March 6, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Not Doomed By Distance: Faith Locked Up
It’s the whole purpose behind Skype. And visiting hours. And the sacrament of holy communion. It’s the thing that makes us check our luggage and sit for hours in those back-to-back chairs in the gate area. Why else would we get up in the dark to call half way around the world? For the same reason we stand on line at the post office to send a care package.
This is the truth: sooner or later, we will be apart from the people we love. It is an unavoidable feature of the human condition. Sometimes we are together, and sometimes we are separated by distance or difference. Sometimes we are gathered, and sometimes we are scattered, and that’s life.
Something that gives me hope is remembering how this rhythm was such a vivid reality for the ancestors of our faith. Before the church was an institution, it was a movement, a following called The Way, and there were bursts of gatherings all over the place with space in between. For early Christians, being deployed or resettled was not a surprising crisis; it was the norm. The miracle was being all together in the same room. The Holy Spirit be upon us when we are together! And God be with you ’til we meet again.
I think this is something all of us understand. There’s nobody whose life isn’t shaped by the people who were there and by the times the people were not. As though we’re all so helplessly susceptible to homesickness, so that even when we’re apart for good reason —like college, or marriage, or a new job far away— the being apart always hurts.
Which is why we can see that prison systems in the United States carry with them an inadvertent additional punishment. Now it’s not just that a person is locked up, but they are sent far away. The weight of their sentence is measured not only by the number of years; it’s also the number of miles, the numbers of hours it will take for somebody to travel to visit them. It is said that when somebody does time, their families do it right along with them. Sometimes we are gathered, and sometimes we are scattered, and some of us know this truth too well.
I think of the elderly couple who cannot visit their son who is locked up, because he got moved again and now they cannot make the drive to see him. I think of the mother in prison who doesn’t get to see how her baby is growing from one week to the next. She just wants to smell his head; that’s all she wants in the world. We human people need to be touched by the ones we love.
There is a cost for this distance that people pay for with their bodies. And who is going to listen to the people whose bodies are on the line?
Today our scripture comes to us from Paul who is in prison and writing this letter to the church at Philippi. Being in prison was a frequent experience for Paul. It is not clear where he is imprisoned or what he did that got him arrested.
Maybe about ten years earlier, Paul helped found the church in Philippi. Now that news of his imprisonment reached the Philippians they sent him a care package with the messenger Epaphroditus. However, Epaphroditus became ill, so Paul sent him back to the Philippians with this letter. This is partly a thank you letter for the gifts and prayers; it is partly a letter with direction and encouragement for the church.
Like many of our brothers and sisters who know the challenge of trying to be good parents while they are locked up, Paul is using this letter to give guidance to the church at Philippi. He sounds like a parent writing from prison when he tells them this: “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you, or am absent and hear about you, I will know you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). It’s like Paul is telling them: do not be doomed by distance or division.
Then what he does is extraordinary, because he says to them: Here’s how we’ll do it. From behind bars, Paul reaches out and offers a life-saving invitation. “God has granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him… You are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:30). We are sharing the same struggle.
This is not, “Please think of me and remember the happy times.” This is not the assurance that one day we will reunite and be in the same room together. It might be better than that. It is a call for solidarity. Now wherever you are, whatever your condition or position, the distance between us will not win; our differences will not give way to division. Instead, we share the same struggle, and in this struggle, we are together. And no one can separate us from the love of God.
Here we have a letter calling for solidarity, written by a church leader who’s in prison and who seeks to encourage believers. I can’t read this letter and not think of another letter calling for solidarity, written by a church leader who’s locked up and who seeks to encourage our sisters and brothers.
In nineteen sixty-three, along with others, Rev. Martin Luther King Junior was arrested for marching without a permit. From his jail cell, he wrote a Letter from a Birmingham Jail that began as response to the critics. Not to the Klan. Not to the ones who opposed the Civil Rights Movement. But this letter was for the people who criticized King for coming to Birmingham, and stirring up trouble and breaking the law. While the letter starts as a strident defense, it turns to heartfelt disappointment as King asks without asking, “Hey. Where are you?”
Listen to his words:
“When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement… all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
See the thing about this letter, Rev. King is lamenting that the churches were too quiet, that white clergy care more about order than justice. See the thing about this letter is that Rev. King is talking to me. While some people are putting their bodies on the line, I get to work in an office on the safe side of the stained glass windows. Now what’s happening in this letter is that Rev. King is calling me out. If it is true that we are sharing the same struggle, and it is, then my ministry is charged by him saying “Where are you?” “Come join us!” Thank God.
Brothers and sisters, we understand so well that solidarity is complicated. Coming from a place of privilege, I can’t just decide that I feel the pain of those who are marginalized. I can’t pretend that I know what it’s like to wear a hijab at the airport, or that I know the sharp edge of having to introduce my partner as “just a friend.” I can’t pretend to know how it feels to be judged unfairly. But I also can’t pretend that this is not my problem.
This is the gift of solidarity. It says my struggle is your struggle, and their struggle is our struggle. And we have already been invited to help. We have always been invited.
In some ways, Church of Peace is taking a stand in this community as an ally. We publicly stand with people who are learning to read and with children who need to eat. Already we share solidarity with those who are grieving and those who are homebound. And if we mean to keep moving in this direction, to keep growing as a church, it is not too controversial, or too confusing, or too dangerous. It’s that we’ve got to listen to the people whose bodies are on the line, and show up, and join them. We have already been invited.
Indeed, this is the challenge and the blessing in sharing communion. Here at this table, Jesus reaches out to us in the hours before he gets arrested. When he does this, no expanse of distance can keep us apart. No difference can divide us. No prison system can separate us from the love of Christ. The one who paid the cost with his body teaches us that in sharing the same struggle —not just with him but with everyone who’s vulnerable— in sharing the same struggle, we will be together, we will be one with God. And we have always been invited. Amen.