This past Sunday, Christa Fisher, Chaplain to Men at the Dane County Jail, visited Grace, preached, and gave a presentation on her work at the Jail. Here is her sermon.
Good Morning. Thank you for the invitation to join you in worship this morning. It is my privilege to be here, sharing the Word of God with you – a Word which has the power to restore and transform lives. As the Chaplain to the men of the Dane County Jail I see God’s powerful Word at work each day, and I am hopeful we will all experience God’s Word at work among us now.
I chose the story of the Death and Resurrection of Lazarus for today because I hear in this story the experience of incarceration – not only the experience of being incarcerated, but also the experiences of the families and communities of the incarcerated. You see, though this is Lazarus’s story, it is also the story of his family, his friends and his community. We learn about Lazarus in the very first verse, when Jesus is sent word of his illness, yet Lazarus does not appear in this story until the very end, when he emerges from the cave. With the exception of this one verse, the rest of the story, the other 43 verses describe how his family and community are coping with the situation. Though it is Lazarus’s story, he is, for the most part, an absent and silent character. This is the experience of incarceration.
Most of the men whom I serve would tell you that time in jail is lost time. Though the clock continues to tick and the seasons come and go, the passing of time has no significance. Nothing happens in jail and there are few resources available to help men and women in jail advocate for themselves. As such they, like Lazarus, lie in windowless cages, day after day, week after week, month after month, and even sometimes year after year, solely dependent upon the compassion of others.
Today’s scripture text begins with a compassionate plea. Martha and Mary have sent a message to Jesus about their brother. “The one whom you love is ill.” Unable to advocate for himself, Lazarus’s sisters advocate on his behalf. They don’t outright ask Jesus to come and heal Lazarus, but they are hopeful the news will compel Jesus to do just that. They are frantic with worry and Jesus is the only one who can truly help.
By the time Jesus arrives Lazarus has died. He is referred to from this point on in the story as “the dead man.” Many of you have been introduced to the men and women who constitute my congregation. You know them, if not as your own family or friend, then through the media, which tells you “who” they are based upon “what” they have done. Their identity is now determined by their worst action, worst choice, or worst behavior. He is a thief. She is a child abuser. He is thug. She is an addict. What the media doesn’t tell you is “why.” Like Mary and Martha, concerned families contact me daily. The one whom they love is “ill” they tell me. He has an addiction to heroin. She suffers from schizophrenia and is un-medicated. He saw his mother beaten to death. She was sold for sex by her grandmother in exchange for drugs. He is homeless. They are in pain. As a pastor of the jail, families reach out to me hoping that by sharing their stories I will understand how to heal their brothers and sisters, their sons and daughters. I am not Jesus. And healing is not one of my gifts. But I believe people can be healed because Jesus tells me, he shows me it to be true.
This is the promise of the cross – God brings forth life from death, love from hatred, joy from pain, and peace from terror. The Christian faith was born out of this promise. We are reminded of it each week and we profess it to be true. Because of this promise we are a hopeful people.
Yet, like Martha, who was a devoted student of Jesus, we often compromise our hope for resignation. “You want us to do what? You want us to remove the stone? Why? He has been dead four days. Already there is a stench. You are too late. There is nothing more we can do.” Hope is scary. It is risky. It can seem irresponsible and it definitely is not rational. Hope may lead to good and great things but it may also result in disappointment, loss and heartbreak. By comparison resignation seems responsible. We know what to expect, when to expect it, and what not to expect. Resignation is safe but it does not lead to life.
It seems to me that the Incarceration System was constructed out of resignation rather than hope. With few exceptions it has functioned as a place where people go who are deemed, at least temporarily, unfit for society. If the Incarceration System had been born out of hope, we wouldn’t be shackling people, putting them in cages, and identifying them based upon booking numbers. We would be prioritizing their mental, physical, logistical and spiritual needs. There are many good intentioned people working within the jail, but their ability to effect change is limited by the System itself. Mental health and medical professionals are drawn to the jail with intention of helping people heal, truly heal. Unfortunately, the demand is so great and the services so few, that their primary responsibilities are to diagnose and distribute medication. Contrary to popular belief, the mental health staff are not therapists. The medical doctor lives in Illinois and visits the jail twice each week. The nursing staff, two people per shift, spend their days triaging the medical needs of the 800-plus men and women confined to the jail each day. And the jail’s one re-entry coordinator has the enormous responsibility of helping all the men and women find jobs, housing, food, medical care, and recovery support services upon release. This is not a system born out of hope but it is also not defined by resignation. Hope exists because God and God’s people continue to be at work.
While I have drawn many parallels between our scripture text and the experience of incarceration, there is one considerable difference. Lazarus was silent in the cave because he had died. The men and women whom I serve are alive and they are vocal about their desire to live full, healthy lives. Each month I receive hundreds of requests for pastoral conversations. Each piece of paper in this stack is an individual request for prayer or conversation from the last two weeks. The need and the hope which exists in the jail is far greater than this stack of paper can begin to demonstrate.
Shortly after beginning my position, I went to speak with a man who had requested a conversation and a prayer. While we were talking men began congregating near us. I didn’t think much of it. There is no privacy in jail – someone is always nearby. After we had concluded our visit I looked up and saw nine men, none of whom had submitted requests, patiently and quietly waiting for time with me. After four hours I spoke and prayed with each of them. Hope is waiting in line for four hours for a prayer.
Sometimes it takes men many weeks or even months to reach to me. When I ask why I hadn’t met them sooner they tell me they weren’t ready. Ready for what? Ready to hope, they say. Hope is scary.
I wonder how Lazarus’s family and community were feeling as Jesus instructed them to open the cave? As Martha pleaded with Jesus to act rationally, were others holding their breath in anxious anticipation? Did Martha try to talk Jesus out of opening the cave because she could not handle any more disappointment? Her fear of disappointment didn’t lie with Lazarus. She expected nothing more from him. Rather, her fear lied with Jesus – she was afraid he would disappoint her.
As the minutes ticked by, the hearts and minds of the people were slowly changed. They watched the radical Rabbi refuse to surrender his trust in God to a trust in rational thinking. And they looked inside themselves, discerning whether or not they might have the courage to hope for the impossible? Throughout his ministry he had been demonstrating to them, that through God nothing is impossible. However, healing someone who is already alive is quite different from raising a “dead man” to life. . .
The story tells us hope reigned that day. The people set aside their fears, their resignation and their rational thinking, and they rolled the stone away.
And then the impossible happened.
The “dead man” heard Jesus call him by name and he followed Jesus’ voice out of the darkness of death and into the light of new life.
The story does not end here. There is one more verse. And this verse is my constant prayer for all of my brothers and sisters in jail. That upon their release they will be met by a community of people who will support, encourage and accompany them on this scary but hopeful journey to a full and healthy life. It seems an impossible dream, completely irrational thinking. But I am a Christian and my faith tells me to trust in God, through whom all things are possible.
“The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to the crowd, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ ”
Thanks be to God.