Sunday, May 20, 2007

(Easter 7) Freedom: a Costly Hope

Acts 16:16-34

This morning we heard one of the great prison stories
of the early church.
There are a number of good prison stories in Acts.
In one of them all the apostles were thrown in prison
for preaching the gospel,
and an angel came and opened the doors,
brought them out, and told them, “Keep on preaching.”
In another, Peter was bound with two chains, between two soldiers,
and an angel came in the night, his chains fell off,
and he was led out of the prison compound.
He went to Mary’s house where the church was praying,
and knocked on the door.
“Here I am, just like you prayed for.”

Today’s prison story is a little different.
Here, Paul and Silas are in chains and stocks.
They spend the night singing and praying,
and God apparently intervenes with an earthquake,
and all the prisoners’ chains fall off and doors open.
The jailer arrives and sees the open doors,
assumes the prisoners are all gone,
and gets ready to fall on his sword.
He knew he’d be killed anyway, for dereliction of duty.
But Paul shouts out to him, says, “Wait, we’re all here!”
The jailer calls for Paul and Silas,
and asks, “What must I do to be saved?”
They tell the jailer and his household the good news of Jesus,
and have a baptism service for the whole family.
The jailer washes their wounds, and feeds them breakfast...
and returns them to jail.
Next morning the authorities send a message to release them,

It’s a great story. Been told many times.
I can’t remember the first time I heard it.
Probably on my mother’s knee,
as she read from Egermeier’s Bible Story book before bedtime.
And then countless times in Sunday School.
I remember the feeling of being in awe,
of the power of God to break chains and open doors
and set prisoners free.
I remember the feeling of personal security I felt.
I was sure that if I ever found myself in a situation like this,
where I was being unjustly imprisoned,
I could certainly count on God to intervene,
and give me back my freedom.
I was confident God would never let a righteous person
rot in a dark prison,
without some miraculous rescue.
There were too many Bible stories like that, to think otherwise.
Joseph was delivered from Pharaoh’s prison.
Daniel from the Lion’s Den.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace.
Jeremiah from the cistern.
Jonah from the whale.
And all these apostles from prison.

Whenever these stories of deliverance were told,
it reinforced my belief that God does not want us held captive,
but desires freedom for his children.

Today my faith that God is a God who sets people free,
is just as strong as it ever has been.
The essential truth about God,
is that God wants to save, to deliver, to redeem,
any and all of his children who are being held captive.
From the Exodus to the prophets to Jesus to the End Times,
the Bible is a continuous story of God’s deliverance.
God wants us to be free. Hallelujah!
It’s the message of Easter.

But my faith in this saving God has done some maturing
since my Sunday School days.
I’ve come to realize God’s deliverance
is not as straightforward as it seems sometimes.
The prophet Zechariah, for instance, was executed.
Hundreds of unnamed prophets were killed by Queen Jezebel.
John the Baptist was beheaded in prison.
Stephen was stoned.
The apostle James was killed with a sword.
Sometimes perfectly innocent and godly people
waste away in prison.
Or are held captive in any number of ways.

So when we read about the deliverance of Paul and Silas in Acts 16,
what is the gospel message for us today?
what is the good news?
That 6 times out of 10, God will deliver the innocent prisoner?
Is that the good news, that our odds are better than 50-50?

No, the good news is that God does, in fact, save and deliver.
But we need to read stories like this in a different way
than we usually do.
It’s simply not adequate—in other words, not true—
to say that Acts 16 tells us that if we ever get into a situation
where we are suffering unfairly,
or being held captive by someone or something,
that God will surely step in and rescue us from that suffering.

We have a sister congregation in town, Community Mennonite,
who right now are gathered together in tears and lamentation,
because one of their beloved and gifted and committed members
took his own life last week.
Any many of us who were friends of Lee Eshelman or his family,
or of Ted and his family,
are also lamenting and grieving this loss,
and wondering why God didn’t deliver Lee
from his crippling depression.
For years Lee begged God to deliver him from his pain and suffering.
Didn’t happen.
His illness held him captive, to the very end.
And now those who loved him
will be suffering pain, and grief, and anger for years to come.
Should they now expect God to rescue them from their pain,
tomorrow? or the next day? or in any particular time frame?
I don’t think so.
The reality of life is more complicated than that.

