Homily for Sunday, March 31, 2019
When I strike the open plains something happens. I’m home; I breathe differently. I tried for years… to get over it. But I stopped trying… It’s incurable… That love of great spaces, of rolling open country like the sea, is the grand passion of my life.
Luke is nothing if not dramatic. Luke’s Gospel and his sequel, Acts, are filled with big gestures, bold speeches, heroic journeys and wide-open spaces.
- Big gestures: To the angel’s announcement in Luke chapter 1, Mary gives an immediate “Yes! Be it unto me according to your word.”
- Bold speeches: In Acts chapter 7, Stephen gives one of the most audacious (and the second longest) speech in the New Testament (the second longest after the Sermon on the Mount): “Brothers and fathers, listen to me,” Stephen says, “You are the ones that received the law… yet you have not kept it.”
- Heroic journeys: “When the fourteenth night had come, as we were drifting across the sea of Adria… the sailors… took soundings and found twenty fathoms; a little farther on they… found fifteen fathoms… Fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down… the anchors…and prayed for day to come” (Acts 27).
- Wide open spaces: Notice how many roads are in Luke—the Jericho road ridden by the Good Samaritan; the Emmaus road on which the risen Jesus appeared to disciples (Luke 24); the “wilderness road” near which Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8); the Damascus road on which Jesus appeared to Saul (Acts 9).
Given how big and bold Luke’s writing is, and how full of movement and open space, it’s surprising how prominently prisons and prisoners figure in Luke.
Recall, for example, the story of Peter’s “jailbreak” in Acts chapter 12:
Peter, bound with… chains, was sleeping between two soldiers… Suddenly an angel of the Lord…tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists… “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals…” “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me….” After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate… It opened for them of its own accord.
Or remember, too, Paul’s and Silas’s “jailbreak” in Acts chapter 16. Paul had cast out a demon, which led to a riot, so the magistrates had Paul and Silas arrested. They ordered the jailer
to put them in the innermost cell and [fasten] their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God… [when] suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains… unfastened.
And sometimes Luke’s stories of prisons and prisoners mingle together with his stories of boldness and movement, as though—for some reason, in Luke’s mind—the two go together.
- Recall, after he had healed a lame man, Peter’s bold words before the council in Acts 4:
Rulers of the people and elders… Let it be known to all of you… that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ… Whom you crucified… There is salvation in no one else.
Peter spoke these words while in “custody,” under arrest.
- When Stephen gave his bold speech to the “brothers and fathers” of the council, he did so as a prisoner.
- When Saul walked the Damascus road, out in the open country, he did so to take prisoners from among the members of the early Church.
- And when Paul was aboard the ship whose sailors “found twenty fathoms… [and then] fifteen,” out on the open seas with sails billowing, spray blowing and the horizon wide, Paul was a prisoner.
It’s possible that Luke’s frequent mention of prisons and prisoners was simply Luke’s being faithful to the historical record. It’s possible, too, that Luke, the consummate story teller, who knew that people love stories about jailbreaks, in order to appeal to his readers included in his narrative a few jailbreaks. But I have to wonder if, given the prominence of prisons and prisoners in Luke, and given Luke’s penchant for big, bold gestures and wide-open spaces, and given how well Luke tells the story of the Prodigal Son that we just heard, [I have to wonder if] there was something in Luke’s past that led him to juxtapose prisons and prisoners with big gestures and wide-open spaces… that led him to include in his narrative the story of the Prodigal Son.
Was there something in Luke’s past that enabled him to tell the story of the Prodigal Son? Why, for example, did Luke think to use the example of squandering an inheritance? Why did he include the detail of traveling to a distant country? How could Luke have imagined so well a hunger so strong that the younger son “would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating?” What in Luke’s experience enabled him to describe with such poignancy the younger son “[coming] to himself” and his decision to return home? How could Luke have written so clearly about the mercy of the father, right down to the detail of running out to meet the son and putting his arms around him and kissing him? What in Luke’s past possibly could have prepared him to tell this story and so powerfully?
The Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, himself a prisoner (of the Nazis during the Second World War), wrote from prison in a letter to his co-conspirators that
It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see… from below… from the perspective of suffering… Personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle, than personal happiness for exploring the meaning of the world… [For from this perspective of suffering] we [can] do justice to life in all its dimensions and in this way affirm it.
Because of his experience in prison, with all its indignities that Bonhoeffer elsewhere describes—the cells, the solitude, the lack of privacy, the sense of helplessness, the groans, the executions—[because of his experience in prison] Bonhoeffer knew that “imprisonment” and suffering, could lead to a perspective that enabled one to “do justice to life in all its dimensions” and to “affirm it.”
I wonder if Luke, like Bonhoeffer, in some way knew “prison,” whether literally or figuratively, and that Luke’s experience taught him, too, that suffering more than happiness can lead one to “do justice to life in all its dimensions” and to “affirm it.” Perhaps Luke’s experience led him to include in his Gospel—compelled Luke to include in his Gospel—the story of the Prodigal, without which his Gospel could not fully express the confinement, the estrangement, that Luke knew before encountering Jesus, and the freedom he found after.
