Voices from Prison: Jeremiah
A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine was posting on facebook about his sermon series, which was centered around biblical figures who had been in prison. He didn’t post the sermons; I never got to read what he wrote or hear his particular perspective, but I filed the concept away in my mind. It’s an occupational hazard for clergy - constantly filing away experiences, things we read, conversations we have into our “future sermons” mental drawer.
It seemed right in this time and place to preach a series about Voices from Prison. We have a prison in Gouverneur, and we have an active prison ministry that we support - Kairos - where a team of men, including some of our own folks, visit the prison and prepare to lead inmates in times of learning, worship, Bible study, and faith development, bringing the good news to folks who really need some good news. It seemed right, too, because I think sometimes it is easy to think about prison as something that happens to other people. But in reality, we - we right here in this congregation - have been touched by the reality of prison. Some people in the congregation, including myself, have family who have been or are in prison. Some people have themselves been in prison. It is a part of our reality, our experience. And I believe that our faith always has something to say to the experiences that make up our lives.
What does our story of faith have to say about prison? Certainly, the Bible touches on prison and prisoners, on crime and punishment for crimes, and on reconciliation - how are folks restored to the life of community after they have broken the law and been set apart from the whole? Joseph, Samson, Jeremiah, Micaiah, Zedekiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Silas, Paul, Epaphras, Aristarchus, Junia, and Jesus himself spend time in prison, accused of or convicted of crimes, punished for breaking laws. When Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at the beginning of his preaching ministry, he shares that the good news he fulfills includes “release to the captives.” When Jesus talks about where we see his face in the gospel of Matthew, when he tells what we call the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus mentions visiting those who are in prison as a way that we serve, a place we see Christ. We cannot read the scriptures of our faith without encountering voices from prison.
In our United Methodist tradition, our statements of social beliefs speak to criminal justice systems, and what our hope is as followers of Jesus. Each week on the bulletin worksheet you’ll see some links to resources and action items related to criminal justice reform. I want to share with you aloud though an excerpt from our Social Principles and the Book of Resolutions, our resource for social action as United Methodists. Our statement says, “A justice system must be first and foremost about humanization since God’s justice always works to bring reconciliation. Systems of retribution breed only violence and isolation. Indeed, “we can- not punish our way to a healthy society” (Laura Magnani and Harmon Wray, Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press [p. 5]) … Most justice systems do not seek healing and restoration for the people affected by crime or for those who commit crimes.” “A justice system that reflects God’s desires for the world is one that is healing and restorative.” (https://www.umcjustice.org/what-we-care-about/civil-and-human-rights/criminal-justice-reform)
“God’s justice always works to bring reconciliation.” Do we believe that? God is always working for reconciliation, and always hopes for us to work with God for reconciliation too. On Friday, I shared the message with the kids at Vacation Bible School. They spent the whole week learning about forgiveness - the whole of VBS was focused on knowing more about God’s amazing forgiveness, and how we’re called to share this message of forgiveness with others. VBS takes an offering every day for a mission project each year, and this year the offering went to a scholarship fund for children whose parents are prisoners to attend camp. What a perfect connection for a week spent talking about forgiveness! The kids had been talking earlier in the week about Simon Peter, and how he denied even knowing Jesus, who had been his dear friend and teacher, right as Jesus was at his most vulnerable - arrested, on trial, about to be put to death. So I asked them to think about a story they knew - Frozen. How many of you have seen the movie Frozen with Anna and Elsa and the song you can never unlearn, “Let It Go”? At the climax of the movie, Anna is frozen, and a kiss from her beau does not, in fact, save her life as expected. It seems that hope is lost. And that’s where the movie ends, right? That’s what I asked the kids, and they groaned and yelled, “No, that’s not the end!” Of course, in the end, it is Anna’s sister Elsa who saves her with the true love of sisterhood, and they experience, naturally, a happily ever after. That worst part, when it seemed hope was gone, was not the end of the story. And Peter’s denial of Jesus, we learned, was not the end of the story. A resurrected Jesus gave Peter the chance to affirm his love for Jesus as many times as he had denied knowing him, and Jesus entrusted Jesus to share the message of God’s grace and forgiveness with the world. Peter was devastated when he denied Jesus. In that moment, could he have imagined what God would make of his life? That the world would remember him mostly for being the leader of the newly birthed church, a most faithful of disciples? I bet he couldn’t see it. But God saw it. Jesus saw it in him. There was more to Peter’s story, and through Jesus, Peter was reconciled, redeemed, ready for a hopeful future.
