August 5, 2017

I Just Got Out Of Prison

As I ended my long day at work last night, I got in my car, turned on my phone and called Brooke to let her know I was on my way home. "Hi," she said.  "Hey," I replied, "I just got out of prison." In a dead pan voice she responded, "Very funny. See you soon." I could imagine her rolling her eyes.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to go to the Wayne Scott Unit just outside of Houston to speak to approximately 120 inmates. I drove out to the prison yesterday afternoon, I was told to arrive three hours before the event started. Volunteers kept asking if I was anxious or scared of being "inside" for the first time. Honestly, I wasn't at all scared but it was a bit surreal seeing with my own eyes what I've only seen depicted in films or documentaries before.

For several years, I worked alongside men with conviction records and I'd seen the effect that time in prison had on their lives. This was my first glimpse into what that experience is really like. It was merely a glimpse, I appreciate that. Nonetheless, it was a moving moment to worship (the inmates had a fantastic band!), pray, sip coffee and chat with these men. One man was given a word for me and I felt God's Spirit in a way I haven't in a long time. That won't make sense for most Episcopalians and may sound hokey to anyone burned by Pentecostal movements but it was real. I'm still processing it all but the experience had a deep impact on me.

I hate the sensation that I feel as if those men gave to me more than I gave them but it's likely the truth. Something is stirring in my heart and head about the incarcerated. You may find me writing more about this as time goes by.

Below is my sermon outline for the evening. The theme for the evening was "Hope." I tend to preach without a script so some of what I actually said was different but, if you're interested in what I shared, here you go:

When I was a young boy I was not allowed to be in my grandfather’s workshop and toolshed alone. The fact that I wasn’t allowed to go in made them even more fascinating and awe-inspiring. I wanted to know why they were so special. I wanted to know what was inside. Unless my brother and I were in the presence of our grandfather we were not allowed entry into these hallowed spaces.

Every once and awhile, he would take us in with him when he went to fetch a tool for yard work or needed to repair something. These were not big spaces. They were humble and sparse rooms. The tool shed smelled of wet wood and soil, gasoline and grass clippings. I remember it was always hot inside. His workshop was not much bigger than the shed. He would sip coffee at his well worn workbench and after doing so for decades it seemed as though the aroma of Folger’s coffee and his Old Spice aftershave had seeped into the walls of the place. He didn’t have many tools. Just the basics. He had a small radio, which appeared ancient, that seemed to always have a baseball game playing.

When going out to the workshop you had to walk out of our grandparents’ home and into the yard, you would then cross the patio and before entering, you had to knock on the door. My grandfather’s gruff voice would let you know if entry was barred or permitted. If you heard his voice from the other side utter, “Yes,” you could enter. If you heard, “Busy,” you knew it was best to walk away and find something else to do other than pester grandpa with questions about tools, what they were called and what they did. Maybe it was the curiosity of these well used tools with sharp blades that drove our grandmother to barring us from unsupervised entry into these sacred spaces. Or it may have been that she knew that our grandfather just needed space for quiet in order to experience the solitude many men need to simply remain sane the rest of the time. Sometimes, if we got too loud while visiting him in his workshop he would pull out his hearing aid to adjust the volume. We would hear the slight sound of feedback in the ear piece and know we were getting too raucous.

Whatever the case may be, I cherished every moment in those, what seemed to us, holy places. The smells, the utensils, the work that was done there, the presence of our quiet but beloved grandfather … these were special times.

These moments would not last forever. My grandfather had a massive heart attack in his 50’s and died before he even reached 60 years old. I remember going into his workshop after the funeral. As visitors chatted throughout my widowed grandmother’s home, I walked out the back door, crossed the patio and knocked on the workshop door. There was no answer, of course. I opened the door and stepped inside.

The room was empty.

The smell of his coffee and aftershave seemed to linger. The tools were all still hung neatly on the wall or arranged nicely on shelves. But the room was empty. He was not there. And even with all the memories that remained it felt like an empty tomb.

I stepped out of the workshop, took a few steps and paused in front of the tool shed. No sense in knocking anymore. The creaky door slid open. There was the push lawn mower, bags of manure, clippers, a metal tank filled with gas. But it was empty. He was not there. And even though all of his things remained it felt cavernous.

At the end of the sixth chapter, in the book of Hebrews the author alludes to another holy place. This place was considered the most holy place in all of Jewish culture in first century Palestine. The inner sanctuary was the most holy of holies. It was the space within the Jewish temple that Israel believed God’s presence was most palpable. It was believed that this was where God resided. A thick veil would have been draped across the entry to prevent anyone from seeing the inside of this room. It was so revered as such a sacred space that a human could only enter this space once a year on the Day of Atonement. And not just anyone could enter. Only a priest who had prepared himself and been proven worthy could enter into God’s presence in the sanctuary. It was an honor to have this role, to serve Israel in this task. But it was terrifying, fear-inducing as well! The intensity of this experience was considered to be such that the while the priest prepared to enter the inner sanctuary, even though only for a short time, a rope would be tied around his waist so that if he died from the sheer awesomeness of being in God’s presence, they could pull out his body.

