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Locked In

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Apr 28

Text: John 20:19-31

I did the early morning volunteer shift on Friday and had a chance to play with Briana, the younger daughter of our sanctuary family. A glorious two years old, she appears at the door with a smile and a twinkle in her eyes and says, “Come on! Want ta play?” I could tell Easter was recent, because she had new plushie Easter bunnies—lavender and pink (her favorite color), and soooo soft! We played with four bunnies and found pure joy. The bunnies were jumping, jumping, jumping and then they would all fall down. This was absolutely hilarious to Briana, who laughed and laughed with glee. That little girl is full of joy.

I was glad for the reminder of Easter and the experience of shared joy. This week, somehow, Easter already feels miles away—so distant. But it’s only been seven days! I suspect that many of us are in a space of bewilderment the week after Easter. Holy Week is so potent—we tell the story of violence and execution, faithfulness and desertion. The days are full of the familiar anguish of this world we inhabit. So much pain. But all during Holy Week we can anticipate what is to come. The empty tomb. God’s “no” to death. The huge, “Yes!” of Easter morning.

We are people who live by that “yes.” We are fundamentally changed by God’s “yes.” We find a new hope, freedom and joy in the “yes” of Easter morning.

Yet, we inhabit a world that seems to be caught in the grip of death. Rome did not cease executions on Good Friday. They continue. The state is still sentencing people to death—even here in the US in 2019. We are separating families at the border, locking up children, incarcerating black and brown men in shocking numbers. And the narrative of fear continues. There was another synagogue shooting yesterday. Another young, white man, filled with hate and in command of an automatic rifle, opened fire in a San Diego synagogue on the last day of Passover. God, have mercy! Have mercy on us all.

On this second Sunday of Easter—the beginning of Eastertide—we do well to hold onto God’s “yes.” If we are to be set free by the good news of Easter, we have to embrace God’s initiative. We must allow ourselves to really absorb this “yes,” which so far exceeds the bounds of our experience and expectations. We must meet God’s “yes” with our own. When we do, God is able to transform our hearts, our emotions, even our politics and presence in the world. And this world is sorely in need of our joy, freedom, clarity and affirmation of life.

Last week, I heard a powerful testimony to just that. Several of us from First Church had the privilege of hearing Anthony Ray Hinton speak over at the Armenian Church on Brattle Street on Thursday night. What an evening! If you’re not familiar with Mr. Hinton, here’s the story (in brief.) Anthony Ray Hinton served almost 30 years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he did not commit. He was framed by white police officers, defended by a feeble, state-appointed attorney who presumed his guilt, convicted in 1986 by an all-white jury, and sentenced by a white judge for two capital murders that took place while Mr. Hinton was demonstrably at work, miles away. Arrested at the age of 29 while mowing his mothers’ lawn, he spent the next 20 years on Alabama’s death row. Mr. Hinton was finally exonerated in 2015 by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Supreme Court.

I first learned of Mr. Hinton from Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. (1) Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative—or EJI—took up Mr. Hinton’s case and fought hard for many years to win his release.

Last fall when 23 First Church members visited Montgomery on our Road to Freedom pilgrimages, we spent a day at EJI’s Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration. There, powerful displays trace the history of racial oppression in America, from the middle passage to mass incarceration. EJI makes a clear and compelling case that mass incarceration, now endured by so many black and brown people, is a direct continuation of the life-crushing policies of white supremacy and racial control.

Anthony Ray Hinton is featured in a short film at the Legacy Museum, in which he tells the story of his wrongful conviction. Mr. Hinton suffered a terrifying ordeal. Being black and poor in Alabama, unable to finance an adequate legal defense, it seemed like everything was against him. He spent almost 30 years of his life in a 5x7 cell, which was 30 feet from the execution chamber. During his time on death row, Mr. Hinton watched as 54 inmates were marched past his cell to their execution.

