Truth and Freedom in a Correctional Facility

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Reformation Sunday, October 26, 2014; Year A

Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3.19-28; John 8.31-36

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the One who sets us free, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” Jesus says to us this day.

Truth and freedom are good words for us to think about here together in Hope Chapel on the campus of the North Dakota Youth Correctional facility.  Truth–because in Hope Chapel we learn the truth about who and whose we really are; and Freedom–because many of us who gather for worship in this place can feel anything but “free.”

We all know the truth: that some of us are locked up and some of us are not.  But in this place we also come to know and learn about a greater truth through hearing the Word, that Jesus is the One who sets us all free, whether we are currently locked up or can drive away after worship.

Like Paul writes in Romans: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”

I have recently read a story about a woman named, Milly, in the book, Breathing Space, by Pastor Heidi Neumark.   The book is about the ministry and people of Transfiguration Lutheran, an all Hispanic and African-American Lutheran church in the South Bronx.  I wish I had more time to tell you story after story of how this church changes people’s lives and the community around them, but for this morning’s purposes, I’ll simply share with you about Milly and the truth that made her free.

Milly was first invited to Transfiguration Lutheran from a member of the church named Cheryl.  Cheryl and Milly knew each other because they were in the same drug-recovery program.  Milly was pretty open with Pastor Heidi about her volatile anger and inability to get along with other people at times.

Her recovery was fragile and there were a few instances at church where she was defensive and sometimes offensive.  Her emotional health was shaky and she also suffered from asthma, diabetes, heart problems, osteoporosis, and ulcers.  Not only this, she was physically, sexually, and mentally abused from age 7-15.

Milly had a really tough life, one that could make someone feel trapped with no hope.  One day Milly had a severe asthma attack and almost died.  She had just started coming to worship and Pastor Heidi received a call that Milly was in the hospital.  Pastor Heidi went to visit her and upon seeing the pastor, Milly became very excited and said to her, “For the first time in my life, I was able to put something on the hospital form that asks what religion you are!  I put Lutheran, and it felt so good!”

Milly was beginning to feel some of that sense of belonging to a faith community, and as she went to worship week after week she started believing some of the things she was hearing like: “You are loved.  You are forgiven.  Jesus died for you.  You are set free.”

So after Milly just started going to worship, the church decided they were going to send out volunteers to go and talk to people in the neighborhood in the South Bronx.  They wanted to better understand the community’s hopes, angers, hurts, and vision.

Milly, not even an official member yet of the church, was one of the first people to volunteer and she by far talked with the most people.  Some of them even decided to start worshipping at Transfiguration and become members because of Milly.

Eventually Milly and her two daughters joined the church as well and she said this to the pastor: “I hadn’t joined before because I felt unworthy, but I am beginning to like what I see in a different mirror.”  Milly is short for Milagros, Spanish for “miracles,” and she even ended up serving on church council (story found on pages 192-197).

Milly could have had all kinds of reasons to keep using, stay unsocial, and not become involved in the life of the church, but she thrived because she had come to know herself in Christ and became a part of something greater than herself.   The “different mirror” she could see into was a mirror into the heart of God.  She could begin to see herself as Jesus saw her: a child of God, claimed and loved.

In knowing this deeper truth about herself and knowing whose she was, she was set free.  Set free from addiction (although not without daily struggle and commitment), set free from the fear of death, set free from holding on to anger and grudges, and set free from social stigma that told her that she wasn’t worth anything.

This is the kind of thing Jesus is talking about when he says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

This “Word” Jesus is talking about is what we hear when we come to worship each week.  It is the Word that is made flesh that we take into our bodies at the table of Holy Communion.  It is the Word read out of the Bible.  And it is the Word proclaimed that is shared when you hear the sermon and what else is said all throughout worship, including: “I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

This is the living Word that comes to us that helps us to know who we are in Jesus, helps us to know that each of us do have a future with hope, helps us to know how to be a follower and a disciple of Jesus as we care for people who are hurting and need to hear a word of grace in their life.  Through the Word we come to know the truth of who you and I are: human beings, created and unconditionally loved by God.  And in this truth, we are set free whether we are physically locked up or not.

Shera and I recently talked to a fellow church member and teacher of a young person who was released from YCC this past summer.  Apparently she had to bring him up after class and talk with him because he was being very disrespectful.  She said to him, “What’s going today.”

He said back to her, “Well, what does it matter, I’m nothing but a juvenile delinquent.”

She said back to him, “Who said that to you?  I have known you since you were a baby and I have watched you grow up.  You are “so-and-so” and I know you in a different way.”

The teacher was challenging the lie he thought about himself because she knew the truth.  She knew his name, she watched him grow up in her congregation and in school, she cared about him, and knew that he was created and loved by God.

It is our job to remind one another of the truth of who we really are and then we can take hold of the freedom Jesus’ offers and live into God’s transforming and renewing work in each of our lives.  The truth of love, forgiveness, and being a part of God’s family is a powerful truth and Jesus offers these freedoms to each one of us.

An interesting question is: What would you do with freedom if you had it?  Perhaps an even more interesting question is: Christ has made you free.  Now what do you plan to do?

Freedom is never meant for the sake of one’s self alone, but rather in our Lutheran theology, for the sake of the neighbor, or the other.

Often times people understand freedom as “doing whatever I want to do,” but that way of thinking only opens the door for slavery to one’s self.  True freedom is realized in service to God and to others.  A great example of this is Milly’s life and the ways she reached out to others in the community and served her church.

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday.  It is a day in which we recognize that God is continuously transforming and making each of us (and the whole Church) new, changing us from the inside out.  This is something that is good to celebrate and give thanks for.

We all now know the truth: that each one of us is created and loved unconditionally by God.  Continue in Jesus’ word, and be disciples!  The son has already made you free.  Be free indeed.