A Sermon preached by The Rev. Spencer Hatcher, Director of Diocesan Relations and Recruiting for CDSP, on June 2, 2019
“I have experienced more freedom here in this place where, by so many measures, I am anything but free, than at any other time in my life. For the first time, I am not captive, even though I am, in fact, held captive,” he told me, tears welling in the corner of his eyes.
I held his eye contact, full of bother wonder and skepticism, and yet feeling in that deep place of knowing, that something important and true was stirring- something that would change me and my understanding of my faith- something that was already changing the landscape of this place.
This place being San Quentin State Penitentiary.
Or more specifically, this place being the Roman Catholic chapel in San Quentin. where weekly restorative justice circles, led by the inmates themselves, would gather to grieve and to support, to talk about what it means to be free, even when you’re not.
I don’t hear scripture passages about prison- spiritual or physical- the same anymore, after the experience walking alongside the Spirit and the inmates at San Quentin. They hold onto me differently now.
Today, our passage from the book of Acts is one such passage. Where we’re invited to explore imprisonment in three very different and yet inextricably linked ways. What is the freedom to which we are called? The one which we are promised?
First we meet an unnamed, young, slave girl filled with a spirit of divination, that is to say, she is possessed- a slave in both body and spirit- she is at the mercy of her masters who exploit her for money and at the mercy of a cultural system which does not count her worth as greater than that which she can bring those who hold her captive.
She follows around Paul and Silas, the Spirit within her calling out to them. And while I would like to believe they were stirred by compassion for her situation, by their God’s call to loose the chains of oppression, instead, they are moved by annoyance.
She, or the Spirit calling from within her, prove to be irritating to Paul- enough so that Paul calls out the Spirit. He casts out that which has held her spiritually bound. Her faith did not make her well, like so many of our scriptural healing narratives. And in many ways, she may now be in an even more precarious situation- unable to continue to provide money for her masters. And yet, she is still set free- from one form of bondage.
What sort of freedom is that?
This unnamed woman may invite questions, but she will not, or her narrative will not, provide the answers. In fact, we do not hear of her again.
Instead, next, because they are angry at losing their money-maker, her masters drag Paul and Silas to the magistrate to accuse them of “disturbing the city’- by which they really mean, upending their personal means of market production. Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten, and put in prison.
And perhaps, the next piece of the story comes as no surprise given that Paul has escaped physical imprisonment before. God, we’re told, hears the prayers and the songs of Her people, locked away, falsely accused in a Roman prison. Suddenly, a great earth quake shakes the very foundation of the prison, loosing the chains and opening the doors. Paul and Silas are now free.
But they do not leave.
The roman jailer, himself held captive by the system of honor and shame, realizing what has happened and the consequences a jail-break will have on his life and his family’s life, bound by the shackles of empire, which will not tolerate mistakes, takes his own sword to kill himself. Before he can complete the action, however, Paul calls out “we are all here”.
Only together are they free.
What can I do to be saved, the jailer asks on his knees. Saved from what, we don’t actually know. Saved from Rome’s wrath? From the prisoner’s retribution? From a feeling of captivity- in all it’s forms? From their God?
“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” says Paul.
For theirs is a God who promises salvation. Paul, who has regularly called himself a slave to God, seeks to invite the jailer into the salvific freedom God has promised from the very beginning of time-
a freedom that comes with a hefty price of everything you are and everything you hope to be.
A freedom that breathed the world into being- that danced over the face of the deep before whispering life into the void.
A freedom that called out from a bush burning and yet not consumed, that toppled an empire, that parted the seas
a freedom that reminded a people that even those as mighty as Pharaoh could not contain them forever.
A freedom that walked with people in the person of Jesus Christ, calling into question the very systems which seek to deal death to what God has proclaimed alive- that is everything.
If you want to be free, Paul said, then follow us- for ours is a God of true freedom.
If you want to be free, then ours is still a God of true freedom.
At this- the last Sunday of the Easter season, where we celebrate liberation from all that deals death- where we celebrate the victory of life, questions remain. Because ours is still a world where, this week alone, 12 children of God died at the hands of a violence that has become all too familiar. We are still bound, held captive.
So, people of God, from what or whom do you, do we need a salvation which has already been given?
Because I am not incarcerated- I am not literally held captive. And yet, I know there are tender places in myself which are not yet free. There are voices in myself which whisper lies of a captivity that hold me bound- lies that I am not enough- that I am in competition with those around me- that my worth is what I produce, or, perhaps, what I consume. That I am still in Pharaoh’s Egypt.
Perhaps you, too, feel the rub of the chains in your tender places
And if you do not feel the chains of captivity in your person, then perhaps you recognize them in our world- in a world that builds walls- literal, spiritual, and emotional- that all too often chooses the destructive forces of death as though that is the only choice- as if it’s own freedom is not bound up in that of everyone’s.
In a world where slave girls continue to call out on the streets, where masters continue to be bound by the forces of the market they, themselves ,created, where captors continue to suffer the consequences of a system which does not seek freedom- theirs or anyone else’s. In a world where we are equally more connected and more disparate than ever before- what truth do we need from this narrative?
What if this passage from Acts that we hear this morning is not about the incomplete liberation of one particular slave girl, or the imprisonment of two particular disciples, or the salvation of one particular jailer?
What if, instead, we read the story as a reminder that ours is a God who promises and who delivers- true freedom- and that that freedom is one that cannot and will not be done alone.
That the voices you hear in yourself which whisper that you are not enough serve to disconnect you from the very people who would remind you that you are.
That to silence the voices which remind us that captivity is still the lived reality for many people in our world, serves only to further bind up ourselves.
That the very walls we build to keep others out serve to keep us locked away.
What if this were a story reminding us that the earthquake has already come- the chains are already broken, the doors are already open- that God’s liberative work is done and is being done and will be done. Yesterday- today-tomorrow. Ours is to recognize that as children of God, we are not bound to the forces which deal death- those in ourselves and those in the world around us. That ours is to remember that there has always been another way.
That we are bound to a God who speaks and breathes and promises liberation.
What if we believed it? What if I believed it? What if you believed it?
From what do you cry out for freedom? For salvation?
Sister Joan Chittister, a roman catholic nun, and author, is known to respond to the question: “What should we do,” with the simple answer of, “something- each of us must do something”.
As we transition between Easter and Pentecost, between a focus on the life and death of a savior and the call of a people, of a church- what liberating “something” are you called to do? Are you called to embody? Are you called to set free?