Pastor Phil preached today at at First Congregational UCC in Madison as part of their celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Prison Ministry Project. Here’s what he said.
Today’s tex: Matthew 2: 1-12
Three magi come from the east to Jerusalem, chat with King Herod a bit, then go to Bethlehem to meet a child who apparently called to them from a star.
It’s a pretty familiar story at this time of year. We call it the Epiphany – which the dictionary defines as the manifestation of a divine being or the perception of the essential nature of something.
For the early Christians, it was one of a collection of stories of God manifested through the person of Jesus – an infant born in Bethlehem, a child drawing visitors from afar, a young man baptized in the Jordan River hearing God proclaim him as the beloved son. All of these stories were wrapped together at this time of year, all of them stories of the wonder of Jesus. They gave people perceptions into the essential nature of Jesus.
Let’s play with today’s part of that story a bit. All we hear about the actual encounter of the three wise men with Jesus is this: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
That’s all that really mattered for Matthew in writing the Gospel. But I would imagine there was some conversation in that household. Three guys don’t just barge in, leave gifts and depart in silence. So what sort of conversation took place?
We know that the three wise men were not Christians. There were not Christians yet. Jesus, after all, was still an infant.
We can be pretty sure that they were not Jewish. Theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe them as the literary descendants of the magicians, the enchanters, the Babylonians and the diviners who show up in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, they came with a very different belief system than that of Mary and Joseph.
So over cups of pomegranate juice as the infant crawled on the floor, they may have asked one another about their beliefs.
When we visited the Herod, the wise men might have said, he consulted priests and scribes to make sense of what we were saying. What are these writings that are so important to your people?
And perhaps Mary and Joseph asked about the practices of the spiritual traditions of these visitors from far away. Are there writings or images that illustrate something on your spiritual path? Why are the stars important in your belief system? What in your beliefs help you realize life is larger than yourself?
It would have been a fascinating conversation on which to listen in. Those kinds of conversations have been one of the many fascinating things about the Prison Ministry Project, whose first decade of existence we are honoring today.
My mentor, predecessor and colleague, Bonnie Van Overbeke – who before she was ordained served First Congregational as director of Christian education – was part of a group of volunteers in the Prison Ministry Project who would sit in circles with men in prison and invite them to share their spiritual traditions.
It’s a practice that I think is foreshadowed in this visit of the magicians from the east with the young family in Bethlehem. It’s one of three aspects of the Epiphany story I’d like to use today to connect our sacred writings with the sacred work of reaching out to those in prison. The others have to do with power and with sanctuary.
Bonnie described how a wagon wheel became the symbol for these interfaith conversations behind the prison walls. She would explain to the guys that they were all somewhere on the rim of the wheel and there were different spokes that led to the center. The spokes did not intersect, but they all led to the same place. She would invite people to talk about their spiritual journeys and in the process, a sense of understanding between the prisoners was planted. Even more, said Bonnie, the leaders of these groups learned so much.
“Tell a story about the person who first led you to your faith,” they would ask in the first week. Often, it was a grandmother.
As the weeks went on, they would ask how faith helps in the midst of suffering – and how it helps you be with others who are suffering.
These are not things often talked about in prison. It was the Prison Ministry Project that opened that possibility and that also showed how the rest of us could engage in those kinds of conversations outside the prison walls.
The Prison Ministry Project has shown how people can cross boundaries just as the Magi did. One of its most notable projects has been restorative justice – helping prisoners come to grips with how their crimes have affected victims, society, their own family members and giving victims a place to describe the impact that crimes had on their lives.
I had a chance in the early days of the Prison Ministry Project to attend a restorative justice graduation ceremony at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage – one of the state’s maximum security prisons.
I watched 45-year old James P. Hill stand before his fellow graduates, pride in his stance and in his voice. But his words were not what you would hear at other graduation ceremonies in the that spring of 2008.
“I am deeply sorry for all the crimes that I have caused,” he said. Then he added a few words on behalf of his fellow graduates dressed in dark green shirts sitting before him. “We thank you for not giving up on us.”
Eighteen of the 20 men who began the program were sitting in the prison visiting room on that April morning along with about 40 community members who came to cheer them on. The prison warden was there. So was a state legislator.
So was Tanya, the victim of crime, pistol whipped by a robber who assaulted her at an ATM machine in 1999.
“They represent my offenders,” she said. “I represent their victims.”
The graduates each said a few words as they accepted their diplomas from First Cong’s own Susan Heneman.
