It Takes a Community

This sermon was prepared this sermon for Christian Community Development’s “Locked in Solidarity Week.” This is a week (usually the first week in February) where churches and organizations focus on the mass incarceration problem in our country. My sermon talks about the importance of walking with formerly incarcerated people after they have been released from prison. If you would rather watch this sermon, here is the link. The link is to our entire worship service on that Sunday. So, feel free to worship, or to fast forward to the sermon. Let me know what you think.

IT TAKES A COMMUNITY

After spending decades in prison, now in his 70s, Brooks is finally free! But he doesn’t feel free. He feels scared and alone and trapped in his past. The world is a strange place, entirely unfamiliar to him. In a letter to his friends still inside he writes, “I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside.” The traffic. The sounds. The smells. It’s overwhelming. After taking a bus into the city, Brooks tries to get comfortable in his room at the half-way house and acquainted with his new life. Fortunately, Brooks was able to find a job bagging groceries at a neighborhood store. But at his age, the work is difficult. His only solace is going to the park and feeding the pigeons. Adding to his stress is his inability to sleep. He doesn’t know it, but he has PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. Brooks starts daydreaming of committing a violent crime so he can go back to prison. He knows he can survive in that world. He’s not sure he can make it in the “free world.” With nowhere to turn and no one to talk to, Brooks decides to leave. Completely institutionalized and overcome by depression, Brooks hangs himself in his room at the half-way house. But before he does, he climbs up on a table and with his pocket-knife carves in a beam his prayer, his declaration, his only cry for help, “Brooks was here.”

If you don’t know, what I described was a haunting scene from the classic prison move, Shawshank Redemption.However, it paints an accurately dark picture of the difficulties formerly incarcerated people face upon release. Every time I watch that scene I think, “What can I do? What is my responsibility, as a follower of Jesus, to ensure another Brooks doesn’t kill himself or herself?” The writer of Hebrews admonishes, “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3).[1]Notice the word “continue” in that verse. The Greek word being translated means to remember or to be mindful. By adding the word “continue” we discover the verb tense behind “remember.”[2] The verb tense is the second person active voice. The writer of Hebrews is saying, “You, yourself, always be mindful and care for the prisoner as if you, yourself, were a prisoner.” As followers of Jesus, it is our responsibility to take care of prisoners WHILE they are incarcerated AND after their release back into the community. Our responsibility increases the longer a person is incarcerated. Thus, the recidivism rate says as much about the church’s obedience to Christ as it does the individual’s ability to stay out of trouble.

The Facts

 The United States leads the world, by far, in the number of incarcerated peoples, not in percentages of people per capita, but in raw numbers! Here are some facts:[3]

  • 2 million people are in prisons and jails, right now, in the United States. That’s a 500% increase over the last 40 years. The next closest country is El Salvador, and then there is a drastic decrease before you get to countries like Spain and France and Germany.
  • When you include individuals on parole or probation, the number of people in the U.S. Justice System jumps to almost 7 million!
  • There were more people incarcerated for drug offenses in 2018 then the entire prison/jail population in 1980.
  • 1 in 9 people in prison are serving life sentences, of which 1/3 are serving life without parole.
  • 1 in 5 incarcerated people are locked up for a drug offense.
  • Over 550,000 people are in prison who have yet to be convicted of anything. Every one of these individuals is presumed innocent but could not afford bail. They are forced to sit in jail awaiting trial.
  • Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated as white men and are more likely to face stiffer sentences.
  • Hispanics are twice as likely to be incarcerated as white men.
  • While the prison/jail population has increased drastically, the crime rate has substantially declined since the 1990s.
  • Between 50%-60% of people in prisons/jails are parents of minor children; 1 in 15 black children, 1 in 42 Latino children, and 1 in 111 white children have a parent in prison/jail.
  • 1 in 17 black men ages 30-34 are in prison/jail, 1 in 42 Hispanic men, and 1 in 91 white men.
  • 93% of people in prison/jail are men and 7% are women.
  • Over 77 million people in the United States has a criminal record and over 113 million adults have an immediate family member that has a criminal record.
  • In most circumstances convicted felons permanently lose their right to vote.
  • Once released, convicted felons cannot receive student loans. In some cases, however, they can receive Pell Grants.
  • It is extremely difficult, and under certain crimes forbidden, for a convicted felon to get any type of low-income housing or subsidized housing.
  • The unemployment rate for anyone who has been in prison/jail is a round 30%, over three-times higher than the national average. For African Americans, it is closer to 40%.
  • 1 in 5 prisoners in the United States have had COVID-19. In some states over half the prison population have contracted COVID.
  • Because of COVID, most prisons/jails have suspended all programs and all visitations. Even family members cannot visit.
  • Within three years of their release, 2 out of 3 people are rearrested and more than half are incarcerated again.

