05/28/23 – Locked In, Locked Out


May 28, 2023
The Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21; 1 Cor. 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Locked in, locked out. Neither situation seems particularly appealing, does it? There is actually a medical condition called “Locked In Syndrome,” which is rather frightening. Caused by a brain injury, the afflicted person cannot move except for the up and down motion of the eyelids. Medical science has advanced to the point today where is possible to communicate through eyelid motions. However, movement of the eyelids is still very limited communication. Years ago, before that technology was available, as a parish ministry intern, I visited a man regularly who had had a stroke and lived in that condition for many years. Every time I visited him, I was saddened by his condition. I asked myself, “Is it better to be cut off from all activity and communication with others in such a limited way and be alive and fully cognizant of what is going on around you or is it better to be in that state without cognizance of the world around you.” It is a conundrum that is theoretical – we don’t have the luxury of making that decision. Like a lot of life, it just happens and, if it happens to us or a loved one, we have to deal with it.

There are other ways of being “locked in.”  Both depression and anxiety create their own “locked-in syndrome.” I can’t imagine that anyone who is listening to this sermon has not either experienced anxiety or depression or has someone they care about who has been a victim. Whether one is locked in or locked out, the emotional and psychological effects are devastating. The tragic death of a young man with a mental health disorder who was killed by a fellow New York subway passenger is an example. His angry words, born of hopelessness and despair, were frightening to a former marine. The mentally ill man was locked out of proper mental health treatment due to societal neglect. The paradox is that when one is locked in, they are also locked out. That is the existential dilemma. Like the disciples who locked themselves into a house after Jesus’ crucifixion, being locked in may make one feel safe from the dangers they perceive they are locking out. Yet, being locked out also means being without the freedom and abundant living that is on offer outside the boundaries which lock one in.

I have an old friend I see only occasionally on Zoom because she lives abroad.  The sudden death of her partner created not only grief but also financial insecurity. She has suffered from events and situations which were not in her control. Yet she resists any attempt to see a way forward. She is locked into a sad, hopeless worldview and worries her friends and family with, not so veiled, threats of suicide. She has refused to seek any kind of psychological therapy or medication, convinced there is no hope of change in her life. When her friends and family offer ideas for her to improve her situation, she argues with them that nothing will help her. She has created a locked-in worldview that allows no way out. Depression is a debilitating mental condition. Sufferers who seek help are very courageous because their very condition pushes them against seeking help.

This locked-in perspective is the dilemma this country is corporately facing today. Fear-mongers hope to scare people into following their lead, using the threat of people, who are deemed not like themselves, in order to gain power. In this way, our society struggles with a locked-in, locked-out world view. The message of the perpetrators of division is: You must be locked in from any information that might broaden your worldview and you must be locked out from anyone in society who differs from you in race, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation, gender identity, sexual orientation, native language, social class, well the list goes on and on. What the young poet, Amanda Gorman, considered to be words that unite people and give them hope, one parent in Florida saw as words that threatened her. Somehow, because the poet is black, the mother interpreted Gorman’s beautiful vision of hope as offensive. The long list of books that have now been banned from schools includes authors who are Jewish, such as the diary of Anne Frank, black or other non-whites, or non-heterosexuals, which quite frankly removes many of our beloved writers of great literature from the past several centuries.

One might ask: how can one parent have the power to remove books from an entire school library? That’s a good question. Polls show that a majority of parents in this country are in favor of gun control laws that require universal background checks and banning the sale of military assault guns, particularly for people under the age of 21, but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Meanwhile, every school child in America must participate in “active shooter” drills. The list of mass shootings in schools is too long to name here, but many people in our society feel threatened by this. In terms of book banning, it is a case of people who are locked in by their own fears and prejudices, who want to lock out knowledge of anyone who does not hold their same locked-in perspective of the world.

With this nation’s divergence and mistrust of news sources, it is possible to lock oneself into a bubble of unfounded conspiracy theories and never hear fact-based reports of day-to-day events of the world. Newsworthy events that do not fit a particular worldview are simply not reported on some pseudo-news outlets, while events that cannot be supported by facts are the lead stories. When we do not dig deeper, failing to check the facts before we spread inaccurate information, we become, not only people who are locked in, but people who lock others out. This is the evil goal of the sources who disseminate misinformation – to divide and conquer by encouraging people to become locked in and locking other points of view out in order to create enmity and anxiety.  Why does it work? Because the originators of misinformation appeal to our basest fears. There is a reason why ‘do not be afraid’ appears more than 300 times in the bible. It is fear that is behind many of the sins of the world.

