Sermon for 13 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Heb. 13:1, 3
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
What do Jeremiah, Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., T. Simon Farisani, and Aung San Suu Kyi have in common? They have all served time in prison. Today’s second lesson is a concluding practical exhortation. The writer urges Christians then and now to: “Let mutual love continue.” Indeed, if mutual love is to be all-embracing—concerned with living a holistic lifestyle; then every aspect of life is under the influence of mutual Christian love.
This involves—among other things—remembering “those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured as though you yourselves were being tortured.” Our mutual love for prisoners and those being tortured will engage us in prayer and action; empathy and solidarity; the provision of care, support, justice and mercy. We are exhorted to be Christ’s presence among those in prison and those tortured.
For several years now, I have been a member of Amnesty International. This organization is:
A worldwide voluntary movement that works impartially to prevent violations of people’s fundamental civil and political human rights by governments and opposition groups. We campaign to: free all prisoners of conscience: people detained anywhere for their beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, color, or language, provided they have not used or advocated violence; ensure fair and prompt trials for political prisoners; abolish the death penalty, torture, and other cruel treatment of prisoners; end political killings and “disappearances.” 1
Some of you who are not Amnesty members, or who don’t know a lot about Amnesty, may be wondering why a Lutheran pastor such as myself would join this international human rights organization. For me, there are essentially two reasons. First, I believe the basic rationale for involvement in Amnesty International is rooted in the message of the Gospel. Our work as Christians is, essentially, the same as the work of Jesus and Paul—namely, to visit and care for those in prison and those who are tortured; to be ambassadors of Christ by the ministry of reconciliation; to bring liberty to the captives and healing to the tortured. Second, being a student of history, I believe—especially after the Holocaust!—that humankind, if we are to survive, must learn from history.
If we ignore human rights and freedoms; if we ignore those who are imprisoned and tortured for unjust reasons; soon OUR human rights and freedoms shall be ignored; soon WE shall be among the imprisoned and tortured. No one in recent times has put it more clearly than Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoeller, when he wrote:
In Germany, they (i.e., the Nazis) came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak. 2
Jesus, Paul, the author of the letter to the Hebrews, and Pastor Niemoeller all knew that we are all in this together. Mutual Christian love embraces every aspect of life. Thus, we do remember prisoners and the tortured, since it could just as easily be US as it is them. In mutual Christian love, when someone’s basic human rights and freedoms are violated, so are OURS; when someone innocent is wrongfully imprisoned or tortured—it is as if WE were wrongfully imprisoned and tortured.
So, for those of you who enjoy writing letters and have time to do so—or should I say who want to take time—I encourage you to join Amnesty International and ask for their “Religious Action” sheet (here in Canada anyways, perhaps they have the same information in other countries too): which profiles people around the world imprisoned or tortured for religious practice or association.
Now going back to my opening question: What do Jeremiah, Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., T. Simon Farisani, and Aung San Suu Kyi have in common? The answer is much more than that they all served time in prison. The answer is that prison probably made each one of them—with the activity of God’s grace—better, more free human beings. Prison certainly made all of them more spiritually whole and mature.
In the case of Jeremiah, prison merely strengthened his resolve to be God’s faithful prophet and a tenacious advocate of justice. In the case of Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., some of their best, most inspirational writings originated inside the prison cell. All three were prepared to suffer and die for the cause of the Gospel, justice, and truth. All three knew that the powers of evil could kill the body, but not their souls. In the case of T. Simon Farisani and Aung San Suu Kyi, prison made them more committed to the cause of free, democratic governments; where discrimination against sex and race would be banished. A society in which freedom of religion and political affiliation would be guaranteed by the state.
In an address that I attended a few years ago, Lutheran pastor, T. Simon Farisani publicly thanked members of Amnesty International for writing letters on his behalf. He also said that those letters were instrumental in securing his release, thus saving his life. Also, thanks to Amnesty International and other advocates, Aung San Suu Kyi was released.
You too can make a difference by becoming an advocate for prisoners and the tortured. As the Jewish Talmud puts it: “If you save the life of one human being, God regards it as if you had saved the whole world.”
In closing, I leave you with this insightful reflection from Aung San Suu Kyi’s book, Freedom From Fear And Other Writings:
Saints, it has been said, are the sinners who go on trying. So free (people) are the oppressed who go on trying and who in the process make themselves fit to bear the responsibilities and to uphold the disciplines which will maintain a free society. Among the basic freedoms to which (people) aspire that their lives might be full and uncramped, freedom from fear stands out as both a means and an end. A people who would build a nation in which strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as a guarantee against state-induced power must first learn to liberate their own minds from apathy and fear.
Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as ‘grace under pressure’—grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure. 3
Thanks be to God for giving us mutual love, which enables us to remember those in prison and those who are tortured. May we be Christ’s presence among the imprisoned and tortured everywhere.
1 Cited from: The Amnesty International Activist, August/September 1995 (Vanier, ON: Amnesty International, Canadian Section, English Speaking, 1995), p. 2.
2 Recited in Wm. R. White, Stories For The Journey (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), p. 95.