There should be no doubt we have a mass incarceration problem in the United States. We desperately need prison reform. In the face of such a huge problem you may be asking yourself, “What can I possibly do to make a difference?”As a pastor I ask myself, “What can the church and the community do to make a difference?”

I have been in prison ministry for some time now. My church is heavily invested in it. I often times wonder what the prisons and jails would do without all the religious groups who volunteer enormous amount of time and energy that hopefully make their jobs easier. As churches, I think we do a good job inside prisons and jails, at least until COVID-19. But there is lots of improvement we could do when it comes to walking along side inmates once they are released. We could make a huge difference in recidivism if we upped our re-entry game.

What would that look like?

First a story from the gospels.

A Gospel Story

Luke, the gospel writer, records, “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee” (Luke 17:11). There is a lot going on in this one verse. Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem to die. Soon, He would join the throngs of people who have been incarcerated, beaten, and executed. All in the name of a distortive view of justice.

Traveling along the border of Samaria and Galilee is also carries importance. Samaritans and Galileans did not like each other. On another occasion Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. Jesus had been walking in the heat all day and He and she was drawing water from Jacob’s Well. The woman was surprised Jesus acknowledged her. She said, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” The gospel writer then adds, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4:7-9). In reality, according to the customs of that day, any Jew who drank from the same cup as a Samaritan, would be considered ceremonially unclean! Why the hostility? It goes back several generations, but ultimately it came down to ethnic differences. Samaritans were descendants of the northern tribes of Israel and were seen by the Jews of Jesus’s day who were descendants of Judah as “half-breeds” because they at intermarried with Assyrians. To the Jews, Samaritans were the “other” who were to always be looked on with suspicion. Usually, on the way to Jerusalem, Jews would go around Samaria, even though passing through Samaria would be quicker.

Jesus chose to travel along the border between Samaria and Galilee. This was extremely dangerous! He may have chosen this route to avoid the authorities who were looking for Him. This border would have been a wasteland. It was a place criminals would hide. Most of the people living along the border would have been outcasts from both Samaria and Galilee. Many of these outcasts would have been marginalized, and sent to the border, because they had leprosy.

Luke continues, “As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’” (Luke 17:12-13). I have wondered if this “village” was actually a leper colony. This story is unique to Luke’s gospel, and remember, Luke was a medical doctor. Regardless, following the custom of the day, the lepers did not let Jesus get too close to them, and Jesus doesn’t touch them. Instead, Jesus said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And then Luke adds, “And as they went, they were cleansed” (Luke 17:14).