And we don’t have to look to other congregations for examples.
I’ll bet most of us, in a matter of 60 seconds,
could look around at the people sitting in this room,
and think of at least a dozen stories,
in which someone is not being rescued
from whatever causes them suffering, or keeps them captive.

So what does it mean to worship the God who saves?
the God who delivers?
the God who rescues us from our enemies?
I can’t give us an easy answer this morning.
But I want to suggest that there are other, and better,
ways of framing the issue.
We’re at a distinct disadvantage here
because we live in a culture
that worships the independent self,
the free and unrestrained individual.
We have been well-schooled in this way of looking at ourselves.
And that shapes how we see God.

The fact that God is personal, which God certainly is,
and the fact that God knows and loves each one of us individually,
which God certainly does,
has been taken to an extreme.
We have distorted God’s love and regard for each of us,
into a doctrine that makes the good news of God’s salvation
primarily about me and my happiness and my satisfaction
and my needs and my desires and my freedom.
Last I checked, the Gospel is still all about God.
It is about God, in Jesus Christ,
bringing humanity and all creation
back into line with God’s intentions.
It is about being made whole, in the way that God makes whole.

This gospel was embodied in Jesus Christ.
Jesus came healing, saving, and delivering,
and preaching good news to the poor
and release to the captives.
But when Jesus went back to heaven, his work on earth finished,
there were still people sitting in prisons,
there were still people who were lame, and blind,
and filled with evil spirits.
Jesus did not come to rescue every individual, as an individual,
from whatever they were suffering.
He came proclaiming the reign of God.
“The Kingdom of God is near you,” he said.
He came to demonstrate
the way God had always intended for us to live.
He came to call us to our full humanity,
to lives of deep compassion,
living in righteousness and justice with each other,
and giving glory to the God of all creation.
He came to save us from our sinful selves.

So when Jesus says, in John 8,
“If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed,”
he’s not talking about the freedom of the individual
to go and come as he pleases,
to do whatever she desires to do,
or to be free from every pain.
I believe Jesus is talking about being liberated from
whatever keeps us from being fully human.

See, our culture has taught us that freedom means escape—
escape from any external constriction
or limitation or pain or inconvenience or even, annoyance.
We should be free to do and to be
whatever we good and well feel like doing or being.
The biblical concept of freedom goes deeper than that.
Freedom is more than escape from some sort of restriction.
Freedom is liberation from that which would prevent us
from being fully human,
from that which obscures the image of God,
from that which prevents the light of God’s love
from being reflected in our lives,
from that which blocks the larger purposes of God
in this world.

That’s why the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.
Their oppression became intolerable to God,
because it was thwarting God’s purposes.
It was preventing God’s light
from being reflected to the nations
in the lives of God’s people.

Using that definition of freedom,
we can see whole new levels to this story of Paul and Silas in Acts 16.
Paul and Silas were never truly captive to begin with.
Those chains and stocks only held their arms and legs.
Even in the darkness of prison, they reflected the light of God.
Their praying and singing was proof of that.
It caught the attention of all the other prisoners,
to the extent that not one of them ran off
when they had the chance.

There were plenty of other prisoners in that story.
Some of them were set free. Some weren’t.
The slave girl was freed twice, in one act of God.
Freed from a spirit that held her captive,
and freed from human exploitation.
Her owners, however, were captive, and remained that way.
They were captive to greed, and the desire to lord it over others,
and thus they lived their lives in constant fear,
that they would lose that ability to stay in control.
They were so enslaved to this fear and anxiety,
that the healing of one little slave girl,
could completely unhinge them.
Talk about being insecure!
These two simple, unarmed, itinerant preachers
were so threatening to them,
that they concocted a story
that they were disturbing the whole city.

But then, maybe their story wasn’t really concocted.
Maybe Paul and Silas and company
really were disturbing the whole city.
After all, they were preaching the gospel of resurrection.
They were pulling together a community of people
who dared to live out this gospel of resurrection,
dared to be fully human in the way God intended them to be.
Resurrection can be pretty threatening,
especially to powers that deal in death.
It can be deeply disturbing to any forces
that depend on maintaining the status quo.
Resurrection requires people to turn about face.
I can see that they might have been threatened and reactive.

