Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
January 21, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz

A divorced mother whose children were in the custody of their dad abducted them one weekend and left town. She took the children into hiding. The father, who lives in the Seattle area, has been searching for them, with the help of others, for fourteen months. Recently the mother and the children were discovered living in California; the boys have now been returned to their father.

The children are reestablishing the connection with their dad and grandparents here. They had been given different names when they lived in California. They had been told certain stories. This will be a long and slow process of healing as they wonder who to trust, what to believe. They have been captive in a different world than the one they knew. They are freed from that world but the wounds are deep.

We've all been captive at one time or another, although perhaps not in such a traumatic circumstance as this; captive by life circumstances, our own insecurities and fears, economic realities, degrading prejudices. That captivity may last a short or long time but the effects of a feeling of imprisonment - whether physical, emotional or a product of the mind - stay with us for a long time. In such captivity we may lose track of who we really are.

In the ninth grade my journalism teacher recommended me for Honors English for the following year when I would start high school. The school counselor had a meeting with my teacher and me. She didn't think I should be in the honors class. "Her grades are good but her IQ scores are not that high" she said about me. The implication spoken in so many words was that I was not really that smart; I just studied hard.

For years this encounter shaped my response to education and my feelings about myself. I continued to study hard and get outstanding grades but underneath all the time I was captive to a belief that perhaps I was some kind of a fraud just pretending to be smart. I sense I also spent a lot of energy trying to prove that counselor wrong and getting good grades became the focus of my life to the detriment of other areas.

Unfortunately most of us have some traumatic tale from our childhood that imprinted upon us a false sense of who we really are - a memory often caused by the careless and thoughtless words of an adult who had no idea the damage they were causing. Throughout our life we strive to break free of that perception about ourselves and it's hard work.

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to break out of captivity. We push on the walls looking and hoping for a place that will give - a place that will open up a new pathway - a new way of living. We get exhausted and discouraged; sometimes we just give up.

Have you watched a baby chick peck its way out of an egg? It's hard work and the chick has no idea what's on the other side. She is simply driven by an instinct and so keeps pecking away.

But the conditions have to be right for an egg to hatch. The egg has to be protected during its incubation period. It needs warmth. It needs time. But there's no way out but by destroying the very walls that have held it safe. When it is time and there is no more room for the bird in the egg it has to move to its next stage of development or it will die.

If we're lucky we will have the conditions around us that nurture our growth and allow us the freedom to break out of our captivity - at least we will have a choice and some resources that enable us to make those choices.

But there are those who do not have such conditions. There are those who are held captive by economic and social realities that bind them so tightly they cannot burst their way through. They live in despair and depression; wearing themselves out pushing against walls that remain hard and limiting.

Our passage from Corinthians this morning has an important message. The whole body of Christ cannot be healthy and complete if parts of it are suffering. The body of Christ needs the gifts of all of its members if it is to be a strong and vibrant expression of the Spirit of God.

Jesus, in the passage from Luke, lets us know the important work to which God has called him: bring good news to the poor. "Poor" in this instance was not simply a referral to economics. Poor meant those who were viewed as outcasts, lepers, diseased, - those without worth in the values of the culture. Those poor are still with us - in those separated from the rest because of race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation. Those who are mentally ill, homeless. And those who are economically poor. The good news to be brought to these "poor" is that they are to be as valued in the body of Christ as all the rest and they are to be given freedom. In fact, we read in Corinthians that those we see as less honorable should be accorded greater honor.

How can this be? If we consider how difficult our own experiences with captivity have been and then reflect on what our life would be like if we had never been able to break free from such captivity, we are likely to find ourselves humbled. If we multiplied our own experiences of captivity 10-fold we might begin to get an inkling of the lives some people live daily. We gain more appreciation for the courage needed just to go on living in circumstances like that.

Jesus tells us that he seeks to free the oppressed and give sight to those who have been blind. No wonder he was killed. Nothing upsets the power structure of a culture than to give freedom back to those who have been held captive. Nothing is more transformative than to give voice to those who have been silenced. Such transformation means that those who have been privileged and in charge must share their power; those who have controlled others no longer can keep them captive.

