Sunday, June 2, 2019
REV ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
It is midnight, in the innermost cell of the prison. This is going to be one very long night. Paul and Silas, in the pitch black of their prison are praying and singing hymns to God. The prisoners are listening to them. And then right in the middle of a song, the earth trembles, the doors break open, chains come undone, and the prisoners who moments earlier were enveloped in the dark of the night, now see their escape through the cracks in the doors. But no one has left.
The guard of the prison is about to kill himself, believing he has failed in his duty to watch over the prisoners. But as he is about to draw his sword, the voice of Paul cries out to him. And then, after an extraordinary conversation, the prison guard takes Paul and Silas home, washes their wounds, and, gathers his household together, and then he and his family are baptized by Paul. The celebration goes on well into the pre-dawn hours.
A dramatic turning point in this story from Acts 16 is the earthquake which was so violent that “the foundations of the prison were shaken.” (vs. 26). Theologian Willie Jennings adds a challenging perspective about this prison break: “For those of us in the prison-drenched West, conditioned to believe our safety is directly tied to bodies locked behind doors and prisoners chained, the sheer idea of prison doors wide open and chains loosened strike many people with stark terror. In this regard, we have become one with the jailer, one whose sense of well-being is shattered if people are set free.”1
But this moment of jail breaking will set the jailer free. And he will ask Paul, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Jennings adds, “Those who are aligned to the technology of the prison must be shown the new order of life in the Spirit if they would imagine life beyond cell and chain.”2
When I wrote this sermon yesterday, I found myself thinking about the role of prisons in our society. I know so very little about the prison system, other than what I have been learned through social media and family. I have one incarcerated person in the family, a very distant relative on my uncle’s side. When all that happened 40 years ago, it was keep quiet and never talked about. And so I carry this silence over in my own thinking of prisons.
Paul wrote in Hebrews: Hebrews 13:3 tells us, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” Jesus said, “I was in prison and you did not visit me.” (Matthew 25:43)
I think of the higher number of indigenous people in prison per the population, as well as black people facing incarceration at higher rates than white people.
I think my recent reading on social transformation for my final residency in Chicago is deeply affecting me, hence writing about prisons which is something I have never done before. And so, I’ve taken out some parts I wrote yesterday because they need more work – in the ways in which I think of prisons, and the people in them, the ways I label the prisoner as ‘other’. It is a struggle. If I am to see the face in Christ in all I meet, that includes people in prison. How do I do that?
When Paul and Silas were brought before the authorities for disturbing the city, they clearly identified Paul and Silas as ‘other’ because they were Jews. As Jennings writes, [The owners of the slave-girl] take Paul and Silas against their will and bring them into the marketplace in front of the authorities, and from the site of commerce and control, they say that words that will bring exactly the desired effect: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews” (vs. 20).”3 This one sentence could be read thousands of times over throughout history, where it is an ‘us versus them’ divide. In this story, there is “a people on one side and the “problem” of the Jews on the other side”4 This one sentence exposes the all too real dynamic of ‘us and those who are not like us.’
In a theology statement for our Crossroads discussions on the future of our church, I wrote, “Too often, the ‘all’ in our banner statement of ‘Creating Community for All’ is predicated by our lived experience which blinds us to see and accept those who are different from us. We are learning as a congregation to identify how we label people who are not ‘like us’, who we define as other.”
Is it risky to ‘break out’ and be ‘as one’ with our community, with all of its ‘otherness’? In a United Church in Vancouver, the minister started to let street people to come into the church and to use it as a shelter. Things were starting to happen. People were beginning to turn their lives around. But some members of the congregation didn’t agree, petitioned the presbytery and launched a 363 Review of the minister.
Former Moderator David Guiliano speaks about a need to ‘listen to the fringe’, look for the ‘energy from the edges’ to help us hear about the kind of church we are being called to become. Are we being called to discover, to experience, to figure out, what it means to be ‘as one’ with the community we are ‘church’ to?
Help us dear Spirit, to break the chains
that define the way we see the other.
Help us to see Christ in each other.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1 Jennings, 164. 2 Jennings, 164. 3 Jennings, 162. 4 Jennings, 162.