Friday, July 2, 2010

Sermon for Year C Easter 7

A glimpse of the kingdom of heaven…

Paul and Silas come to Philippi.
They are simply on their way to pray,
but there is this annoying girl.

People say the girl is possessed
by a demon—
a demon that sees the future.
A fortune-telling demon so to speak.
Only the fortune
never goes to the girl,
only to her pimps.

Because this is exactly who these men are--
these men who are using and making money off this girl.
This girl they keep as their slave.

Paul and Silas come to Philippi.
They are simply on their way to pray
but there is this annoying girl.
She keeps following them and shouting things
and finally gets Paul so irritated--
you might remember
that Paul has always had a bit of a short fuse--
Paul gets irritated and he stops,
turns around and orders the demon—
in the name of Jesus Christ--
he orders the demon to scram, get lost.

And the demon does.

We don’t really know if the girl likes being free of the demon or not.
We don’t hear anything else from or about her.
What we do know
is that the girl’s pimps are not happy at all.

They grab Paul and Silas
and take them to court.
They make up a bunch of lies
(well, some of it was probably true).
The owners of the slave girl get everybody
all worked up into an ugly mob
and Paul and Silas get a beating and a flogging.

And, as if that isn’t enough,
they are then thrown in prison.

Into the innermost cell.
Which means
the darkest, dankest, stinkiest, scariest
worst part of the prison.

Now go figure,
but along about midnight,
sitting there in the darkest, dankest, stinkiest, scarciest,
worst part of the prison,
Paul and Silas began to pray
and to sing.
When all the jails are empty…
(Well, maybe not that exact song…)
But they do begin to pray and to sing.
To pray and to sing.

Now jump with me from first century Philippi
to twenty-first century Louisiana.

Neil White, a journalist and magazine publisher,
wants the very best for his family—
a beautiful home, nice cars, great clothes, the best schools for his kids.
He gives generously to his church.
He is active and well-respected in the community.
He attends and supports all the right charitable events.
There is only one problem:
Neil White’s bank account can’t keep up
with Neil White’s lifestyle.

He begins the shell game of moving funds from one account to another
to avoid bouncing checks in his businesses.
It works. For awhile.
But then everything falls apart.

The FBI discovers his scheme.
Kiting checks—sometimes, interestingly enough,
referred to as “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.
Whatever we call it, to the courts it is fraud. Plain and simple fraud.

Handsome, perfect, well-respected Neil White
is arrested and sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.
He tells his young children, “Daddy is going to camp.”

But this was no camp and no ordinary prison.
This prison was in Carville, Louisiana.

Carville was indeed a federal prison but it was also home
to the last people in the United States
disfigured by what we used to call leprosy.
The more respectful and preferred term
is Hansen’s Disease.

Even today we have no idea how people contract Hansen’s Disease.
95% of the population is completely immune—
but that other 5 % is not so lucky.
Even today there are over 3000 active cases in the United States.
There is treatment,
but there is no preventive vaccine
and no complete cure.

When Neil White discovers that he will share the same buildings
and grounds with “those people”
he is terrified.
As many of us would be.

Carville was the national leprosarium for the United States.
It was meant to be a place of refuge,
not a place of reproach or punishment.
But the truth is,
it was a place of forced quarantine.
People—even children—were taken there against their will
and sometimes against the will of their families.

Though sometimes,
families willingly took their children
and other family members there.
People were—and still are-- afraid of this incurable disease.

Those with Hansen’s Disease were not physically beaten or flogged.
They had not committed a crime;
they contracted and suffered from a random disease.
Yet they, too were, cast into the innermost cell.
Away from their families and away from the world.
Those suffering from Hansen’s disease were hidden away.
They became known as the “secret people.”

Yet these outcasts,
especially an older African-American woman
who had lost both her legs to Hansen’s Disease—
her name was Ella Bounds--
would teach Neil White how to confront his past with honesty,
how to begin to value the things in life that really matter,
how to sing and pray in the darkness.

Carville closed as a leprosarium in 1999 shortly after Neil White’s release
Most of the residents were moved to a hospital wing in Baton Rouge.
Thirty-six refused to leave.
Carville was the only home they knew. They were allowed to stay.

The story we hear this morning in Philippi is about being in prison.
But not just about Paul and Silas in prison.

The girl is imprisoned by her demon and her pimps.
The pimps are imprisoned by greed.
The magistrate is imprisoned by corruption.
The crowd is imprisoned by anger.
The jailer is imprisoned by fear.

Paul and Silas--the only two people in this scripture story today
who are in a physical prison—
are actually not in prison at all.

Even before the earthquake,
before the doors open and the chains are unfastened,
Paul and Silas are already free.

The jailer realizes that –
and he wants that kind of freedom too.

Neil White arrives at federal prison in chains,
both physical chains and spiritual chains.
But he has been trapped in a prison of self-centeredness
for a long, long time.

He has been held captive
by his desire to impress people,
to keep moving up, up, up in the world,
to protect his image,
even if it meant lying and cheating
and fraudulent money handling.

The earthquake for Neil White comes when he sees
those suffering from Hansen’s Disease
as people, as friends.
It is these outcasts who teach Neil White about unconditional love.
Neil White discovers his deep desire
to love like that, too.

Neil White wrote a book about his time at Carville.
When he is released from Carville, he writes:

…at some point after I settled in Oxford [Mississippi] I would take Ella’s advice and find a church. Not just any church. A place like the church at Carville. Where the parishioners were broken and chipped and cracked….A place to ask forgiveness. A sacred place where people were not consumed with image or money. …I would pray. Not the kind of prayers I used to say for miracles or money or advancement. I would ask for something more simple. I would pray for recollection—pray that I would never forget.

Neil White caught a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven
in Carville, Louisiana
and he knew, at last, what he needed.

The jailer caught a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven
in a prison in Philippi
and he knew, at last, what he wanted.

We too sometimes find ourselves bound and held captive.
We too sometimes find ourselves
in the darkest, dankest, stinkiest, scariest, worst of all places.
Addiction. Bitterness. Illness. Grief. Abuse. Self-centeredness.
There are hundreds and thousands of dark, dark cells.
We too long for a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven usually shows up
in the most unlikely person or situation.
After a beating and a flogging in Philippi.
After hitting bottom and winding up in federal prison.
When our life is turned inside and out.

We begin to see grace in the midst of the brokenness.
We begin to see light even in the darkness.
We begin to pray and to sing.

The stone is rolled away
and anything is possible.

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