“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on Ascension Day, 5th of May 2016.

Albert Woodfox was freed from prison in February of this year on his 69th birthday having spent the past 43 years in prison.  Save for the last few months during his preparation for release, all of those 43 years have been spent n an isolation cell.

As Albert walked out a free man, a highly questionable record had been set.  He became the longest standing solitary confinement prisoner in America.  For 43 years he had lived in a concrete box measuring 6 ft x 9 ft.  He had no view of the sky, there was no human contact and taking a walk meant pacing from one end of the cell to the other and back again.

Ed Pilkington, a journalist with the Guardian who interviewed Albert recently records:

‘Of all the terrifying details of Woodfox’s four decades of solitary incarceration – the absence of human touch, the panic attacks and bouts of claustrophobia, the way they chained him even during the one hour a day he was allowed outside the cell – perhaps the most chilling of all is what he says now.  tow months after the state of Louisana set him free, he says he sometimes wishes he was back in that cell.’

Albert adds:

“You know, human beings are territorial, they feel more comfortable in areas they are secure.  In a cell, you have a routine,  you pretty much know what is going to happen, when it’s going to happen, but in society, it’s difficult, it’s looser. So there are moments when, yeah, I wish I was back in the security of the cell.  I mean, it does that to you.”

Albert has survived 15,000 days of isolation, a form of captivity that the United Nations has denounced as torture.

With his conviction twice overturned, he walked out of prison an innocent man.  For 43 years, he experienced among other things, the powerlessness of having no voice and so is now dedicating his life to being a voice for those still in the hell of solitary confinement, feeling such a great responsibility for them.

But he has also said that the most disturbing part of freedom has been the dawning realisation of the change within society – he feels little sense of struggle for the wellbeing of all that he experienced before his imprisonment; rather “It’s all about me, what I need and how I’m going to get it”. That indifference, he believes, has in turn allowed the iniquity of solitary confinement to flourish.  “People don’t seem to be socially aware, nobody cares.”

And to some extent, that same indifference, indifference to the suffering of others whether as individuals or as a community, and the desire to cover one’s own back at the expense of the truth, enabled the iniquity of the injustice experienced by the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster to continue for 27 long years.

By contrast a judge in Italy’s highest court has ruled that the theft of a sausage and a piece of cheese by a homeless refugee did not constitute a crime because he was in desperate need of nourishment – the need to feed and the right to survive superseded property rights.

And it was a year ago today that we opened the doors of our Soup Kitchen for the first time!    It has been a  joy to witness the way in which our parish community has responded to this initiative and embraced the people whom many would prefer to ignore.  What was experienced by a man in Italy, and what we experience through the work of our Soup Kitchen week by week is a glimpse of what God calls us to  be, a glimpse of how He calls us all to live in community.

Every day, and in so many different ways, we experience personally or through the stories of others, something of the astounding wonder, beauty and goodness of humanity; but also humanity’s capacity for ugliness, brutality, and cruelty; deeply flawed and broken.

So what has all of this got to do with what we celebrate tonight – The Feast of the Ascension??

The amazing truth that the Ascension affirms is that humanity and divinity are not like oil and water – remaining completely separate – but inseparably bound together.  The story of the Ascension makes absolutely clear that the humanity which God assumed at the incarnation is not something temporary – God became fully and completely human in Christ; and that humanity, with its astounding beauty and capacity for goodness and gentleness, and in all its ugliness and brutality, that humanity, flawed though it is, is now taken into the very heart of God.  The ascended Christ remains both fully human and fully divine, and where Christ is, there we may be also.

Year by year, as we reach this particular Feast Day, we are reminded that God in Christ is no longer restricted by time or place, but  is with us always, no matter what, no matter where, no matter when.  And He will take our flawed lives, our stumbling and imperfect efforts and transform them in the building of his kingdom.  How?  Through the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.  He just asks that we open our hearts to that gift, widen our imaginations and dream.  Then the impossible will become possible.

The giving of that gift, celebrated by the Church in nine days time at Pentecost, strengthened, encouraged and emboldened that group of fearful, flawed and hesitant disciples to become the effective dynamic witnesses to Christ ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’.  It is the beginning of that work, with its joys, their dreams, its challenges and its hardships that Luke recounts in the Acts of the Apostles.  The fruits of that work we experience here today, and see in the life of Christian communities across the world!

It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that today’s disciples – you and me and all who are baptized,  are strengthened to continue that work of discernment; and having discerned, encouraged to dream and imagine extraordinary possibilities and then to act, discovering deep within the courage and capacity to respond to the pain and suffering in our world with something of Christ’s love and mercy, justice and compassion, actively at work to make a difference in the world, the kind of difference love makes, the kind of difference that really builds the kingdom for which we long for, hope for and pray for, day by day, week by week.

Re-imagine what God can and will do; lets widen our vision to re-imagine the world through God’s eyes, to see those around us through God’s eyes; to see God in the people you and I meet, day by day.  And lets dream and re-imagine what we can do to ease the pain and suffering of His broken yet glorious world!  For we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!!

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.  He is risen indeed. Alleluia