The Law of Moses demanded banishment for all sorts of reasons. Everything from promiscuity to certain crimes to an accident with farm animals to a bad diet to communicable diseases, were all reasons to expel someone from living in the broader community. Banishment carried with it a spiritual, emotional, and physical cost, regardless of the reason for the banishment. According to the Law of Moses, after the time of banishment was over, or, in the case of sicknesses and diseases, after the person became well, he or she were to go to the priest to be announced as clean, and then offer prescribed sacrifices (see Leviticus 14 as an example). Once the priest declared a person clean, or “time-served,” that person was welcomed back into the community. Without the blessing of a priest, a person would not be welcomed back into the community.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying a person in prison/jail has a disease or is unclean. Quite the contrary! What I am saying is that when a person has been marginalized or banished from the broader community, for whatever reason, there has to be a process that welcomes them back into the community. That is the only path to complete healing (see Luke 17:19). This is the goal of restorative justice. Furthermore, I believe, in the same way the priests of the Bible played a key role in the healing of a banished person, so the church plays a key role in welcoming people back into society. This is our mandate. This is what it means to be “…Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

The end of the story of the Ten Lepers gives us another important lesson. Luke continues, “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:16). Luke is really pointing out the ethnicity of the only person who said, “thank you.” Out of ten lepers, only one expressed his gratitude, and it wasn’t the one you thought would say it!

“Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well’” (Luke 17:19). The implication is while all ten were “healed,” only one was “made whole.”

Here is the application, and I hoped it is not to strained: When people are sent away to prisons and jails, they are banished from society. This banishment creates emotional harm, even if it was justified. Incarcerated persons are not unclean, but they often see themselves as unworthy of any meaningful relationship. Often, they don’t want family members and children to come visit them because they don’t want to be seen as less than human. This loss of community can be devastating. This is where the Church, the representation of Jesus in the world today, can come in and bring healing. Our Savior was a convicted felon! We go to jails and prisons because we know that is where Jesus is. We meet Him there. We see Jesus in the eyes of our incarcerated brothers and sisters.

But what about when our friends on the inside are released to the outside? Are we there to greet them when they walk free? Are we there to walk with them and talk with them and to assist them to get reoriented into society? Are we there, to not just bring healing, but to make them whole? Do we walk along-side them and encourage them, knowing the vast majority of them will eventually walk away without ever saying thank you? Jesus, the Son of God, only got one out of ten to say thanks. Would we be satisfied if only one out of one hundred says thank you?

Building relationships with incarcerated people is easy. Building relationships with formerly incarcerated people is messy. What can we do? How can the Church do her part in bringing wholeness, welcoming people back into the community?

The primary way the church can help is mentoring. All of us want to know someone loves us and is in our corner, fighting for us. The first place a person should look to for help once outside the walls of the prison is people inside the walls of the church. In actually, they should not have to look. We should be waiting for them with open arms. A mentoring program doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to have people committed to walking alongside a formerly incarcerated person for the long-haul. Mentoring does as much for the mentor as the mentee. Ideally the mentoring relationship starts on the inside and continues on the outside. One thing a mentor could do right now is download and print out a handbook published by the Federal Bureau of Prisons from their website, http://www.bop.gov.

Another important place the Church can get involved is by offering job training. For several years my church has used Jobs for Life in our jail ministry. In addition to building a skill set, an important aspect of job training is teaching how to prepare a resume, goal setting, and interview skills. A livable wage job will do more to reduce the recidivism rate than any other thing. It is crucial that churches build relationships with formerly incarcerated persons so that he or she has a network that will open doors that otherwise will not open.

A third, though no less important, thing a church can do is provide housing for a person after their release. In fact, often, an inmate will not be released from prison/jail until housing is secured. Can you imagine your release from prison being delayed because no one is willing to practice hospitality? The Apostle Peter wrote, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:8-9). Right before the writer of Hebrews admonished us to remember the prisoner he or she said, “Do not neglect hospitality to strangers, for my this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NASB[4]). Housing can be provided by someone in the church who has an extra room, or subsidizing rent until the person is able to do it on their own.

