This sermon was preached on Sept. 6, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.
The texts were:
Psalm 119: 45-56
Acts 12: 6-19
Woman after woman filed into the multipurpose room where rows of chairs had been set up in three distinct sections and the women sorted themselves into either section 1, 2 or 3 according to their designation. I had decided to sit in section three, as this was my first time there and I didn’t want to appear frightened, judgmental or frankly, a white middle class overly educated privileged person, which, of course, I am, and I don’t think I fooled anyone, only myself. Women filled in around me and I smiled and said hello. Some returned the gesture, others, well, others simply stared at me with understandable suspicion. I was kinda suspicious of myself at this point. My bravado faded when a young woman sat down next to me, not because she wanted to, but because it was the only chair left. She was irritated and it showed. My smile was met with a scowl, which once again, I understood. How many times had this young woman had someone pretend to like her, be nice to her only to use or abuse her? I looked down at my bulletin as my friend and colleague Pr. Emily welcomed us to worship at New Beginnings, a worshiping community inside the walls of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. She reminded the women that they had to stay in their assigned sections-she had earlier explained to the volunteers that the section numbers had to do with their behavior in the prison and did not reflect the reason for their incarceration. “One’s” had exemplary behavior, “Two’s” were doing pretty well, “Three’s” were struggling with self-regulation and “Four’s” and “Five’s” were struggling to the extent that they had lost privileges such as attending worship. As I said, I purposefully sat in section three. My reasoning was sometimes people just need to know that they are loved even when they try and push others away.
Worship began, led nearly entirely by the women. A petite, blonde and charismatic woman who was a fantastic guitar player and singer led the music. She shared her story of how she was incarcerated for killing her boyfriend, who was abusive, and how prison had really set her free. She started coming to New Beginnings simply to get out of her cell at first (very common in the prison) but then God started working in her, speaking to her, freeing her heart, freeing her soul and mind. She recounted all the things that the Lord had done for her in prison and her joy was contagious. Other women also shared their stories and while the details changed, the stories were essentially the same: what the Lord had done for them when they were scared, at rock bottom, or seemingly at a dead end. God had provided new opportunities, new pathways and new life. I was struck that in their stories, I heard my own. Again, the details were different, but the emotions, were not. I too knew what it was like to be scared, to be at rock bottom, and at what seemed like a dead end. I, too, knew what it was to have God release me from those realities for a new one. No, I have never been institutionally incarcerated, but I have been a prisoner to my own fear, shortcomings, actions, and feelings. Maybe you have too. And I know what it is to have God free me from my own baggage to undo the shackles of false idols of pride, ego and self-sustainability. I know that it’s the Lord who helped me. God has sent angels, people to walk with me along the way, even if for only a little while. But that is what God does. These women of New Beginnings knew that God had sent them angels, the volunteers, the pastor, the outside board, the synod, partnering congregations, and each other. Yes, angels come in all forms and are in all places.
The story of Peter’s release from prison recounts that we are all in bondage to something and can’t free ourselves. Peter was wrongfully imprisoned for proclaiming that Jesus is the son of God who turns the world upside down, brings rulers and authorities down from their thrones, lifts the people who are thrown away by society and says that in the kingdom of God, our story is the story of what God has done, is doing and will continue to do for us and creation, no matter our status, what we have or haven’t done, who likes us and who doesn’t. Peter’s release freed him to tell another chapter of the story far and wide in the world. Peter’s story forces us to rethink our human systems of incarceration and authority. So many in this country are wrongfully imprisoned.
This story pulls at the threads of our stories and weaves them with the stories of people who live a different life than we do, who have had different experiences and yet are part of the same fabric of God’s story of restoration, redemption and love for God’s people, all of us. This story, takes seriously listening to stories that seem fantastic, incomprehensible and requires critical thinking to uncover what the Lord is doing in the life of that person. Stories reveal our commonalities and our interconnectedness. God’s story, the story that we all love to tell, is the ultimate story that tells us that love wins, forgiveness reigns, mercy flows, and hope abounds.
A couple of year later, there was another chapter to that woman’st story that Mike and I were privileged to hear it when we attended a fundraiser for New Beginnings and she was the musical guest. Yes, she had been released and reunited with her family. She had been freed from incarceration but she told the audience how God had freed her long before her release date. She had been freed to tell more people her story in God. To declare that God was powerful and could and would do anything to show the world God’s love through Jesus Christ. God will go to great lengths to transform us and the world, to wrap us in promises of love and abundant life today and forever. This is the point of God’s story, of the woman’s story, Peter’s story, and our story. God frees us and we love to tell the story. Amen.
*If you would like to support New Beginnings ministry please go to http://www.newbeginningswc.org. This is an important and vital ministry!