These are radical ideas and if we really let them into our hearts they are bound to make us a little anxious. For many of us in this room have more experience with freedom than captivity, more familiarity with being in charge rather than being controlled by others. But Jesus' words of freedom are for all people. As Christians we are called to work to make those freedoms possible. In many ways we try to do this. We acknowledge that large-scale social systems of injustice need to be changed; institutions that are founded on greed and power-over others should be reformed. People and businesses that have captured the earth's resources without thought of stewardship should be held accountable for their actions. We support many of these large-scale reforms.

Sometimes, however, our focus on injustices in the larger world can keep us from confronting the injustice that exists nearer by in our own relationships, our own church, and our own community.

It's safer to encounter from a distance. Sending money to orphaned children in Uganda, or supporting a mission in India is easier than meeting with a "lifer" at the prison here or walking the Monroe streets at night with someone who is homeless. Last week we talked about relationship and the tendency to erect barriers around us for protection. The more uncomfortable we are in the situation the more likely we are to do this. We desire a layer of something that keeps us separated - that minimizes the risk of being naked and vulnerable in the midst of something that might cause us pain or turn our lives upside down.

There are times when we would prefer the blindness that such separation encourages. But, Jesus asks us to take off our blinders and see all the parts of the body of Christ - in particular those who are our neighbors.

The larger body of this area of Snohomish County is in distress. We have a prison with prisoners who have families in duress. We have homeless. We have teenagers in trouble; we have undocumented farmworkers trying to survive while they make possible the food on our table, we have the economically poor living in the same area as wealth. We have farmland being gobbled up by "progress."

We may not always know what to do about these situations. But there is power in holding an intention of love towards those people in distress within our community. That intention combined with an openness to be led to actions that make a difference will produce results. Listen to this story.

There is a story of a tribe in Brazil that noticed strange goings on in a nearby forest. This was a large forest, so thick and big that many dared not travel through it in fear of becoming lost. At the edge of the forest close to a village a couple of trees began to look sickly. Those in the tribe skilled in the ways of nature examined the tree but did not know what to make of its symptoms, which were different than others they had seen before. As time went by it was discovered that on the other side of the forest the physical makeup of the trees was changing. Those changes spread through the forest to other trees until the changed trees came into contact with the sickly trees. At that point something happened which could not be rationally explained. It was determined that the trees from the far end of the forest had been in a process of adaptation that carried some healing properties that affected the trees that were damaged. In some strange and wonderful symbiotic process, healing occurred in the trees near to the village. Questions remain. How did the trees at the other end "know" a new disease had attacked their community members far away? How did they know what to do to heal the problem?

We may not understand the mystery of all this but we can acknowledge what we have known deep in our bones for a long time.

When there are other people hurting and suffering in the world, our lives feel the impact of that. When there are people in Monroe not having a place to sleep or children going hungry, we feel the distress at some level in our own consciousness.

It is easy to get overwhelmed at the pain in our world -whether the world afar or in our own neighborhood. But, we are called as Christians to refuse to stay blind to such troubles or become too paralyzed to act. As followers of Jesus we are asked to recover our sight and truly see that which may be difficult to encounter. We are called to act as Jesus did; to seek release for those in captivity and to set the oppressed free.

Jesus faced a world full of pain as well. He could not reach everyone; he did not heal all who were sick. But, everyday, he got up and set out anew to reach out with love to those most neglected in society. He risked the wrath of those did not understand or support what he was doing. He did not build structures or hierarchies around himself for protection. He did not surround himself with distractions - materially or otherwise - that would keep him from doing God's work.

We are asked to follow Jesus. To be so filled with the power of the Spirit that we move boldly into those places of captivity with an abundance of love trusting God to work through us. We let our love feed, heal, rebuild, free, and create a more just world for all people - one day at a time. We encounter our neighbors - particularly those we see as different from us - with vulnerability and an openness to learn something more about God through them. We leave behind our cloaks of protection, our resistance to change, our safety in the past.

The surprising thing is how much freedom this kind of living brings us. For we can so easily become captive in our own lives, focused inward and trapped our personal journey that we lose opportunities for new sparks of life to catch fire and transform the way we live.

Follow me, says Jesus, over and over again. Come, trust, and breathe in the new life. Help me bring the good news throughout the land.

Courage has been defined as commitment plus doubt. We may not know the outcomes of the different places into which we venture; we may not know just how to help someone out of captivity but if we step into each day with that intention, God will guide us. Then we learn something about the power and freedom with which eagles fly. We experience the exhilaration of a journey through life powered by the Spirit leading to freedom.