17 May 2010

Our prison walls: Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

There is something striking about the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and Silas end up in prison for no other reason than curing a woman of an affliction. Rather than complain about their suffering the consequences of their beliefs, Paul and Silas sit there, with their feet in the stocks, and sing songs praising God.

Not long ago, Elizabeth and I were at an ecumenical meeting for the World Day of Prayer, where all those present were supposed to imagine they were particular characters in this story, and tell the group what they were thinking at that precise moment in the story. Sad to say, but many of the attendees were trying to outdo each other with overly pious statements, with plenty of overacting to drive home their piety. I was doing my best not to let my eyes roll into the back of my head, and then I leaned over to Elizabeth, told her I imagined myself to be Silas, and thinking, “Damn, Paul, when’s the last time you trimmed your toenails?”

This highlights how people project things they want to see onto Bible stories, rather than finding what lies hidden within them. A straight pious reading is more likely to lead to a spiritual dead end. It’s just too pat, too simple, and in the end an empty message.

This reading has something extraordinary that the attendees simply ignored. Here are two people, Paul and Silas, who have been tossed into prison after being caned and flogged, with their feet in the stocks, apparently with no hope of escape or freedom. Yet here they are, cheerfully singing songs praising God, as if nothing was wrong. Even when the doors are opened wide, they sit there singing.

Of course, the simple pious reading is that God heard their prayers and destroyed the prison to set them free. But I think that’s too easy. For one thing, Paul and Silas don’t leave. Even though the prison door is standing wide open, they stay put. That should raise a red flag that something incredible is happening here. Something much, much deeper.

The deeper dimension is that the prison wasn’t a prison at all. It is only a prison if you let it be one. If you have enough faith, you can triumph over any adversity and turn it into something more, a blessing. Even sitting in a rotten cell, one can be free, because our minds and our hearts are free. No matter where we are, no matter what situation, we are as free as we want to be, and free to praise God, no matter the consequences. Jesus said, the truth will set you free, and indeed the bigger the picture, the smaller our problems are, and the more we can free ourselves from their burden. Paul and Silas didn’t leave that prison, because they were never in a prison to begin with.

[By way of illustration, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian who resisted the Nazi regime in Germany, wrote his famous poem while waiting to be executed. That right there should speak volumes.]

The thing is, we tend to build prisons all the time. By that I don’t mean the kind with bricks and mortar. I mean the spiritual kind. We imprison ourselves in all sorts of ways. Addiction, narcicissm, navel-gazing, chasing after fads and fashion, worrying about our place in society and our social station: All these things imprison us by shackling our minds to things that don’t really matter. We pursue these things, the pursuit of happiness, but in the end none of it will make you truly happy, and certainly not truly free. They are all crutches, things that we lean on. But because we lean on them too much, our spiritual muscles atrophy, and we forget just what it means to be free, to be truly free of everything.

We also tend to build prisons in other ways, by building walls that shut ourselves in, but also by building walls to keep others out. We human beings are great at dividing ourselves up, and placing other people into neat little compartments, then getting mad when someone doen’t quite fit into one of those drawers. We find things to fight about, to separate ourselves from the rest. American and Russian, white and black, Jew and Muslim and Christian, Redskins fans and Cowboys fans, and on and on. Borders are drawn that in reality only exist in our heads – they certainly aren’t visible from space.

This is most visible in the Church, and by that I mean the whole Church, the Body of Christ, the sum total of all the baptized, regardless of denomination. Why do we have so many denominations? What issues separate us? What causes us to call someone else a heretic and condemn them? What right do we have to do so?

Today’s Gospel gives us a powerful counterpoint. Jesus prays to God the Father that we should all be one, just as He and the Father are one. I would ask you to consider something you may not have thought of before: Maybe we are all one already. Only we are too blind to see it. We have placed ourselves inside our four little walls, and are comfortable with that holier-than-thou feeling that we’ve got it right, while the Roman Catholics or the Methodists or the Lutherans or the Orthodox or the Calvinists or whoever have it all wrong. The prison has become our home.

But we are all one through our baptism. The Bible makes no other definition. You are part of the Body of Christ as soon as you are baptized, no matter who performs that baptism. Certainly I believe that the Church has and should have a Catholic essence, I believe in honoring and maintaining Catholic tradition, I cherish the Church Fathers and so on. But I question whether the Church is truly divided, just because we human beings say it is. We invent hurdles to trip up others, be it transubstantiation, the apostolic succession, teachings on justification, on the proper interpretation of the Bible, women’s ordination, homosexuality, and no doubt someday we’ll end up arguing over whether Jesus was left-handed or right-handed and whether He buttered His toast on the top or the bottom.

Are all these things really that trivial? Many self-defined true believers would have you believe it. We have to be separate from all those others because...well, just because. Each of these bits of doctrine – or more precisely the abuse of them to sow discord and disunity – is another brick in the wall of our prison.

The point of dogma and doctrine is not to divide, but to unite. To invite, not force out. Christ wants us to be one, and indeed we are one – only we are so petty and short-sighted that we can’t see it, and come up with ever more inventive ways to stay in our prison home.

We can, however, be free of all of that, by thinking outside these walls that divide us, and not letting them get in the way of our love for God and one another. The prison is not our home. The love of God is. Amen.