There are many other ways the church can get involved but let me just mention one more. The church can get involved by fighting for and supporting prison reform legislation. In other words, we can get involved by being activists on behalf of our incarcerated friends. Below are just a few of the policies we can and should support:

  • Ban the Box: Removing the box on a job application that asks if a person has a criminal record. An ex-offender should have the chance to prove himself/herself first. Often, this box stops the interview process before it even gets started. Currently thirteen states have ban-the-box laws.
  • End JLWOP (Juvenile Life Without Parole): In 2012 the Supreme Court ruled a juvenile convicted of murder cannot receive a life without parole sentence. However, there are still 29 states that allow life without parole for juveniles.
  • Sentence Reform: Things like mandatory minimums create unjust and unfair sentences on individuals.
  • End the Death Penalty: All life is valuable, and every human being is created in the image of God. Capital punishment attacks the Imago Dei. Furthermore, capital punishment is not a deterrent and only adds to the number of victims.
  • Bail Reform: The current bail system in the United States has created a two-tier justice system. Everyday hundreds of thousands of unconvicted people are confined in jails because they could not afford bail.

CONCLUSION

In 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 the Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Our God is a God of reconciliation. The gospel is a gospel of reconciliation. Through Jesus Christ, God reconciles the world to Himself. Because we have been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ, we have the responsibility to tell others they too can be reconciled to God.

Why?

Because everyone deserves a second chance! No one should be defined for the rest of their life by one mistake they made in life. The way our justice system is supposed to work is that a person pays for their crime by being removed from society for a period of time. Once they serve their time they are to be released and given a clean slate to become productive members of society. Instead of being an ex-offender, or a formerly incarcerated person (even though I have used both terms in this sermon) the person should be called free and restored and simply called by their names, John, Sue, Mike, and Lisa. If, in Christ, the old is truly gone and the new has truly come, that’s the least we can do.

Last year’s sermon for Locked in Solidarity was about the death penalty. I ended that sermon with a prayer written by my friend, and my personal pastor, Kevin Burns. Kevin is still incarcerated on Tennessee’s death-row. He has been locked up for over twenty-years and is innocent of the charges against him. He is a godly man, full of faith, and confident he will one day walk out of prison and back into the community, free and exonerated. On numerous occasions Kevin has said to me, “God told me He sent me here for a mission and when that mission is complete, He will get me out.” I believe that with him and ask you to believe with him as well.

Once again, I asked Pastor Kevin to write a prayer. This time, I asked him to write a prayer he would pray if he knew he would soon be released. For him, this is truly a prayer of faith. I also asked him to pray for the Church. As you read Pastor Kevin’s prayer, imagine it to be the prayer of every person who will be released from prison this year. Here is Pastor Kevin’s prayer:

O LORD GOD, gracious and true.

I bless, honor and praise YOUR holy name.

For YOU are worthy.

O LORD GOD, I thank YOU for YOUR love,

YOUR kindness,

and for YOUR tender mercies.

I thank YOU that YOU have heard my cries.

I know YOU always hear my cry,

and therefore, do I sing YOUR praise.

 

FATHER, I pray that YOU would look

on me now and extend YOUR mercies.

For I pray, O GOD, when I am delivered from this prison,

 that YOU will move the hearts of YOUR people,

the CHURCH,

so much so that they may have compassion

to RECEIVE me as a BROTHER,

and help me RE-ESTABLISH my place in SOCIETY,

and in the midst of YOUR PEOPLE.

 

When I am re-established,

then will I live out the rest of my days,

how-ever so many YOU will bless me with,

in the PRAISE of YOUR GLORY.

 

In the name of YOUR HOLY SON, JESUS, I pray.

AMEN.

____________________________________________

[1] Unless otherwise noted all Scripture used is from the New International Version of the Bible.

[2] For those who are interested, the Greek word translated “remember” is mimnesko (Strongs #3403).

[3] Data collected from a number of different sources. However, one primary source was The Sentencing Project, www.sentencingproject.org.

[4] New American Standard Bible.

About Pastor Kevin

I am a husband, father, pastor, teacher, scuba diver, reader, bike rider...in that order.
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