The Liberating Word

A rose bush no one has seen flower in nearly 80 years has produced a single pink bud on the site in southeast Colorado where more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans were held in captivity during World War 2. According to the Colorado Matters article, it’s believed that the prisoners themselves planted and cared for the roses. I visited Camp Amache a few years ago and was struck by the lonely, windblown landscape; the buildings are no longer standing though you can see some rock foundations. There is a cemetery—but only tumbleweeds blow across its sacred ground. But two weeks ago, during the annual pilgrimage to the internment camp, several people were stunned to find a lovely, delicate pink bud on that rose bush. Shortly after seeing the bud, one of the officials emailed a photo to Amache survivor Carlene Tanagoshi Tinker, who was three years old when she and her parents were sent to the camp and spent three years there. Tanagoshi Tinker responded joyfully, “If you believe in miracles, this is a miracle. This rose is saying “Welcome home pilgrims.”  [from Colorado Matters radio broadcast transcript, May 23, 2022]

How fragile life is! And how powerful in its ability to overcome that which would destroy or imprison it! That single tiny rose became a symbol of hope for me in this week of hopeless horror. All the prayers and platitudes and weeping and rage did less than the story of that unexpected life emerging from a most unpromising place. I pictured the Japanese woman who may have brought a small cutting along with the few possessions allowed her, carefully watering and tending the rose bush. Did she rejoice at the sight of each budding rose? Did she share the blooms with her neighbors, multiplying the delight and somehow reducing the stark, inhospitable reality of what amounted to a prison camp?

Our morning text features prisoners. Literal ones, held in jail and confined to stocks. Also people with invisible chains of economic need, fear, and more. I can’t help but believe that our country’s fierce attachment to guns (there are over 390 million in the US today, British Broadcasting System 5/26/22) is a kind of captivity: to deep fear that the universe is evil and dangerous and we must arm ourselves against great vulnerability, and a dogged devotion to individual rights ahead of community health and wholeness. The irony of thinking about these things on a weekend when we remember those who chose to lay down their lives in service to our nation and its ideals is sharp—those who lost their lives in Uvalde (and Buffalo and Orlando and Columbine and on and on…) had no agency, no say, no lofty purpose. They did not offer themselves as a sacrifice; life was snatched away from them, and too many others.

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in the sixteenth chapter, reading verses 16 through 34. Listen for God’s liberating word, a word that challenges even as it provides relief. [Acts 16:16-34]

Every character in this text is a prisoner. Paul and Silas of course–only one of many times they would find themselves in jail in service to God’s Kin-dom. Their jailor too:  captive to the Man, afraid of failure in a system that would judge it without mercy. Then there’s the young woman described as a “slave-girl,” trafficked for her particular abilities desired by others. The men who are her “owners” are no less slaves to their “hope of making money.” And their racism revealed in their accusation of “these Jews advocating customs that are not lawful for us…”

I wonder if we can see anything of ourselves in these ancient biblical folks. Constrained, limited, held back by forces and systems, with or without our consent. A provocative article I read recently suggests that work has become religion for many, especially tech workers, employed in a ecosystem that seeks to fulfill its employees’ social and spiritual needs for identity, belonging, meaning, purpose, and transcendence, along with expectations of 70-80 hour work weeks. The author of the study reported not only negative implications as faith communities decline in members and influence, but for civic life generally, as these well-educated and affluent professionals remove themselves from engagement in the public square where diverse “people hash out hard questions of moral value.” [When Your Job Fills in for Your Faith, That’s a Problem, NY Times, 5/26/2022, A23] Another way to describe this reality is to reflect on the role of work in our identity. If who I am can be reduced to what I do, what am I missing?

God’s liberating word can shake the foundations of any captivity, whether dramatically or incrementally.

To what other captivities do we give ourselves?  Substance use disorders–including ones caused by alcohol–are on the rise. Carbon-based fuel sources are the single most significant destroyer of earth’s protective ozone layer, yet particularly resistant to reduction or elimination. After months of quarantined life in our homes, there’s research that reveals some people’s reluctance to emerge for social interaction out in the world. And truly, can any of us claim not to feel some anxiety about the future–our own and those of our loved ones, as well as our nation and the planet we call home? Fear imprisons as effectively as chains.

Friends, for freedom Christ has set us free. God’s love for the world–for each of us–is expressed through liberation from anything and everything that diminishes the human spirit animated by Divine light. That includes totalitarian rule, mass incarceration, gun culture as a means of making life secure, individualism that ignores the social web of which we’re part, as well as selfish ego that makes itself the center of the universe, and fear that restricts our perspective and cuts us off from our true identity as members of God’s beloved community.

The irony of this story is that Paul and Silas as prisoners are freer than any of the people on the outside. That freedom is an essential reality, an inner truth that locked cells and chains could not take away. Their jailbreak is dramatic in its literal depiction of an earthquake shaking the foundations of their prison. But God’s liberating word can shake the foundations of any captivity, whether dramatically or incrementally. The jailer “wakes up” to a spiritual freedom he has never known before. He responds with gratitude and new commitment. The thing I find unsatisfying about this text is the ambiguous consequence for the young woman and the slave owners. She is freed from captivity to forces beyond her control, but we don’t know what she did then. Was she restored to her family or community? Did the slave owners come to their senses and choose a different line of work? Clearly, the writer wasn’t as interested in exploring these consequences, but I do believe the omission reveals a powerful truth about liberation: it calls for our collaboration. Friends, freedom is not simply the breaking of chains; it’s stepping up into a changed reality. It is the continuing work of change. Living in recovery, for example. Breaking all-consuming work patterns and seeking balance that includes relationships, spiritual nourishment, and social responsibility. Reprioritizing community engagement and volunteerism. Consciously and with intention, entrusting yourself and loved ones to God whose love for you is unconditional and forever.

And with respect to the gun violence that kills our children and tears the fabric of our national life? We must act. But, friends, let us act in the freedom we have in Christ. Let us reject calls for merely making our schools and churches and public spaces impenetrable fortresses of steel protected by armed guards. Let us instead act to ban assault weapons, and provide for more responsible gun ownership and use through background checks, waiting periods, red-flag legislation, licensing, and more. I’m grateful to Cheryl Fleetwood, Mark Williams, Molly Brown and the mission committee–and others–for leading our congregation’s exploration of a number of actions we can take in this matter. Please add your voice and time to the work of disrupting gun violence. As we sang earlier, it is Christ who died to make us holy; let us now live to make all free, without shedding innocent blood to do so. For freedom Christ has set us free…stand firm, friends, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Can I get an “amen?”

Oh, and one more thing about the Amache rose. State horticulturists had recently taken some cuttings from the bare branches in order to study the plant more closely in their laboratory. They now believe this action is what awoke dormant life and sparked the new growth. Seems even nature needs to change in order to flourish. God’s liberating word produces life. Let’s proclaim it through courageous actions and with persevering love.