visiting those in prison

By Dr. Rev. Barbara Barkley
Scripture reading: Isaiah 61:1-11, Luke 4:14-21, Matthew 25: 31-46
Sermon for April 9, 2017
Today we finish the Matthew 25 series by looking at visiting those in prison.  I think this is the hardest of Jesus’ injunctions and words to us.  Not that any of the other things we are called to do are easy.  It isn’t easy to feed the hungry or give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, or welcome the stranger.  It isn’t easy to visit those who are sick.  But generally we do all of this well in most of our church communities, despite the challenges to us, despite how hard these things are.  Some of these things we do more easily than others, but we do them all, as a community, and as individuals. 
But visiting those in prison?  That’s a different matter altogether.  And for very good reasons.  First of all, we mostly have compassion for the homeless, the hungry, those in desperate or difficult situations.  But even when we run into people asking for our help whom we don’t like, even when we run into scammers or people who are so different from us they offend us, no matter how dirty or lazy or different or corrupt we may perceive to be the hungry or strangers or the homeless, it is a different matter altogether to face someone whom we are almost certain has not just done something to harm themselves, but has done something to harm other people.  Prisoners are generally perceived to be the scum of the earth.  These are not just people who have failed to take care of themselves, not just people who are attempting, perhaps, to scam us.  These are people who have actively done wrong, actively injured people, actively hurt, in sometimes devastating ways, people and sometimes whole communities.  Some of them are really horrible people and we know this.  Why would any of us want to visit people with whom we are angry, whom we find disgusting, who have messed up so badly and are paying for that, in part, by the isolation and alienation that prison affords?  Why would any of us want to subject ourselves to the possible abuse, verbal or otherwise of going to and being in a prison setting? 
We know that these, the prisoners, really are “the least of these” and Jesus says when we fail to visit those in prison, we are failing to visit him, Jesus himself.  But these are the people, still, in whom it is hardest, by far, to see God’s face.  I get that.  Jesus takes it even further in the other passages we read for today.  Isaiah and then Jesus in today’s Luke passage declare himself to be the one who will release the prisoners.  But I think most of us don’t actually want the prisoners released.  Many of those in prison, those Jesus claims he will release, are simply not nice people.  They are not nice in their actions, but they are also not nice in their words.  They can be mean.  They can do scary and frightening things.  They are hard to be around.  We don’t want them out of prison.  And we don’t want to visit them.  
And the truth is, after having visited the prison so many times myself, there is frankly nothing I could say to you that would reassure you in any way that it is less than the horrible experience we might fear it to be.  It is horrible.  Prisons are not humane places, even in the United States. Guards and prisoners alike have no boundaries and say things that are shocking, upsetting, humiliating.  The prison system itself is set up in such a way that visitors are routinely shamed, invaded in the searches done, kept out for random and unpredictable reasons, and propositioned in such a way that loved ones are threatened by our attempts to set appropriate boundaries. 
Let me give you a couple of examples:  I drove three hours down to a prison to see an inmate there, only to be told that my shirt was cut too low and that I would therefore have to turn right around and drive the three hours back home. This was not the case.  I never wear clothing that is immodest, as you probably know.  A young woman had gone in a head of me whose pants were so low that… well, you can imagine.  Another had gone in who truly had a low cut shirt.  My shirt was a nice blouse, long sleeved, not cut low at all.  But I was kept out as a power play, by a guard who didn’t like the look of me and wanted to show me the power he could exercise.
 Another story: there was a guard at the prison who, as I was leaving, pushed his phone number into my hand with the threat that if I did not call him, the person I had been visiting would be harmed.  Of course I didn’t call, and in fact the prisoner was harmed: ending up in intensive care for three weeks, and then in solitary confinement as punishment for having been beaten to a pulp, for another three weeks.  Every time you enter the prison, whether adult, child, pastor or other: if you come as a visitor, you must go through several different “security” systems both on the way in and on the way out of the prison doors.  Once inside, even children are required to stay in their seats for the duration of the visit, which often is about three hours.  It is a hard thing to do, to visit those in prison.  It is unpleasant, it is shaming, it is degrading, it is tough.  When you know the person in the prison it is especially humiliating.  And when you don’t, I think it is especially fear-producing.  It is not a nice thing, a fun thing, an easy thing to do, and it is hard to see what good comes out of it, what the benefit is to put ourselves through all of that.  For myself, I’ve visited those in prison now often enough that I know I don’t want to go back.  I don’t want to face guards who bark at me or harass me in other ways.  I don’t want to face the humiliation of being treated like we are just prisoners ourselves, yet to be caught and incarcerated.  It is hard to make the long journey and harder still to be in that environment.
And still, we are told to visit those in prison.
