Monday, 06 February 2012 00:00

“Ain’t I A Prisoner of Hope?”, February 5, 2012

“Ain’t I A Prisoner of Hope?”
John 8:31-36
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 5, 2012
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Isabella Baumfree was so persuaded by the truth of the Gospel of liberation that she took the search for that truth as her own name.  Plenty of people who followed in her wake were set free because of the work of Sojourner Truth, be it because of her work for the abolition of slavery, for women’s rights, or just her plain audacity.  She helped people to find their own voices and claim their rightful place in God’s creation.  She was a teller of the truth and a purveyor of freedom.  She was a prisoner of hope and her words set people free.

John’s gospel speaks about the truth setting us free.  And it is true that words and concepts are freeing.  They help us to imagine new realities.  But are intellectual assents enough?  I think action and practice undergird the foundation of truth.  Truth is what we know by experience and practice.  It’s not just being told something.  It is experiencing and practicing something that you know to be true.  That’s what sets you free.

There’s a saying in the recovery community that Action+time=trust.  We need to experience things to keep them real.  And as we take action—good action we build habit and can trust that our truths will set us free.


But will just any truth do?  I mean, plenty of folks talk about truth, say they know the truth, but does it set you free?  The Bible says that is God’s truth is the one that sets everyone free.

The 8th chapter of John’s gospel opens with that horrible story of the woman accused of adultery and the angry mob that is about to inflict the death penalty on her.  Jesus scribbles in the sand and says the truth to those self-righteous would-be executioners, “Whoever is without sin let them cast the first stone.”  Of course, they all dropped their stones and walked away.  Jesus spoke the truth and set free the woman accused of adultery.  I say accused of adultery instead of caught in adultery because all we really know is that she was accused.  We also know that the truth set her free.  Jesus asked her, “where are your accusers now?”  She answered, “Why, none stand accusing me.”  Jesus then replied, “then I don’t accuse you either.  Go your way and sin no more.”  He was talking to all of us.

Don’t sin by thinking we know all truth or even being satisfied with half-truth.  Don’t sin by resisting new truth.  But seek the truth and in that search you will be set free.

The truth Jesus was talking about set not only the woman free, but set her accusers free from the need for vengeance, from the misguided belief that if we hurt someone else, then we can hide our own hurt.  Freedom that is only for one is not freedom at all.  It’s just another form of oppression.  God’s freedom is one that sets everyone free.  That’s what Jesus came to show us.  That’s what we seek to build and live into.  That’s the truth that we seek to practice.

So, all of you academics out there, what do you know to be true?  I’m not talking about mathematical formulas like F=MA or E=MC squared.  I’m not talking about what you might find on politifact, where candidates statements are rated on the truth-o-meter.  Statements are true, mostly true, sometimes, true, false or pants-on-fire false.  Truth can be a tricky word.  It’s different from a fact—a recording of what actually happened.  A truth is mingled with our own sense of self, our core of being, our world-view.  It is influenced by so-called facts, but those facts are filtered through our own stories and life experiences.  Truth is what is so core to you that it resonates in your bones.  It shapes your worldview.  It influences the decisions you make.  It reproduces itself in the way that you live into your truth.  What do you know to be true?  Your truth can change over time and experience.  Sure.  But certain truths stick with you.

What are your truths?  What do you know deepest in your bones?  What shapes your way of being in the world?

While you think of that, I’m going to share with you a few of mine.

1.    There is a power greater than ourselves that is benevolent and wants us to live in health and ease.  I call this power God.  This God is manifest in community, in beauty, in action, in acts of mercy and compassion.  It’s why we’re here.

2.    There is also great evil in this world.  It manifests itself in selfishness.  It manifests itself in violence.  And when it is corporate, then it is very daunting and powerful.  But it is not as powerful as God.  One of evil’s cruel jokes is making people believe that it is all-powerful and even speaks for God.  But if it says it speaks for God and does not respect the integrity of others, then it is not God.  Jesus said to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Love is more powerful than hate, as Martin Luther King said.