On this one day of the year, the Day of Atonement, the priest would enter this most holy of holy spaces, into God’s presence to atone for this sins of God’s people. This priest, this one man would, on this special day, symbolize all of humanity and would bring with him into God’s presence the burden of reconciling all of humanity with God. And all of Israel would pray he survived. So they wouldn’t have to pull out his corpse with a rope!

Regarding this special place, the author of Hebrews writes, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.”

In the ancient world, Greek philosophers used an anchor to symbolize hope. Both Epictetus and Pythagoras, use the imagery of an anchor to explain hope. If you are in a boat at sea and rocking back forth amidst rough waters, you are hoping on your anchor. You are anticipating that it is well set in the ground deep below and will tether you, keeping your vessel upright as weather the storm, ensuring that you do not get lost as the ocean swells and the rain pours down.

Hebrews says that this is your anchor. This is your footing, your root. This is the message that is intended to keep you alive, help you survive the storms that life throws at you. And, brothers, I think it’s safe to assume that life has thrown some storms at you. Am I right?

Hebrews tells us this, my friends, your anchor is this: Jesus. Jesus has entered the holiest of holies on your behalf. Jesus, our high priest, has entered the inner sanctuary for you. The debt has been paid. The slate has been wiped clean. The sin has been forgiven. You have been reconciled with your Maker.

Now, we are all broken people. Many one of us, no matter how good our intentions, has a tendency to think that there is always someone else that is worse than we are, “Oh, I may have done this but they have done something much worse.” And some of us, think we are those people that have done much worse, “Preacher, you don’t understand how terrible I am. You don’t know corrosive and dark my sins are. God may forgive some people, but there are limits to forgiveness. I am unforgivable.”

I want you to hear me clearly on this: both of these perspectives are wrong. And here’s how I know this. You can’t listen to what we’ve just discussed about the inner sanctuary of the temple and forget what else we know about Jesus and this particular, special place. Do you know what happens in this place when Jesus died upon the cross?

In the Gospel of Matthew we read that after Jesus is tried, convicted and sentenced to execution by the state he is found hanging on the cross. And as he breathes his last breath, we are quickly whisked away from Calvary to a scene at the temple. In the moment that Christ dies, the temple veil tears in two! What does this symbolize to us and what did it symbolize to those that knew this story and those that were hearing the words of Hebrews for the first time? They knew they were supposed to “read between the lines” a bit with this message. The tearing of that curtain would symbolize that God’s presence would no longer be limited to a special place where only a few could go. The Spirit of God would no longer be bound up in some sort of solitary confinement. No! God’s presence would go forth everywhere! Jesus is not only our forerunner into the inner sanctuary but the Spirit of Jesus is our scout, out ahead of us wherever we may go, wherever we may find ourselves! What is more, this act of reconciliation would no longer be bound to such limitations. There are no boundaries to God’s love and God’s work of reconciliation. You think there are people worse off than you? Guess what, God has already reconciled with them. You think you are one of those that is beyond God’s reconciliation? Guess what, God has already done the hard work my friend. You. Are. Forgiven. And there is no place you can go, no hole dark enough to hide in to escape God’s love. The Spirit of Jesus will continue to chase you down until you come to understand that you have already been reconciled with your Maker.

A few years ago, my grandmother passed away. After she died the family sold the house that she and my grandfather had lived in for so many years. I was asked if I was sorry about this and the truth is I wasn’t. Years earlier, I had walked into that workshop and that toolshed and experienced how empty it was. I knew that after my grandmother died, they were no longer there in that house. I would not find them there. But I tell you what, I find their memory, their influence spread out all over my life. I see a reflection of them in my kids eyes and in how they smile. When I work with my own hands I remember watching my grandfather work with his hands and am suddenly in the man’s presence. I can practically smell that Old Spice!

Brothers, this is what I want to tell you: we spend a whole lot of time convincing ourselves that God is unattainable, that God’s love is out of reach. We spend a lot of energy convincing ourselves that either God loves us better than others OR that God loves others better than us. And I want you to place your hope in the fact that This. Is. Not. True. God’s presence is not locked up in some special place out of my reach or yours. Our hope rests in the truth that what Jesus has done was done for everyone and is accessible to everyone.

Our culture tells us that our masculinity, wealth, violence and power will anchor us. We are told that if we rest our hope in these things we will be saved. But you and I know this is a lie. Only God’s love, God’s work done on our behalf through Jesus can be our anchor, our hope that will weather the storm.

It’s always a little strange speaking to a group of people you’ve never even met before. I don’t know you anymore than you know me. So, I don’t assume to know your story or how you relate to God. But if for some reason tonight you have come here uncertain of God’s love for you. Please hear me when I say, you are loved. Remember that the temple veil has been torn and God’s presence is accessible to you here and everywhere. If you have come here tonight and feel like there are those whom you know, or know of, that are beyond God’s love, beyond God’s forgiveness the Spirit of Jesus is trying to get your attention too. It may be that those are exactly the people Jesus is calling you to tell that they are loved by their Maker and are not beyond reconciliation.

This is our hope, brothers: Jesus has reconciled us to God and God’s reconciliation is accessible to all. Know this. Tell someone else the news.