Prison Chains to Cords of Love

Prison Chains to Cords of Love  ~  Sermon for May 29, 2022 ~ Acts 16:16-34 & John 17:20-26
         We had a book when I was a child called, “How to Grow Up in One Piece.” One of my favorite parts was, “When you’re bored, go through the house. Open all closed doors and close all open doors. You will never be right, but you will be busy.”
         We all walk through many doors each day – the bedroom door, the bathroom door, the front door, back door, and car doors. We go through doors at work, restaurants, elevators, and church. We’re used to doors and having keys to open the ones we need to enter routinely. Getting locked out of your home or car is a major inconvenience, but being locked in, being trapped, by someone or something that won’t release you – that can feel suffocating, hopeless, and terrifying.
         In our scripture passage from Acts, there is a series of opening doors: The slave girl was released from the traps of demon possession and slavery. Paul and Silas were released from being chained in the stocks and then from the jail. And their decision not to leave opened the door to salvation for the guard and his family.
         The story begins with Paul and Silas being followed by the slave girl as they walked around town, one who earned her owners a lot of money by divining the future. It was considered a normal type of service at the time. But she saw something amazing in Paul and Silas, the Holy Spirit filling them with divine inspiration. She would walk behind them, shouting that they knew the way to salvation. You might think that Paul and Silas would be grateful for the free advertising, but after many days of it, Paul was fed up, tired of being heckled and distracted. He may have healed her only to end his own frustration, but God wouldn’t have worked through Paul unless it was the right thing to do. God used him to open the door for her to be freed from possession by the evil spirit and by her owners.
         There are consequences, however, when you challenge the status quo and take away someone else’s source of income. The owners of the girl were furious and dragged the apostles before the magistrates, where they were attacked by the crowds, beaten with rods, thrown in jail and chained in stocks. Not only were the stocks escape proof, but they would rub the ankles of the prisoner raw when they moved and made sleep and other bodily functions difficult or impossible.
         Paul and Silas weren’t fazed. They didn’t object or complain, they didn’t try to escape. They prayed and sang hymns, turning what was normally a wretched experience in a prison cell into a time of worship. They used the opportunity to influence the other prisoners, their “captive” audience. They were faithful witnesses for Christ in the unlikeliest of places. Even though they were confined, in the dark and in pain, they took joy in their faith and shared it with others. They were staying sane and keeping their hope by calling on the Lord most High. Prayer and worship are keys that open doors and break chains.
         Meanwhile, the jailer was so sure they couldn’t escape that he fell asleep. Imagine his surprise and dismay to be awakened by an earthquake and find that God had opened all the prison doors and loosened everyone’s chains. He felt alone and trapped himself, ready to take the only way out. Death seemed inevitable.
         Paul and Silas could have walked out. I’m sure no one would have blamed them. Every escape movie you’ve ever seen has the heroes running off triumphantly. But they demonstrated God’s caring nature by staying put and stopping the jailer from killing himself. Paul knew Roman law, that the Philippian jailer was responsible for them and for the other prisoners and would have been arrested and possibly killed as punishment for their escape. Their incredible courage and willingness to remain in the jail kept the jailer from death and his family from ruin and opened the door for them to become Christians.
         Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years for working against apartheid in South Africa. Even while he was in prison, he studied and organized his fellow prisoners. Although he was limited in his ability to work for civil rights, he used his time in prison to create a garden, which gave him a sense of purpose and something he could control. He gave his vegetables to the prison guards and officers, cultivating relationships as well as food. After he was freed, he led the successful movement to end apartheid.
         Today, there are other kinds of chains and prisons where people find themselves trapped in addition to physical jails. There are prisons of physical and mental disabilities, racism and bigotry, mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism, sex trafficking, child abuse, the list goes on and on.
         A recent study found that the most effective treatment for alcoholism is Alcoholics Anonymous. Their method includes mutual accountability and encouragement, honesty, and the conviction that there is a higher power who can help. They use the Serenity Prayer, which goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The members help each other through the challenges of breaking the chains of addiction, opening the doors to freedom for each other through mutual support and prayer.
         God knows that people need to be united in relationships of love, respect and kindness. After all, God designed marriage and families. Jesus sent the disciples out in twos and threes. Here’s an analogy for how much we need each other. If you remove one coal from a fireplace and set it on the hearth stones, it will cool and go out. If you leave it with the other coals, it will continue to burn, each one warming the ones next to it. When you’re alone, death seems inevitable. When we stay together and help each other, we can find new life.
         As we read in the passage from John, Jesus prayed that his followers would be united as he and God were united, not only with each other but also with God and Christ through the Holy Spirit. When I look back at how Christians have fought over their differences since the early church, it makes me want to weep. Christians have killed and enslaved non-believers, Protestants and Catholics have killed each other, fought wars, killed so-called witches. I have an ancestor who was burned at the stake in colonial America because they couldn’t figure out how she made a two-crust pie and wouldn’t let her demonstrate how she did it, because that would be allowing her to teach witchcraft. The devil loves to take the cords of God’s love and twist them back into chains.
         Praying together is the best way to stay united in Christ. How we pray needs to be modeled after Jesus’ prayers. In case you haven’t noticed, the Lord’s Prayer includes the words “we” and “us,” not the word “I.”  It only contains requests that everyone would worship God as the angels do, for God’s kingdom to come for everyone, for God’s will to be done in and by everyone, for God to supply for everyone’s physical needs, for everyone to forgive and be forgiven, and be delivered from evil.
         Jesus prayed that God’s love would be in us and unite us, and that can only happen when we put God first in our thoughts and actions. God opened the door to the tomb. Jesus opened the door to heaven for us. He showed us a more excellent way, using love to help each other to freedom. God will open the doors of our personal prisons.
         In a world that is used to closing doors, we are called to loosen chains and open doors for people around the world and in our own communities. Paul’s example shows us that we cannot be truly free if others are enslaved. We need to overcome our fear of rocking the boat or challenging the authorities when a principle is involved, when people are victims of injustice, food or housing insecurity, brutality or bigotry. Being Jesus’ hands and feet isn’t just about feeding the sheep. It’s also about freeing them from bondage.
         Faith in God liberates us from whatever imprisons us. Our passion for what we believe is stronger than the limits and consequences we endure. God knows our needs and is ready to free us, sending people to help us and sending us help others. God will break our chains and turn them into the cords of love, if we allow the Holy Spirit to help us.
         Lord, show us your will for us in this church and in our lives, that you may use us to break chains and open doors. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

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