Warning - this post will contain uncomfortable information and thinking. Please read at your own risk!
I met with my dear friend, Meredith, last week and we were talking about Presbytery. I have wondered sometimes if I haven't been "black listed" as a potential preacher for Presbytery because of what our family went through. This is probably unfair. It's probable that I've never been asked to preach here simply because I've only been here five years and just haven't been here as long as some others who have yet to preach. But she challenged me by asking what I would say at this point in time if I were given the pulpit. Truth is I'd probably be a "good girl" and say something that was designed to avoid ruffling any feathers. But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself contemplating what I would really like to say that might offer challenge to the comfortable, instead of simply comfort to the not-so-afflicted. So I am taking this opportunity to speak up...not at a Presbytery meeting, but here in this format.
I have seen, from the other side now, what it is to be one of the "least of these". I have lived with and next to, (I have been associated with and condemned for being connected to) a man who screwed up royally, who became "anathema" to many, and who is paying for that by time in prison. I get why people are angry. I get why people are hurt. I, too, am angry and hurt. And I agree that there are consequences for actions, that this was wrong, that he is not the victim here but others are. I made my own choices because of those actions, and, as most or all of you know, I am now divorced because of what happened. But as a Presbytery, as a group of pastors and elders - church leaders, all - we are called to seek out and follow the model Jesus gave us for appropriate response to a person such as Mark. So what would Jesus do? How would Jesus respond to him?
How did Jesus respond to the tax collectors? How did Jesus respond to the woman caught in adultery? How did Jesus respond to the woman at the well with her past of 5 different men and her present of a partner to whom she was not married? How did Jesus respond to the Syrophoenician woman that the Pharisees condemned as a woman Jesus should never associate with, let alone allow himself to be touched by? He didn't run away. He didn't ignore these "sinners". He didn't push them away. He didn't even condemn them. He invited them into his circles. He included them. He allowed himself to be touched by them. He approached them. On only one occasion did he even suggest a corrective. To the woman caught in adultery he said, "go and sin no more", but that was after he saved her from any consequences others wanted her to suffer. To the others, he did not even say this. To the woman at the well with her 6 men, he never asked her to change. He simply approached her and invited her into the life that he offered.
Perhaps some of you who might read this are now saying, "But those things were different! They never hurt anybody else! What Mark did was worse." Prostitutes and others caught in sexual behavior that fell outside the acceptable values of the time were considered the worst sinners against God ever at that point in time. But this did not dissuade Jesus from attending to them. Tax collectors in those times were people who exploited those from whom they collected taxes, taking far more than they owed, leaving people, especially widows and other helpless people in the community destitute. They, too, were absolute anathema in their communities. But Jesus was kind, even to them. He looked at them. He forgave them. He invited them into his communities. Jesus himself said, "I came to call sinners and not the righteous." He lived that. And he called us to do the same.
In case we are unclear still, we have Matthew 25 to look to. “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’"
Were these different kinds of prisoners? Perhaps their crimes weren't as bad. Perhaps these were prisoners who were charming or popular or the kind of person you feel good just being around and talking to. Certainly Mark is none of these, so I can understand why we wouldn't want to visit him. Perhaps these were people who never made the mistake of claiming a position higher than perhaps they should have (such as pastor?) before making their mistakes. Perhaps. And so maybe that, too, is a good reason to exclude someone like Mark from that outreach.
The best excuse of all, of course, is that the prison systems are set up in such a way that we can't actually visit someone unless the prisoner himself puts us on his visitor list. But there are other ways of reaching out...anyone can send a letter, for example. Still, that would require effort and thought...Jesus wasn't condemning and a letter written that was condemning would not serve a Godly purpose.
Prison is the loneliest place in the world for someone like Mark. And while we are able to visit about once a month, it is far away, and our visits, his phone calls to his children and the occasional connection with his extended family simply aren't enough. He is not being "corrected" in prison (not that this ever, EVER happens, despite the fact that we actually call them "correctional institutions"). He is drowning there. And the little bit of comfort a letter might make... Does he deserve that comfort? Perhaps not. But again, that isn't the issue here. Because frankly, none of us do.
This is someone in your community. This is someone you knew, if only from a distance. But he is, truly, now one of the "least of these", a sinner (like all of us), someone who really messed up, a person without rank or position in our communities, a person who will no longer ever have a full position in our society. And it is hard to get past anger, and condemnation and a sense of righteousness that says he is not even being punished as much as he should.
And still, with all of that, I ask you, what would Jesus do? And what does Jesus call you to do in the face of this?
(P.S. If you are interested in writing him a letter, let me know and I can give you the directions on how to do that.)