Life Without Chains

 Revelation 22 (assorted verses)  Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Acts 16: 16-34             June 2, 2019

“… immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”

Prayer:  Come, Holy Spirit, Come!  Please let your Spirit speak to us, invigorate us, and set us free so serve you.  Amen.

 Sunday, two weeks ago, billionaire investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith, gave a commencement speech to the graduating class at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia.  It started out as a typical commencement speech, with a little bit of his background, how his education helped him along the way, etc.  Robert Smith told the graduates how he launched his career that enabled him to accumulate great wealth, in the billions.  But then, he deviated away from his prepared remarks and said, “My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans!”   The grads and their families were speechless for a moment—before erupting in cheers and shouts of disbelief.  Morehouse President Davis Thomas said, “There was amazement in the room, people’s mouths dropped open.”  “Students were looking at each other like, ‘What did he say?.’”  Apparently the President said, Can you imagine the feeling of freedom?  Can you imagine the relief?

Estimates are that the cost of Robert Smith’s gift to the 2019 all-male graduates of this historically black college could be in the $10 million range (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/05/19/billionaire-robert-f-smith-pledges-pay-off-morehouse-college-class-s-student-loans/?utm_term=.8d38079b2b97, retrieved May 31, 2019).

 There are 396 graduates in the class, and most of them are leaving school shouldering a ton of debt in student loans. But, suffice it to say, the chains of their financial obligations are gone.

This is a very good thing because this could and should alter their lives altogether!  African Americans and some other non-white groups are still chained to centuries of by-products from legal enslavement, legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, and health care.  The massive racial wealth gap in America is clear when the median white family’s net worth of $171,000 is ten times that of the median black family’s net worth (from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, 2016).  So, at least those graduates aren’t chained to financial debt on top of the other residual chains many experience.

Today’s story from Luke has several types of chains which hold people down, or control people, or detain people.  There’s the chain of slavery.  The slave girl with a spirit of divination is owned by someone else.  She’s the property of that person. She’s not free to move about as she wishes, to go wherever as she chooses.  She’s chained down by her owners.

The owners have the chain of dependency.  They are chained to the girl, dependent on her as their major source of income.  So, when Paul commands the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ, it unchains her owners from their source of livelihood, which upsets them so much that they convince the magistrates and the crowd to beat Paul and Silas and throw them into prison.

Paul and Silas are held by literal chains in prison, and the jailer is chained by the fear of death if any prisoner happens to escape under his watch.  But, he’s also chained spiritually by Roman pagan beliefs.

 We all have our own chains, don’t we if we think about it?  Don’t we deal with our own brands of detainment at times?  Our own way of causing our own cell blocks some times?   I mean some people are chained to their addictions. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, money, you name it. Some are in the cell block of lying and constantly manipulating the truth.   Some are fastened to prejudices against other people unlike themselves.  Some know the chains of loneliness and lack of companionship, some are into their phones all the time.

 We see on the news all the time that people chain others by violence.   We see the chains of arrogance, selfishness, amoral actions, bullying, even at the highest levels of government worldwide.

 But, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God keeps coming back to us in our enslavement, and can love us back to life in our deaths.  God enters into our jail cells, regardless of how we got in there, and can earthquake the walls that hold us to crumbling.  God keeps reaching into the dirt of our lives, regardless of how we got dirty, and opens the doors.  God keeps resurrecting us from our graves, regardless of the our death-inducing choices, and the chains get unfastened.

 This past week, a yoga instructor named Amanda Eller was rescued after being lost in the jungle of Maui for 17 days!  Being lost is experiencing a different type of chain.  She broke her leg. She got a severe sunburn. She stayed alive by eating insects, wild berries, drinking stream water, and sleeping in the mud trying to keep warm, which, by the way, she doesn’t recommend.  In a Facebook video recorded from her hospital bed she said,  “Seeing the way that the community of Maui came together … just under the idea of helping one person make it out of the woods alive, just warms my heart.  And just seeing the power of prayer and the power of love when everybody combines their efforts, is incredible,” she added.  “It could move mountains” she said.  Every single step was ‘I choose life.  That was the only thing that kept me going” (https://nypost.com/2019/05/25/how-yoga-teacher-amanda-eller-survived-17-days-lost-in-a-hawaiian-jungle, retrieved May 31, 2019).  And she painstakingly stepped out in to the open when a helicopter hovered overhead.  And the chain of being lost was unfastened.

Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of how one of her church members named Michael had given up on life.  He got into a motel room alone in central Oregon with a razor in hand.  He had bled out, but managed not to die.  Someone found him and called 9-1-1.  In the hospital, the ER doc asked if he had any family.  “Just a brother, but we’re not close,” he said.  Well, this “not-close” brother flew from Denver to Oregon, picked Michael up and brought him to his home in Denver, broken body and spirit and all.  This is where Michael learned to breathe again after he tried to stop breathing altogether.

 Three months later, Michael heard Nadia preach a sermon at Red Rocks Amphitheater, outside of Denvera , bout God reaching into our graves and loving us back to life.  He wasn’t a church-goer at all at that time, but he began right then.  And now, he’s found new life in Denver.  The doors that were once closed opened up. The chains once holding him were unfastened. (Bolz-Weber, Nadia, Pastrix, Jericho Books, New York, 2013, p. 170 and following).

I know life without chains doesn’t happen to everyone in the same way.  I know that for some the chains are on for long, long periods of time.  I know things don’t always work out in the ways we think should be best. One group of students have their loans paid off.  Most don’t.  One person gets rescued and another dies.  One person doesn’t bleed out, and another finds the end of life. I know such things push back on our sense of fairness.

But, life without chains is not about equalizing life and everything becoming fair.  It isn’t about us being perfect or being made perfect.  It doesn’t look like us being wonderful specimens in God’s showcase, either.  Being all good and nice and everything.

Life without chains is where God’s ways are visible.  It can be awkward and discomforting.  Like when you are graced when you don’t deserve grace—that’s a weird place, isn’t it? Or, when you offer grace when the other person doesn’t deserve it at all, either.

 Life without chains looks like finding meaning in loving actions.   It looks like singing in the face of evil or adversity.  Having hope in dire circumstances.  It looks like a recovering alcoholic at an AA meeting, sitting with a sponsor or in the group. Life without chains looks like reconciling with your neighbor, whether you’re right or wrong.  It looks like forgiveness.  It looks like inclusivity in the face of systemic and embedded exclusivity.   Life without chains makes you new on the inside.

I believe God invites us to have a life without the chains.  God invites us to come! If you desire a life without chains, Come! If you hunger and thirst for God, come!  If you long for the amazing grace and love of Christ, Come!   If death is holding you back, remember death couldn’t hold Christ down.  And a life full of meaning and love, deep joy and surprise, spiritual nourishment in community will all be yours.

Let anyone who wishes, take this water of life as a gift.  Imagine the new life!  Imagine the amazing grace!  Imagine being set free!  Come, says our Lord Jesus!

 My chains are gone, I’ve been set free!

Please stand and sing with me.

 Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

 I once was lost, but now I’m found

Was blind but now I see.

 ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear

And grace my fears relieved

 How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

 My chains are gone,

I’ve been set free,

My God, my Savior has rescued me

 And like a flood, God mercy reigns

 Unending love, Amazing grace.

 The Lord has promised good to me

His word my hope secures

 God will my shield and portion be

As long as life endures.
 My chains are gone,

I’ve been set free,

My God, my Savior has rescued me

And like a flood, God mercy reigns

Unending love, Amazing grace.

 the earth shall soon dissolve like snow

The sun forbear to shine

 But God, who called me here below,

Will be forever mine.

Will be forever mine.

You are forever mine.

My chains are gone,

I’ve been set free,

My God, my Savior has rescued me

 And like a flood, your mercy reigns

Unending love, Amazing grace.

 And like a flood, your mercy reigns

Unending love, Amazing grace.