19th Weekend after Pentecost
October 03, 2021 | Dirk Staedtlander
Passage: Mark 10:2-16
Thank you for inviting me to be here with you today. Thank you for being on this team that Jesus calls us to be a part of. Sometimes within these walls we call it the Church. Sometimes within these pages of scripture, we call it the Body of Christ. But it is wonderful for me to be with you again now.
After I took off my mask, some of you might be saying I might know that guy. Some of you may remember that my family and I, we served as ELCA global mission missionaries to the country of Senegal for eight years from 2005-2013. And you, our siblings in Christ, here at Bethesda, you were wonderful covenanting supporters of ours. And so we would come by and see you every couple of years, maybe 2007, 2009, 2011. And sometimes it was in the summer. So if I didn't see your face, it's OK. Church is closed in the summer, right?! Yeah, it seems like it's closed, based on the parking lots! But it is great for me to be back here.
Today I am back with you in another role. I haven't switched teams. I'm just playing a different function. Now I am the pastor of Free Indeed, a prison congregation meeting inside the walls of the Anamosa State Penitentiary. I have to admit, I've only been doing this for about a year and a half and Free Indeed has been up and running for the past three years or so. And some of you were able to be behind the walls of the Animosa State Penitentiary before I started this call. I'm not quite sure if any of you were there against your will, but I know before COVID hit, we were able to welcome people from the outside in to the prison so that you might be able to worship side by side with our incarcerated individuals. So that there might be a tangible, a physical reality of being on the same team together. Of developing relationships.
Now, I've been at this since February of 2020. So if you think back, whether or not you owned a face mask before February 2020, I believe I did because my dad taught high school home construction and so we would put insulation in and we would wear a mask, but I never wore one of these out just in public. So, my time with Free Indeed has been colored by the pandemic life. However, through it, I have been able to develop relationships with both the incarcerated individuals and the staff at Anamosa State Penitentiary. And I am glad that we are able to deepen our relationship today, and I thank you for those who have already been a part of our ministry, either physically by coming to the prison, prayerfully and financially. Bethesda supports the prison congregation, and so I thank you. You are all an integral part of our relationship and this team that is walking with those who are incarcerated at the Anamosa State Penitentiary.
Relationships are central to our lives and are also the focus of our text today. Sisters and brothers, siblings in Christ -- Grace to you and peace from God, our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, who makes God's love real in our lives. Amen. So as you read through the text, you see these relationships pop out at you, you've got the Pharisees and Jesus. The Pharisees are trying to test Jesus. Now, I have often wondered, is this sort of that water cooler testing like you're standing around with a colleague and you say, "So what are you thinking with doing the report like that? It doesn't make any sense to me." Or is this that water cooler conversation where you say, "So what do you think about the boss, really?" Because, you know, the boss is walking by and you're just trying to pull one over on them. Whatever it is, they start asking these questions to see if Jesus can clarify it. Whether or not they're trying to trap him, that might be an open question. Or for you biblical scholars out there, you might be able to tell me one way or the other.
Whatever it is, there is an interesting dynamic in relationship going between Jesus and the Pharisees, and they ask about the relationship of someone who is married, whether or not they should become divorced. That is, is Jesus good with that? The dissolution of relationships, whether married, or on a more informal, more perhaps personal level--dissolution of relationship is often painful. And whether it is devolving or evolving is a matter of perspective and experience. Nonetheless, it is a transformation of it. Jesus invites us back to Genesis. Genesis 1 and 2 have a couple creation stories there, and both stories talk about a relationship. So in Genesis 1, you've got humanity who comes out of the Earth, or as my biblical languages professor at Luther College would tell me, you have Earthling who is made out of the Earth -- because there's this Hebrew play on words that "out of the Earth came the Earthling." God creates the Earthling out of the Earth, and there's the "let it be." God speaks, and it is. And then as we get to this passage that we heard today read, we have the human who is naming those things that are coming to him and as different animals and creatures are coming forward, God sees that there isn't a true helper. A true -- the old old English would be "help meet." There's not a true partner there, one that fits really well. One that will carry on. This same word for helper is what is used in the Psalms for God.
So there isn't a God-like Other for this human being. And as the story goes, a rib is taken out and this helper, this godlike being is made and -- I don't know if you noticed this, but the first words uttered by humanity is poetry. "Bone, my bone, flesh of my flesh, oh, finally!" So Jesus invites us to think about this relationship, this close relationship that we have with others, that sometimes is a part of our married life. And he goes on to say, no matter what happens in life, the two of you are joined together because you have made promises to one another. And life will always be transformed.
Jesus goes on to say that, well, Moses allowed you to become divorced to write that certificate of dismissal because of your hardness of heart. But you're always kind of together. In this gathered assembly this morning, I know that this text comes to us in a myriad of ways. Perhaps for some of us, it is hard to hear. Perhaps for some of us it encourages us. Some of us are happily married. Some of us are happily divorced. Some of us are happily single. Some of us are sadly single. Some of us have not been able to express the love and desires of our hearts because of the stigma that exists in our society. For some of us, love creates more walls, it seems, than transformations and God-like life-giving experiences.
