Even when our grandson Pierce was about 18 months old, he knew that putting your shoes on meant you were going somewhere. When we started talking about going for a walk, he would go to the spot near the back door where his shoes were and bring them to you to put them on. Then he would go get daddy’s shoes from the same spot and bring them so that daddy could get ready to go. Very early in life we learn that putting your shoes on means getting ready for something different.
We continue our journey through Lent, this week focusing on another ordinary object: shoes, or in Peter’s case, sandals. Our text this morning finds Peter imprisoned by Herod. It is not the same Herod who passed the judgement on Jesus’ head, but another similarly minded Herod, a Roman ruler who wanted to look good in the eyes of his Jewish citizens. He had recently had James killed with a sword, James the brother of John, the son of Zebedee. You remember him, James the fisherman, who was one of the first four disciples to follow Jesus.
Now Peter, another Galilean fisherman turned disciple and now apostle, is awaiting his own death at the hands of the state. Herod thrives on the cheers of the crowds who were happy when James was killed. He wants to build on that bloodthirsty fervor and give them what they want—another murder of one of Jesus’ apostles. This was a risky life, this apostle work. In these decades after the resurrection of Jesus, his disciples (learners)—now apostles(those sent out)– were considered a threat, both to their Jewish neighbors and to the Roman government. It seems that the risks of being an apostle were like the risks which surrounded black men and women in the American South, including Maryland, in the years after the uniquely harsh American institution of enslavement had ended. It was open hunting season, a hideous time in our history when blacks could be lynched for no reason other than the color of their skin. In cities, villages and towns, people of all ages crowded around the lynching tree to witness the actions of the depraved murderers, whether local vigilantes or government officials.
Peter was under maximum security. Herod was not leaving any remote possibility that he could escape from this prison. Four squads of soldiers were assigned to guard him. The squad was the smallest unit in the Roman army at that time, made up of between 7 and 14 men. So, between 28 and 56 soldiers were needed to keep one prisoner from escaping! Definitely overkill. Plus, Peter is doubly chained, lying between two of the guards as they all slept in the prison cell. Herod was taking no chances, you see.
The night before Herod planned to bring Peter out before the crowd and do to him what he did to James, God acts in an amazing and unexpected way. Rev. Jill Duffield, the author of the Lenten devotional we are basing our Lenten journey on this year, describes it in a phrase you all have heard many times: God makes a way. Even when it clearly looks like there is no way to freedom, no option for a pardon before the death penalty, no hope to return to Galilee and see his family again, God makes a way for Peter. God makes a way when there is no way.
An angel comes from God, a light shines in the darkness of the prison cell, and Peter is awakened by a nudge from the angel—somehow the guards on either side of him are still snoring away. Peter has trouble making sense of what is happening, startled out of a sound sleep. I imagine that at first, he thought he was dreaming. Then the chains suddenly fell from his wrists and he was able to move, getting up out of the confinement he had been in. The angel says, put on your belt, your sandals, and your cloak—get ready, get set, let’s go! And before Peter knows it, they are passing through the front gate, on the way to freedom and to life. The angel disappears pretty quickly, his job completed. God made a way out of no way.
Peter makes his way to the home of Mary, where the brothers and sisters had been praying for him during his imprisonment. What joy they were filled with when they finally understood that Peter was at the door! He did not hang around to celebrate, however, because he knew that come morning, Herod would be hot on his trail.
Herod is clearly furious that his prisoner had escaped, despite all of the heavy-duty security he had placed in and around the prison. Now he looks foolish in the eyes of those he was hoping to impress by imprisoning Peter with intent to put him to death. When Peter is no where to be found, like any humiliated despot would do, Herod grills the squads of soldiers and ends up ordering death for all of them for dereliction of duty.
God made a way out of no way for Peter. He got up, put on his shoes and walked out into freedom. The church was actively praying and God worked in an unexpected way.
This month our Multicultural Book Club has chosen to read The Book of Rosy: A Mother’s Story of Separation at the Border by Rosayra Pablo Cruz and Julie Schwietert Callaso. It is a very personal accounting of one woman’s experience in July, 2018 of being detained at the border even though she had not exhibited any behavior that might be considered a threat. Remember that Peter was considered a threat by those in power because of his preaching about Jesus. These women seeking a safer life for themselves and their children are considered a threat by some of the powerful in our country—I never have been exactly sure what we are afraid of, but lately I have been wondering if it is the fear of losing the stranglehold majority of the dominant white caste in this country. Robert Benjamin, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and editor has named that fear, the fear of losing majority status, as the root of the anger and hatred which showed itself on January 6 with the storming of our US Capitol. Some results of our fears around immigrants entering our nation have been the separation of parents and children at our southern border and the horrible conditions of life in a detention center, as well as fear and desperation in the hearts of those who do not speak or even understand English. Rosy was facing a seemingly impossible wall between herself and reunion with her children when God made a way. Like the believers who prayed for Peter, Rosy had a deep faith and prayed and prayed for a solution to her predicament. One day a lawyer who worked with a non-profit dedicated to raising funds to pay the bail of detainees just showed up at the detention center and Rosy’s name was called. God made a way out of no way, an unexpected call to put on her shoes, as worn out as they were.
Whatever predicament or prison cell that you are in, let me encourage you to remember that our God is a God who makes a way out of no way. Yes indeed. The first step forward is to trust in that. The second step is to recognize that often we miss the unexpected ways God is making for us. Maybe we are confronted by a way out of our current predicament that seems too preposterous or too wild. Maybe we are shown a way out of our personal prison cell that seems too obvious or too simple. Or maybe we simply fail to be ready, staying shoeless and unaware.
I want to share with you a chain of events that showed how God opens doors, making a way out of what seems impossible. We have all read and heard about the stark gap between the numbers of COVID vaccinations received by whites and Blacks across the country and in Baltimore itself. Any of you who have had to make your own appointment to get a vaccine know how frustratingly difficult it is even for people who ARE computer and internet savvy. What about those for whom the computer is confusing and troublesome, or those who are without internet or computer?
Several internet wizzes in our Presbytery have offered to search for vaccination appointments for pastors and eligible parishioners if you still need help getting an appointment. The Center offered a community dialogue on March 4 to swap ideas about how to close this unfair gap in getting vaccinated. We talked about Rosemont, and the high percentage of residents in that community who likely have difficulty accessing the vaccine appointment systems. Email conversations started buzzing, members of the Rosemont Coalition began some exploratory contacts with the City Health Department, the National Guard, and other community association leaders who are working on setting up localized vaccine sites. Via Zoom, we held our monthly Rosemont Coalition meeting yesterday morning. The Coalition was the recipient of our congregation’s portion of the Pentecost Offering in 2020, an offering dedicated to supporting children and youth. We also are committed to the work of the Coalition financially each year with a line item in our Justice and Peace Team’s budget. Church members have volunteered in many capacities, and several are regular participants in and contributors to the Coalition meetings–Joan Higbee, Vivian Smith, and Jill Harrison.
Yesterday we all shared ideas and information about possibilities of ways to close the vaccine gap, in Rosemont including a Facebook group of Maryland vaccine hunters, a phone number to call to set up appointments, the partnership between Uber and Walgreens and the taxi service offered to and from a vaccine appointment for those who do not have transportation. We learned that one of our member churches is already on the way to setting up a vaccine site at their church, under the guidance of the pastor’s wife who is a nurse willing to coordinate with other nurses to give the vaccines supplied by a local pharmacy. Others around the table offered to find more volunteers and to help with getting the word out to the community so that more of our neighbors will be protected against this virus which has inequitably harmed people of color because we live in a society which is always skewed toward the white majority and against everyone else. What a joy to hear of the possibility of a clinic filled with volunteer nurses to bring that protection in Rosemont. It was unexpected. Indeed, God makes a way.
I want to encourage you to keep your shoes on, to be ready to go when there is a way out, a way forward, or a way around whatever the predicament, difficulty, or personal prison cell that you are in. If we are not ready and aware, awake and dressed to go, who knows how many opportunities we might miss? Who knows what unexpected ways of God will pass us by? Keep your shoes on. Get ready, get set, go! Amen.