“It is important for society to know that there are offenders who wish to repair the damage they have done,” Paul Wozny said. Antonio Hunter talked about the “hurt and harm” he had caused not only to his victims, but to his own family.
This is the kind of thing that has happened with the Prison Ministry Project over and over during the past decade. Amazing things have happened inside the walls and amazing things have happened to the people who have gone there to make these connections.
For a few years, there were bus trips to Fox Lake on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of Jesus with those in prison. Jerry remembers the crystalline voice of Mari McCarty singing “Amazing Grace” as inmates and volunteers sat together. He remembers a Maundy Thursday foot-washing service where two women washed the feet of the men in prison. These are extraordinary moments.
But there is another part of the Epiphany story that is less warm and cuddly. It goes like this:
“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’
The reading today ends with these words: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” But we know the story does not end there. More on that in a minute.
This part of the story is a reminder that those is power are not always to be trusted. That’s why an essential part of the Prison Ministry Project has been to advocate for prisoners with a state government that has almost complete power over them.
You probably remember well two years ago this month when a solitary confinement cell stood here in the sanctuary. I spent an hour in that cell – but then I knew that after the hour, I would be getting out. Still, I got a glimpse of how solitary confinement is used – and abused – in our nation’s prisons. So did many other people.
That kind of vivid advocacy has made a difference. Solitary confinement is still an issue in our prisons, but there have been some changes for the better because of the pressure that the Prison Ministry Project and other organizations created around this.
There have been major efforts to bring back efforts at treatment and education and training and rehabilitation rather than simply warehousing prisoners. There have been pushes at looking at how the justice system often does not act justly. There has been a continuing focus on the racial disparities in how the justice systems and our corrections system treats people.
And folks here at First Congregational know as well as anyone that taking on these issues is not easy. Yet from the very start, you have been willing to take the risks not only of creating a new ministry but of standing with it when many people think caring about prisoners is a stupid thing to do. Worry about the victims, they say.
Let’s be clear. The Prison Ministry Project and First Cong has never given short shift to victims. Remember the voice of Tanya from that restorative justice graduation ceremony? But you have always remembered Jesus’ call to be with those in prison.
You hosted Sr. Helen Prejean talking about the immorality of the death penalty when she was here for the presentation of the powerful opera, Dead Man Walking. You gave space for that solitary confinement cell. You even embraced a special “adults only” worship service so that convicted sex offenders would have a place to come to worship.
You understand that those is power cannot always be trusted and you have taken risks that few other congregations have been willing to take to live out those words later in Matthew’s Gospel about finding Jesus in a prison cell.
There’s one more part of the Epiphany story that did not make it into today’s scripture reading. Herod is not happy when he finds out that the wise men have gone home another way rather than acting as his spies. So he orders all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be killed. Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt to save Jesus’ life. Like so many refugees in our world today, they needed a place of sanctuary in the midst of the threats facing them.
The Prison Ministry Project for the most part has focused on the men and women confined in the state’s 23 adult correctional institutions. But Jerry has also been a contact for men and women when they are released. And the Madison-area Urban Ministry – which also has deep roots in this congregation – has been at the forefront helping returning prisoners find new opportunities in this area.
This is part of the way we provide sanctuary for the men and women returning to our community. Churches have helped surround them with circles of support, helped create new job opportunities when we buy delicious things from Just Bakery, when we provide the financial support for housing. There are many ways the spirit of the Prison Ministry Project spreads well beyond the boundaries of the program.
Let me suggest that the work you have done here at First Congregational has helped many of us in the wider faith community world have an Epiphany of our own. You have given us a star to follow – and I don’t just mean that Jerry is the star.
The star has been the commitment of people here to justice in our world.
The star has been your support for this ministry that has invited so many others to join with you in bringing word and sacrament inside the prison walls, help to families outside the prison walls, reforms to the systems that sustain those walls.
That star has been a provided the light the rest of us needed to perceive something essential about the nature of our faith –
that it is a faith that reaches out to those often despised by others and offers them hope,
that it sits with those cast aside and by our simple presence, reflects God’s love,
that stands before kings or governors or wardens and says that justice is far more than a prison sentence – it is how we treat each human being in our world.
Thank you to Jerry for the work he has done in shaping this over a decade.
Thank you to the people of First Congregational for your incredible support of this ministry.
And thanks be to God for the grace has sustains all of us as we live out our calling as followers of Jesus. Amen.