For the seven weeks of the Easter, we have embraced this worship theme: Life from Behind Closed Doors. We’ve moved through the season of Easter at the same time that we have found ourselves moving through a season of pandemic and sheltering in place, living lives, in large part, behind closed doors. And so we have looked to our ancient sisters and brothers and siblings in the faith, and turned to stories in Scripture where they, too, are living behind closed doors, in some way or another – where they, too, are looking for life there – abundant life – Resurrection life.
And what a wealth of stories we have found. We started on Easter with the biggest of all closed doors – the stone rolled in place to close the tomb. But we found it rolled away on Easter morning. At the gaping door of the empty tomb, we found yet more life to live, right now and forever.
The next week, we joined Thomas and the disciples behind closed doors in the shock of their world, and we found there a place to bring our questions and our uncertainty in bewildering times to Jesus.
Then, we gathered behind closed doors with the community of women who were grieving the death of Tabitha, as they remembered all the clothes that she had made for them – all her acts of tender mercy – and in their remembering, she came to life again. And we thought of all those who are sewing masks in our day – tender mercy expressed in the life-giving making and wearing of masks in these days.
Then, we visited the Early Christian community in those first days after Resurrection – and we found them gathered behind closed doorsworshipping in homes – much like we are gathered worshipping in homes -- as they and we create together new ways of living in community.
And for the past two weeks, we’ve thought of how doors can limit the ways that we live life – we have grieved the things we’ve lost for a time – the ability to worship and serve in-person together -- Noah on the ark – the widow and her sons in a time of scarcity, finding their way to abundance – as we pray and live into new ways to live out the things that really matter – new ways to set the banquet table.
Each Sunday has brought a new Scripture with a door, and people living behind it, and a story about how they found their way to life there.
This morning’s Scripture brings us a multiplicity of doors. Door upon door upon door – sometimes keeping people out – sometimes keeping people in – and what we find are people negotiating their way behind and before and around and through these doors.
The first doors we see are the prison doors. Our Scripture opens and yet another Herod has risen to power – the third in the New Testament. He is a despot who acts and reacts based on the mood of the crowd, and he has picked up that the crowd wants to attack the early Christian community, and so he arrests James and Peter; he executes James; and Peter sits here in prison, likely awaiting the same fate. Peter finds himself behind a whole series of doors, the door to his cell, the prison gate.
And not only that, the Scripture details the extent of the security that keeps him there. There are four squads of soldiers guarding him; there are two sets of chains; Peter is sleeping between two soldiers; there is a guard at the door to his cell, and one at the door beyond that.
And in the depths of this prison, an angel appears. The shackles fall away. Get up. Get dressed. Follow me. And Peter, dazed and confused, does just that, out through the doors – through the outer iron gate that “opens of its own accord.” And then, and only then, does Peter realize he is free. Freed from the threat of death – to life – out from behind closed doors.
And Peter runs to the safe house – where they are praying for him – only to find the door there closed and locked. A servant named Rhoda hears him knocking and recognizes his voice – and gets so excited that she runs off to get the others. And she forgets to let him in. And don’t you know it, she runs to the men, and because she’s a woman, they don’t believe her. And they too, leave Peter knocking at the closed door.
But Rhoda keeps insisting. And Peter keeps on knocking. Rhoda insisting to these men who will not listen. Peter knocking and knocking for whoever will listen. And eventually, eventually, the folks in the safe house get up, and go, and open the door – and rejoice at the sight of Peter.
In this story, we move through a multiplicity of doors. The doors and gates of the prison that are supposed to keep Peter in, open of their own accord and make a way for him to head on out into freedom. The doors of the safe house – that are supposed to offer him shelter – well, he finds them locked and closed – and he’s left out in the danger of the streets as he keeps on knocking and as Rhoda keeps insisting.
All this is to say.... doors are complicated. For most of this series, we have thought of the closed doors that we find in Scripture, and wondered what they might mean for our experience, in these days, of sheltering in place. This Scripture reminds us that the early Christians took shelter behind closed doors, AND that the early Christians were also a people who were imprisoned behind closed doors. And it reminds us too, that in these days of pandemic, there are so many who are experiencing pandemic behind the closed doors, not of a home or a safe house, but of a prison.
And the pandemic is hitting hard there. Prisons by their nature and purpose do not afford space for social distancing. The United States has more of its citizens incarcerated in prisons and jails than any other nation.They are confined in close quarters – that alone is a life-threatening condition in days of pandemic. In some states, folks who are incarcerated account for as much as 20% of COVID-related cases. Some states and local governments have taken some action to mitigate that – releasing folks who are close to their time of release, releasing those who are being held awaiting trial for non-violent offenses. But that has offered small relief to a substantial health risk. For folks who are incarcerated, looking for life from behind closed doors, is different than it is for us.
And we also have to name – that the extent of incarceration itself is the product and result of systemic American racism. We’ve talked about that before. As legal and theological scholar Michelle Alexander has detailed in her seminal work The New Jim Crow, every advance toward racial justice has been met with the resistance of persistent structural racism. The Constitutional Amendments that followed the Civil War were met by the first Jim Crow laws and so-called “Black Codes” that endeavored to control Black Americans in a new kind of slavery. The civil rights advances of the mid- and late- 20thcentury were likewise met with resistance – what Michelle Alexander has named for us The New Jim Crow – as a legal system emerged where prosecutors have almost unfettered discretion to decide whom and what to charge; where that discretion opens the way for implicit and explicit bias to work; where the whole system has resulted in the disproportionate mass incarceration of persons of color.
