The first time I saw Rich he was sitting next to a window overlooking downtown St. Paul. Rich was a patient at the Ramsey County Hospital Psychiatric Ward. He was 23 years old. He had a severe case of acne and he had a slight quiver to his movements.
Rich was an addict. He told me he chain smoked cigarettes, drank 3 pots of coffee a day, smoked marijuana when he could and drank alcohol to excess.
Rich came to the hospital when someone became concerned about his behavior. He said he wasn't doing anything bu the cops threw him down, handcuffed him and took him to the hospital.
Rich told me, "I didn't have any problems until I started drinking. I drank my first beer when I was 12 years old and I immediately knew that I had a problem with alcohol."
Rich said he suffered from schizophrenia. He said, "It isn't good when I start drinking heavily. Sometimes I hear voices from cars or radios. Sometimes I wake up and wonder if I just dreamed something or if it really happened."
When I talked to Rich, I realized he was a man imprisoned. Sure, he was in a psychiatric ward with bars and locked doors, but his prison seemed deeper that that. He was a prisoner looking to be free from addiction and mental illness.
In our gospel reading for today Jesus encounters two people in prison, a woman who had a child with an unclean spirit and a man who was deaf with a speech impediment. In both cases, Jesus speaks a freeing word and people ARE set free.
The demon or unclean spirit was cast out and in the deaf man's silent world he could suddenly hear the sound of his own voice. The actions of Jesus reflected the words of Isaiah 35. The eyes see, the ears hear and the lame leap, the speechless sing for joy.
The healing ministry of Jesus was like Jesus going to a prison, opening the lock on the door and speaking the words, "You may go now. You are free!"
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus traveled back to his home town, went to the synagogue, opened the scriptures and read from Isaiah that he has come "to bring release to the captives."
As humans we can become imprisoned by so many things, some of our own making, some we don't understand, some we have inherited from ancestors or from birth and sometimes it is others who imprison us with their actions.
As for Rich who was in the psychiatric hospital in St. Paul, I prayed for him be he didn't become immediately healed. I talked with the chaplain on that floor. He said we are not Jesus but prayer is a good thing. He encouraged me to keep praying for people. He said he has seen many people become better through prayer, talk therapy and medicine. He told me not to give up hope in Jesus who speaks the freeing word.
Sin is another power that can enslave us. We say that sometimes in our confession.. "We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves."
At the beginning of every worship service I appreciate the time of confessing and forgiveness. It is a time to be set free so we can turn our focus to the worship of God and to be strengthened by God for our journey through this life.
Jesus died on a cross to set us free from the power of sin. I like the word REDEMPTION. It's a word that is sometimes used in the Bible to speak of slaves being set free for a price, through the death of Jesus. We are set free. We are no longer in sin's power. The door is opened. We have received God's forgiveness.
Martin Luther often felt deep remorse for his sinfulness. He felt like he deserved to die by the gallows, run through by a sword or burned at the stake for his sinfulness. He knew he had offended God with his sin but as he read the Bible he knew God didn't want him imprisoned by sin but rather set free by Christ. He wrote, "This is wonderful news to believe that salvation lies outside ourselves. I am justified and acceptable to God although there are within me sin and unrighteousness. Yet I must look elsewhere (to Christ) and see no sin. This is wonderful not to see what I see, not to feel what I feel. Before my eyes I used to see a gallows or a sword or a fire. But now, through Christ, I can say there is no gallows, no sword, or fire. This is what the forgiveness of sins is like."
I believe the ministry of "the freeing word" is something that Jesus passed on to the church. Jesus told his disciples, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them..." And so we make confession and forgiveness and Holy Communion key components of our worship services.
And all of us, as Christians, have many opportunities to speak freeing words to one another, like...
"I forgive you."
"I love you."
"Peace be with you." The sharing of the peace is more than a handshake and a phrase. It's a time for us to say, "I hold nothing against you. I want God's peace in your life."
It's so easy to be negative with someone, to hold a grudge, to keep people down when you've got them down. But we set ourselves free when we are able to speak a freeing word to others.
Finally, I want you to hear a word from a former teacher, Gerhard Forde. He asked our seminary class, "Now that Christ has set you free, what are you going to do?"
The ways we live out our lives before God is to serve in and beyond the congregation. Now that Christ has set you free, what are you going to do? We need ushers, readers, greeters, communion servers, fellowship servers, teachers, helping at the rescue mission, serving comfort food and so on.
Are you already serving on or beyond the congregation? Well, take somebody with you. Be a mentor. Be a teacher, a discipler. The book of James reminds us that the works we do are a response to the faith we have.
Hear and do the word.
You are free!
Serve the Lord this week.
Mark 7:24-37 RSV
24 And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house, and would not have any one know it; yet he could not be hid. 25 But immediately a woman, whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit, heard of him, and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoeni'cian by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And he said to her, "Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." 28 But she answered him, "Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." 29 And he said to her, "For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter." 30 And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone. 31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decap'olis. 32 And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him. 33 And taking him aside from the multitude privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; 34 and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, "Eph'phatha," that is, "Be opened." 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 And he charged them to tell no one; but the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, "He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak."