November 22, 2009 This is Christ the King Sunday when we celebrate the end of our liturgical year and try to marry the Jesus of History with the Christ of the Kingdom. The reading selected for this celebration is from the Gospel of John where the potential threat to the Roman occupation of Galilee and Judea is being tortured and questioned. Within this historical event are layers of theological ideologies of the Johannine community including anti-Semitic bias and redactive storytelling. We are close to Advent, and so even though this story is set within the context of Good Friday, the emphasis today is different. Our focus is not on the passion of Christ, but on the nature of his kingdom and what it means to proclaim him the King of that realm.
When Jesus proclaims, “My kingdom is not of this world,” I don’t think that he is saying that his kingdom dwells in outer space. He means that his kingdom is not of the world of power, politics and money. When I think of places and positions not in that kingdom, I think of places preparing for war or the threat of war, of communities alienated from one another by judgment, and of the places in politics where personal gain trumps the needs of people. And I think of prison. In the United States right now there are more than 2.3 million Americans in prison. The estimates are that 85-90% of those behind bars are there because of drugs or drug-related felonies. Last week Thistle Farms and the United Methodist Publishing Company launched the first leg of our Find Your Way Home Prison Tour in Gadsden Correctional Facility in Florida. We are deeply grateful for the generous invitation from Rick Seiters, COO of Corrections Corporation of America and a grant offered by the Cal Turner Family Foundation. Our goals are to go into eight prisons in different states to speak the story of hope to women incarcerated; to share the story of Magdalene; to share our book, Find your way Home; and to connect local church communities with practical ideas about how to welcome women from prison back into the wider community. Gadsden holds 1,500 women inmates with an expansive campus that in addition to the women is home to greyhounds being retrained after their abuse on racetracks. There is also a big greenhouse where woman learn important gardening skills. Our program inside the prisons includes talks by two of the graduates of Magdalene, a couple of readings from our book, a story or two from me, music by Marcus Hummon and Julie Roberts, followed by a time for questions. It was a bright, clear day, so between our presentations we walked the grounds surrounded by bailed-barbed wire. Hundreds of women were walking single file on a stretch of sidewalk painted with yellow lines in a sea of blue prison uniforms. As I walked, I wondered how the women survived this confinement inside the walls –without their families or the ability to stroll freely on the grounds. Then I looked over and noticed a row of tall, bright purple coneflowers reaching toward the sun in full blossom. The coneflowers didn’t know they were in prison. They just bloom where they are planted.
That is when I heard the proclamation of Christ the King. The kingdom is not a place; it is where love grows and blossoms, no matter where it is planted. In becoming part of the kingdom of God our job is to bloom, wherever we are. Our ruler in this kingdom reminds us always to bring hope and love wherever we find ourselves, whether we are at the mercy of rulers, inside prison walls, at church, behind a desk, by the stove, or under a bridge. We are living out the kingdom when we can answer with our Lord in all those spaces, “For this we are born and why we are here on earth.”
An African American woman named Dorothy Brown was born in Philadelphia in 1919 and raised in an orphanage until the age of 15. Having moved to foster care, she graduated second in her class from high school and in 1944 with a scholarship from the United Methodist Women enrolled in Meharry Medical College. It is said that she chose Meharry over Howard, because the cost of living in the South was less. After a year’s internship at Harlem Hospital, Dr. Brown returned to the South as the very first African American woman surgeon and a member of the American College of Surgeons. She said she always tried not to be hard, just durable. From 1957 to 1983, Dr. Brown was chief of surgery at Nashville’s Riverside Hospital, clinical professor of surgery at Meharry, and educational director for the Riverside-Meharry Clinical Rotation. Her determination, beliefs and values helped her break through tough ground and bloom in a powerful way as a witness to the possibility of believing that we are all able to break new ground and bloom. Blooming where we are planted means that we know for what we are willing to give up our lives, it means we know why we were born, and for what purpose we will live the rest of our days.
After the walk we came back inside the prison and their prison band, called “Project Her,” played two of their songs for us. They asked Marcus to sing and as he introduced the song, “Bless the Broken Road,” one of the women in the band told him she knew the song and wanted to sing with him. Holding a mike, she stood beside him in her pressed, prison uniform. Then she lifted her head and sang in perfect pitch,
I set out on a narrow way, many years ago Hoping I would find true love along the broken road I got lost a time or two Wiped my brow and kept pushing through I couldn’t see how every sign pointed straight to you Every long lost dream led me to where you are Others who broke my heart, they were like northern stars Pointing me on my way into your loving arms This much I know is true That God blessed the broken road That led me straight to you.
More beautiful than the coneflowers blooming, she was the incarnate kingdom of God, singing about hope and forgiveness in the soil of prison. You can’t kill hope, thank God. You can try, but in the kingdom of God hope flourishes and has the last word. You can torture and kill Jesus, you can kill the prophets, but in the kingdom hope still blossoms, and we are the witnesses to that field of blooming. Hope is the tension in the bow that propels the arrow. It is the stuff of dreams that allows Samuel to still see visions at the end of his life. It is the proof that the kingdom, while not of this world, is alive and well all over the world where hope blossoms again.