Today’s readings are here
Most of you know that over the last year, Grace Church has begun to develop a relationship with the Dane County Jail. It began with a visit to Grace last January from Christa Fisher, chaplain to the jail, who preached and talked about her work in an adult forum. The relationship has deepened, as Grace offered to host the ongoing tutoring project and participating in the jail ministry’s winter clothing drive.
The jail ministry has touched me on a personal level. It may have begun, not with my first encounter and conversation with Christa, but even earlier. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I found myself reflecting on the familiar and powerful parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46, you know the one in which the King says:
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
It struck me at the time, for whatever reason, that in all of my life, I had never set foot in a prison, let alone visited or talked with a prisoner. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I think I’m going to burn in hell for eternity because I never engaged in prison ministry. Rather, I began to realize that prison ministry, especially in this age of mass incarceration, had simply never been of much interest or concern to me. In fact, I probably didn’t even know where the Dane County Jail for the first 3 or 4 years I lived in Madison; that’s shocking to admit, given it’s only two blocks away.
As part of Grace’s involvement with the work of the Madison Jail Ministry, I have challenged myself to take an active role in supporting the work of the chaplains. Last May, I participated in a tour of the jail that is intended for new employees and volunteers. It was an eye-opening, unforgettable experience. It wasn’t just that parts of the jail, the two top floors of the City County Building that could serve as a movie set for a 1930s era prison. That’s the part of the jail where they repeatedly have difficulties opening cell doors and evacuating inmates during fire drills. It was the demeanor of those who were incarcerated. Their body language and demeanor were those of people without hope, living in despair. They were lonely, abandoned by society, living at the arbitrary whims and actions of their jailors.
By now, we should all be familiar with the statistics, so I won’t belabor them. As Michelle Alexander argued with great passion and eloquence in her book The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration targets African-Americans, especially African-American males disproportionately. It’s not just that an unconscionable number of African-Americans are incarcerated in the US, it’s that they are incarcerated for longer sentences and for crimes for which White Americans walk free.
The racial disparities and hopelessness of mass incarceration are on full display in the Dane County Jail. Many of those in the jail are there for parole violations that can be as minor as having used a computer. What struck me during my tour of the jail was that I hadn’t been anywhere that looked quite like the Dane County jail, or encountered such despair and hopelessness in the eyes and body language of the incarcerated, since my visit to East Germany back in 1980. The Dane County jail, like the former East Germany, is the carceral and surveillance state on full display.
All of this came to mind this week as I read and reflected on our gospel. It’s another episode concerning John the Baptist and the contrast between his demeanor here, in Matthew 11, and in the reading from last week, from Matthew 3, couldn’t be more stark. Last week we saw him railing against the religious and political elites for their corruption, and prophesying that the wrath of God would soon come down upon them. He was courageous, resolute, unworried about the response his preaching might arouse in his opponents.
Now, a few weeks or months later, he is in prison, having crossed Herod one too many times. But Herod isn’t quite sure what to do with him; the gospel of Luke suggests even that Herod kind of liked having John around,, he brought him in for conversations. According to Matthew, Herod wanted to have John executed, but feared how the people might respond.
In any case, now John is in prison. It’s puzzling given what we know about John, that he wonders about Jesus’ identity, that he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
I mean, how could he not know? They are cousins, for crying out loud (at least that’s what Luke tells us). John baptized Jesus. John told everyone that Jesus was the one sent by God, that he, John, was only his messenger. John may even have heard the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” How could he have doubts?
Well, there are a couple of answers to this question. First, there’s the issue of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, and what from the gospels seems to be something of a competition between them, perhaps even a struggle between followers of John and Jesus later, after their deaths, over who was the greater. There’s all sorts of evidence, even in the Book of Acts, that John continued to have a following, and that his followers competed with the followers of Jesus for popularity.
There’s also the fundamental problem for the early Jesus movement that Jesus was baptized by John…
Finally, there’s the little detail that the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, agree that Jesus began his public ministry only after John was arrested; that he waited until then to begin preaching publicly and healing people.
So there’s something very interesting going on in the gospels’ depiction of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist.
But I don’t think that’s the only reason that John asks this question about Jesus identity from prison. Prison, in the first or the twenty-first century is a place of hopelessness and despair. Too often, it’s a waiting room for death. Think of all of the people on death row across our nation, and think about the decades many of them have been languishing there.
I think John’s question may come out of his hopelessness and despair and I’m not sure Jesus’ response to him, reassured him. Jesus tells John’s disciples, “‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus omits something in that response. When that list of things appears in Isaiah, and when in Luke’s telling, Jesus proclaims those words in his first public sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, there’s another group mentioned:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
The blind may see, the lame walk, the poor here the good news, but Jesus makes no mention of prisoners in his response to John’s disciples, no promise of freedom, no freedom for John himself.
John’s doubts and uncertainties were well-founded and it’s an open question whether Jesus’ reply to him did anything to reassure him as he lay in prison and waited for his death.
That should be unsettling for us. It may even raise our doubts and uncertainties. If John couldn’t or didn’t know, and if Jesus’ words offered him no consolation or hope in his particular situation, may our doubts and uncertainties are warranted. Maybe hopelessness, despair, cynicism are appropriate responses in our situation, too. After all, it’s not just John. There is still suffering in the world—the blind, deaf, disabled; and millions upon millions of people who languish in poverty and are food insecure.
So there is cause for despair, cause for doubt, cause for uncertainty. In the midst of all of that, there are also signs of hope—signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign in this dark world. Signs of hope in the work, faith, and spirit of the chaplains at the Dane County jail, signs of hope in the work and witness of our food pantry; signs of hope, signs of God’s inbreaking reign in the coming of Christ in a tiny and distant village in the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. This Advent, may we look for signs of Christ’s coming and signs of God’s coming reign, in our hearts and in the world around us, and when we see those signs, may we know that Christ is coming, that he is the one for whom we are waiting.