Church in Prison
The Shawshank Redemption is at many points a difficult movie to watch. Lots of my friends down at Angola Prison tell me it’s their favourite movie. Everybody has seen it about a hundred times. Perhaps you remember it. Andy, the main character in the movie, suffers sexual assault, beatings, and brutality in prison. Shawshank does not sugar-coat the harsh possibilities of prison life. But then during course of the movie the prison warden discovers that Andy has considerable accounting ability. And in light of his skill, the warden takes Andy into his personal service. Always nice to have a tax advisor and financial expert at your disposal. So the warden takes Andy into his service and along with it provides him with a cushy job in the prison library.
As part of his work Andy receives and processes donations that come into the library from the outside. Mostly books. One day along with the books, someone sends a recording of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Wonderful music. Despite the prospect of certain retaliation, Andy find that he cannot keep this treasure to himself. So at a strategic moment, Andy barricades himself in the prison broadcast room. He turns on the intercom system that the warden regularly uses to frighten and browbeat the prisoners. And as Andy cranks up the volume, the hauntingly beautiful Duetino, Sull’Aria fills the prison air. A stunning, soprano voice. Everyone stops. Stunned. A hush falls over the entire prison. For a moment beauty unimaginable washes over and transforms the dull grey realities of prison life.
But the warden as you might remember is not amused. For a few moments he stands outside the broadcast room ordering Andy to open the door. Stop. But Andy, deaf to his commands, refuses. So the warden orders a team of guards to batter down the door, and carry Andy off to solitary confinement. The music ends and the prison once again descends into its dull grey squalor.
Now our Bible reading for this morning opens in the dull grey squalor of the prison in the ancient city of Caesarea Philippi. Darkness has fallen and Paul and Silas sit together in solitary confinement, legs in stocks. Scant hours before, the two missionaries had been on their way to a prayer meeting. As they walk along, a demonically crazy young woman who’d been stalking them for days shows up again. Paul finally turns around, and addresses the demonic, fortune telling spirit within her. And at Paul’s word, the resurrection power of Jesus routs the demon. In the process though, what Paul does also eliminates her ability to predict the future, which infuriated her owners. They drag Paul and Silas before city the magistrates, and accuse them of inciting anti-government unrest. And the magistrates order Paul and Silas stripped and beaten, and thrown into prison. There, that ought to teach those traveling Jews to poke their noses into situations where they didn’t belong.
So there they sit. Unjustly accused, beaten bloody, and legs in stocks. Here they’d been preaching how Jesus was Lord of the world, Saviour of the cosmos, every square inch belongs to him….. and now it had come to this. Sitting in the inky darkness of this damp prison.
And, of all things, Paul suggests that they try to sing. Sing? Well, okay says Silas unenthusiastically, you start. So Paul launches into a rendition of Psalm 9 (probably from the old blue hymnal, it was a long time ago): Whole hearted thanksgiving to thee I will bring, in praise of thy marvellous deed I will sing…” You can hear Paul’s unremarkable bass belting out the words. And then Silas joining in with his uncertain tenor. ..For joy I will shout and exultingly cry, they name I will praise O Jehovah Most High.” Two middle aged Jewish men feeling their way through a duet in a darkened prison far from home in a hostile world. You have to wonder. Jesus is Lord of the whole world, every square inch belongs to him….really.
Now you might wonder along similar lines when you think about our own singing together week to week in an often dull grey world. We too proclaim Jesus as Lord of the entire universe, Saviour of the world, he is Lord of everything in heaven above and the earth below, we say. And yet we too, often find ourselves like Paul and Silas singing from prison. Singing as we listen to new stories of renewed violence in Israel, fighting about health care, and thousands of child refugees at our southern border. Singing in a country with cities where young men murder each other in the course of gang rivalry and violence.
Struggling to sing in a world of broken families and all too rampant addiction. Struggling to sing in a country where we can’t seem to find a way to bring the homeless home. In a world with too few jobs and not enough human kindness. And way too much incarceration. Jesus is Lord, but the world seems so big and broken and corrupt. So untransformed by Jesus’ power after all these years, whole square miles of it. And it’s possible for the church to feel like its forever imprisoned at times in a world like ours.
I certainly don’t mean to compare the music here to that of a couple of middle-aged Jewish men singing in prison. The music today seems in many ways way above average, but it still really can’t compete with the what is out there in the world. Power and glory are most obvious in the world and not in the church. Political fundraisers at the Hyatt Regency or the members-only Country Club social gatherings seem so much more significant than Bible studies in prison or social gatherings with fellow believers. Look at these little bread and grape juice receptions we have here from time to time. Not much to them. Singing in the dark. When you look at the church, especially the church behind bars, in contrast to the larger world, you can feel imprisoned by a feeling of hopelessness or insignificance.
