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Sermon for June 28, 2015: Valerie
God, according to St. Paul, wants us to succeed. God has created us to excel. God has created us for life. Scripture tells us over and over again that humanity is basically good – that human beings are made to love – not hate, to create – not destroy – for righteousness, not corruption. But the reality is that we do not always choose to live as we are meant to. The reality is that sometimes we can’t, because other people choose not to live the way we’re meant to. The reality is that sometimes people simply don’t know how to live the way we’re meant to.
Valerie didn’t. Valerie was an inmate at a Woman’s Correctional Facility who was brought into the prison’s psychology center by a friend who said, “She needs help.” But when asked what she needed help with, Valerie said nothing; she just sat in the waiting room, staring straight ahead. When she was invited into a treatment room,
Valerie followed, but refused to say a word for the entire fifty minutes of her session. When she was told she could come back at the same time the next week if she wanted to, Valerie didn’t respond – but she showed up every week, pushed through the door by her friend. And every week she sat perfectly still, focused on nothing, and determinedly silent. It was a mystery why she came. Valerie’s prison level said she was high level inmate who was known for violent behavior – and the poster girl of
“problem inmates.” She was notorious in the system for having started a riot at one of the toughest female prisons in the country. According to some reports, Valerie “went so totally ballistic” that it took seven armed men to “bring her down.”
But there was no evidence of that level of repressed violence in the short, stocky woman with graying brown hair and John Lennon glasses who came to the psychology center and sat silently through her appointments. The main feeling that radiated off her was distrust and, underneath that, anxiety. She wasn’t saying it in words, but Valerie’s posture and steady blue eyes said she wanted help – and finally, after the fourth silent session, the therapist found out why.
Valerie was born in a small town in the Midwest on land that had once been an
“Indian Reservation.” She was never much for school, but had an innate talent for knowing how things worked and eked out a meager living as a mechanic. Valerie was proud of her Choctaw heritage and she was tough – tough enough to stand up to the local motorcycle gang members who dared to question her judgment about the condition of their bikes and what it would cost to fix them. She was a woman of few words. She wasn’t big on expressing her feelings, which was, to be honest, a pretty smart policy in her social circles. But Valerie had feelings – and she poured them all into the songs she composed on her beat-up but perfectly tuned guitar. And lots of people came to hear her, including a local band promoter who was putting together a USO tour to Vietnam. Given her tough circumstances, it wasn’t too hard for him to convince her to join the tour band.
At first, Valerie was thrilled with her new gig. She had never been out of her home town and as the tour group came together and practiced their numbers, she met people unlike any she had ever known and she felt more important than she had ever felt before in her life. Until she got to Vietnam. As a member of the USO tour, Valerie was never exposed to active combat areas, but she met enough wounded soldiers and cynical performers to understand that life was cheap and everyone was, as she said, in it for themselves. Except for a few people – people like Donna.
Donna was a nurse at a hospital unit where Valerie played a tour date. Donna was kind, gentle, and selfless. They spent two hours talking together and Valerie started to open up – to talk about her feelings- even to laugh and cry – like she had never done before. And then the sirens went off. According to Valerie, the hospital, which was supposed to be off the combat grid, was about to undergo a direct attack by the North Vietnamese – and they were given less than five minutes to prepare themselves for it. Donna and Valerie worked together to do what they could for the patients. Since they couldn’t move them, they threw mattresses over them for protection. As the shelling started, Donna and Valerie crouched in a hastily-dug, shallow foxhole, holding hands and silently watching destruction rain down around them. When one shell dropped immediately overhead, Valerie felt herself thrown from the trench, landing dizzy and disoriented about five feet away. When she turned around, she thought she could still see Donna bent over in the foxhole – but when she managed to crawl back to her, she realized that Donna was dead.
Valerie was haunted by what happened to her long after she got back home. She had nightmares. She couldn’t stand the noise of helicopters. When she heard them, she flashed back to that terrible scene in Vietnam – and all she could think of was escaping.
So when she was locked up in a cell and heard the sound of the prison’s SWAT team practicing rescue ops – when she heard the noise of the helicopter and their guns and the shouting – she lost all sense of reality. She didn’t know where she was or why – she only knew that she was locked up and needed to get out. It turned out that Valerie wasn’t really a violent person. Valerie was a traumatized person. She didn’t need to be
controlled; she needed to be healed.
But no one knew it. No one knew that her PTSD had led to the riot. No one knew because she didn’t tell them. Valerie did not believe in the basic goodness of human beings. Valerie saw that human beings bring death into the world. Valerie knew that you couldn’t trust anyone – not even God. Because how could you trust a
God who allows wars, hunger, fear and death? A God who allowed someone like
Donna to be killed. According to Valerie, God was for suckers and liars – and Christians were the worst liars of all. Christians talked about a God that loved people and then fought with each other. Christianity, she said, ends in the parking lot.
How do you argue with that? Nothing in Valerie’s life supported the idea of a God who made us in the “image of eternity.” Nothing in her life told her that abundance was possible. Nothing in her life gave her a chance to believe.
Nothing but a friend who forced her to go see a therapist so she could get better. Nothing but a therapist who sat with her for four straight 50-minute sessions in compassionate silence. Nothing but the fact that powers-that-be in the usually cold and unfeeling prison system actually listened to Valerie’s therapist and moved Valerie to a place where there are no helicopters. Where there are no guns being fired. Where the custody officers actually read her file and never backed her into a corner or made her feel trapped again. Nothing but the mercy of God, enacted through the people of God.
Those people had to give up something to help Valerie – they had to believe that she could be helped – that she was worth helping. They had to give up their time, their fear, their prejudice – and it was hard for them to do it. Because it’s human nature to want to hold on to the abundance in our own lives– especially when we have to give it to someone who may not deserve it. Our gospel reading tells us that even Jesus struggled with it. When he was touched by an unclean woman – a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years and whose ritual uncleanness had reversed her social status completely – he confronted her, forcing her to admit before the entire crowd what she had done. But when she demonstrated her understanding of God – her belief that
God did not fill her children with “destructive poison” but rather with the capacity for
righteousness- Jesus blessed her for it.
Most of us don’t have any idea of what it’s like to be that woman – or the leader of the synagogue whose powerful position in the community could not save his only daughter – or Valerie. Most of us are more like the Christians in Corinth who excelled in everything – who knew what it was to be loved – who knew what it was like to be rich in spirit. Most of us live in “present abundance.” And we are grateful for it. We want to do what is right with it. We would not be here if that were not true. But it’s hard not to be afraid. It’s hard not to worry that if we’re not careful, we will end up being the ones in need of healing, in need of mercy. But scripture tells us we need not be. Because if we can let go of our fears – if we can allow ourselves to be eager to share our gifts – our knowledge, our speech and especially our faith – the relief we give to others will not take from our abundance, but add to it.
Jesus felt the power go forth from him and he blessed the woman who had claimed it by faith, who chose to accept the gift of grace that was hers for the taking. What would it be like for us to bless those who take power from us – to be eager to allow a fair balance between our abundance and the needs of others? What would it be like to truly believe that God always gives us everything we need? How many “Valeries” would turn from distrust and hatred toward the love of God? I don’t know.
But I think if we could do it – I think it would be a lot like – heaven. AMEN.
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