To Release the Prisoner
Text: Romans 4: 14-15
14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
Over the past few weeks we have been involved in a series of sermons where we are looking at the different aspects of what Howard Thurman called the work of Christmas. Mr. Thurman, an African-American theologian, first wrote the words to his poem, “The Mood of Christmas” in 1946, as part of a letter. We have been focusing the last few weeks on what Howard Thurman identifies as specifics which could be considered the work of Christmas, and I find this to be so interesting because I think it clearly identifies the mission of the church and offers us a real opportunity to define our future.
Let’s take one more look at the poem and this list of opportunities that Thurman calls us to:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”
We have hopefully expanded our thoughts around these first few items on this list. We looked at what it means to be lost and be neighbor to the lost; we have also explored the idea of being broken and when we move toward healing of the broken how important realignment is. Last week we talked a little bit about feeding the hungry, both in a physical sense and particularly the spiritually hungry. We focused on how important it is that what we offer as spiritual food is accessible and relevant to a 21st century demographic.
Today, I want us to continue down this list and expand our understanding of what it might mean to release the prisoner. At first glance I think most of us would understand that we are not talking about a literal release of people who have been incarcerated for committing a crime of some sort. Actually, our criminal justice system certainly could use some attention, and I think we do incarcerate far too many individuals, but that is an entirely different topic for another time. I believe this idea of releasing the prisoner involves something very different than what you may have thought of in the past.
As we begin to unpack this idea of releasing the prisoner, I want to revisit the scripture that I read a few minutes ago, because it provides a couple of clues about the direction I want to explore with this topic. As we look at the text again, I want to point out just a couple of things that might have been overlooked the first time we read through this.
In this text the apostle Paul is pointing out that if it were possible to gain God’s favor, what he calls the inheritance, through works or behavior, that is by following the law, then faith and the promise of faith simply have no purpose. In Paul’s words, faith is null and the promise void. He goes on to clarify this position in the second verse; For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. This is an amazing concept and I think it relates directly to what we might consider to be a process of releasing the prisoner. Because how often do laws, rules, regulations and tradition hold us prisoner to do things in a particular way or to believe a certain way?
I want to approach this from a different direction as we let the significance of this scripture begin to sink in. I know I have mentioned growing up in Iowa on a number of occasions, and have spoken of the snowstorms that would sometimes come to call on our part of the country. There just isn’t anything quite as much fun as a snow day. I know many adults, me included, who still feel this way, but a snow day as a kid is just almost too exciting to put into words. This is especially true when they call off school the night before!
As I think about why a snow day is so special, one of the things that comes to mind is that all the normal “rules” or “laws” kind of go out the window and we experience a freedom from those rules that only happens on rare occasions. When I was growing up we had certain rules around the house about bed times and homework and such things that applied particularly on school nights. When school is called off for the next day, suddenly all those laws are null and void. I don’t have to be in bed at a particular time, because I don’t have to get to school. I don’t have to worry about my homework, because I don’t have to go to school. The freedom experienced at the hands of a simple snow day is magnificent! In reality, the freedom we experience is a result of being liberated from the prison of rules and laws. When school officials call off school; they are from a certain perspective releasing the prisoners!
Now I am not advocating that we abolish all laws and all rules and regulations. They serve a function and without any laws I’m afraid our world would be rather chaotic. But there is a time when the invasion of rules and regulations begins to hold us prisoner and at times it becomes necessary for us to identify this condition, and then offer liberation from that prison. So the true question becomes what laws are necessary and what laws are oppressive? This can be a tricky question to answer and it has been a constant companion of progressive thinkers and civil rights leaders for centuries. At what point did the laws from England become so oppressive that the colonies had to revolt in the revolutionary war? When did we realize the laws around slavery or segregation were oppressive and began to seek ways to change these laws? For decades in the church we had laws about the role and status of women in the church that we finally have overcome that example of oppression – at least in this denomination. This is really a very interesting question if we begin to think about it and try to identify what becomes oppressive and what is useful.
I happen to believe that most of the ministry of Jesus was centered on this idea of freedom from oppressive law steeped in ancient Judaism. The system had evolved to the point where much of the law was oppressive and held people back; it held them in prison. Jesus sought to release those who were oppressed and in prison from the law. So to get back to the apostle Paul, and our text this morning, if we abolish the law, then there can’t be a violation of the law. When the United Methodist Church abandoned the law that women could not be clergy, then women had the freedom to pursue that calling and women that are now clergy are not in violation of the law, because the law does not exist.
This dichotomy still exists today. We have laws, both in society and in the church, that are oppressive and we need to find ways to offer freedom to those who are held prisoner by those laws. This may require us to examine our traditions, our theology, our political positions, and how we structure a worship service-but make no mistake, if we are to truly answer the call to release the prisoner and if we are to truly follow the example of Jesus, we need to examine this closely. But when we do, the question still remains; how do we know when a law has become oppressive?
Let me offer just one possible perspective that can help us determine when a law or a tradition has become oppressive; it is really very simple, and yet very elusive. If we can identify the source of the law and determine if it comes from a position of love or fear, that can be very helpful in recognizing the potential for oppression. When a law originates from a place of love, it is understood that the law provides protection or opportunity or equality and it has a spirit of love and acceptance. A simple example would be a red light at an intersection. You must stop at a red light. This law comes from a place of love because we are trying to protect people from car accidents at busy intersections. I don’t think anyone could mount an argument that stopping at a red light interferes with their personal right to rush through an intersection. Talking on a cell phone while driving becomes a little more ambiguous, but I still think it comes from a place of love and an effort to reduce car accidents.
But what if they passed a law that said red cars are the most visible, and in an effort to reduce car accidents all cars must be red? It gets a little trickier at that point, doesn’t it? Would a law like that come from a place of love or does it come from a place of greed by some lobbyist who manufactures red paint? These are the hard questions we are faced with when we are called upon to release the prisoner – it isn’t always black and white and it isn’t always crystal clear as to what direction we need to go or what position we need to take.
The important thing, I believe, is that we create an environment where we can openly talk and question and discuss important issues and work through some of these questions. It is the only way we can be actively involved in the ministry of releasing the prisoners. We must be open to new ideas, new perspectives and be willing to acknowledge that laws and our perspectives on those laws evolve over time. And when we come face to face with a law that seems oppressive, we must be willing to change it; only then can the prisoner that was held hostage by that law be free.
The same principal applies to tradition. Just because it has always been done this way, isn’t necessarily a reason to continue to do it that way. We have an interesting example of this that comes to us from the Old Testament, in the book of Ruth. You are probably familiar with the story. When traditions concerning marriage, widows and inheritance compel Naomi to leave her daughter-in-law Ruth, the tradition gets challenged by Ruth from a position of love. She doesn’t want Naomi to leave, but rather than being left alone, Ruth agrees to go with Naomi back to her homeland. Ruth tells Naomi, “don’t force me to stay behind” and then she goes on and tells Naomi, “your people shall be my people and your God my God.”
In this story, I believe we have an example of where tradition became oppressive and the result was that tradition was then challenged by Ruth. And it was challenged from a place of love. We can challenge laws and tradition and work to release the prisoner if we keep love in the forefront of our minds and our motives.
To close our thoughts on this topic this morning, the chancel choir will bring to you the “Song of Ruth”.