The commentary author of Feasting on the Word put it this way:
I read with a heavy heart, "I was in prison and you visited me." Not just the community jail where last night's vagrants and drunks are drying out, not just infamous concentration camps run by evil tyrants, but "prison."”  I wonder how we learn to see God’s face in these people.  I wonder how God could ask us to visit those who have done evil, or to constantly face guards who are not kind or good themselves.  I wonder if God somehow just meant this metaphorically, but I know Jesus did not when he said this.  (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ)).
Don Gowan said it this way:
Love is the reason for (responding to all of God’s callings to us).  Jesus says God is good to both friends and enemies and that is love.  On the human level that kind of love begins to see other people as God sees them.  Every one of them is priceless.  No matter what they look like, or what they have done or are about to do, each one of them is irreplaceable, infinitely precious.  And we are just as valuable as they, but no more so.  The willingness to turn the other cheek is not based on anything like masochism or self-hatred, any more than it is the result of cowardice.  Indeed only a very firmly grounded self-love can make it possible to be so strong.  … Jesus claims that those who love others the way God loves people will not assume they have any right to harm another person in order to protect themselves!  No matter who that person is, that person is exactly as valuable in my sight as I am and it would really be a violation against my own character to inflict harm on anyone. (Shalom, A study of the Biblical Concept of Peace (Kerygma publishing))
             But I sometimes wonder, doesn’t it inflict harm on ourselves to visit a place that is almost hell on earth?  Doesn’t it inflict harm on children, even when they are visiting parents in prison, to take them with us?  These are some of the questions that go through my head.  I get why people don’t visit those in prison.  I hate doing it, and don’t somehow feel more “holy” that I have.
               And still, we are left with Jesus’ words, “Whenever you didn’t visit me in prison, you didn’t visit me.” 
To complicate things, choosing to visit someone in prison is not as straightforward now as it used to be.  If you do feel called to follow this mandate, it is not easy for practical reasons as well as for the emotional reasons.  For one thing, you can’t just show up at a prison and ask to visit someone.  You have to have your name on a specific prisoner’s “acceptable visitors” list (which means the prison has to approve your visit) and you have to fill out a bunch of forms that give a great deal of personal information about you before you can.  In many places, you also have to make a reservation to see a prisoner and these can sometimes be hard to come by.  There are ways to “visit” – anyone can send a letter and programs such as the “friend to friend” program allow access in a different but safe way to those in prison.  But these limitations, this need to either become involved with a program or to figure out how or to whom to write a letter or to get ourselves on a visitation list – these hurdles that are placed in front of us to do something we probably don’t really want to do in the first place, these, too, test our inclination to follow God’s word for us in this way. 
               And still Jesus tells us, “Whenever you visited someone in prison, you did it to me.  And whenever you didn’t visit me in prison, you didn’t visit me.” 
               Hard words.  Words that test our faith commitments deeply.
               The reality, the human reality, is that we all fall short. I believe we all struggle to do our best to follow Jesus and to follow God’s will for us.  We are all on a journey, and we just aren’t always going to be able to be the perfect Christians that we may choose to be.  As we finish up and sum up our study of Matthew 25 today, therefore, I want to leave you with this: 
I don’t believe God sits up in heaven with a tally sheet marking off which of these we’ve done and which of these we have failed to do.  I don’t believe that at the end of the day God measures or counts how many times we really did feed “the least of these” and in doing so fed Jesus and how many times we walked by.  How many times we clothed the naked and how many times we just walked by.  How many times we welcomed the stranger and how many times we simply didn’t see them.  Or how many times we visited those who were sick or in prison and how many times we passed up the opportunities or calls to do so.  However, the deeper we connect with God, the more likely we are to respond to these calls to care for God’s people.  How are we doing in our faith journeys?  How are we responding to the blessings with which God fills our lives?  Are we so filled with the grace and gratitude of God’s love for us that we cannot help but do the things God calls us to do?  To feed, to care for, to reach out to, any and all of the least of these?  Are we so connected with God that we can’t help but feel God’s call to action and to do it with every breath we take?  That is more what these instructions in Matthew get at.  They give us a concrete way we can respond out of love for God.  They help us to see how to connect more deeply with God, how we get to know God - by responding to God’s call and by getting to know God in the "least of these". The bottom line, always, is that God wants deeper connection with us and wants that wholeness for us.  Wholeness for us looks like doing what God calls us to do.  But we are on a journey.  It takes time, it takes prayer, it takes study, it takes listening to God.  Know that God walks that with us, with grace, with love, with compassion for those things that are hard to do, and with hope that we can be the best versions of ourselves, the versions God sees and the versions God calls us to be with all of our beings.   We do what we can.  We listen for God’s voice.  We strive towards wholeness with God’s help.  And we watch as the fruits of our prayers, our time with God and our commitments to God’s people blossom in us to make us more fully the people God hopes for us to be.  Amen  Click here to follow Barbara's Blog