Rev.Poindexter

Rhythm of Word

Worthiness is Nonnegotiable

Matthew 25:31-46

First Congregational Church of Anchorage  :  26 November 2017

A dear friend of mine died last Saturday. Mike Bartlett was an amazing guitar player. He and I first met when he was an inmate in a Kansas prison. We have worked on three different recording projects together and played countless shows both within prisons and outside. He is the second friend to die in recent years whom I played and recorded music with, and who I also first met in prison. Mike was a gifted songwriter, and a frequent source of insight into the reality of life within the criminal justice system.

In 2004 I began working with a group that regularly organized retreat weekends within state prisons for the Kansas Department of Corrections. I worked with them for over 10 years. In addition to the retreats, I also worked with the Kansas work release program and mentoring networks.

There is a reality to that kind of work that is often difficult to come to terms with for many people. As much as you want to help people find a new direction, or navigate complicated lives, there is no guarantee that the results will match your effort or expectations.

In the moments when you are sure you are getting somewhere with someone, it can vanish in an instant. At other times, when you least expect it, something almost magical happens.

There was a man whose nickname was Doc. He had been in prison for many years. I did not know why he was there. I rarely wanted to know during the retreats so that I would stay as impartial as possible.

Doc had a beautiful voice. He was kind and thoughtful. He understood the reality of his situation, and after many years in reflection, could articulate very clearly what he needed to do to recreate his life upon release.

I remember the last weekend I saw Doc in prison before his release. It was a mix of joy and sadness. He was finally going to make his way back into life as a free man. But it was also sad, because he was such a caring mentor and leader for many younger men within the prison.

I remember exactly where I was standing when I picked up the paper. I was at the front counter in the restaurant I operated. It had just arrived, and as I often did, and still do, I scanned through the articles to read a few and then save others of interest for later.

It was odd that the crime had received as much page space as it had. Doc had followed a woman from work for a few days. She worked at Wal-Mart, and one day after work he attacked her in a vehicle in the parking lot. I actually can’t even remember the full details, but she was severely harmed and assaulted. I must have had to read his name three times before I believed it.

I called one of my friends within the prison organization to double-check if it was the same Doc I knew. It was. I then called my dad, who was also a volunteer, and who had worked with Doc when he first attended one of the retreat weekends.

Measuring success as a mentor, or volunteer, or corrections and rehabilitation staff can be a dangerous and demoralizing thing. If you base the work you do on whether or not it can be judged as worthy of the effort, you will not last long.

Even worse, if you place the worthiness of people incarcerated as determined by whether they live up to the expectations you have placed upon them, it is a surefire path to endless pessimism.

But the stories I have go the other way as well. The restaurant I managed was known as an understanding workplace for former inmates, especially while in work release. Even friends and family who knew former inmates who needed a job would call on occasion.

A relative through marriage whom I had met a few times as a child had been recently released from prison and needed a job. I had my doubts about how it would work out since we had a personal connection, but decided to do it as a favor for the relative who had asked. He worked for me for a few years, and was trained as the head baker.

While there he also began apprenticing to be a licensed electrician. He had a wife and two very young children, just as I did. We became good friends, and our children played with each other on occasion. He has found a good career as an electrician, and is doing great.

It has become clearer and clearer to me that I do not have the ability to measure the worth of someone else, or even myself for that matter. If you look too hard, you will miss or misplace the worth someone has. You will place too much worth on the wrong people or fail to recognize their true worth altogether. However, if you just do the work because you can and because it needs to be done, you still won’t be able to measure the worth of your work or the worth of other people involved. It just doesn’t work that way.

But that, after-all, is not what Jesus is asking. Jesus is not asking for greatness or completeness; just faithful, discerning, persistence. Do you have the resources, the ability to care for someone or something that needs what you have? Then do it. You cannot measure its final worth. You can only cherish the grace shared.

This can come into play in the recent discourse about criminal justice reform in Alaska. There seems to be a lot of unwillingness to have open, thoughtful conversations about what is going on and what might be done better for our communities.

As with most problems, it is easier to skip to the result we want with less attention paid to what kind of community we want to be a part of creating in the meantime.