Looking for life from behind closed doors – for our sisters and brothers and siblings who are incarcerated – means not only understanding how their experience of pandemic is different and urging humanitarian, compassionate action, but also continuing the work of dismantling systemic American racism.
If we think of all the doors in this Scripture – and all the doors in our world in these days of pandemic and sheltering – all the ways that folks right now are living life behind closed doors – if we sit for a moment, with Peter, in chains, with a guard on either side, behind door, after door, after door – we are confronted with the complexity of doors.
Doors themselves are morally neutral objects.
They are planks, usually of wood or metal,
hung on hinges, to swing open or shut.
They can be used to lock people in;
they can be used as a tool of oppressive systems
older than you or me or the door itself.
And. Or. They can offer shelter.
They can keep out the rain, or the wind,
welcome a person living outside
into the warmth and safety of a room
with a roof and walls and a hot meal.
They can hold a pandemic at bay, for a moment or two.
They can help us flatten the curve and save life.
They can separate us from each other
both for harm and for healing.
There is nothing about the door itself
that is either bad or good.
What matters, what makes a difference is how we choose to live life, individually and collectively, amid and around and behind and through the complexity of doors. In Resurrection, God gives us life beyond every separation – life more powerful than any power in the world that keeps us apart. What matters is how we use that life that we are given to find our way to yet more life – every day – to create a world that offers more life to every human being in every circumstance.
That may mean sheltering behind closed doors, and wearing masks, and making masks, and paying attention to science, as we collectively flatten the curve, help stop the spread of disease, slow the pandemic, and save life.
That may mean advocating for those behind doors that they don’t have the freedom to open.
That may mean – it does mean – continuing the work that is ours to do to dismantle systemic American racism – work that will span our whole life, and continue into the lives of those who will follow. It means working for abundant, Resurrection life for every person, everywhere, behind every kind of door.
But how? How do we do that?
I think we get a glimpse in the second part of this Scripture – in that moment – that moment where Peter comes to the door of the safehouse and he knocks. And Rhoda comes to the door, and she hears Peter’s voice. Peter on one side of that door, and Rhoda on the other. And Rhoda gets so excited. So excited... that she forgets to let him in, and runs to the men who will refuse, at first, to hear truth from a woman – truth from a person whose voice comes far from the center of power.
And Rhoda keeps insisting. And Peter keeps on knocking.
Rhoda insisting. Peter knocking.
Rhoda. And Peter. And the community they call.
Together, they find their way to freedom and to life from behind that closed door.
How do we find our way to life from behind closed doors, life for the whole world? Here’s how: We do that, Together, by the Resurrection power of the Spirit of Christ alive and at work in us.
You see in this season of Easter, we have come to these stories from Scripture, to this life behind closed doors, and what we have seen, in these days, is God’s resurrection power ready to bring us out of the tomb and into yet more life than we could ever imagine.
What we have seen in these days is God’s resurrection power ready to respond to our questions and our doubts and our bewilderment with the steady offer of the presence of the Risen Christ.
What we have seen in these days is God’s resurrection power ready to bring life to the world in the stitching of clothes, the quilting of quilts, and the making of masks – Resurrection life in our daily acts of tender mercy.
What we have seen in these days is God’s resurrection power at work in community to create new ways of doing what we do – grieving what we have lost for a time – but finding our way together to new ways of worship, and of serving, and of setting the table so that there is enough for all.
What we have seen in these days is God’s resurrection power ready to come to life in us by the Spirit of the Risen Christ – ready, to come to life in us to bless and to heal the world God loves.
And all that, all that – it’s just the start.
Because remember – all that – was just Easter.
Next Sunday... is Pentecost.
© 2020 Scott Clark
For comprehensive reporting on COVID in US prisons, see: Reuters, “Special Report: 'Death Sentence'-The Hidden Coronavirus Toll in U.S. Jails and Prisons,” New York Times, May 18, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/05/18/us/18reuters-health-coronavirus-usa-jails-specialreport.html (“The United States has more people behind bars than any other nation, a total incarcerated population of more than 2.2 million as of 2018, including nearly 1.5 million in state and federal prisons and just under 740,000 in local jails, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.”) Sam Levin, “'People are sick all around me': inside the coronavirus catastrophe in California prisons,” The Guardian, May 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/20/california-prisons-covid-19-outbreak-deaths  John Raphling, “COVID-19 running rampant in Ohio prisons,” Columbus Dispatch, May 21, 2020 https://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20200521/column-covid-19-running-rampant-in-ohio-prisons. This article, by and advocate with Human Rights Watch, also describes prison conditions during the pandemic. See id.; Marc Howard, “In coronavirus crisis, lessons in humanity toward America's incarcerated,” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/policing/2020/05/22/covid-19-crisis-lessons-humanity-toward-americas-incarcerated/5240573002/ Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, 2011). See id.