Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. There is a story or parable, variously ascribed to the wisdom traditions of Arab, Chinese, or rabbinic literature -- although it could as easily have come from ancient Magyar traditions and sources as well - - there is a story which illustrates well “the changes and chances of this mortal life,” as the Book of Common Prayer describes the vicissitudes, the ups and downs, of this world we inhabit. According to most versions, the story – no doubt apocryphal – goes like this: A farmer had a fine stallion that one day escaped and ran off. The farmer’s neighbours commiserated with him. “What bad luck you have,” they said sadly. But the farmer responded, “Who really knows what is good and what is bad? We shall see.” Sure enough, the very next day, the stallion returns to the farmer followed by twelve wild but healthy young steeds. “How fortunate you are!” declare the neighbours. “Who knows,” counters the farmer to his neighbours’ surprise, “Who knows if it is good fortune or not?” Not long after, the farmer’s strapping young son attempts to break one of the wild horses when he tumbles and shatters his leg. “How unlucky you are!” say the neighbors all a bit chagrined. The farmer shrugs his shoulders and asks again, “Who knows if it is bad luck or good?” Later, the king’s soldiers arrive, recruiting young men for battle and wars in far-off lands -- thank God by the way that sort of thing no longer happens -- but they quickly pass over the farmer’s son with the game leg. “How very lucky you are,” exclaim the amazed neighbours as the old man mutters once again, “Who knows? Maybe it is good, but maybe it is bad. We shall see.” Good or bad? Who can say? Sometimes of course it depends upon your perspective and your faith. Consider our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles. Coming across a slave girl with “a spirit of divination,” Paul frees her from her bondage “in the name of Jesus Christ.” What exactly in the ancient world might have been meant by “a spirit of divination” is difficult to say. No doubt the girl was at least given to utterances which today might be considered the manifestation of some form of schizophrenia. But what is no doubt good fortune for the young girl now freed of her demons or malady is a financial disaster for her wily and rapacious owners, who have suddenly lost “their hope of making money” from her soothsaying. Good news or bad...? Again, it depends on your perspective.
In any case, they see to it that Paul, along with his companion Silas, is thrown forthwith into prison – an unexpected and unfortunate turn of events for these intrepid disciples of the Lord, who now find themselves sequestered in “the innermost cell” of the prison with “their feet in stocks.” Bad news, to be sure. But wait; there’s more. An earthquake – then as now a terrible and unpredictable calamity – becomes the disciples’ unlikely means of escape and the return of their good fortune. But their impending flight from captivity, and that of the others imprisoned with them, brings their duteous jailor to the point of despair and near-suicide -- more bad news -- until Paul swiftly intervenes and introduces the jailor and his household to faith in “the Lord Jesus.” The warden “and his entire household” are then “baptized without delay,” as the text tells us, and all rejoice in their newfound faith and the blessings it represents. Ultimate good news at last. And all in a day’s work, we might say, for Paul and Silas, men of profound faith and determination. What seems misfortune and adversity one minute is the very next minute revealed by the grace of God to be the means of deliverance and salvation not only for Paul and Silas but for those whom they encounter as well. In some ways, things have probably not changed that much in two thousand years. The scourge of modern-day slavery and abuse is with us still. People are still falsely accused and falsely imprisoned. Greed and corruption can be found in places high and low across the world; some say even here in Central Europe. Today, just as in the time of the Apostles, the vicissitudes of everyday life are such that no one can ever count on lasting good fortune – or even good health. Sometimes alas in the middle of things, we cannot even tell which is good fortune and which is not. Our heads spin at the pace of change in our world -- be it in technology, our own lives, or even in the life of the Church. Who can say from one moment to the next what is good and what is bad? What is the Lord’s doing, and what is not? Ordinary Ukrainians, for instance, who just a few short months ago were productively employed and enjoying the felicity of family life, now find themselves uprooted, refugees seeking the aid and succour of strangers in far-off places. Yet good news: Others are indeed willing to help. People do care. Evil is condemned and opposed. And most of us could probably tell of instances in our own lives when apparent hardship or tragedy brought in its wake opportunity and prospects we might never have otherwise experienced, had it not been for what we at first mistook for unmitigated misfortune. Who can tell, really, what blessings may ensue from today’s hardships and perils? Perhaps there is wisdom after all in the attitude of resignation or, perhaps better said, the attitude of acceptance of the old farmer in the tale. Who can ever say for sure what is good luck or bad? Sometimes the Wheel of Fortune is more than just the medieval rota fortuna or an American television game show. Christians after all have more than quiet resignation to blind fate or destiny to fall back on. For, while acceptance of divine predestination has been an important element of some Christian traditions for centuries, it has never kept genuine people of faith from prayer, hope-filled trust in the Lord, and acts of mercy. The words of the Book of Revelation – arguably one of the more mystical works of the New Testament – are as profound and rich today as they were the day they were written. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” proclaims the Christ of the ages in our second reading today, “the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Good fortune and bad may be an inextricable part of our human vocabulary
and experience, but they say little about the Lord’s all-encompassing and unending love and compassion, which forever transcends our limited human vision and realm. There is nothing under the sun that is not part of God’s plan for us, God’s people. There is nothing that can keep us from God’s love. To know this brings more than abject resignation to fate, more even than quiet reassurance amid the “changes and chances of this mortal life.” For, to know Christ is something well beyond questions of fortune or destiny. It is the Good News proclaimed by our Lord throughout the Gospels and the fulfillment of his ardent prayer today in the Gospel of John, that ultimately we all “may be one” in him and the Father. Good news that never ends. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs