God’s Grace & America’s Incarceration Rate

Epiphany 2

Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Isaiah 40: 1 -11.  Focus on God’s Grace and America’s Incarceration Rate. Check out Rasaan Bourke & Mikal Whitaker’s “Comfort Ye My People” by Handel.

What is striking about Isaiah 40 is not that there are people in need of comfort. It’s that God commands that they be comforted. It is Jerusalem whom God says must receive comfort. And in this context Israel was hardly a sympathetic character. Chapter after chapter in Isaiah describes how the people of Jerusalem prospered through wickedness, oppression, lies and injustice, refusing to heed the prophets’ calls to repent.

In 587 BCE Jerusalem had been conquered and destroyed by the Babylonians and the people marched off into a captivity for nearly a century. And now in Isaiah 40:1 God declares the time of punishment is over. Jerusalem’s term is completed and her “penalty is paid.” Her prison term is over, but why should she receive comfort?

We don’t comfort people when they come out of jail or prison. They have been judged found guilty, have served their time and now they must prove their worthiness. Why? because their recidivism rate is high.

And the voice that speaks in verses 6 -8 acknowledges this likelihood for the people of Jerusalem too. Their steadfastness is fleeting; “They are like grass, their constancy is like the flowers of the field.” It withers and dies.

And on top of that it is almost impossible for most of us to relate to the ancient historical setting of our text because most of us have not been forced out of our homes or been taken prisoner much less spent time in our prison system, though the United States can boast that it has the largest prison population in world.

A report released by the Justice Department in 2008 indicated that more than 1 in 100 adults in the United States is in prison. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population and yet we account for 24% of the world’s prison population.

In the twenty-five years since the Anti Drug Abuse Act was passed by the Federal Government in 1986 the United States penal population rose from around 300,000 people to more than 2.5 million people today.

One of the reasons for this is the mandatory sentencing rules that were set in place with the passage of Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, a.k.a. – “the war on drugs”. For example the typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five to ten years. Today drug related charges account for more than half of the rise in our state prisons. 31 million people have been arrested on drug related charges, approximately 1 in 10 Americans.

And though we might not give these people a second glance or think that they deserve what they have received our God clearly does not. Moreover, just as God did not give up on the people of Judah, God has not given up on those in our prison system today even if we have.

And here is why it is important to hear these words of Isaiah today. We live in exile too. We do not really love our neighbor as ourselves. We don’t really pray for our enemies. We really don’t take care of the poor. We give lip service and band aides at best but we see our hope not in God but in our GNP, our stock portfolios and the minute anyone questions us about any of this we get way too defensive about it. And we protest our innocence way too much.

And yet here is as clear a statement of God’s unconditional grace and mercy as there ever was. It’s so complete that the New Testament writers, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John all quote this passage from Isaiah to talk about the coming of the Lord.

So why is so hard for us to experience grace today? Why do we think that by incarcerating more and more people we will become a less violent or less addicted society when just the opposite is happening in our midst? We haven’t reduced violent crime? We haven’t reduced drug use. We have only added more to the rolls of the chronically unemployable or the chronically under unemployable.

Why? Because most of us, especially true among the self-righteous is this fear of words like free and grace. If it’s free it must be suspect. If it’s so valuable why can’t we make a buck off it? Certainly we should be charged for our past sins? Certainly those who are in prison deserve not only what they are getting but also what they will reap from this time forward.

Forgiveness is just letting people off the hook, and if we give people their undeserved freedom then who knows what other trouble will be wrought?

And so we continue with retribution and call it justice. We know very little of mercy because we don’t think we need much of it. So when Isaiah speaks of filling up the valleys, bringing the mountains down low, straightening the crooked, making the rough places smooth, what he’s talking about is “leveling the playing field.”

When a playing field is level, no player or team has an unfair advantage over anyone else. Everyone’s able to see how the game’s going and how each player is playing the game.

It becomes more difficult on a level playing field to hide violations and every player can see what’s coming. Nothing’s in the way. Everyone has a fair chance.

So when we use the phrase “level playing field,” we are talking about how we play, live and work together in a way so that no one has an unfair advantage especially by those who have so much compared with those who have so little.

This is a very simple idea. It’s an idea that we can all agree on, but it’s not an easy idea to live out of.

The truth is that most of us live with a social geography, which gives us certain advantages. We are born into families where, for the most part, we will be loved, educated, and given the tools necessary to become successful in life.

But let’s move further down the road and when we do we see that it’s those very advantages of being born white, of being born with privilege that we also see that some of those advantages build walls between us, walls that obstruct the view of people seeing the salvation of God.

For grace and mercy to be meaningful then we must live out of what it calls us to do for others. It’s about forgiveness for everyone. It’s about breaking the power of hurt and guilt, which we pass on from generation to generation just as surely as we pass on the color of our skin and our eyes.

But that means we have a choice. It’s up to us to prepare a way for the Lord. It is time to fill up the valleys of despair and bring low the mountains of disparity. It is up to us to prepare for God’s birth in our midst. It’s time to turn off the talk radio and the news hypers. Attune yourself to greater news. God’s word of amnesty and deliverance is for all of us to hear. Only then will all flesh see the coming salvation of the Lord. Amen

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