Rev. Brandon Ouellette
Expect the Unexpected
We are today in our last Sunday of the Easter season, moving next week into Pentecost and then soon into what the church calls ordinary time. Ordinary time is simply a season in our calendar where there are no high holy days or church celebrations—it’s a time in which things usually slow down for us a bit as we enter the summer months and everyone’s schedules begin filling up with sports events and summer camps. To be honest, however, I find the name “ordinary time” to be a little…boring. I don’t want to be just ordinary and I don’t want this church’s mission to be just ordinary. So instead, maybe in a few weeks, we will move into extraordinary time instead, inviting God and ourselves to a season of progress, a season of growth, to begin expecting the unexpected.
The idea of being open to God’s unexpected plan for us is not a new one. How many times have you heard in your life someone say, “Looking back 20, 30, 40 years, I could have never imagined being where I’m at today”? Perhaps you yourself have even said such a thing. I think back to the time after I graduated from Monmouth College. I was fortunate to be able to do a post-year of research before I went off to seminary. What we were studying was the way in which college students described 'what it means to have a call in one’s life'. Now that word is tricky, some students interpreted “a call” as to what career or job they would like to have, but we were really pushing them to go further, to describe something more—what ways they wanted to leave their mark on this world, how were they going to make it a better place. After all, isn’t everything we do to help improve the life and wellness of ourselves and the people around us? What I learned form my time after Monmouth is that no matter which student I talked to, whether an individual knew exactly what their career field would be or whether they didn’t have the slightest clue what they wanted to do with their lives, they were all searching for that something that would give their lives meaning. Some described it as a call from God, others as a slight nudge from the universe, and yet others as a more internal need to make their mark on this world. But the uniting factor, was the desire for progress, the want to move forward and the search for meaning.
We all have this, I think, as humans, a deep sense of time and an innate desire for progress. It is what drives us as a species, that we might create a better world for our children and generations to come. But as humans, we also like to plan and it can be so frustrating when those plans don’t go the way we want them to go. I doubt that Paul and Silas had planned to get themselves thrown into prison. But I also don’t think they could have ever foreseen the events that followed thereafter, the great earthquake that liberated them from their cells, the ministry they offered to a jailer who was about to end his life, and the subsequent outreach that happened because of the unexpected events to take place.
This story reminded me of a game we used to play as children, I hope you are familiar with it, did any of you ever play cops and robbers? You may have called it a different name or played with different rules, but the game essentially consisted of one group of children who were the robbers and they had to capture a flag or some sort of object and bring it back to their base. There was another group who were the cops and they were trying to protect this flag and stop the robbers by tagging them and taking them to jail. Now the jail was interesting because not only was it deep in enemy territory but in order to escape, you had to have a fellow robber sneak in past the other cops, take you by the hand, and try to run back to the safe zone without both of you being caught.
We would play this game for hours, night after night, but I vividly remember, on some nights, the feeling of being in that jail alone, waiting and hoping that someone from my team would come and rescue me. I remember the shame of letting down my other teammates when I would get caught. I remember the feeling of being trapped. Now, this was just a kid’s game, but think to how sometimes we might feel this way in our own lives. How often do we feel trapped by the situations we are in? What type of captivity do we experience with things like self-doubt, anxiety, or a feeling of stuck-ness? It can be suffocating. In these times we must remember that we are human and it’s normal to feel this way but simply recognizing that doesn’t take away the prisons and it doesn’t help us to escape. It can affect every aspect of who we are and the relationships we cultivate with those around us.
When Paul and Silas were stuck in prison, they began to pray and sing hymns to God. They didn’t know what was to come, they didn’t even know if they would survive the next day, but they trusted in God’s plan, they supported each other, and most important of all, they embraced the unexpected. It would have been so easy to run away, to escape from their current trial, to forget about the whole ordeal, but to do so would have meant death for the prison guard. So instead they used their situation and their experiences, their liberation, for the liberation of others. Through their own freedom, they were able to secure the freedom for those around them.
Now this type of thinking can be dangerous sometimes, it can lead to the justification of some real evil in this world. God does not desire to see us in pain or to see us hurting. Despite what we’ve been taught in the past, God does not put evil into our lives to test us, we are more than capable of doing that ourselves. What God does do, is seek for us a liberation and sometimes that liberation doesn’t always look the way we had planned, sometimes that liberation takes our whole lives to achieve, more often then not, that liberation comes through ways that are unexpected.
What I encourage you to do this morning if you’re feeling this stuck-ness, if you’re feeling trapped by a situation, is I want you to remember that God is indeed working in your life. Secondly I want you to know that despite the loneliness, despite the feeling that things may never get better, you have people around you that will journey through dangerous territory, who will take you by the hand, and who will walk with you and guide you to that safety once again. We need each other and God has brought us together for that reason, to support and to care and to lift each other up.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention my heart going out to all those people currently incarcerated, some for minor crimes, many who’ve been forgotten or are feeling the literal sense of this hopelessness. If we truly believe in the Gospel message, we must recognize that it seeks to see all people come to freedom and reconciliation. I encourage you, if this particular ministry touches your heart in some way, come talk to me and we can get you involved in some way. I’ve been encouraged by the work of Dr.s Dan and Teri Ott from the college and their ministry at Hill Correctional Facility in Galesburg. Their time there has defied expectations and lifted up an often forgotten community. It’s invested in people who are looking for a second chance, it’s a story of liberation.
Part of our job, as Christians, is to begin recognizing the opportunities and the potential for growth. It is to imagine a community that goes beyond these four walls. It is to pray and to sing hymns but also be ready for the powerful and extraordinary work that God has planned. Our potential is there, so let’s not slow down, let’s forge on, change the norm, expect the unexpected.