Take care to not miss the meaning

Acts 16:16-34

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
Rector

June 02, 2019

In today’s passage from Acts we have a very strange tale. I am not speaking of Paul and SIlas’s experience of being imprisoned, or of the miraculous earthquake, or the fact that none of the prisoners escaped, or even of the jailer’s conversion to Christianity.

Instead I am speaking of the tale of the demon-possessed slave girl who was annoying Paul and Silas.  It is so peculiar that even scholars who question the historical accuracy of the Bible acknowledge that this one must be true. 

Their reasoning goes:  Who would have made up a tale of a demon-possessed slave-girl following Paul around and annoying him until Paul has had enough and casts the demon out?  It is so weird, scholars surmise, that it must be true.

The story is a bit random and I love the fact that Paul was, as our text tells us, “very much annoyed.”  This is only one of two times annoyed is used in the Bible.  Are you like me and take some comfort in the fact that Paul lost his head here?  

This may be the only time where a demon is cast out as a part of someone losing their temper.

But this strange tale also reminded me of a quote from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.  Eliot wrote, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”  It seems to me that nearly everyone in this passage missed the meaning.  

While the story of the slave girl is told rather vividly, there is a great deal that is left out of the story, especially when it comes to what happened to the woman after the demon was cast out.

More often than not in the New Testament someone who is delivered of an evil spirit goes on to embrace our Lord and his message.  In fact, I cannot think of another example of a person in the New Testament being delivered of an evil spirit and not converting to Christianity.  

But not here, or at least we are not sure.  We never hear of this woman again.  We are never told of her name, what happened to her, or what her response was to Paul’s miraculous power.  

In many ways this is a story where no one really is portrayed well.  The apostle Paul showed no concern for this woman other than silencing her annoying harangues.  Her owners had no concern for her other than her ability to make money off of her fortune-telling. The annoyance she caused was stirred up only because she relentlessly shouted the truth, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  

Paul and Silas were slaves to God and they were proclaiming salvation.  Why was Paul so annoyed?  

Biblical scholars have suggested that Paul was grieved because this woman was enslaved to an evil spirit.  But there is no evidence in this passage  that Paul showed any concern for the woman.  

Other scholars have suggested that Paul was disturbed because the truth of God was being mocked and ridiculed.  That may be but, again, the text doesn’t make that clear.  All we are told is that Paul was annoyed.

What is clear is that no one seemed to be concerned with what God was up to in that moment.  

The woman was delivered from an evil spirit because she was annoying.  No one seem to have given it a second thought.  It seems everyone had the experience but missed the meaning. 

God’s hand had been active.  The young woman had been delivered.  But no one seemed to take the time to consider what God was doing.

In a way this is both a tale of caution and a tale of comfort.  It is comforting to know that even Paul, a pillar of the Church, could be short-sighted and impetuous.  Let’s face it, Paul seems much less saintly here than in other passages we have read of him.  

We can take comfort in the fact that Paul was just as human as the rest of us.  Who among us hasn’t had the experience of turning to someone and telling them, “Stop that!!!”?

But it is a cautionary tale because it calls us to beware of focusing only on what is before us, only the problems at hand. It warns us, to paraphrase TS Eliot, to not only have the experience but to also take care to discern the meanings of the experience.  

Was the meaning of this experience simply to quiet an annoying person?  I somehow don’t think so.  I suggest to you this morning that Paul stumbled here.  But I suggest this to you only because we are so much like him.  We miss the meanings all the time.  

Perhaps that is why this peculiar tale is part of our Scriptures in the first place.  Perhaps this passage is simply here to teach us that when we are most annoyed, most uncomfortable, most ill at ease, God just might be up to something.  

We have all had experiences that have gone unquestioned and unconsidered.  We would exhaust ourselves if we were so introspective that every move and action was dissected and given detailed analysis.  

In fact in the area of pastoral care such relentless questioning of events has a technical name:  navel-gazing! But there are moments in our lives 
when things are just out of sync enough to give us pause.  

Sometimes these are curiously beautiful moments when we are willing to stop and seek the hand of God at work.  But sometimes these moments can be maddening and frustrating and all we want to do is get past them.  In either case, each offers us a chance to be reminded that God is with us and is at work among us.  

We often miss the meaning but we have each had the experience when God has worked in and through and with us.  Each of us has had the experience  of God working through us; many time we just fail to notice.  

The truth of the matter is that the challenge is not being an instrument of God’s will, it is recognizing that we are God’s instrument and still faithfully allowing God to work in us, through us and with us.

The challenge is both having the experience and not missing the meaning.

© 2019, Tom Thoeni