So who are the prisoners here?
The ones who are anxious and insecure,
are threatened and reactive?
Or the ones whose arms and legs are tied up,
but are at peace with who they are in Christ,
and have songs welling up within?

Freedom is not as easy to spot as we might think.
Our country is at war.
As a nation, we feel threatened in numerous ways.
We are anxious and insecure because there are people
who would like to hurt us, as a nation.
And we explain it by saying,
“They hate us, because they hate freedom.”
So we wage a so-called war against terrorism.
We are an anxious country, always on edge.
And we are forced to divert untold billions of dollars,
from things like education and healthcare,
so we can make our borders more secure.
And we call that freedom.

Freedom is costly.
Our government is right when it makes that statement
(as they inform us another dozen soldiers have died).
But I would suggest freedom is costly in a radically different way.

If freedom means to be unhindered
in our ability to reflect the image of God...
If freedom means reaching the fullness of what God intended for us,
when God brought us into being...
If freedom means living the life we were made for,
then yes, it could cost us a whole lot.
It could cost us the price of laying down our self-orientation,
and giving ourselves completely and sacrificially
to the higher purposes of God.
But to the ears of most Americans, this sounds like nonsense!
That true freedom could actually mean giving up
our individual independence,
or personal financial security,
or the freedom to make decisions
without consulting other members of our community.

You see, we were made to live in community with one another.
Being fully human means being responsible to others, in community.
So the freedom to be fully human,
the freedom to become all that we were meant to become,
means letting go of some individualism and independence.

Freedom is costly.
But even then, we are not guaranteed a positive outcome in this life.
I’m not saying if only we made noble sacrifices of the self
for the sake of the community,
then we would no longer suffer,
and our captivity would be over.

No, our freedom not all about the individual, autonomous self.
But neither is it all about the now. The immediate.
God’s purposes are larger than the small self.
And God’s purposes are larger than this small moment in time.
Freedom is our hope.
It is a certain hope, because of what we confess about God.
God saves. God delivers. God redeems. God reconciles.
Freedom will come, by the hand of almighty God.
As our bulletin proclaims, “Freedom is the Lord’s doing.”
But it is a hope whose ultimate fulfillment is in the hands of God,
not our hands.

It is not a hope that rests on my personal needs getting met right now.
It is a hope that is tied inextricably to the prophetic biblical vision
of God’s cosmic reign of peace,
where the wolf will live with the lamb,
the lion eat straw like the ox,
and a little child will lead them.
We are called to a life of hope,
a hope centered squarely on our confession of faith that
God will save, God will deliver, God will restore.
In this life, and in the life to come.

This is our faith. This is our hope.

Turn to #71 in Sing the Journey, the green book,
“Alleluia, the Great Storm is over.”
It will require an act of faith to sing this song.

The verses paint this biblical vision of the world at peace,
and we sing the refrain each time as an act of faith,
in the present tense:
“Alleluia, the Great Storm is over,
lift up your wings and fly.”

[unison congregational response]
God of limitless freedom
we thank you for release from captivity;
we thank you for inviting us to freedom and new life in Christ.
You teach us that freedom is costly: no less than life itself.
Fill us with your life and your love
so we may join you
in setting our world free. Amen

[hymn text by Bob Franke]
Alleluia, the great storm is over, lift up your wings and fly!
Alleluia, the great storm is over, lift up your wings and fly!

The thunder and lightning gave voice to the night;
the little lame child cried aloud in her fright. .
“Hush, little baby, a story I’ll tell,
of a love that has vanquished the powers of hell.

“Sweetness in the air, and justice on the wind,
laughter in the house where the mourners had been.
The deaf shall have music, the blind have new eyes,
the standards of death taken down by surprise.

“Release for the captives, an end to the wars,
new streams in the desert, new hope for the poor.
The little lame children will dance as they sing,
and play with the bears and the lions in spring.

“Hush little baby, let go of your fear:
the Lord loves his own, and your mother is here.”
The child fell asleep as the lantern did burn.
The mother sang on ‘till her Bridegroom’s return.

—Phil Kniss, May 20, 2007

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