I like to think that Luke and Bonhoeffer, being men of letters and each with his own experience of “imprisonment” (whatever it may have been for Luke), would have appreciated the poet Jimmy Santiago Baca. Baca was illiterate when in New Mexico at age 21 he was convicted of drug charges and sent to prison. Of his six and one half years in prison, Baca served three in solitary because he had asked to learn to read and write. I wonder if Baca’s poem, “Who Understands Me But Me?” would have resonated with Luke and Bonhoeffer, if in it they might have recognized something of their own experience. For in his poem Baca tells both of how much he lost in prison… and also how much he found. Baca’s poem mixes confinement with his discovery of freedom; it mixes inhumane conditions with his finding humanity. Already in the first stanza, we can see how Baca’s suffering enabled him to “do justice to life” and to “affirm it”:
They turn the water off, so I live without water,
they build walls higher, so I live without treetops,
they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine,
they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere,
they take each last tear I have, I live without tears,
…they take my heart and rip it open, I live without heart,
they take my life and crush it, so I live without a future,
they say I am beastly and fiendish, so I have no friends,
they stop up each hope, so I have no passage out of hell,
they give me pain, so I live with pain,
they give me hate, so I live with my hate,
…they give me no shower, so I live with my smell,
they separate me from my brothers, so I live without brothers,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful?
who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms?
Shortly I will get to the second stanza, but first, to help us better understand Luke and what may have led him to tell the story of the Prodigal, I want to briefly visit Saul, and then Paul and Silas, and then again Willa Cather.
Much like the story of the Prodigal must have in some way been about Luke’s own experience of squandering, estrangement and forgiveness, Luke’s story of Saul’s conversion on the Damascus road must in some way be about Luke’s own experience of encountering Jesus. Just as Saul was “breathing threats and murder” against the disciples, I bet Luke, too, somehow, somewhere, in his life was “breathing threats and murder”; he was not living in freedom. And maybe the story of Paul and Silas in prison was really a story about Luke. Just as Paul and Silas “about midnight were praying and singing hymns to God” and an earthquake set them free, I wonder if Luke likewise experienced “midnight” in his soul and suddenly, encountering Jesus, knew freedom. And I wonder if Luke’s experience of encountering Jesus and his freedom was so powerful, so overwhelming, that the only way Luke knew how to describe it was in stories of prisons and prisoners juxtaposed with big gestures and wide-open spaces.
- Encountering Jesus was like being blinded as was Saul, Luke says, and then “scales [falling] from his eyes” such that in Jesus, Luke saw the world in a different way.
- Encountering Jesus was like an “earthquake so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken,” Luke says, and “doors…opened” and “chains… unfastened.”
- Encountering Jesus was for Luke like “[striking] the open plains” and “something [happened]”; “[he was] home; [he could] breathe.”
- Encountering Jesus was like a young man “coming to himself” after squandering an inheritance, says Luke, after running away to a distant country and experiencing such hunger that “he gladly would have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating.”
- Encountering Jesus was like that young man deciding to return home, says Luke, like returning home to a father who brushed aside his, “I am not worthy,” and greeted him with a hug and a kiss and said
“Bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him… Get the fatted calf and kill it… For this son of mine was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found!”
Luke must have known “prison” in some way. And encountering Jesus was for Luke like “[striking] the open plains” and entering wide-open space.
If the first stanza of Baca’s poem begins with imprisonment and loss, the second relishes the discovery of open space even in prison, and shows how Baca, even in prison, under the most trying of conditions, found a way “to do justice to life” and “affirm it.” If Luke were here I imagine he might say, “Yes, Baca gives words to what it was like for me when Jesus found me, when Jesus forgave me, when I was in ‘prison’ and Jesus set me free. And if, when I was in ‘prison,’ Jesus was waiting for me when ‘the water was turned off and the windows painted black,’ if Jesus was waiting for me with ‘great spaces, [and] open rolling country like the sea,’ I bet—I know!—Jesus is waiting for you, too.” “That’s why I wrote my Gospel; that’s why I included the parable of the Prodigal: so that—no matter how distant the country to which you have gone; no matter the extent of your hunger there; no matter how high the walls that presently surround—[I wrote my Gospel and included the story of the Prodigal] so that you might know that it is possible return home; so that you might know that it is possible to breathe; so that you can experience God’s love as freedom, as space, ‘rolling, open… like the sea.’ And maybe, just maybe, so that you, too, might stop trying to get over it and allow Jesus to become the grand passion of your life.”
Here is the second and final stanza of Baca’s, “Who Understands Me But Me?” Which might really be about Luke. And about the Prodigal. And maybe—hopefully—about us:
I cannot fly or make something appear in my hand,
I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble,
[But] I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, my love, my beauty,
I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears,
I am stubborn and childish,
in the midst of this wreckage of life…
I practice being myself,
and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me,
they were goaded out from under rocks in my heart
when the walls were built higher,
when the water was turned off and the windows painted black.
I followed these signs
like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself
followed the blood-spotted path,
deeper into dangerous regions, and found so many parts of myself,
who taught me water is not everything,
and gave me new eyes to see through walls,
and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths,
and I was laughing at me with them,
we laughed like children…
who understands me when I say this is beautiful?