For I was in prison and you visited me

"For I was in prison and you visited me"

Preached on 5th Sunday of Lent, April 2, 2017

Matthew 25:24-40

 

This is the last Sunday to examine Matthew 25.  In case you don’t yet know it by heart, it goes like this:

Jesus was describing the Last Judgment to his disciples:  To some people the King will say,
“Come inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for 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.  The righteous will ask, “But when was it that we saw you hungry and thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison?  Jesus replied, For just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me. 

To the other people, he said, “Depart from me into the fires of eternal punishment, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and gave me no drink.  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and did not clothe me.  I was sick and you did not take care of me, in prison and you did not visit me.”  They will ask, but when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you no food or thirsty and gave you no drink, and when was it we saw you a stranger and did not welcome you or naked and did not clothe you.  When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and did not visit you?  Jesus replied, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did not do it to me.” 

 

Both groups were confused, asking, “But when was it that we saw you in need?”

This verse is the key to understanding this passage, the key to make sure you end up with the sheep—not the goats, the key to being who God calls you to be, the key to finding Jesus—it’s a matter of seeing.

 

What do you see?

This was the question that I heard at every Presbytery meeting when I lived and worked in Ohio.  One of our jobs as the Presbytery was to examine candidates for ministry, to ask them questions and make sure that they were theologically fit to be a pastor.  Many people would ask questions examining theology of the cross and salvation.  A retired Pastor, a gentle old man, would raise his hand and slowly rise and ask the pastoral candidate, “Look outside, see that person walking by, who is that through your theological lenses?  What do you see?  Some people would say, “He is a sinner in need of redeeming.  He needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and turn his life around, and be saved.  That’s what I want to do—save sinners.”  Others would say, “I see a child of God.  She has challenges, just like me.  I see someone who God loves.  And that’s what I want to do—tell people and show people how much God loves them.” 

What do you see?

 

This final week for this Gospel reading the verse we are focusing on is: I was in prison and you visited me. When I say the word prisoner.  What do you see?  What image comes to your mind?

Do you see a sinner in need of redeeming?  Or do you see a child of God in need of reminding?

 

One evening Rebecca and I clicked on a t.v. channel showing “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”  It was fascinating.  And a true story.  A psychology professor at Stanford wanted to test how people would behave in a prison experiment.  He assigned some male students the role of guards and other male students as prisoners.  They stayed in a building on campus, set up to look and feel like a prison.  The guards wore uniforms and mirrored glasses and carried clubs.  The prisoners were stripped naked and sprayed, then made to wear a hospital gown without anything on underneath, with their prison number sewn on the front.  After a few days, the guards no longer saw their fellow students and friends with names, but saw only prisoners they called by a number and treated them harshly and inhumanely. The experiment was to run for 2 weeks, but the experiment had to be ended on the 6th day because it had gotten out of control. The guards could only see their fellow students as prisoners to be punished.

 

What do you see?  How you see someone determines how you treat them. 

Why did Jesus include “visiting the prisoner” in his list of things that his followers must do?

In Meeting Jesus on the Margins, Bo Cox writes, “Jesus knew that the second we deny the humanity and sacredness in the most marginalized, we begin to close a spiritual door in ourselves, and eventually, lose our own connection to the Light.  Ultimately, we will lose our connection to our fellow human beings and to God.  Go to prison. Look into the eyes of another and see yourself.  And your God.  That’s what Jesus wanted for us.”    

 

Jesus said, I was in prison and you visited me. 

When I say the word prisoner.  What do you see? 

 

Maurice Cohill, a recently retired federal judge and church member knows about prisons.  In fact, he spent enough time in the old prison in downtown Pittsburgh to know that it was not acceptable.  It was overcrowded and unsanitary.  He believed people deserved to be treated better.  And so he was instrumental in getting the new jail built.  The political jokes in the paper at the time called the new jail “Cohill’s condos.”  He took it in stride, because he knew that what he did was right. 

 

Jesus said, I was in prison and you visited me. 

When I say the word prisoner.  What do you see?  What image comes to your mind?

Do you see a sinner in need of redeeming?  Or do you see a child of God in need of reminding?

 

Caitlin Werth is the Chaplain of the Allegheny County Jail.  She preached here last year.  I tried to get into the jail this week, so I could talk about it in my sermon.  But, the tour is scheduled for April 24.  I will go and see how our church might be involved in ministry there.  So I have not been a jail yet.  However, I have visited a prisoner.  He had spent time in jail and was on house arrest for a couple of months.  I must admit that I was a little anxious going to his apartment alone.  So I took along a member of the church I was serving at the time.  That’s always a good idea—to go with someone.  I must admit that when I first saw him, all I could see was his crime and his anklet tracking device.  He looked like a sinner in need of serious redeeming.  But, after hearing his story and seeing his pain and his remorse, and praying together, my lenses changed.  He began to look more and more like a child of God in need of reminding.  As I looked into his eyes, I saw myself and I saw God.

 

Many of us have never been to prison—as a prisoner or as a visitor.  So what does this verse say to us?  When I say the word “prison” what do you see?  Likely, you see steel bars and a prison cell.  Inmates have physical bars that imprison them.  But there are other kinds of prisons of our own making. 

What imprisons us?

·         Marriages have lost love and become hardened and cold and restrictive, like a prison cell

·         Our success and wealth dictates how we spend our time and money, and keeps us captive

·         Chronic pain is a daily reminder that we are imprisoned by our doctors appointments, medicines, and limited mobility

·         Drugs, alcohol, and other addictions, some we keep hidden, but they still control us

·         Fear of the unknown keeps us locked up in our present circumstances, even if they are not healthy

·         Resentment and inability to forgive others imprisons us in our own hardened heart unable to welcome a visitor by the name of joy.

 

Whoever we are, we are imprisoned by something, in some way.

 

Friends, I have good news today:  Jesus died on the cross for us and for our sins out of his great love for us.  And because of that, he brings with him a “get out of jail free” card.

You don’t have to stay imprisoned.  Jesus sets you free and gives you a life of freedom and grace.

Jesus walks with you on the journey to a better fuller life. 

And it all begins with seeing yourself as a child of God worth saving and worth loving.

 

Once you see yourself as broken and imprisoned—and still a child of God worth loving—then you can begin to see others as beloved children of God, worthy of a visit.

Jesus said, “I was in prison and you visited me. As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

I will always remember the Presbytery meeting when I was being examined to transfer my membership to Middle TN Presbytery.  I answered many questions about my theology and beliefs—atonement, salvation, sacraments, the church. And then a retired old pastor slowly stood, and with all of the wisdom of a life of service, he asked a simple question, the only question that really matters in the end: 

“Do you love Jesus?”

Jesus said, “Just as you loved one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you loved me.”