For example, there are many different ways of looking at rehabilitation in the criminal justice system. One way is to focus on effectiveness. To focus on effectiveness is to measure the success of rehabilitation primarily on whether or not it prevents the behavior deemed harmful from repeating.

This can be accomplished, but it may not be all that concerned with the people involved. The ends might end up justifying all sorts of means that we should not be comfortable with.

Effectiveness as the sole measure of rehabilitation will be concerned strictly with the criminal act, and this goal will be sought regardless of the abuse and human cost necessary for success.

In this case, the worthiness of both the rehabilitative process and the people involved is measured strictly by how frequently the crime happens in the future. The effectiveness of the policy is most important, regardless of the moral framework used in the effort.

Amy Levad, in her recent book, Redeeming a Prison Society, says: “Even if appropriate rehabilitative interventions are effective at reducing recidivism [repeat offenses], we ought not to advocate for them on these grounds alone.”

She goes on to say that: “the ends of rehabilitation must include better lives for offenders as well as community safety. Without offering the possibility that offenders’ lives will be improved, rehabilitative programs have little to offer.” It has to make sense to everyone involved. It cannot be arbitrarily punitive or optimistically naive.

We as Christians should be familiar with this concept. Reconciliation is at the center of what we do. Rehabilitation could lean on our own practices and liturgies that we share together. Amy Levad is attempting to do this in her book. She is looking at what communion, or for her tradition, the Eucharist, has to say about reconciliation, and even rehabilitation. She claims that throughout much of Christian history, the sharing of communion has focused on two primary aspects.

It is a point of reflection for the lives we lead, how fully we live into the way of Jesus. It can be a moment of addressing wrongdoing, or sin. But more importantly, it can be a moment where we ground our whole beings in forgiveness, as people living lives of reconciliation.

However, what people often miss is the motivation for all of this. The point of communion is not a keeping track of laws obeyed and broken, followed by an unearned pardon.

It is instead a recognition that we live in relationships that are often wounded, even deeply damaged and seemingly broken, with the ultimate goal of restoration back to full relationship. Even in cases where the wrongdoer must be removed from the community for the safety of others or even themselves, the eventual goal must always remain the reintegration of the wrongdoer to full relationship with the community.

Of course, all of this relies on the hope that God, or the divine presence at work, is intimately engaged and committed to this process.

So you might then ask a question of Matthew’s gospel account: What did the goats do so wrong? Or maybe even more difficult, what did the sheep do so right?

We could get lost in the meaning of goats and sheep, or the new use of the devil and punishment here in the New Testament, which is not as common as our popular culture might suggest. I will not deal with these today, but if your curiosity is itching, we can discuss over turkey in a few minutes.

There are also lingering questions about who the “Nations” are in verse 32. Is it the nations of all the earth gathered in the presence of Jesus? Are they being held to account for how well “the least of these” among them were noticed and cared for because that is the place where Jesus was to be found?

I might ask then, as the theologian Mark Douglas asks: “If we are actually receiving [Jesus] when we serve them, are we just treating them as occasions to serve him? For that matter, with the threat of eternal punishment hanging in the air, how much are we actually concerned about them and not our own futures?” These are fair questions about the kind of God we create.

Or maybe the calling out of the “nations” was a comforting reminder in an uncertain future for all the followers of Jesus who were proclaiming the good news of God. If it was about grace in spite of struggle for this particular community, primarily aimed at those who may mistreat these bringers of the good news, then why is Jesus instructing his followers to be the ones to notice him among the “least of these,” especially if that is who his followers are supposed to be in the story?

For today I am interested primarily in the question posed by the sheep and the goats. The odd thing is that both groups begin their question the same way. They both call Jesus “Lord,” as in the guiding center of their devotion. They then both ask: “When was it that we saw you?”

Neither of them noticed! So how were the sheep different? The key is in the second half of the question. The goats were sure that what they were doing had great worth, even eternal in value. “When did we not take care of you?” They looked for Jesus everywhere, and if he would have been hungry, or in prison, surely they would have acted.

The sheep were apparently not even looking for Jesus. The one assumed to be the most valuable person in the story, Jesus, who placed himself among “the least of these,” was not where they were placing all their value either.

