A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA
June 2, 2019
Long before my conversion to Christianity, I was visiting prisoners. I wish I could tell you this was an act of pure piety. But it was really because I had a thing for “bad boys” as a teenager. I thought that I could save them. (I had a savior complex from a young age.) My mother banned me from hanging out with one young man in particular, which made him all the more appealing.
In 2014, when I was 38 years old and I had just moved the piano my mother had for my entire youth into the parsonage. My stepfather turned over the piano bench onto my dining room table to fix a ding in it.
Underneath the piano bench it said the name of that forbidden high school bad boy in pen, followed by the date, 1994. And then the inscription: “when Robin’s mom is away, we play.” My mom really shouldn’t have left me alone for the weekend so often.
I heard her screech from the dining room, “Robin Wilson Bartlett! You’re grounded!” She grounded me in front of my own children.
Eventually, during my senior year of high school, that same bad boy went to jail for petty larceny, and I wrote him letters and went to visit him every weekend. (Don’t tell my mom.)
Yes, much of my motivation for this was a gigantic crush and a penchant for drama. But in defense of my teenaged self, I did have the strong, deeply-held sense that there wasn’t anything that separated him from me except some really bad choices and two vastly different childhoods he and I had no choice at all about.
The psalmist speaks of a God who “looks down from his holy height, from heaven…to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die.”
I felt a call to visit the prison from childhood, because I could hear the groaning. Nothing human felt foreign to me. I had the sense that I was captive as long as my friend was.
You and I don’t have to reside in the state penitentiary to be held captive.
We are locked in chains:
the chains of our childhood experiences and trauma
the chains of poverty
The chains of unmet expectations
the chains of student loan and credit card debt
the chains of our own hoarded wealth
the chains of our addictions
We are chained
to endless consumption
to the rat race
to keeping up with the Jones’
to the beauty industry
to the diet industry
to the marketplace
to our fears, our insecurities, our shame…
YOU ARE NOT ALIVE TO PAY BILLS AND LOSE WEIGHT
We are imprisoned behind the barbed wired brick walls we put up to keep ourselves separate…
from our neighbors
from the stranger and the foreigner
from those who scare us
from those who don’t think like us
or vote like us
or watch the same news as us
from those who don’t look like us
or act like us
or speak like us
or pray like us…
We are imprisoned. And so we need to GET FREE.
Our collective liberation requires first that we acknowledge our connectedness.
And so it is fitting that our scriptures from the lectionary this week are about unity and a jail break.
In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus prays for his disciples at table before his arrest. He prays out loud so his friends can hear him.
“Father, I pray that they are one as we are one.”
He doesn’t pray this tender prayer for just the disciples, but for all those who will believe in him. Jesus prays that we do not see ourselves as separate from one another.
He prays we are both bound and free.
The Bible’s definition of freedom is the opposite of the American definition of freedom: fierce independence, an unfettered marketplace, a small government for the people by the people, or pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Christian freedom means freedom from the chains that keep us bound to empire, to power over, to war.
God’s “freedom” means total independence from the stuff we’ve accumulated, the wealth we hoard, the status we’ve climbed the ladder for.
God’s freedom is from self-interest. God’s “freedom” paradoxically means dependence on God and one another as our only source of liberation.
What we also know from our Bibles is that God abhors a jail.
There are no “good” prisons in scripture. Prisons in the Bible are always part of a larger system of injustice, death and oppression. Our biblical heroes are often kept in jails—tortured in dark, dank dungeon cells.
Joseph is sent unjustly to prison. John the Baptist is thrown in jail and beheaded. Paul and the other apostles are jailed at one time or another for preaching the Gospel. And Jesus himself is arrested for trying to foment a love revolution. He is sentenced to death row, stays overnight in jail and is executed by the state the next day.
Christians worship a death row inmate.
Prisons in biblical times are used not to rehabilitate or even to punish…but to silence and oppress religious and political dissidents. Prisons in the Bible are the means by which the power of the state attempts to stifle, lock up, and kill God’s Word of Love and freedom.
Our scripture from the fifth book of the New Testament: the book of Acts this morning tells a rich and complex narrative about a jail break. The Acts of the Apostles is presumably written by Luke around 70-90 AD. It tells the story of how the apostles spread the Gospel and built the church in the time of the Roman Empire.
In the story, Paul and Silas are taking their act on the road. They heal an unnamed, demon-possessed slave girl who follows them around, essentially because because she annoys them with her persistence.