Though we come to this text with varied experiences, I invite you to hear in the text that we all live in relationship with others, and at times our relationships are strained. Relationships and corrections have been a bit of an eye-opening experience for me. I consider myself fortunate that I grew up in Iowa -- the greatest state in the Union. Just thought I'd let you both know back there. And growing up in Iowa, I did not know someone who was incarcerated until I went to seminary. So it took from those preschool days, my elementary days, all the way through, I went straight to college, straight to seminary, and that's when a friend of the family was incarcerated at Mitchellville. It was the first time I sat in the courtroom as I heard a judge speak the verdict of "guilty" to someone I cared about. It was the first time that I heard the sentence read aloud. So I've been learning about the relationships within our incarceration system here in the state. We have our incarcerated individuals in the community. It has been judged that those individuals are either a harm to themselves or a harm to the community or property at large that they need to be separated from the community, often by fences or walls.
At Anamosa State Penitentiary it is a high wall, is at least a 20-foot wall. It's called a high medium max. We have around 800 incarcerated individuals right now. About half of our incarcerated individuals are lifers, meaning that they have a life sentence without parole, or their life expectancy is shorter than their sentence. So half that I encounter inside the walls know that they will be dying in prison. All of them have been taken out of our communities. But all of them live in community now. Their relationships with their family members and friends occur through letters, emails, phone calls. And once again, starting in early July, face-to-face visits in the prison visiting room.
Also, there is the relationship between the incarcerated individuals and the staff. We have around 300 staff members at Anamosa State Penitentiary. About two-thirds of the staff are security staff and another third are treatment staff. All work to engender an environment where pro-social behaviors and thinking can flourish.
I had a paradigm shift in my ministry on March 23rd of this year. Some of you may have heard about that in the news. We had two staff members who died at the hands of our incarcerated individuals. Two individuals who were attempting to escape encountered a correctional nurse and a correctional officer -- who were not able to walk out through the bars and go home to their families that day. This was a paradigm shift in that, for many of us, when we think about Free Indeed prison congregation, we think about those incarcerated individuals. And yet on that day, I realized that I also had a role to play with fellow staff members. And in those hours that followed, as I walked with staff members, their perspective of their relationship with the church -- I hope, but particularly with Free Indeed prison congregation -- changed, and that no longer was I the guy who was going to go through those bars and then slide up to the chapel and stay up there. At that point, I was able to be among the staff members who were hurting, those who witnessed firsthand the murders. Those whose friends, lifelong friends, for several of them, were not going home and who had died that day. On that day, many of us realized that we are in this together. In the days that followed, as we attempted to pray with and to surround the families of the deceased, there were shirts that were made, one that says "Stronger Together." You may have seen this on the news. Sometimes it flashes up as they would do a report, but it's the state of Iowa with a gray corrections, the line that goes across it and it says Stronger Together.
Previous to this call, I was serving in the Rocky Mountain Synod in Pueblo, Colorado, and our Synod Assembly theme was: "Christ's Church Better Together." Central to our lives, our relationships. So this shirt Stronger Together I bought out of solidarity and to help the family members. And a couple of days in the past couple of months, we've been invited to wear our shirts instead of our uniform shirts for those of us who are uniformed, or the polo shirts for those people who are non-uniformed staff. That we would wear these shirts so that we could show our solidarity.
I walked into rehearsal, we were getting ready with the worship team, our musicians were gathering -- a couple of guitar players, a bass player, percussionist and our piano player. And I was feeling pretty good about myself showing that I was a teammate. And I walked in, one of the guitar players looked up and said, "Oh, you're on their team." I said, "um, say more?" See, this is what happens when you've trained as a chaplain, you say: "tell me more." He said, "well, you know, we only get to wear white, gray and blue. Some of us took our gray shirts and wrote Stronger Together to show support for our staff and for those staff members whom we cherished as family members. And we were told to take those off, that's disrespectful. You are the reason they're dead." So that shirt that I wore to show that I was a team member also affected others in a way that said, I'm not on your side. Reminds me of that story today is the disciples are saying, stay away, kids.
But did you notice what Jesus did? Jesus said, "no, actually, they're invited". And Jesus did not say, you disciples, get out of here. Jesus said anyone and everyone is welcome here. Those who feel like they are pushed away, those who are separated from society, those who feel like no one is paying attention to them -- you are all invited, Jesus takes all who have fallen short. Jesus takes all who feel like they are put down, wraps his arms around them and says. Your mine. THIS is the work of Free Indeed prison congregation. It is an honor to serve on the team with you. It is an honor to work with the correctional workers of this state. It is an honor to walk beside our incarcerated individuals. So that all might know God's welcome, and the only way we get to do this inside the walls of the Anamosa State Penitentiary is if you continue to do that work here. So I thank you for the ways in which Bethesda reaches out. I'm excited to hear about AMPARRO and the way in which you are able to interact with that immigrant-welcoming strategy. All these things that you do here make it possible for us to gather with our siblings in Christ inside the walls of the Anamosa State Penitentiary so that we can welcome all saying, YOU are loved. YOU are part of this team. Amen.