Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, I’m pretty sure. There’s something in your imagination and in mine that allows us to be wholly captivated by a compelling story. Stories just have that power. As human beings, we make sense of the world through the stories we tell. Stories illuminate what is at stake. They give direction to our dreaming. We know our own lives through the stories we tell about ourselves —and the stories other people tell! We know the Kingdom of Heaven —God’s dream for creation —through the stories.
Our worldview is shaped by the stories we tell, and maybe that is not even a problem, not at all! Maybe the problem comes when we forget, there’s always more to the story than the way we’ve come to tell it. And the thing about stories — they can always change. We can change them.
Today we hear a heart-pounding, crash-landing story of a jailbreak. It is exhilarating! For one thing, it has all the elements of what I call the Standard Story. You know how the Standard Story goes: The villain hurts the victim; the hero rescues the victim; the villain gets defeated. As human people, if that is not our favorite story, it has got to be in the top three! Now this story from Acts follows this pattern impeccably. It hits all the high notes and lights up all the pleasure centers in our brains.
What happened was that King Herod launched an attack on the early church. (Now this Herod was the grandson of the King Herod who wanted to kill Baby Jesus!) This Herod killed James and arrested Peter. He arranged it so that Peter would be incarcerated during Passover, just like when Jesus was arrested. This time, the church prayed for Peter. And maybe that prayer made all the difference!
Next thing we know, an angel of the Lord turned up in Peter’s cell and busted him out. The shackles fell off his wrists, and the prison gate opened on its own accord, and the angel got him out. Peter couldn’t even believe it was happening! If you read a little more than our scripture, you’ll find out that the next day, Herod had the prison officers put to death for letting Peter escape. Then Herod went to make a public address when the LORD our God struck him down in front of the crowd. He was eaten by worms. So there you go.
The villain is King Herod. The victim is Peter. The hero is the angel of the Lord with a notable assist from the praying church. The villain hurts the victim. The hero rescues the victim. The villain gets struck down and eaten by worms.
Now this Bible story has all the things we love! It’s got suspense, and action, and angels, and the possibility that prayer saved the day…
But it is a story. And like all stories, it’s also got some problems. Most disturbingly, whoever wrote the book of Acts was working to advance an anti-Jewish agenda. Remember this was a season in which the Jewish Christians were distinguishing themselves from the other Jewish communities. In this story, the author assigns the role of the villain to the Jewish people along with Herod. Stories like this one have fueled centuries of Christian antisemitism, and this absolutely demands our repudiation and our repentance.
Consider how this story sounds to our Jewish sisters and brothers…
Consider how this story sounds to those of us who know someone who is locked up. Maybe we have prayed just as hard as Peter’s church, but in our case, no angel of the Lord turned up to bust them out.
Like all the Bible, what we have in Acts Twelve is a human story. It is shimmeringly exciting, and it is definitely troubling, and even so. Somehow the Holy Spirit manages to get herself into the story to show us something of the truth of God. God’s agenda is in this story too, and the agenda of the LORD is clear: God is after our liberation. Again and again, God makes it her business to set the people free.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, two point three million people are currently incarcerated in the United States.1https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html From county jails, to state and federal prisons, to immigration detention facilities, our nation invests significant resources in the business of capturing and warehousing people. In the story we tell of America, I invite you to consider the role that prisons play.
In the dominant narrative of our nation, in the story especially championed by those of us who are white and middle class, prisons are imagined as doing two things: one, they’re supposed to protect the rest of society from the bad guys (or the villains), and two, prisons are supposed to inflict a terrible experience on these bad guys. Prisons are where monsters are locked up, they’re where people who have done bad things should rot forever. Or so it goes in the way we tell the story.
In America’s Standard Story, we’ve assigned prisons to play the part of defeating the villain. We want them to make the monsters suffer and maybe make the monsters disappear. This is the fantasy we’ve constructed.
In reality, U.S. prisons actually do the work of dehumanizing inmates and officers. And that’s not by accident; dehumanizing is built into the culture of prison. A person’s name is traded for a number. Inmates and officers wear uniforms instead of their own clothes; someone else chooses what and when you eat; no one gets privacy. Prisons are designed to do this.
In the fantasy-story we tell of America, prisons do the work of getting rid of the monsters. In real life, prisons do the work of dehumanizing the people inside. What I’m saying is I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I’m also saying, it doesn’t have to be this way. What if we decided to change the story? What if our nation needs a new fantasy…
As part of our Summer of Caring and Service, each Sunday we’re remembering one of the six types of service that Jesus names in Matthew Twenty-Five: giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, giving clothes to the naked and caring for those who are sick, visiting those who are in prison and welcoming the stranger.
Now you and I know, there’s something about visiting those who are locked up that is especially difficult. If the thought of visiting someone in jail or prison makes you uncomfortable, there is good reason! And let me tell you, I totally get this! The intersection between the church and the criminal justice system is my call; this is my purpose in life. Granted, I’ve only visited jails and prisons maybe eight or nine times, but I have never not been scared. It is also the case that, I have never not encountered Christ.
When you visit, the first thing you’ll find is the officers who staff the entry desk are human people. They are children of God. So are the people who are incarcerated, even the ones who are shackled. So are the other visitors. More than once, I’ve sat in a waiting area with children! And you know what, the kids aren’t scared. They have been to the visiting room before! They know which machine has the m&ms and which puzzles are missing pieces.
Anytime you visit a jail or prison, you will see. There are no monsters. There are only people who are loved by God.
At Church of Peace, we have made it our business to visit those who are incarcerated. I’ve gone with some of you to do this. Alongside visiting, many of us participate in the Prison Pen Pal ministry. Our church writes letters to those who are locked up. Our church provided the Rock Island County Jail with two hundred masks for inmates. We have put money on commissary accounts. We have paid the college-tuition-size fee to take a phone call from someone in jail. As a church, we’re deciding that when the Lord called on the people to visit those who were in prison, he was not just speaking figuratively.
So please understand. By choosing to take this on, there are consequences. The first one is we’re taking away the prison’s power to dehumanize the people inside. Whenever you address your prison pen pal by their name, what you’re doing is insisting on their humanity. When you choose to pray for corrections officers, your prayers are mounting an argument against the message of the prison walls.
When we make it our mission to reach out to those who are locked up, the first thing is we are insisting on noticing the humanity of the people involved. But the second thing we’re doing is challenging the dominant story of America because we know. Prisons are not needed for defeating the monsters; we will not be fooled. I really believe. In this country, when we become able to change the story we tell about prisons, then we’re going to have to change the prisons. I am living for this day.
The Bible is made of stories made up by people. As we heard today, these stories in the Bible have serious problems. And yet. Somehow the grace of the Holy Spirit manages to get into the stories despite our human failings. It’s the same miracle as the angel of the Lord getting himself into Peter’s prison cell. God goes and gets her own agenda into our stories, and in God’s story everyone gets set free and no one is afraid, weapons get repurposed and chains get broken, and the walls come tumblin’ down.
And when it looked like it had to end with arrest and execution, the Holy Spirit got up from the dead and changed the ending. God’s heart is set toward liberation. May the story God is trying to tell become the story that we learn to claim as our own. We could change the ending too. Hallelujah! Amen.