And yet, he is a man who exudes deep and abiding joy. Mr. Hinton survived death row, thanks to Bryan Stevenson and his extraordinary, committed legal team from EJI, but also because of his Christian faith. He is a man of great compassion, kindness, and deep faith, a teller of truth. Mr. Hinton has undoubtedly suffered some of the worst of what humanity has to mete out, yet he has—somehow—emerged resilient and full of compassion. Hard experience convinced him that other peoples’ narratives of fear and hatred are made him be subjected to unjust arrest and conviction. Yet, he refuses to succumb to hatred, fear or bitterness.

Mr. Hinton says, “They could lock me up, but they couldn’t take away my freedom and my joy.” You can read his remarkable story in his newly-published memoir, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row. (2) It was an honor to hear Mr. Hinton in person. You can feel his joy.

I’d like to speak for a moment about the fear that Ray Hinton names as the reason he was locked up on death row. Fear can cause us to lock people away, even innocent people. Fear can lead to mosque bombings, church bombings, and synagogue attacks—all of which we have experienced in recent days. Fear can lead to unjust arrests and convictions, and even executions of innocent people. Black and brown people are disproportionately convicted, and research suggests that one out of ten people serving time on death row is innocent—wrongfully convicted. Surely, our gentle Jesus—unjustly accused and executed—would have something to say about this.

In the back of his book, Hinton lists the names of all the people who are serving time on death row in the U.S. He asks that we pray for them by name. He suggests that we read their names aloud, and after every tenth name, say, “innocent.” He suggests that we add our own son’s or daughter’s name to the list or add our own name.

On death row in Alabama: Westley Devone Harris, Gregory Lance Henderson, Dennis Hicks, Melvin Gene Hodges, Joseph Hooks, Derek Tyler Horton, Greg Hunt, Christopher Shae Hyde, Robert S. Ingram, Michael Irvin, innocent. Our sons: Julian Baxandall, Aaron Hume, Brennan McIntosh-Case, Cesar Neves, Liam Simons, innocent. Anthony Ray Hinton, innocent.

Fear may be a reason for locking up other people, but fear can also cause us to lock ourselves in. John’s gospel speaks powerfully to this. Our scripture reading today is packed with so much. There’s the familiar, poignant story of Thomas, who was not with the other disciples when Jesus came and stood among them. Thomas, who does not believe the testimony of his friends, but must see for himself. Thomas, who wants to touch and see in order to believe—and who, in a sense, represents us and every follower of Christ since that day. Because none of us has met Jesus in the flesh and all of us want to see him and be touched by his power.

There’s the moment when Jesus breathes on the disciples and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit—reminiscent of God breathing the first breath of life into Adam’s nostrils at the dawn of creation. And with this breath of new life, Jesus passes his mission on to the disciples, endowing them with the power to forgive sins.

But there’s even more in our gospel reading. How about this? The disciples’ very real fear in the wake of the crucifixion. Of course they’re terrified. They were traumatized in the way that makes you bolt the doors and lock the windows and roll up in a self-protective ball. Understandably so. But if death is not the final word, at some point they—and we—must risk an encounter with the risen Christ, who bids us go out into the world in his name.

When we are seized by this kind of terror, perhaps we can learn from Ray Hinton, who survived death row by finding solace in his relationship with the living God; who had a constant practice of prayer—even when that prayer was filled with anger or terror or bewilderment.

Anthony Ray Hinton lived to honor his mother, who had given him life, and loved him well, and taught him to respond with love and to stand strong in the face of hatred. Mr. Hinton had a friend—Lester—who believed in him unwaveringly and visited him every week for 30 years. And Mr. Hinton never gave up hope—not because he believed the justice system would exonerate him, but because inside himself he knew he was free. He continued to press for justice because he knew himself to be a beloved child of God.

These are the things that set us free and give us joy. Not, to be sure, Easter-bunny joy, that fluffy, feel-good kind of pleasure, but deep abiding joy. These are Easter things. A relationship with a living God, people who believe in us and never give up hope, the work of justice.

May we be people of the resurrection.
May we rise up to meet the living Christ, who is with us, even now.

1) Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, (New York: Random House), 2015
2) Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin, The Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 2018

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