Monroe Congregational Church
April 22, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz
Locked doors, shut doors; Jesus came before the disciples through the barriers of their fears and doubts and they experienced a new sense of faith and possibility. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on them and a power was born anew in their lives.
Easter has passed. For many of us last week the doors to a new way of being moved open a bit; the possibility for change and renewal was exhilarating. But, how easily the doors close again; how often the sense of hope can be easily shut down. How quickly we can find ourselves back in a tomb.
Our scripture passage this morning reminds us not to despair when those doors shut again; not to give up even when we lock ourselves in because of our fear of change or our lack of courage to risk. For God's love permeates all barriers; shut and locked doors do not stop God.. The Holy Spirit is in all of us ready to move even in the face of what seem to be insurmountable obstacles.
Maria is an accomplished poet and teacher. She struggled through years of poverty and eventually ended up completing her PhD at Stanford. As it came close to her graduation from the PhD program, a professor asked her, "How did you get here . . . given your life circumstances what enabled you to make it all the way to this point?" Maria answered, "Going through the window." She explained that education was not valued in her family; survival was the main focus. Her father would not even consider her going to college after high school. "One morning," Maria said, "I climbed out a window. My mother handed me a suitcase and I left." Something in Maria's spirit allowed her to disregard the locked door and seek an alternative way to creating her life.
Most of us have been on both sides of locked doors. We have felt the despair at ever getting beyond some life circumstance by which we feel captive. Most of us have also participated in systems and actions that keep the door shut and locked on others: racism, classism, and sexism are some of the examples. We often will struggle to get beyond the locked doors of our own lives. But, as Christians, we must also ask ourselves how hard we will struggle to open the locked doors that oppress the lives of others.
The spirit of God moves both ways through locked doors. The Spirit opens our vision so we may see how we have locked ourselves in and so we may see how we lock out others.
Jesus came before the disciples to bring them assurance that he still lived as a force in their lives. He also came to breathe the Holy Spirit into them knowing that such a spirit would go with them into the world and bring their experience of his love to others. Jesus did not intend for them to just stay in the room and feel better now that they had seen him. Jesus expected them to be his hands and voice in other places, unlocking doors for other people.
I want to tell you a true story about Tim Jenkin. Tim was born into a white South African family in the midst of apartheid. He enjoyed the beauty of the land, the wealth guaranteeing good employment, good homes, good education and the abundance of cheap labor that allowed his, and virtually every other white family, a servant. He was, as he tells is, a `normal' complacent white South African.
Listen to Tim's own words: "I unthinkingly accepted the system and for twenty one years never questioned it. Why should I have done so? I knew nothing else and no one had ever told me anything else. I had never had any black friends, never spoken to any black person outside the master/servant relationship, never been in a black township, into the home of a black person or worked with any black people. South Africans were white people - Europeans. Blacks just existed in the background. I absorbed the normal white prejudices against blacks; I was totally ignorant of the world in which I lived."
Tim's world was locked away from the reality of the world that the majority of people in South Africa inhabited. He assumed everyone else's world was like his.
There are worlds within 10 miles of this church, which are completely foreign to most of us: the world of the prison; the world of the homeless, the world of the migrant farm workers. We have our assumptions about the people in those worlds.
After Tim graduated from high school he took a trip to Britain in 1970. He was shocked by the negative comments he heard about his native country and the criticism of apartheid. "I soon learned that I was totally ignorant of the reality of my own country and that most people in Britain knew more about it than I did. They asked questions and made assertions I could not answer."
In walking out the door of his normal world and entering another Tim was shocked by how limited his understanding of life was. He got a factory job and experienced more disorientation as he worked in terrible conditions and saw the disparity between what the workers were paid and what the goods were sold for. New questions arose in him and he began reading books to try to find answers, eventually returning to Africa to attend the University of Cape Town.
When we leave the comfort of our known worlds we become disoriented. When we shut the door behind us we have inkling that we will not ever be quite the same person who left. In our quest for keys to unlock the doorways we wish to explore, God guides us to surprising and often uncomfortable places of learning.
Tim continued to wrestle with the questions of apartheid and his country's perpetuation of it. He worked hard to shake off the myths he had believed which he now saw as morally unjustifiable and indefensible. He searched for ways to make a difference and became discouraged at the immense control the government held over those who offered opposition. The doors locked against the constitutional rights of blacks seemed impenetrable. The possibility for real change seemed daunting.
Finally, he joined the African National Congress, a political organization that had adopted a strategy of resistance, which included armed struggle. He recalls that decision: "This was not easy for us as we'd always been taught to respect authority, to believe in the benevolence and justness of the government . . . but how could a regime that enforced segregation, legitimized exploitation, tolerated abysmal poverty alongside great wealth, turned the majority of its people into semi-slaves, deliberately stunted their education, prevented their free movement, forcibly removed them from one part of the country and corralled them in reserves which it called their `homelands', jailed and tortured those who raised their voices in protest - how could a regime that did all this and more expect loyalty and respect? It could only expect from the majority of its citizens `treasonable' behavior."
Tim refused to participate in keeping the doors shut; he dedicated himself to opening the doors of freedom for others. Jesus modeled for us what many people in his time would have called "treasonable" behavior as he called for loyalty to God's law over cultural norms and religious practices.
After joining the African National Congress, Tim trained for several months in the ways of resistance. He learned how to produce and distribute propaganda material in the name of the liberation movement and how to be prepared for surveillance and possible arrest. He and others were eventually arrested and went to trial for the distribution of leaflets and the printing of a journal. Tim was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. He and two others, with whom he had been working, were sent to the Pretoria Prison; one of South Africa's top security prisons.
When we risk there are consequences. The message of the Easter story though is that life cannot be completely squelched; the power of love working for justice will live on.
Within the first week at the prison, Tim and his friends began planning for their escape. Patience, single mindedness and persistence enabled them to formulate a plan that worked. To escape the prison they had to go through a total of 15 doors. Listen to Tim's words as they approached the last door during their escape:
"We stood staring at the last obstacle between us and freedom. How was it that this miserable little door would not yield to our persuasions? With minimal effort we'd opened 14 other doors to get to it, most of them the giant prison steel doors and grilles, yet this last one, an ordinary wooden door with an ordinary house lock, had decided to put a halt to 18 months' worth of planning and preparation. We would have none of it!" He goes on to describe how they chiseled away at the wood by the locking plate and eventually got the door open, all the while nervously expecting a guard to show up.
They walked down the few steps leading from the door into a warm summer's sun in the street; they were free. After fleeing through several countries, they went back to their work in the struggle for freedom for all South Afrikaners.
Sometimes in our journeys there is that last door to freedom that just seems like too much to get through; the last door that surprises, confuses and brings anxiety threatening to send us backward into our prisons. But, God's message to us is that we can move through every barrier. God's promise is that the Spirit will use us to break down the doors of oppression of others. Jesus' story is the reminder that even when death seems to prevail, there is the possibility of new life.
Let us go forth today then refusing to let the doors of personal and communal oppression stay shut and locked, refusing to let our doubts and fears overpower our faith. May we claim within us the strength of God's love that cannot be destroyed but which continually seeks life rising anew in our world. Amen.