Weekly Readings: Acts 16-18
Small Group Questions
- What are some examples of struggles that led to opportunities in the reading?
- How do you see the disciples responding to struggles that you see in the reading?
- According to Acts 17:7, what is the controversial action that resulted in struggles (even persecution) for the disciples?
- What finally led Paul to go the Gentiles with the good news about Jesus? (beginning of ch.18)
- In Acts 18:9-10, did the Lord promise God “no struggles”? What did he promise?
- Acts 16:1, enter Timothy. One thing we might have never realized about him is that he was the “son of a believing Jewish woman and a Greek father.” Can you think of examples of people who seem to come from families with “struggles” or challenges that God uses to prune them into mighty servants for the Kingdom?
- In Acts 16:6-10, we see the witnesses (disciples) being held back by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Jesus from speaking in certain places. They discovered that God was calling them to another specific location. Has there ever been a time where you felt like instead of calling you to boldness God was calling you to “hold back,” because He had a different opportunity in mind?
Sermon: “The Church Finds Opportunities in Struggles”
Texts: Acts 16:25-34
25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the open doors of the prison, he thought the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted loudly, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!” 29 The jailer called for some lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He led them outside and asked, “Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.” 32 They spoke the Lord’s word to him and everyone else in his house. 33 Right then, in the middle of the night, the jailer welcomed them and washed their wounds. He and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. 34 He brought them into his home and gave them a meal. He was overjoyed because he and everyone in his household had come to believe in God. (Acts 16:25-34, CEB)
Thistles have a whole history of survival by brutality. They push up through concrete. They survive drought. They thrive in floods. But they also have this beautiful purple center. When Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest, would start going down to the roads in Nashville, TN, where women were walking and sleeping that was the only flower that was still growing.
Fifteen years ago Becca started a residency for women coming off the streets called Magdalene. Her feeling was that nobody gets to the streets by themselves. So it’s impossible that they’re going to come off the streets by themselves. And so everything they offer to the women who come into Magdalene and Thistle Farms is a gift. No one signs contracts, no pays money. It’s just a gift.
At Magdalene, Becca and others lead the women through dealing with addiction, post-traumatic stress, mental health issues, and physical health issues. The problem is when they go back out to look for work, many of them have multiple felonies and have lived on the streets since some of them were 13-14 years old. So, they also have no work history except for the illegal ways they have earned money by selling their bodies among other things.
To answer this problem, 10 years ago Thistle Farms was born, a company that began with four people in an A-frame chapel who started harvesting a plentiful flower that no one wanted, thistles, making candles and body balms. Now, 35 employees, women who are residents and graduates of the Magdalene program, run every area of the company. All day long they are working a trade and earning money while having their hands in healing oils all day long. Becca learned through research that the extract of thistles has been used for about 1000 years to heal the liver. What’s profound about that is that 35% of women served in the Magdalene program and with Thistle Farms are Hepatitis C positive. All the damage done by years of drugs and alcohol directly affects the liver. This means that kind of by chance, they named a company and stared harvesting thistle, having their hands picking it and dipping it in water and having it run all over them and breathing in the down. They picked the one flower that these women needed for healing.
Becca Stevens says, “A ‘thistle farmer’…can you imagine a lower position in the hierarchy of the church?” What I haven’t told you yet is that Becca Stevens is the chaplain at Vanderbilt University. And she’s really smart. Now she’s a thistle farmer. What a biblical metaphor! A thistle farmer looks at a field of half dead thistles and sees a wonderful harvest. [i]
The Church finds opportunities in struggles.
You know what you call opportunity that comes out of struggle? HEALING. Becca says, “Healing is the central sacrament of the church.” The story of Christ and His Church and the world is a story of healing.
The Church sees a world of half dead things that are forgotten, unwanted, unloved, and sees a beautiful harvest, and opportunity for healing, restoration, and new life.
(RETELL STORY OF PAUL, SILAS, AND THE PRISON GUARD…)
At the center of our faith is the story of struggle and opportunity, the ultimate climax of struggle – DEATH – and the ultimate opportunity – RESURRECTION.
COMMUNION is a sacrament that celebrates the ultimate eternal opportunity out of the most beautiful graphic cosmic struggle of all time.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
I do need to acknowledge something. It’s the difference between the story of Magdalene and Thistle Farms and the story of Paul and Silas in prison. We’re not all struggling for the right reasons. We’re not all struggling in the name of Christ and on the mission of His Church. BUT…God is a God of redemption. And regardless of whether you’re feeling guilt and shame over bad choices and dead end roads or you’re really discouraged because you are struggling to honor God with your life and you’re hitting walls, opportunity is here today. Grace is available to you today. God provides opportunities out of ANY struggle.
[i] Some of the content in this sermon about Magdalene and Thistle Farms is taken from the Turning Points video which can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=I_y4BniKBso, their website: http://www.thistlefarms.org/, and a presentation Becca made at CATAPULT Conference at Christ United Methodist Church, Mobile, AL, on April 30, 2013.