The girl was a fortune teller who made money on behalf of her masters. When Paul and Silas healed her and cast the demon out, she was no longer able to tell fortunes, and was therefore forever after worthless to her owners.
Paul and Silas were dragged before the authorities in the marketplace for the crime of healing her. The mob turned against them and they are stripped, beaten, and thrown in prison. They spent their time deep in the dungeon singing hymns and praise to God. The other prisoners, the scripture says, listened. “Ain’t a scared of your jail ‘cause I want my freedom….”
Suddenly, there’s an earthquake, and the prisoners’ shackles come off. The doors to the prison fling wide open. But the prisoners don’t leave. They stay put.
The jailer wakes up and assumes they have all escaped. He proceeds to attempt suicide, so fearful he is to be caught by the Romans having let the prisoners escape on his watch. The jailer, too, suffers under the oppression of empire. There are no bad guys and good guys in the story of God’s people, only humans.
Prisoners Paul and Silas do a peculiar thing: they stay there to save the jailer. "Stop! Don’t kill yourself! We are all here!” They say. And the jailer falls down before them in the dungeon. Paul and Silas tell him about the Love of God that unifies them.
They baptize him, and the jailer, too, is free in the knowledge that we belong to one another.
It is important to note that we never find out what happens to the slave girl. Paul and Silas, as far as we know, don’t go back to baptize her. She remains nameless and enslaved. Ultimately, our liberation is connected to HER freedom, too.
We won’t get free until all are free.
Jails in the United States are a little different than during biblical times. We have a better understanding of human rights, perhaps, and our justice system is certainly more advanced. But make no mistake about it, people are still imprisoned every day in the name of silencing political and religious dissidents.
On Wednesday, May 29, the trial of geologist Scott Daniel Warren began. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary. What heinous crime did Warren commit to warrant such severe punishment? He exercised his religious freedom to provide water, food, and clothing to those facing danger as they trekked across the desert. Warren took the words of Jesus literally, “For I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, an alien and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you ministered to me”
Warren encountered Kristen Perez-Villanueva and José Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday in the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, where the two had lost their backpacks containing food and water while being chased by border agents. Traversing the desert without food or water can be deadly. According to the Pima county medical examiner, 2,615 human remains were recovered between 2001 and 2016. Warren discovered 18 of those bodies. So Warren brought Kristen and Jose to a shed and gave them food and water.
What makes this land “sacred,” as Warren calls it, is the death of migrants upon it. According to Ryan Devereaux’s exhaustive account published by the Intercept earlier this month, Warren testified that “The entire desert is a sacred place. It’s a graveyard.” For Warren, leaving water becomes a religious act of remembrance and solidarity. He was arrested on April 17, 2018, and charged with two felony counts.
You and I are not free to practice our religion in this country, and it’s not because Walmart employees wish us a Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Christians are all for a literal interpretation of the Bible when we want the “freedom” to not bake cakes for gay weddings based on a few questionable sentences uttered by Paul, but we jail people for following Jesus’ words literally.
Here’s the Truth as Jesus taught:
We are not free until people are free to marry who they love.
We are not free until Scott Daniel Warren is free.
We are not free until the migrants who die in the graveyard of the desert are free.
We are not free until children caged at the border are free.
We are not free until black lives matter as much as white lives.
We are not free until poverty is no longer considered a crime, and prison is no longer the first resort to social problems.
We are not free until combat veterans stop dying by suicide at alarming rates.
We are not free until our Jewish and Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters can worship in their mosques and synagogues and churches without fear of violence.
We are not free until our children can go to school without fear of a mass shooting.
We are not yet free until all of us are free.
So let’s get FREE.
There is freedom in recognizing that we are bound to one another.
There is freedom in following a man whose first sermon said to free captives and whose last act of ministry was telling the prisoner who died with him that he would be with him in paradise.
We don’t know if Joshua or Ezekiel or Nehemiah are in heaven. We don’t know if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are in heaven. We don’t know if Paul is in heaven. But we DO know there’s a death row inmate with Jesus in heaven.
There is freedom in worshipping a God who was sentenced to the death row, was killed by the state, buried and who broke out of the tomb we tried to jail him in.
Jesus always breaks out, and so can we.
There is freedom in singing hymns to God despite our chains.
Maya Angelou writes:
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Beloved, don’t ever lose the longing. Sing hymns and praise to a God who prays for our unity. Because the tune is heard by the One who looks down from his holy height, from heaven…to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die.
Let’s get free, so we might LIVE.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org