Neither group was ever able to proclaim Jesus as the most valuable. One group because they were looking where everyone thought the more valuable belonged, the other because they were too busy working in places everyone thought was worthless. Neither ever noticed Jesus.

What Jesus ends up showing them is that the greatest worth is to be found among the worthless. Or maybe more accurately, our valuation of worth is usually warped at best.

As for the sheep, they weren’t looking for that of most worth, at least by their own standards. They were just doing what needed to be done, what they had the power to do, and in so doing found Jesus among the so called “least of these” without even recognizing it. They weren’t even looking for it! They weren’t looking for those who were seen as worthy to help before they acted either. They were just doing it because they could and it was needed.

They were living as Jesus lived, placing worth in small things, in mundane acts of compassion, sharing what they had with people who did not. They were not solving great inequalities from a distance, but digging in where the inequality lived.

Of course, it takes all kinds of efforts to address issues related to things like our own criminal justice system. From one-on-one all the way to the state house. The key for Jesus is that you have to begin where you are and with what you can do to make a difference, regardless of whether it turns out how you planned, or grows into something else.

If more comes of it, then the more grace will be known in the work you do. If one person sees a way out from the suffocating pattern of incarceration, but still falls short, grace is no less present.

Worthiness knows no limits. In the work of Jesus, worthiness is nonnegotiable. If it doesn’t begin there for everyone involved, we will look for worth in all the right places, but never find it.

Mike, my friend, wrote a number of songs, and we did not always agree on the theological direction. But as I have listened to one of his songs entitled “Broken” over the last week, I have heard it in a new way. I have not always appreciated where he was coming from in the song. This song had seemed to me to be a diminishment of our value as permanently broken in the face of a powerful God always looking down on our struggles.

But I hear it now to be a proclamation, a crying out for God to join us and claim us as worth more than we imagine ourselves to be. It is an admittance that we have misjudged so much, over-placed value in many people and things that have left us disconnected.

In a sense, I think Mike’s song is a recognition of God in the broken pieces of life, and that is so easy to miss. Though we didn’t even think to look, there it is, and there we must continue to go, to the places that seem to be broken. Somewhere within that journey we may stumble upon the presence of God, even if we don’t recognize it.

 

Here is Mike singing his own song, recorded in our friend’s studio in the renovated loft of an old barn.

 

Broken, by Mike Bartlett

 

When I’m full of myself, and the Spirit comes in

There’s no place to hide, I’m convicted of sin.

The only defense, that I can afford

Is broken before the Lord.

 

And as I look at myself, an I see I’m undone

How can I be used by this Holy One?

He molds me and shapes me, as he gives me his word

When I’m broken before the Lord.

 

And I’m broken, I’m broken

I’m broken before the Lord.

I’m broken, so broken

I’m broken before the Lord

 

Now as I’m cast down on this stony earth

My sin exposed by his brilliant worth.

When all other remedies have been explored

And I’m broken before the Lord.

 

And as I live life from day to day

Who I am, what I do or say.

The only real truth, the only way

Is broken before the Lord.

 

And I’m broken, I’m broken

I’m broken before the Lord.

I’m broken, I’m broken

I’m broken before the Lord.

 

Now when my mortal body returns to clay

When my friends and my loved ones aren’t sure what to say.

If there’s anything written, Lord let them record

He was broken before the Lord.

 

 And I’m broken, I’m broken

 I’m broken before the Lord.

I’m broken, so broken

I’m broken before the Lord.

Yes I’m broken before the Lord.

3 Comments

  1. Good words Jacob. Many good and sad memories here. This is a reminder for us to be more compassionate and help people no matter we are in life. Love you, Dad

  2. I’d never noticed that neither the goats nor sheep noticed before.

    And you’re right. Digging in where the inequality lives is difficult, but we have to try in our own ways.

  3. I love this one Jacob. I think also the hesitation to get deeply involved with the seemingly worthless comes out of fear of safety as well as the fear of being uncomfortable. Our society elevates celebrities instead of the “Mother Teresa’s ” of the world. I think it all starts be treating everyone with kindness. Sometimes in doing so, we receive a reward that cannot be bought. You have such a kind and caring heart.

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