Last fall, when we were talking about Theology at the Theatre, and we were managing to talk about Harry Potter and Les Miserables all in one sermon, I shared with you all that I thought redemption stories were our favorite stories. “Our hope in redemption,” I said, “our hope in this idea that someone, something, can save us from our sinfulness, save us from the evil path we sometimes choose instead of the path of good” is our favorite story. And at the same time, we talked about how even though we long for redemption, we sometimes struggle with receiving the God’s grace for us, God’s redeeming of our lives as a gift, and we have trouble sometimes letting others receive redemption as a gift, constantly feeling like none of us are worthy enough, like we are always needing to earn what God wants to offer us without price, and never measuring up, never letting others measure up.
When we think about prison and prisoners, do we believe in God’s redeeming power? Do we see people in prison as people of sacred worth? God’s precious creations? People whom God loves unconditionally? People for whom God has hopes and dreams? For the next three weeks, as we hear some of the stories of people in the Bible who spent time in prison, as we listen to their voices, I hope, too, that we think about the people who are in prison today, and how we are called to respond as people who follow a God who dreams, always, of reconciliation.
Today we turn to the writings of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was writing during the time of the Babylonian exile. Judah, the southern kingdom of a divided Israel, had been conquered, and many Jews were sent to Babylon, but this happened in waves. Judah still had a “king” - a puppet-king Zedekiah, a nephew to the former king, who was put in place by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon as someone Nebuchadnezzar could manipulate and control. Still, Zedekiah didn’t comply with everything Babylon wanted - he tries to work with the Egyptians, hoping they will be better for Judah than Babylon. The result of his maneuvering is that Babylon is now simply seeking to conquer Jerusalem, rather than letting it remain a vassal of Babylon.
The chapters we read from Jeremiah are a flashback of sorts. The whole book jumps back and forth in time, and it’s a little confusing! But here’s the gist of what we need to know: It’s the tenth year of the reign of Zedekiah, and the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar's reign. Jeremiah is in prison, something that amounts to a kind of house-arrest. He’s confined to the court of the guard in the palace of King Zedekiah. Jeremiah was arrested because he was accused of being a deserter during the war, accused of going over to the enemy side. Initially, he is beaten and left there alone for days. Finally, though, King Zedekiah sends for him. He threatens to turn Jeremiah over to Nebuchadnezzar, but Jeremiah pleads his case, and is put on house-arrest instead.
Zedekiah is displeased with Jeremiah because Jeremiah has prophesied that Jerusalem is going to fall to Babylon, and that Zedekiah will be captured and taken to Babylon as a prisoner. He wants to know why Jeremiah would say such a thing. Jeremiah is accused essentially of undermining the war effort. He’s discouraging the soldiers, the leaders say, by proclaiming that Jerusalem will fall, and Zedekiah and the other leaders don’t want him doing that. Thus, Jeremiah spends a lot of time imprisoned.
Jeremiah offers evidence that he is truly hearing God’s word, and tells Zedekiah about buying a field from his cousin at Anathoth, something God has said would happen. God says Jeremiah’s ownership of these fields is a symbol of hope: someday, Israelites will build on this land again. Someday, they’ll plant fields and have vineyards. Someday. But first, God reveals through Jeremiah, first Jerusalem will fall to Nebuchadnezzar. God is upset because the Israelites have been worshiping other gods. They’ve turned away from God’s path. “They have turned their backs to me, not their faces; though I have taught them persistently, they would not listen and accept correction,” God says.
Still, Jeremiah spends more time sharing about the hope God has for the future of Jerusalem. Even as Israel is punished for turning away from God, even as God is filled with anger about the faithlessness of God’s people, already God is planning for how to be merciful and forgiving once Israel has paid the penalty. We read God saying, “I am going to bring it recovery and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them; they shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.” It is amazing to me what a future of blessings God imagines for Judah even in the midst of, at the moment of Judah facing the consequences for breaking God’s commandments. How merciful, how forgiving, how gracious is God, who even in anger and disappointment cannot wait to get to the time of redemption, reconciliation, and rebuilding!
I think Jeremiah’s message about God’s longing for redemption is all the more powerful as it comes from Jeremiah when he himself is in prison. He is being punished - even if we feel unjustly - even as he speaks about the punishment Jerusalem will face. From prison, in the midst of various punishments, being handed from place to place, Jeremiah proclaims the good news of God’s persistent grace. What he’s saying about Judah’s hopeful future seems impossible. And it is a long way off. Seventy years off in fact. There is work to do, consequences to face before redemption arrives. But it isn’t impossible. In fact, redemption is the promise God gives.
As we think, friends, about those who are in prison, however they came to be there, and as we think about the ways that we have been imprisoned spiritually by our sin, by our disobeying God, by our self-destructive ways, by our brokenness, let us continue to be people who love redemption stories. Let us continue to be people who know that the story hasn’t ended with heartbreak. Let us be people who hope for the reconciliation of all of us to the heart of God. Let us hear and heed Jeremiah’s voice - calling us to faithfulness, calling us to accountability, and calling us to trust in the God of all hopefulness. Amen.