As they sit there in that dark prison, the apparent insignificance of Paul and Silas stands in sharp contrast to the power of the city magistrates. Yes, they are singing, but the Psalms they sing hardly seem to penetrate the darkness. As Paul still takes the lead they launch into the final stanza of Psalm 9, Arise, Lord, let sinners not think themselves strong, let people be judged in your presence for wrong, strike terror within them, O Lord make them see, that nations though pompous, must still bend the knee.” Still dark. But then as the last few words of their song died away, you might not quite believe what happens. An earthquake shakes the prison so hard it breaks chains from the walls and loosens all the doors. Whew
The earthquake also jars the jailer from his sleep. He rubs his eyes. Through his middle of the night haze, he sees the prison door standing open wide. Fearing dereliction of duty charges, he decides to kill himself. But Paul calls him off. “Don’t do it, we are all here.” Eyes wide now, perspiration dotting his forehead, the jailer calls for lights. He brings Paul and Silas out, and drops to his knees. “Sirs, what must I do, he says, to be saved?” Saved by, saved from this earth-shaking God.
So Paul tells him. “Believe on the Lord, Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your whole household.” And Paul explains who Jesus is and what following in Jesus mean. And the jailer commits himself to following right then and there. And after the Jailer’s servants clean up Paul and Silas’ and dress their wounds, the jailer and his whole household are baptized. Probably immersion.
And after that the jailer welcomes Paul and Silas into his house and he breaks out a midnight feast. Oil lamps blazing. And as they eat, the Holy Spirit gives them to feel the presence of the risen Jesus deep within and among them. An almost giddy joy at now belonging to the one true God overtakes them. To know that God had made a home for them in what often seems like such a cold, dark world.
And at the end of the meal you know what Paul does? Commentators see overtones of the Lord’s Supper in this passage. Picture Pauls as he takes one of the loaves of bread and breaks it. And he handed pieces to everyone. Jesus says, “This is my body broken for you,” he tells them. And then a cup of red wine. “This cup stands for our new relationship with God made possible by Jesus blood.” And as they all drink from it, together they drink in the joy of the Holy Spirit that envelops the room.
As we gather here this evening, that same Holy Spirit envelops us with joy in the presence of Jesus. Warm hand shakes. Smiles. Ministry together. Do you sense it? And even though these little tokens of word and Spirit may seem like meagre fair, don’t be fooled. Like those little pieces of bread and sips of juice we eat and drink from time to time, these tokens point to a future reality. Little samples of the future.
When I was growing up, my mother would sometimes give me a small sample of Sunday dinner. On special occasions she often made Swiss steak, my favourite meat. On such occasions we would come home from church in the morning and the smell of Swiss steak would fill the whole house. Ah…But dinner was at least an hour or so away. Even so, when she got home from church one of the first things mom would do would be to check the meat to make sure it wasn’t too done. As she hauled out the big Dutch oven, I would always be hovering nearby. Ah, it’s nicely done she would announce to herself. And that’s when I would plead for a small morsel of my favourite meat: “Could you give me a little piece just to try,” I’d ask. And invariably, my mother would take the fork in her hand and break off a nice little sample and hand it to me. And that little foretaste of Sunday dinner always tasted wonderful, but the biggest part of it was how it pointed to what was to come in all its Sunday dinner glory.
So too with those tokens of grace that we receive as we gather in the presence of Jesus as his church. They point back to the creator God who came to earth to be born as a tiny baby. One who came not just to visit our planet, but to launch a rescue mission here. To save us from selfishness, discrimination, addiction, unforgiveness, bitterness, and all of those things that we do to wreck our lives, to wreck the lives of others on this too often dark and broken planet. He came to bring us back into relationship with God and to finally restore to us into a existence so awash with the glory of God that the beauty of it will simple overwhelm us and the whole world.
You see, whatever is good about Church, the potlucks, the music, gathering like family with friends, meals together, service projects, unusual acts of generosity, enjoyment of food and drink; lingering embraces in the face of grief, praying together all of these sorts of things point to God’s future. They’re samples, foretastes. All of those fleeting moments of joy and glory points to the day that is coming like an earthquake. To the day when God will make everything that is wrong with the lives of his children and this world right again. And then as Julian of Norwich put it, all will be well and all manner of things will be well. Little morsels that signal the great heavenly feast and fellowship to which each of us has been invited and for which each of us is being prepared. Good news of great joy. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
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