Sermon for the Second Sunday Easter, Diocese of Western New York

Trinity Church, Buffalo
May 1, 2011

Have you ever been to jail – even just to visit? Many people find it pretty intimidating just to walk in there and hear the doors clang shut behind you. Even people who go in frequently notice the restrictions – you leave your keys and your ID with the guards as you enter, there are lots of other things you can’t take in with you, including wine even if you’re going to have a communion, and generally you can’t touch the inmates or share any personal information. It is very clear that someone else is in control.

Those disciples on the first day of the week have made their own prison – they’ve barred the doors to keep others out. They’re living in fear of the people outside, and even though the gospel defines those people as “the Jews,” the disciples are actually afraid of the religious and the political leaders in Jerusalem: the Roman government and the religious authorities who arrested and executed Jesus.

Those disciples are walled up and locked in, thanks to their fear. Jesus gets in anyway – and believe me, some days it’s easier to meet Jesus in jail than it is on the outside. But Thomas misses that pastoral call, and even though his fellow inmates tell him about Jesus’ visit, he asks for more evidence that Jesus has risen from the dead.

We could all do with a little more evidence. There are times in the lives of each of us when we need some physical evidence, particularly a visit from someone with “skin on.”
I’m reading a remarkable memoir about a Japanese immigrant who arrived on these shores with a degree in agriculture in 1916. He came here wanting to learn more about American farming methods. Hisanori Kano was the second son of a distinguished Japanese family, who became a Christian at age 18, owing to the example of two classmates. He understood his journey here to the United States as a missionary one, to improve the skills of Japanese immigrants, most of whom were farmers or agriculturalists. He came with the support and advocacy of William Jennings Bryan, whom he had met as a teenager.

In the late 1880s increasing numbers of Japanese people immigrated to the US, particularly after the government had excluded the Chinese. In 1907 our respective governments came to a so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement which ended invitations to new workers from Japan, and in 1924 any further immigration was effectively barred. Those Japanese already here were prevented from becoming naturalized or obtaining citizenship by a law passed in 1790. Their children who were born here automatically became citizens, but the first generation was barred from that privilege. After Kano came here, many of the western states also passed laws to prevent Japanese immigrants from owning land, or even leasing substantial acreage for farming. Fear of the foreigner is not new on these shores.

By December 1941 Kano was living and farming in Nebraska, he had married his Japanese fiancé, he had three children, and he was serving his fellow Japanese immigrants and their families as an Episcopal priest and what amounts to an agricultural extension agent. He had also spoken out in several legislative forums about discrimination against the Japanese. The night of the Pearl Harbor bombing he was arrested, and even though the Bishop of Nebraska and others spoke up for him, he was the only Japanese in Nebraska to be imprisoned and detained for the rest of the war.

Kano’s memoir tells about how each prison or internment camp became his congregation. In the first days of the war, three German immigrants were rounded up along with him. Kano ministered to three of them in their despair, and helped them through the hearings that eventually ended in their release. His next stop was a military jail, where he was held with several dozen American soldiers facing court martial. As a body on the first Sunday they were there, the soldiers decided not to attend services in the base chapel, which would have given them a little bit of liberty, but instead to ask Kano to hold services for them. American soldiers, Japanese priest. Jesus got through those locked doors.

Kano was in four different lockups during the war, and after a couple of years he was released on parole, but only to house arrest. That farmer couldn’t even go outside until his detention site was shifted to Nashotah House in Wisconsin. I guess the government decided he couldn’t stir up too much trouble at an Episcopal seminary! All through those years he continued to preach freedom, asking his fellow detainees not to hold a grudge but to seek the well-being of their adopted nation. When others locked the doors from the outside, he responded by opening his heart. Kano continued to provide evidence of resurrection for many, many people, until he died in 1988 at the age of 99[1].

What are the prisons around here? Which of them are self-imposed? I gather that this congregation sponsors a group for people whose previous religious experience has been one of spiritual abuse or imprisonment. How does each person here become evidence of resurrection to those who have known religious communities as jails? Jesus’ disciples didn’t begin to open the cell door until they found the courage and confidence that the presence of God-with-them gave them, until they began to remember that they would find God wherever they went, even into the valley of the shadow of death.

This congregation is also present with people whose jail is poverty – and that means everyone in this community, not just the identifiably poor, for when some live diminished lives because of lack of food or shelter, education or employment, we are all diminished. All of us inmates need physical evidence of the risen one in our midst. How are we giving evidence of the hope that is within us?

If we are really the body of Christ, then offering evidence of the risen one is part of what it means to follow him. That is what baptism is about – when we join this body, we become part of the resurrection witness, giving evidence of our own healed wounds and resurrected life. Out of the experience of death and suffering comes hope for the new thing that God is working in us and in those around us. Where have you felt abandoned, lonely, lost, or hopeless? Who helped to heal that, and how? Those German prisoners found hope through the presence of the other members of their little community, gathered to offer prayer before each one went off for his hearing, and ready to receive the weary and angry inmate back afterward. Kano spent a lot of his time reminding his fellow prisoners to treat their captors graciously.

Maybe you saw the news blurb a couple of days ago about airline workers, and how agents deal with bumped or delayed passengers. The culture of that workplace is that the customer is always treated with dignity, but the story notes that a customer who is caught up in his own infuriation is very unlikely to get special treatment. The one who finds a seat on an overbooked aircraft is more often the one who takes the situation calmly – who chooses not to be imprisoned by anger. How do we offer each other the hope for a way out of the chaotic mess of air travel or crossing the border to Canada? Sometimes it’s the simple decision to smile and not take ourselves quite so seriously. Often it’s the ability to meet others as the image of God: Oh, my! There goes Jesus in another guise!

Are we willing to go looking for the image of God in prison? What prisons are you going to explore this week?

[1]Nikkei Farmer on the Nebraska Plains: A Memoir. Texas Tech Univ. Press, Lubbock: 2010.