

This is also one of those stories that a preacher could go a million different directions with. But there is one perspective that I’d like to share with you that I found most compelling. If we gave it a title it could be: Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason. So, Paul is walking through the city of Philippi, with his preaching bud Silas, and all of a sudden this slave girl keeps following them throughout the city yelling out, “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you!” This goes on for days.

He just looks annoyed doesn't he?
And then, our translation says that he was annoyed by this. But don’t get too hung up on that word. It can be translated a slew of different ways: angered, exasperated, grieved, pained, aggravated, just to name a few. But it’s safe to say, he reacted negatively to her, though we really don’t know why, so for now let’s go with the translation that we have before us—he was annoyed. And what does he do, he exorcises the spirit out of her, he heals her, and then all hell breaks loose. Her owners, who have been making good money on her spirit’s abilities, are pissed, and that’s putting it mildly.

Paul, heals this woman, not out of love or compassion or even out of duty to his work for the gospel, but because he’s annoyed by her. If we are to take that at face value, he heals her just to shut her up. He does the right thing, for all the wrong reasons—and I can’t help but see myself in him in that moment, and I’m hoping you can relate too. How often do we do what we are supposed to do but for reasons that probably are not the best reasons—reasons that we probably just keep to ourselves. Maybe this is why it’s so hard for many of us in our culture to take a compliment but that’s for another sermon.

Let me give you some examples of how I think this plays out. How many of us go above and beyond at work, just so that our boss stays as far away from us as possible? How many of us get good grades at school, just so that we can get that reward that we were promised? How many of us donate to our children’s school’s music or sports program, just so we don’t have to volunteer our time? How many of us have given a birthday gift to someone, just because they remembered your last birthday? And before you feel condemned, please know that I took all those from my own life! Please tell me I’m not alone! Maybe this sermon is just for me! I don’t know.

And I haven’t even mentioned how this plays out in our faith lives! I mean, think of the many reasons we put money in the offering plate that have nothing to do with the mission of the church. Or the many reasons we come to church every Sunday that have nothing to do with worshiping God. Or the many reasons that we say yes when someone asks us to volunteer for something here that have nothing to do with our call to be servants. Again, I’m just pulling things out of my own life here.

But my assumption is that we all do these things at some point or another—doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons. But here’s the good news, here’s the gospel in all of this. I seriously wonder how much it really matters to God, why we do the right thing, as long as we do it! I wouldn’t go so far as to say God doesn’t care, of course God cares why we do the things we do. But at the end of the day, as long as what got done is what was supposed to be done—at the end of the day as long as what we did was what we are called to do—then God can still say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” and then God can deal with the rest later.

Should Paul have been more compassionate? Yes. Should Paul have healed the slave girl out of love instead of annoyance? Yes. Should Paul have recognized the opportunity to proclaim a word of grace to all those who were watching? Yes. But Paul was human, which means that Paul wasn’t perfect, that Paul made mistakes, that sometimes Paul’s motivations were a bit out of line with the gospel. But here’s the thing, did any of that get in the way of God working through it? No! Did any of that keep God from doing God’s thing? No! God was still willing and able to take this mess and do something pretty amazing with it, so amazing that it ended in a whole household being baptized and joining this crazy journey that we call faith.

And so it is with you, and with me. Our stories might not be quite as dramatic as Paul’s. Our faith stories will probably not include a jailbreak or an earthquake or an exorcism. But our stories are just as important, even the many stories we have of us doing the right things for the wrong reasons. And I’m here to tell you that it’s ok. God can handle our bad attitudes, God can take God’s time to work on our motivations. And most importantly, God can and will work in and through us as we do God’s will in this world, in spite of our bad attitudes or motivations. God’s power to overcome any obstacle, even when that obstacle is us, is what we can trust in, that is what we can come to believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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