3.    Everyone has a piece of holiness in them. Therefore, we must seek to respect and live in peace with everyone.

4.    The Gospel is a book of liberation.  Jesus stood with the outcasts and oppressed and never once cast an insult to a poor person.  When people come together in this light, then transformative things can happen.  This is where the abolition movement had its roots.  It’s where the Civil Rights movement had its roots.  It’s the truth that the dignity of all people is central to God’s plan that encourages people to take action for justice.  When joined with Christ in this movement, there is no stopping the movement of the spirit.  

5.    In the wrong hands, the Bible can also be misused to support awful un-Christ-like things.  We have seen this in the Ku Klux Klan and movements that seek to suppress the rights of minorities.  If they wear a religious face, then they are harder to argue against.  But here’s another truth.

6.    For every obnoxious blowhard there are hundreds of people who quietly wish that such a person does not speak for them.

7.    Love is a powerful force.  It makes people do crazy and redemptive things on behalf of others.  

8.    Grief is a form of madness.  It is spiral, not linear.  It messes with your equilibrium.  It can be contained for a while, but needs space to be unpredictable.  Many of us know this too well.  So, be patient with those in grief.

9.    Good music renews my spirit.  Bad music grates on my ears.  Whether music is good or bad depends upon the hearer and artist.  Music hits our subconscious.  It dances in our soul and it touches something we can’t always put into words.  A world without music is a lonely one indeed.

What are your truths?  What do you know in your bones?  What has defined your life?  Are you open to new truth?

Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth because she knew that Truth was what we got on the journey.  Her old truth was that she was a victim of slavery, of sexism, of a society that counted her as expendable, as a piece of property to be bought, sold and discarded when she was no longer useful.  But this was a cruel lie.  And the nation was seduced by this lie.  It could be lulled into this lie as long as no one spoke out against it.  But Sojourner knew the Gospel of liberation.  She knew it in her bones.  She knew that the God who created her had better hopes for all of us.  She knew that she had a responsibility to God, to herself, and to her people—white and black, male and female, rich and poor to break free of the shackles of this world-view that had imprisoned and oppressed everyone.  She decided that the prison of slavery was too much for her.  She would instead be a prisoner of hope.  And the truth that she sought to spread was that there was hope.

Hope in an equal future.
Hope in a new day dawning.
Hope for an end to discrimination.
Hope that we can use our wits and our humor to point out the idiocy of small-mindedness.
Hope that people would see the folly of their ways and embrace the liberating ethic of the Gospel.

Every time that she was insulted and put down and refused to back down and shrink away, she was living the Gospel.  She was suffering like Jesus, hanging on that cross so that people could see what their abuse would bring.  Every time she did not back down, she rose up like Jesus did on Easter Sunday.  She lived the truth that love was more powerful than hate, that we were put here to water the garden of the earth with beauty and equality, not poison it with insults and hard heartedness.

Sojourner Truth chose to be a prisoner of hope.  She chose to live into the truth that Christ came to set us all free.  And she could really only do that because she was supported by a community of people who believed that too.  That’s what the church is about.  When we are tempted to be prisoners of despair and defeatism, we come here, read the gospel of liberation, pray alongside people similarly persuaded and remember the truth that fear and oppression and defeatism is not the final word.  We come here and wonder in our prayers and in our actions, ain’t I a prisoner of hope?  Ain’t I not alone?  Ain’t there more to this life than defeatism?

Jesus smiles down and says, yes, yes, yes.  You are prisoners of hope.  You are my hope for this world.  And together you can move mountains.  That, my friends is the truth.  If you believe it, it will set you free.  And if it sets you free, then it ought to set the rest of the world free, too.

So ask yourself.  Who are you?  Maybe with Sister Sojourner, your can respond.  “I’m a prisoner of hope.”