Sermon: The God of Surprises

Sunday, April 18, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday of Easter
watch this service online (readings start around 16:32; sermon starts around 22:50)
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In the ELCA, anyone who is going through seminary and working toward becoming a pastor is required to complete at least one unit of something called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE for short.  Basically what this usually looks like is a few months where you work full time as a chaplain, usually at a hospital.  And along with the chaplaincy work, you also meet regularly with a small cohort of fellow students to process your experiences together.  It’s one of the more intense parts of our formation.  

I decided to go a slightly different direction with my CPE.  I applied for this great program in Chicago called the Urban CPE Consortium.  In Urban CPE, you do a lot of the same kind of chaplaincy work as regular CPE – accompanying people and their families through illness and grief and difficult times – but instead of being in a hospital setting, you’re placed in some kind of ministry in urban Chicago.  That might be with a food pantry or kitchen ministry, or a halfway house for HIV+ teens, or a homeless shelter, or something else along those lines.  And at the time it was also pretty much the only option in the Chicago area for doing CPE in a Spanish-speaking site, which is something I was really interested in.

I was so excited when I got accepted to the program.  I was going to get to do ministry that was totally up my alley – getting to use my Spanish and do ministry with people living in the margins.  Totally my jam.  But then I got the list of ministry sites and found out that – for some unknown reason – none of the sites that summer were with ministries in Spanish-speaking communities.  Bummer.

So I ended up doing some interviews at some of the sites on the list, but I had kind of lost a little bit of my enthusiasm for the program.  And on top of that, it was getting close to the end of the school year and I have kind of a tendency to procrastinate anyway – so the interviews just kind of kept getting pushed off.  With only like a week or two to go before the program started, I had still only interviewed at one or two sites, so I started looking frantically down the list for places to go.  I saw that one of the sites was a suburban hospital – which to me seemed like an odd choice for Urban CPE – but I was desperate to find a site, so I went.

It ended up being probably the single most terrifying interview I have ever had in my life.  The supervisor who interviewed me – Nancy – was not at all impressed by the fact that I had waited until the very last possible minute to set up an interview.  She was a very sharp, precise, direct sort of person who ran a very tight ship.  And I remember feeling like she was drilling into me, asking me questions like, “So what kind of student are you?”  By the time the interview was over, I felt like I must have been beet red from head to toe with shame and embarrassment.  I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

But then I got in my car in the parking garage to go home, and the minute I sat down, I was hit with this feeling – like: Oh no no, no no no no no, please no, God don’t do this to me – and somehow I knew in the pit of my guts that this was exactly where God was going to send me for the next ten weeks.  And – surprise! – it was.  

I was so nervous and anxious to try to make a better impression that I literally wore a suit to the hospital on my first day there.  And I worked my butt off all summer long trying to prove that I could live up to the chaplaincy department’s very high standards.  (And I must not have done too badly, because I actually ended up getting hired there at the end of the summer, haha)  And in the process, as terrifying and uncomfortable as it was, I learned so much.  I mean, Nancy had literally written a like 17 volume series on how the chaplaincy department operated at that hospital – I am not making that up; she literally wrote the book on it.  And the whole experience forced me to grow in a lot of ways in ministry (and in life!) that I might not have otherwise, and it helped me to develop gifts that I hadn’t used a lot in ministry before.  My time there in CPE deeply shaped who I am as a pastor and as a person.  

It was not at all the way that I had expected the Spirit to lead me that summer.  God caught me totally by surprise and led me in a direction I would not have chosen to go myself.  It was uncomfortable and humiliating and hard and one of the best experiences of my whole life.  

I was thinking a lot about my experiences in CPE as I was reading through the texts for this week.  Because in these readings I see some of that same unexpected movement of the Spirit.  I see God in Christ acting in ways that surprise and discomfort and even terrify his followers a little bit.

Especially in our gospel reading.  The disciples are gathered together in this locked room in fear.  It’s been a few days since Christ was brutally killed, and I can easily imagine that they were worried that any one of them might be next.  And then – surprise! – Jesus himself somehow shows up among them.  The disciples are “startled and terrified”; this is so far outside the realm of what they had expected to happen that the only explanation they can think of is that Jesus must be a ghost!  Jesus had already totally confounded their expectations of what the Messiah would do by allowing himself to be killed in the first place – now here he shows up alive and in the flesh, with those wounds still in his body.  He says to them, “Peace be with you,” and then he calmly asks his frightened disciples for something to eat.    

It’s actually a little odd that the disciples are so startled and surprised to see Jesus.  They had literally just been talking about reports of people seeing him.  This story comes immediately after the story of the road to Emmaus.  You probably remember this story: a few days after Jesus is crucified, two of his disciples are walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, when – surprise! – Jesus shows up and starts walking with them.  Except, Jesus is the last person they expect to see just casually walking down the road, so they don’t recognize him.  It’s not until later, when they are eating together, that they realize – when Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, and breaks it, and then their eyes are opened – and in that instant, Jesus vanishes from their sight.  It’s kind of hilarious.  And then these two disciples literally run back to Jerusalem in the middle of the night to tell the other disciples what they’ve seen.

Christ is always acting in ways that people don’t expect.  In our reading from Acts, we see that even after Jesus’ ascension, he still manages to show up in ways that surprise people.  Right before this reading, Peter and John go walking up to the temple and they encounter a man who has been lame from birth – and with the power of Christ’s Spirit in them, they heal him.  The other believers in the temple are shocked and surprised to see this man walking, and they turn and stare at Peter and John in awe.  But Peter’s like, “Hey, don’t look at us – y’all think we did this on our own?  This is Christ’s doing, through us, and y’all should know that by now.”  

One quick note about this text: this is one of many passages in the New Testament that has historically been used to justify anti-semitic attitudes.  It’s important to remember that these texts were written by Jewish believers during a time when there was a lot of religious conflict within their community.  And it’s important to note that, despite what the author of Acts says here about Pilate, crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not a Jewish one – Jesus was ultimately killed at the hands of the Roman Empire, not by the Jewish community.

And it’s important to remember that the people who most deeply betrayed Jesus weren’t anonymous members of the Jewish community – or even Romans, for that matter – they were his own followers!  Judas betrays him, Peter himself denies even knowing him, and all of his disciples desert him and abandon him in his hour of greatest need. 

And so, in this reading from Acts, Peter speaks to the believers in the temple as someone who gets it.  He knows exactly what it’s like to have doubted Jesus – and to be surprised by his amazing and unending grace.  Peter has experienced firsthand how much greater God is than his own small ideas of who God is and what God can do.  And this is the message he now shares with others.  

This is the same kind of experience from which I preach – like Peter, I too have been surprised by God’s grace in the midst of doubt.  And it’s the message we are all called to share with the world.  As Jesus says in our gospel reading, we are witnesses of these things.  We are witnesses of the surprising and amazing things that God has done, even despite our doubt.

As witnesses, we know that God makes a way where there is no way.  We know that God brings life and hope where we think there can only be death and despair.  We know that anytime we try to put God neatly in a box and decide that something is impossible, God is just like, “Hold my beer” (or maybe “Hold my chalice” instead, lol).  

After all, if Jesus had only lived up to the expectations his disciples had of where his ministry would lead him, he would have ended up being nothing more than a dead body decomposing in a cave.  Instead, he is the living Lord who still calls us to follow him.  He is the living Shepherd who calls us to venture outside of our comfort zones and into the holy discomfort of discipleship.  He is our living Savior who is still calling us to be witnesses of God’s amazing – and surprising – grace.  

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Allison Siburg

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