As my older sister, Kathy, was approaching her 50th birthday she held a series of parties. I think the first gathering was billed as a book party. In preparation, she emptied her shelves and spread books all around the house. At the end of the evening, guests were free to leave with as many books as they could carry.
The next party featured her pottery. An accomplished potter, Kathy had been turning out bowls and mugs, teapots and lamps, vases and pitchers for more than twenty years. Again, guests arrived to find her handiwork spread over the house. Again, guests left with whatever they chose to take.
When the celebrating came to an end, Kathy’s remaining possessions fit in the very smallest truck that you can rent. At the age of 50 she packed it up and headed to Cornell, to begin law school. Looking back on the process, she said that it was emotionally exhausting to let everything go, but when the process was finished, she had never felt so free.
For my sister, law school was the next step in responding to God’s claim on her life. Already she had spent time volunteering in a local law office. Already she had been corresponding with prisoners on death row, but ultimately she concluded that if she were going to make a real difference, she needed to get equipped. And so, for three years she put her head down and studied. For three years she shared breakfast with her husband via Skype, as he followed a different call in Boston.
Frederick Buechner famously said that “The place God calls you to
is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” For Kathy, that place is in the jails and prisons of our communities. As odd as it sounds, that is where she comes alive.
For many of us, it is in looking back over our lives that we recognize God’s hand—“the slow work of God” leading, providing, redeeming, making new. But for others, there are radical turning points, when God’s invitation feels urgent and profound and immediate. Either way, God often uses particular individuals to speak the truth in love to us at seminal moments.
On Kathy’s list of such messengers is a man named Glen Edward Chapman.
It has been almost ten years now since Edward was exonerated—cleared of the murders of two women he knew, but did not kill. He was 26 when he was sentenced to death. He was 40 when our state acknowledged its error.
In the years between he missed his grandmother’s funeral and his mother’s funeral; he missed watching his sons grow up; he missed holding his sweetheart’s hand as she died of cancer.
But Edward says that the most difficult moments in prison were when someone was taken away to be executed. A quiet would descend over the whole unit. And then later, they would remember the man with a careful ritual: Each inmate would pass by the door of the dead man’s cell; knock, and call out his name. Then they would say: ‘No matter where they take you, brother, you still with us.”
On April 2nd, 2008, when Edward’s name was called, he was confused.
He’d just come in from playing basketball in the prison yard and taken a shower. The sergeant told him only that he should “pack up.” Edward thought he was being moved to another cell—which would mean that he’d been granted a new trial—but at any rate, he did not need to “pack up.”
In 14 years, Edward had never unpacked. Most inmates spread their belongings under their beds, but Edward had refused ever to take his personal items out of his bag. He knew he didn’t belong in prison and for 14 years he had refused to settle in. When the time came to go, he would be ready—and he was.
Looking back over the long years of his incarceration, Edward remembers that during the first three, he cried all the time. But death row is not beyond the power of God’s grace. Some of the older convicts reached out to him, saying, in effect: you can choose to hang with the knuckleheads, or you can hang with us and keep living and learning as long as you can.
And so Edward chose life.
This is the way Edward described those relationships in a magazine article published after his release. He said: “A lot of people would say that winnin’ the lottery is the best thing that ever could happen to them in their life, but my experience with these men, I feel that is my lottery. I feel that that has made me the richest person in the world, and I wouldn’t trade that with Bill Gates, Donald Trump, or any of them.”
You see, Edward made a lot of poor decisions as a young man, growing up in Hickory. He hustled; he used drugs. As strange as it sounds, Edward knows that if Catawba County had not sentenced him to death, he might not be alive today. Ironically, it wasn’t until Edward went to prison that he found the community he had needed all along.
Now Edward doesn’t take anything for granted. He works hard at whatever he’s asked to do. Last I knew he was an utterly dependable dishwasher in Asheville. With the help of friends, he makes it work. He puts it like this: “I’ve seen what the old me was like, and I don’t like that person. I’m determined not to be that person.” Somewhere along the line, Edward realized that he had the power to choose how he would live. Somewhere along the line Edward opened his heart to transforming grace.
Here’s how my sister describes the choice that Edward made: “The thing that struck me was a video I saw of him being interviewed shortly after his release. The reporters were trying to get him to say what he wanted to see happen to the police officer whose actions led to this wrongful conviction,
but Edward just said that that was up to the State, that he was not going to worry about that, that they had taken enough of his life, and he was going to go forward from here.”
Kathy went on to say: “Like most of us, I guess, he knows that…bitterness and revenge don’t serve him; but unlike me, anyway, he seems able to really let it go, to say ‘that part’s not mine,’ and to go forward to build a life for himself, do his part, accept the generosity of others, and continue to try to make a contribution through his speaking and such.
He doesn’t really use the language of forgiveness (at least as far as I’ve heard), but he has forgiven more than I can imagine, whatever he calls it.
And he learned this from other men on death row. I think that’s stunning.”
In a real way, Edward’s liberation did not come about on April 2, 2008, when he was given new clothes and released into fresh air—Edward had been freed years earlier by the grace extended to him by other inmates,
even as he sat on death row.
It turns out that the kind of freedom God extends to us is less about our external circumstances than it is about who we understand ourselves to be and how we choose to live. It’s possible to be shackled by possessions in the midst of abundance, and it’s possible to discover freedom behind bars.
As our text from Exodus opens, physical liberation has been accomplished.
The people of Israel have left Egypt—the problem is that they can’t stop behaving like slaves. And so God draws near and announces: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Everything that follows flows from that claim.
The ten commandments—the ten words—the gift of the law—however we name them, they are intended to guide the people as they learn what it means to be free. God sets the boundaries that will allow them to flourish, saying: “This is how people who are free, who are beloved—this is how they live. They honor their creator, they honor each other; they live in faithfulness. There have no need for violence or theft or falsehood or envy.”
Almost 30 years ago Al Winn described the 10 commandments as “God’s dream for us.” He points out that the Hebrew verbs in question are rendered in the negative future. That means that while they can express a prohibition, as we usually hear them: “you shall not;” they could just as easily express a promise, as, “In days to come, you will not…”
The time will come when:
Your other gods will disappear—those things you put in place of me, you will put them down.
You will live free from idols—they will have no place in the life we share.
And when you speak my name, you will understand its power. You will not say it carelessly, or use it for harm.
You will rest in my love and provision, delighting in me and in each other.
You will honor those who came before you.
You will live in faithfulness, generosity, truth and contentment.
What God describes—what God speaks into life—is both the future toward which we move, and the life we have a chance to experience now. But if we are to live out that vision, if we are to taste it now, we must remember whose vision it is—we must remember whose we are.
And so on this week which held such devastating news of death and injury in Las Vegas, in Mumbai, in Myanmar—in so many forgotten corners of God’s world—we, too, have a choice to make about how we will live. We can give into the bondage of fear and political expedience—we can go along with whatever crowd we claim, or we can listen for God’s voice in the midst of the clamor, reminding us whose we are, asking us to bear our Creator’s gracious and powerful image in the world.
May the God of holy, liberating love speak clearly to each of our hearts and to the heart of this community.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, A Seeker’s ABC. New York: HarperCollins, 1973, 119.
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
 Throughout the sermon, details and quotations attributed to Edward Chapman derived from an article published in an issue of Details magazine that appeared sometime between 2008 and 2012. The magazine is no longer in circulation, and I have depended upon notes that do not contain the date of publication of the magazine.
 Albert Curry Winn, A Christian Primer. Louisville: John Knox Press, 191.
 This paraphrase leans heavily on Al Winn’s work, cited above.