A sermon preached on June 5th, 2011 based upon John 17:1 – 11.
There in that upper room, the night before he is to die, Jesus prays for his disciples – he prays for you and me. He prays, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” It is striking that the protection for which Jesus prays for us is for the purpose that we “might be one” — that is, so we might remain connected, unified, rather than split apart.
Apparently our unity and connection to one another is profoundly important. And apparently there is a destructive force at work in the world that would work precisely against such unity and connection.
Vice Admiral James Stockdale was shot down over North Vietnam and for eight years he was the senior naval officer held prisoner by the North Vietnamese. He was tortured fifteen times, held in leg irons for two years, and kept in solitary confinement for four years.
This is the sort of situation that makes most of us shudder and think to ourselves, “I could never have withstood that.” Many of the prisoners couldn’t stand it, but others did, including the admiral, and he has written about his experience to try to describe how he and others did survive.
The two most difficult things to bear for the prisoners were one, solitary confinement, and two, torture. The captors intentionally sought to isolate the prisoners from one another in order to break their spirit, thereby making them more pliable in terms of achieving the captors’ objectives: specifically, to coerce the prisoners into making propaganda statements – public confessions that they had been sent to bomb “hospitals, schools and pagodas.”
The prisoners developed an elaborate tapping code to secretly communicate with while they were under solitary confinement, thereby maintaining their connection with one another.
There was grave danger involved in engaging in these secret tapping communications, because sooner or later their tapping would always eventually be detected by the guards, at which point they would be subjected to torture.
And so there was this choice that each prisoner had to make, whether to remain a part of the communications network, tapping out the code, risking the inevitable torture it would bring them, or to give up communicating, losing touch with their fellow prisoners and thereby lessen the likelihood they would suffer torture.
Looking back, it was clear to Admiral Stockdale that those who gave up communicating were those who lost the will to endure.
But there was something that complicated this picture, and it was this: Subjected to torture, every prisoner would eventually crack and give in to the torturers’ demands in order to end the pain. There were two objectives to the torture. The first was to get the prisoners to make the propaganda statements. The second, however, was certain ways more insidious, and that was to get them to “rat out” their fellow prisoners — to provide information about who was communicating to whom within the prison community, and what was being talked about. In giving up this information, the tortured prisoners would be sending fellow prisoners to the torture chambers.
And so you can see it was inevitable that prisoners would end up betraying their brothers in captivity. They would eventually find themselves carrying a boat-load-of-guilt.
So the question became: how to deal with the sting of guilt? There were some for whom the burden of guilt would lead them to give up their connection with their brothers in captivity. But most of them recognized a simple truth: the connection was simply too important. Never keep secrets from fellow Americans.
No matter what they said or were forced to say under torture in the privacy of the interrogation room, the prisoners learned that as soon as possible, they had to get back on the tap-code network and confess the details of their betrayals to their brothers.
Admiral Stockdale concludes with these words:
“Anybody who has been there knows that a neighbor in the cell block
becomes the most precious thing on earth, a soul who deserves your
care and cooperation no matter what the risk.”
Asked what kept them going, the answer was quite simple. “The man next door.” Or to put it another way: each man truly was his brother’s keeper.
(Recorded in Fritz Kunkel: Selected Writings, edited by John Sanford)
There are lessons learned in extreme situations such as that of a North Vietnamese prison camp that reveal truth about us human beings – truths that are applicable to situations that might seem on the surface nothing like a life in a prison camp – such as what it means to keep from losing one’s soul in modern American society. We don’t have prison guards actively seeking to isolate us from one another, but the forces that push us in that direction are very real nonetheless.
How easily we descend into defining a good neighbor as one who doesn’t bother us. In an affluent society, creature comforts can easily take the place of soulful connection with other human beings.
And we like things to come easily, and relationships with other human beings aren’t easy, because, even as we are made in the image and likeness of God we are also all sinners, and the self-centeredness of our sin inevitably causes pain to our neighbors, with the inevitable anger and guilt that comes along with these wounds. And it so easy to conclude, “Hey, I don’t need this crap!”
But in truth, we do. We rally are our brother’s keeper. To give up on others is to shrivel up and die. So Jesus prays for us, that we may remain one, even as the Father and Son are one.
And this is what a church is all about.
Betty Polen said something years back that struck me as really profound. She was talking about her sister-in-law who had died. The last years of her life she had kept pretty much to herself. She had enough money that it was relatively easy for her to have relatively few interactions with other people. But along the way her spirit withered away.
The profound thing Betty said was this, “She could have used being a part of a United Methodist Women.” Which is to say humble little fellowships of United Methodist Women, as well as the church itself, really are life savers.
The unusual thing about Church is that because Jesus is at the center, we have this built in rhythm of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Even though we are made in the image and likeness of God — which means we are made for relationships we are also sinners who hurt one another – who push one another away in a whole range of ways. There can be no depth to real community unless this fact is recognized and dealt with.
So we come here each Sunday morning, and one of the first things we do is acknowledge our frailties and our sin, proclaim the forgiveness of God that allow us to turn and greet one another with clean and open hearts. Like those prisoners, confessing to their betrayals to their fellow prisoners.
In a little while we will share again in holy communion. This sacred ritual that we once more enact dates back to that upper room the night before Jesus died.
Over the previous three years a community of brothers and sisters had been built up that was held together by Jesus’ physical presence. He was the glue that held them together. And now his physical presence is about to be taken from them.
How will they maintain the connection?
So Jesus gives them this very down to earth ritual, involving these things we do every day: eating and drinking. Do this together in my name, he said.
We recognize ourselves as Simon Peter who carried his boat-load of guilt for betraying his brother Jesus when the pressure just got too intense.
And Jesus is here once more, forgiving us, reminding us in turn to forgive one another, and feed one another.
The sacrament of holy communion can’t be done alone. It requires a community of people. We get this.
The same is true, however of baptism. People have babies and then for a whole host of reasons it occurs to them that they should get the baby baptized. They haven’t been a part of a church and they call me up asking if I will “do” their baby.
Then I try to explain to them how we Methodists get this about baptism. You can’t do it alone. It requires a community. It requires network of relationships that will be there for one another through thick and thin.
Otherwise its just a bunch of hocus pocus.
I want to finish with the following dream recorded by a woman named Margaret Evening In her book Who Walk Alone,
“It was one of the few coherent dreams that I have ever had, but it was so vivid that even now I can remember the details of it clearly.
“In the dream, I visited Hell, where the sub-Warden showed me round. To my surprise, I was led along a labyrinth of dark, dank passages from which there were numerous doors leading into cells. It was not like Hell as I had pictured it at all. In fact, it was all rather religious and “churchy”! Each cell was identical. The central piece of furniture was an altar, and each altar knelt (or in some cases, were prostrated) greeny-grey spectral figures in attitudes of prayer and adoration. ‘But whom are they worshipping?’ I asked my guide. ‘Themselves,’ came the reply immediately. ‘This is `pure’ self- worship. They are feeding on themselves and their own spiritual vitality in a kind of auto-spiritual- cannibalism. That is why they are so sickly looking and emaciated.’
“I was appalled and saddened by the row upon row of cells with their non-communicating inmates, spending eternity in solitatry confinement, themselves the first, last and only object of worship.”
“According to the teaching of the New Testament, Heaven is community. My dream reminded me that Hell is isolation.”