In 1962, Robert Coney was a young, African-American male traveling through East Texas when he was caught up in a nightmare. The victim of a case of mistaken identity, Robert was arrested and charged with robbing a grocery store, and convicted to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He had not been allowed to speak to an attorney until the day he appeared before a judge, a guilty plea forced out of him by crushing two of his fingers between the iron bars of a jail cell. In 1976, a judge looking at the case set aside Robert’s conviction. But for reasons still unclear, that decision was never communicated to the right people in order to set him free. And Robert, sitting in prison, never knew he had in fact been freed – at least on paper. In 2004, another judge going through old files came across Robert’s case and found the error and evidence of a wrongful conviction, and immediately set in motion having the case overturned. A young journalist covering the crime beat at the time, I was there the day Robert Coney, 76, walked out of prison and into the arms of his family. The story made national news. How could it not? A black man in the South set free after serving more than 40 years of a life sentence for which he was wrongfully convicted, was compelling news, to say the least. I couldn’t help thinking of him that evening and the next day, and for several days after. The question that lingered was this: if you’ve spent a lifetime without hope, how do you live into that justice when it finally arrives at your door? I had this image in my head of Robert Coney waking up that first free morning at home, standing in the doorway of his bedroom, waiting for some imaginary steel door to slide open and a voice of authority to order him about the business we all take for granted, like showering and eating breakfast. Robert’s story came to mind this week as I read the Gospel lesson from Luke 18:1-8, about the persistent widow and the judge with no respect for God nor man who finally granted her justice because she didn’t give up. How much more, Jesus says in this Parable to his disciples, does our Eternal Judge, the God who loves us, desire to give justice quickly to his chosen who cry to him day and night? Will we be persistent in the Faith, praying to our Heavenly Father and placing all our trust in him in the midst of an unjust world? Or will the Son of Man return to find us without faith? Like Robert, we may feel hopeless. We may have suffered injustice in our life and feel there is no way out. We may know others who have. But unlike Robert, we do not have to miss out on the story of our own freedom. We will go out of here today with a message of freedom and hope for ourselves and for others. The message is this: Jesus Christ died and rose again for our sins and we are forgiven and reunited with God in that act of redemption. We are free. Even as we wait for justice, we are free. We have a hope in us that carries us forward, safe in knowing we have a God who loves us and gives us strength. As others search for their justice, they are already free in Christ Jesus. But like Robert, they may not know it. It is our work as Christians to tell them the decision has already been made. They are free, and they can begin to live their lives knowing the hope of God that is in them. So when God’s justice arrives at their door, they will be able to live into it. We as the Church are called to go to our own doorway and to step out of it into the world, without waiting for someone to come by and open it. Without waiting for someone to tell us we can go and serve. We are free. It is time to start living our freedom. It is time to start living God’s justice in the world. Amen.
Bi-vocational first week thoughts
It wasn’t my first time preaching. I’d preached before, off and on the last two years as an Episcopal deacon. But last week marked my first week preaching to a new congregation, and my first time preaching anywhere as a head of congregation during this, my last year of priesthood studies, God-willing, in bi-vocational ministry.
“What’s your preaching like?” had been the chief topic of Q&A conversation following a recent church welcome dinner. Short, long, political, spiritual? What were they in for on Sunday? The congregation wasn’t sure, but they were warm and welcoming, energized and encouraging. Their faith in our shared future, having just met me and my family, and their trust in a minister of the Church spurred me to greater levels of anticipation and nervous preparation ahead of our first week together.
The congregation and I stepped into this brave new world on Sunday, together walking through the lectionary from Jeremiah 32 on the prophet’s act of faith. We explored his very public witness from the midst of imprisonment, investing boldly through the “right of redemption by purchase” to claim for his family – and by example the nation – the real estate of living as God’s people in a war-ravaged land. Proclaiming a new covenant, Jeremiah stood in a seemingly indefensible position and delivered God’s message calling the people back into relationship with their Creator, into a future built on trust and hope. God’s promise was that they would again build houses and vineyards in this, their land, he said.
Investing boldly. Facing the unknown with trust and hope. This is the particular calling of bi-vocational congregations and their clergy. With no lengthy vetting process, no vestry-powered search committee, these little congregations and their bi-vocational clergy are brought together by discerning members of congregational development teams, often without either party meeting the other until right before – an arranged marriage, of sorts.
Personally, I find this an exciting process. I would imagine it is very much like the formative years of the earliest Christian Church – disciples largely being sent, not vetted, headed to new start-ups or rekindling dwindling gatherings, priest and lay partnerships developing in a space where time and funding are limited and worship and mission are central.
Spoken like a green recruit, right? Maybe. But I think the Church needs green recruits – bi-vocational ministers who aren’t afraid to ask members to work and serve from a seemingly indefensible position of small real estate, smaller bank accounts and a predominantly aging membership. From the outside, it doesn’t make good business sense. But God is in the business of investing in people and places that the world doesn’t value, but which he holds precious.
I’ve discovered this week God has blessed the Church with a congregation made up of an amazing group of people, energetic and excited, gifted with abundant and broad skill sets developed in an environment of living simply from necessity, which may just be the perfect formula for the hope and trust it takes to plant vineyards in a war zone.