January 23, 2020, The Church on the Rocks, Acts 27:18-28:10 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000174
Imagine there’s a winter storm raging outside those doors. And imagine that in the midst of the storm a bus is driving up highway 11, transporting prisoners from a prison in Pennsylvania to Upstate Correctional, in Malone. The snow is coming down really thick and fast. Visibility is pretty nearly zero, so that the bus driver takes a wrong turn in Potsdam and accidentally ends up on Market Street. He keeps going along Route 56 another 5 miles, until finally the bus breaks down along the highway right in the middle of Norwood. They’re stranded, right out there on Main Street: the driver, and a few armed guards and a couple dozen tough-looking men in handcuffs, in a bus that’s getting colder by the minute. What do we do?
That is an awful lot like the situation of the people of Malta in the story we just read. The ship that Paul was on was transporting a load of prisoners, Paul included, to Rome, to stand before Caesar. It was winter, and the weather took a bad turn, and the boat, just like our imaginary bus, was wrecked on the coast of a strange island – the island that turned out to be Malta.
The only thing the natives of that island knew was that this ship was carrying criminals on their way to Rome to face punishment. In the storm all the cargo and even the ship’s tackle had been thrown overboard to lighten the load and keep the ship afloat on the waves. They had all barely escaped with their lives. They really had nothing to pay the people of the island for the food and shelter they needed. They were completely helpless, dependent on the kindness of strangers. But that’s exactly what they found. The people of Malta didn’t only offer the bare minimum, just basic necessities and no more. No, Luke writes that they showed “unusual kindness”. They made a fire so everybody could get warm and dry. And then a man named Publius, took them into his home.
And it was at Publius’s house that Paul showed everyone he was no common garden-variety criminal, by healing Publius’s father. And then of course word got around and people from all over the island brought their sick to be healed by Paul. It really is an amazing story.
And as we think and pray this evening about our Unity as the people of Jesus Christ here in this village of Norwood, I’d like to pull out a couple of threads from Paul’s dramatic story to think about.
The first thread I’d like to pull out and look at is unexpected blessing. You never know what to expect when you offer hospitality. Those natives of Malta got quite a surprise when Paul turned out to be much more than a common criminal. At first they thought he must be a specially evil person when he escaped the shipwreck only to be bitten by a poisonous snake. They they changed their minds, and thought he must be some kind of god when he shook off the snake like it was nothing. But in the end they found that Paul had a gift for healing people, and people from all over the island came with their sick to be healed by Paul.
When we open our doors and hearts, we are very likely to find out suddenly that people – even people we’ve known for years – aren’t quite what we imagined. Because that’s the way God works. He gives each and every one of us gifts – but not for ourselves. He gives us gifts for each other. We see that at work within the confines of our churches, but it’s true, and maybe even more true, in the wider family of God’s people. When we offer hospitality to each other, we should prepare to be surprised by one another in wonderful ways.
But before the blessing comes the reality of risk. We don’t have a boatload or a busload of criminals to deal with here; we just have each other. But even just among us, hospitality, opening our churches and our homes and our lives to our neighbors and friends, involves a certain amount of risk.
Most of us have been happily ensconced in our churches for a long time – some of us for decades. We know what to expect on Sunday morning. We are comfortable with our traditions and our schedules and our theologies. We are at home with our familiar hymnals; we know what to expect in our order of service. We like what we know. There were some risks involved in your showing up tonight. Would it be worth giving up your evening? Would the service be confusing? Boring? Strange? There were risks, for us, as leaders, in planning the service. Would anybody come? Would people participate? What if nobody knew the hymns I picked? Hospitality takes courage.
There would have been a kind of risk in offering communion this evening. The very symbol that Jesus gave us as a sign of our identity in him is also a marker of our difference. It is even, in some ways, a source of division between us. I mention that, because we won’t share communion this evening, and I want to point out that there are some risks we’re not ready to take, and that that is perfectly OK. Unity is something we work at. It’s something we grow towards, and always with the idea of being open in hospitality to one another, showing one another unusual kindness even in our differences, maybe especially in our differences.
Here in Norwood, we already do a lot in community with one another. We work and minister together on things like the food pantry, the lunch program, the thrift shop, and more; we pray together, we sing together, we share meals together. Our unity is growing, strong and healthy.
The end of the adventure of Paul’s shipwreck, is that the Church of Jesus Christ was planted on the little island nation of Malta. It began to take root on the day of that shipwreck, 1,960 years ago, and it has continued to grow, right down to this very day. Because the centurion did not allow the soldiers to kill Paul and the other prisoners, because the natives of that place showed them unusual kindness, because Paul shared the love and healing power of Jesus with strangers – because all those things happened, we have brothers and sisters in that far-away place. And those brothers and sisters prepared the readings and prayers for this very service we are sharing this evening. That’s the unity of the Body of Christ. Thanks be to God.