Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
I remember once visiting a man in prison. I had known about his situation, but I’d never met this man before a cold, bitter afternoon in a cold, bitter place. It only took being there a short time to feel the oppressive sense of anonymity and loneliness in that prison. Everything about it felt dark and gray.
I found my way to a common room and met up with the man. His primary issue was fear. Not fear for his safety or fear that he would never get out; he was being treated relatively well, and he was scheduled to get out in a year or so. But he was still afraid.
He feared that he’d lost the life he had known before. He had been successful in business, confident in his friendships, and especially confident in his relationships with people at church. At church, he’d felt loved and accepted, and that had helped him to see he was loved and accepted by God, too. Now, he thought, everything had changed. He had lost his business. Most of his friends had stopped writing him or visiting him. He feared he’d been abandoned by the people he thought would stick with him, so he feared that he had been abandoned by God. And the future was frightening, too. He worried about what he would do for a living, whether he would be accepted again by his church and his friends. It’s amazing how being out of relationship with people and being distanced from your community can make you live in fear.
I think we hear a similar fear from John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading. At this point, 11 chapters into Matthew’s story, John the Baptist is no longer standing in the Jordan River, calling the people to repent. Instead, he’s been taken away by King Herod’s police and thrown in prison to keep him from leading a revolution. We don’t know how long John’s been rotting in prison, but he was arrested shortly after he baptized Jesus. So he’s been locked away for some time now.
And after months or years of fearful isolation in Herod’s prison, John might well have wondered whether he’d been right about Jesus being the messiah – the one who was going to usher in God’s time of judgment, separating the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire. John probably wondered what Jesus had been doing, other than not getting John out of prison or leading a rebellion against the Romans. Well, in the time since John had been thrown in prison, Jesus had had healed a leper, and a soldier’s servant, and Peter’s mother in law; he had cast out demons; he had healed a paralytic and a woman with a hemorrhage; he had given sight to two blind men and speech to a man who was mute; and he had brought a young girl back to life (Matthew 8 and 9). Meanwhile, John had every reason to be afraid, sitting there alone in Herod’s prison. What had seemed so clear in the waters of the Jordan looked much darker from a prison cell. So, in the reading this morning, John has his followers ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3). In other words, I think, John is saying, “Are you really who we thought you were? I’m afraid.”
Well, what Jesus sends back to John is the opposite of fear, which is hope – hope with flesh and bones on it; hope that you hold not because you’re naïve but because you’ve seen signs of a power greater than the darkness that surrounds you. Jesus sends the messengers back to John with a simple answer: “Go back and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:4-5). That’s the kind of hope the prophets proclaimed. That’s hope with flesh and bones on it.
That same kind of hope is what the man I visited in prison finally came to see. That afternoon, as I talked with him, I could see his fear slowly giving way to hope. He began to name people who hadn’t abandoned him – family and friends who’d kept their letters coming and challenged him to use his time in prison to seek redemption. He remembered acts of deep kindness from friends just before he turned himself in, people who ministered to him at his lowest moment. And his eyes filled with tears when he heard, out loud, that God was right there with him in prison, loving him just as much as ever, offering him the chance for a new life, the chance to bring something holy out of the pit that his life had become. He could see that God’s kingdom, God’s beloved community, was out there, waiting for him, because he’d seen glimpses of it in the love of his friends and family. He could remember the flesh and bones of dignity and hope.
There are all kinds of prisons we inhabit. The prison of illness or disability … the prison of unhealthy relationships … the prison of debt … the prison of economic immobility … the prison of our own broken choices that lead us away from God and the people around us. And part of the way we break free from our prisons is by bringing the liberation of dignity and hope to others – by offering glimpses of the kingdom that stands in contrast to the way the world works.
We’ll get the chance to open doors to the kingdom and look inside next week, at the Free Store downtown. Everything about the Free Store intends to shine the light of dignity and hope for people whose day-to-day experience teaches them something very different. And those people include both those being served and those doing the serving.
We’ll begin in the nave at the Cathedral with worship and hospitality for guests and volunteers alike. Then the guests will be seated at round tables for lunch from the Kansas City Community Kitchen. Servers will come and take their orders, offering guests the power of choice that is so much a part of the practice of dignity. There at each table will be a member of the Order of St. Luke, our ministry of healing prayer, who will be there to listen and talk and be present in the moment – and to pray, when that seems right. After lunch and conversation, a personal shopper will take each guest to choose among socks and boots and coats and hats and gloves, helping them find what each one needs. For those who need additional help to deal with other challenges, we’ll connect them with agencies there onsite that day.
I have no delusions that lunch and shopping at the Free Store will solve the problems of these 400 people. Neither will the daily offer of dining with dignity that comes from the Kansas City Community Kitchen week after week. But I do believe there is power in the practice of dignity and hope, because the practice of dignity and hope brings the kingdom of God to life. And the love of that kingdom, the love of God’s community, throws open the doors of our prison cells. When love takes flesh and dwells among us, we remember the truth that puts the world’s darkness to flight.
And what is that truth? This time of year, people will ask you about it – maybe not in so many words, but they will still be trying to find out whether you believe Jesus really is the one who is to come, or whether we should wait for another. Well, you can say what you have seen and heard – at the Free Store, and in Haiti, and right here in the life of this church. The hungry are fed. The lonely are cared for. The friendless are welcomed. The poor have good news brought to them. The spiritually dead are raised. Regardless of whether the world calls us rich or poor, our prison cells do not define us, and fear will not have the last word. Instead, the voice of the prophet rings out: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Here is your God. … He will come to save you.” (Isaiah 35:3-4)