Our gospel reading for today directly addresses the locked-in situation. Though our epistle reading was written before the gospel and the gospel was written before the reading from Acts, I will address these readings from the time period represented, starting with John’s gospel account of the events leading up to the Christian Pentecost, then Acts’ account of the Pentecost event and, finally, the epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Roman congregation.

In our gospel reading from John, the disciples were safely ensconced in a room in what was probably a house church, since 120 people were within hearing distance. John’s gospel says they were locked in “for fear of the Jews.” However, since all those who were locked in were also Jews, the author of John was referring to the particular Jewish leaders who encouraged Roman officials to crucify Jesus. These Jesus followers were afraid of suffering a similar fate. Or, perhaps, as one biblical commentator recently suggested, they were afraid they would encounter the risen Jesus. They had all fled when he was crucified. So far, they had not even tried to spread the gospel as Jesus commanded them. It seems there are Christians today who have the same fear of encountering the Jesus of the gospels. Instead, they want to hear about a fictitious Jesus they have created who mirrors their own values, which are antithetical to those of the Jesus revealed in the gospels.

Regardless of what skepticism you might have of Jesus, literally, going through locked doors, it is significant that the author of John tells us for the second time Jesus has entered a locked room to speak to his disciples. The theological idea undergirding the description of the event is that Jesus breaks through our human-constructed boundaries. We have only to look at the boundaries we have created in our society to realize how un-Christlike, and unjust, these boundaries and our enforcement of them are.

John tells us that when Jesus enters the locked room, he says to his disciples: “Peace be with you.” This is what God’s vision of humanity reconciled to God and one another has always been – a peaceful world. When the disciples recognize Jesus, he repeats: “Peace be with you.” The gospels are frugal with Jesus’ words, so when Jesus repeats himself, you know it’s important! Next Jesus explains the purpose of his post-Resurrection appearances: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” What Jesus commanded his disciples to do before his crucifixion, he summarizes with this explanation: Peace be with you and as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The disciples were, and still are today, called to live in community and work to bring peace to the world.

Then, in an action reminiscent of God’s spirit breathing across the primordial chaos to create life in Genesis 1, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. The Holy Spirit gives us the will and the power to bring peace, which is life-giving and life-affirming. When our words and our actions do not intend to bring peace, they are not from the Holy Spirit but from the poisonous desires of our own egos.

In contrast to the locked room setting of John’s gospel, in our reading from Acts, a large crowd has gathered to celebrate God’s abundant gifts of a good harvest with the Feast of Pentecost, also known as Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks. The disciples being given the ability to speak and be understood by Jews throughout the known world is the key that unlocks the door of their cultural boundaries. Soon will come Peter’s dream that leads him to the Roman centurion Cornelius, a non-Jew, and the giving of the Holy Spirit to Gentiles.

Peter draws the people’s attention to the continuity between what God had promised the children of Israel through the prophet Joel and the fulfillment of that promise that day in Jerusalem. Peter quotes from the words of the prophet:

17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

Notice there is no exclusion based on gender, age, or social status. Joel says the spirit will be poured out on all, not some. In our own arrogance, we want to make everyone the same – like us. But the scriptures attest to everyone’s value as God’s children. It is God’s intention that we be different. The difference is good and holy.

In every place where people are divided, Christ-followers, who are filled with the Spirit, are called to be at work bringing peace and reconciliation. In every place where there is grief, pain, conflict and violence, God’s people are called to bring forgiveness, comfort, healing, and compassion. In every place where people are weak and vulnerable, God’s people are called to uplift and empower. The gift of Pentecost is the strength to stand against injustice, oppression, and exploitation, and the strength to embrace the sacrifices we must make in order to serve the neediest and most vulnerable among us. The Holy Spirit releases us from our locked rooms of enmity and apathy to go out into the world to serve where we are needed. We are not filled with the Spirit merely for our own pleasure but for the sake of the world that God loves.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian congregation, “wisdom” and “knowledge” seem to be gifts that enable us to discern what the Holy Spirit us calling us to do. Not everyone has the same gifts or is called to the same specific missions. In the Corinthian congregation, it appears that divisions had formed within the congregation based on gifts from the Holy Spirit. Paul urged the congregation to appreciate the gifts of each member, not to place them in a competitive hierarchy and argue about their merits.

Jesus commanded his disciples to participate in two rituals in which he promised to be present in Spirit. At the baptismal font, we remember that we are God’s beloved children, called into the community. At the table, all who seek the forgiveness of sin and the desire for community formed in Christ’s name are fed that they may be sent out of the sanctuary and into the world to serve. The simple elements of water, bread, and wine strengthen us to reject the locked room syndrome of our broken world.  They draw us out into the world to meet people in places of pain and serve them with God’s compassion.

Amen. May it be so!



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2023, All Rights Reserved
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