A little over a year ago, Chaplain Christa Fisher preached at Grace and shared with us some stories about her work at the jail and challenged us to get involved with the Madison Jail Ministry. That challenge has weighed heavily on my heart over these last months. I toured the jail last May and in conversations with Christa since then we’ve been exploring together whether volunteer chaplaincy, one afternoon a month, might be a good fit for me.
On Tuesday, I went with Christa to see what volunteer chaplaincy might involve. We spent three hours in two different pods. She brought with her a bag full of things to hand out—from reading glasses to Bibles. We sat down at a table and waited as guys looked through what we had. As the crowd died down, individuals who wanted or needed to talk would sit down and talk.
Imagine the scene. They’re called pods, for whatever reason; perhaps because the men are packed in like peas in a pod. Large rooms where the incarcerated men sleep, eat, hang out all day. There are a couple of television sets; several tables with stools attached to them so they can’t be removed. There’s a laundry area; but that’s only accessible if one of the guards unlocks it, and he relocks it as soon as you’ve put your clothes in the washer. There are no windows, no daylight. The only time you might see sunlight is if you are permitted to go to the exercise area (1 hr a week, and it doesn’t really meet the regulations for outdoor exercise).
You’re stuck there—and you probably don’t know how long. It could be a few days, a few weeks. It could be months. We talked to guys who had been there for six or seven months and still had not had a hearing on their case. There’s no privacy, no silence, no way to plan, because you have no idea when you might be moved. In fact, while we were there one of the guys we had talked to briefly earlier, was escorted out. He was going to Huber, for work release.
It’s not just the inhumane setting. It’s the uncertainty. At least if you’re serving a sentence, you have some idea how long you’re in for; but for most of these guys, they had no clue. They’re not supposed to be kept in jail for longer than a year, but from some of the stories I’ve heard, that rule is often broken.
The stories we heard were unsurprising, testimonies to the difficulties of turning one’s life around as well as to the arbitrary nature of the criminal justice system itself. What was surprising to me was to encounter hope in the midst of this demoralizing, dehumanizing place.
But it’s one thing to hope for oneself in such a context; it’s quite another to be an agent for hope for others. One of the men we spoke with, I’ll call him Jim, talked with us about his engagement with the other men in the pod. He prayed with and for them; he offered bible study; he offered encouragement to them. Even as he struggled with his own situation, he was able to support others, to bring hope in hopeless situation.
Today’s gospel reading follows immediately after last week’s—the Beatitudes. The two opening statements: You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world are as familiar as they are puzzling. We wonder what Jesus means by them, what their significance might be for his disciples. Are they commands? Are we somehow supposed to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world? If so, what would that look like?
Salt and light. I’ve been mulling over those metaphors all week, trying to think of something new and interesting to say about them, struggling to understand what Jesus might have been getting at. For all of their familiarity, the images, and Jesus’ sayings that make use of them, aren’t particularly clear at all. We can see that lack of clarity in the very way “salt of the earth” has been reinterpreted in our culture. I’ve heard it used a good bit over the years and it always seems by the speaker to mean, something like “he’s a really good guy, down to earth, dependable,” a “mensch” to use another term, a stand-up guy. And it’s pretty much always a guy who is being referenced in that usage.
Are they statements of fact, descriptions of Jesus’ disciples? They are declarative statements. Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” Not, “you should be.” Our impulse when asking these questions is to focus on what salt and light are. But perhaps to understand these metaphors, what Jesus meant by them, and also, what the gospel writer meant, we have to look at the larger context.
The lectionary makes the same break that most bibles do. In fact, if you look at a NRSV for chapter 5 of Matthew, it’s likely that in addition to a paragraph break between v. 12, which ended the gospel reading last week, and verse 13, which begins this week’s reading, there is some sort of heading “Salt and Light” for example, that suggests a shift in theme. It’s important to remember that there was another shift that took place in last week’s reading. Matthew’s version of the beatitudes has Jesus speaking in the third person: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, and the like. In v. 11, Jesus speaks directly to the disciples, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” He continues speaking to the disciples directly as he calls them salt and light. So the disciples, and by extension, all of us, who have been baptized into Jesus Christ, are salt and light.
By their very natures, salt and light do things. They transform the things they touch. Salt preserves, salt makes food flavorful, salt melts ice and snow. Light shines in the darkness, it makes the night livable for us, a time when we can be productive or sociable. So, if we, Jesus’ disciples, are to be salt and light to the world, what might that mean?
The obvious answer is that we are to be transformative in the same way that salt and light are. We are gathered here for all sorts of reasons, to learn, to worship, in search of the sacred or meaning, for healing, or hope, out of duty, necessity, or curiosity. We come to this place, to this table bringing all sorts of questions and burdens, seeking solace and help.
We come, and even as we grasp and yearn for solace and healing, Jesus challenges us to take what we receive here and offer it to others. Jesus challenges us to be salt and light. The reading from Isaiah puts it just right. In a passage that begins with criticism of the people’s tendency to put worship obligations—fasting—in front of ethical obligations, the prophet announces:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
I think of Jim, stuck in what seems to be a hopeless situation. If he finally gets a hearing after all these months in jail, he might be sent back to prison for several years. He’s in the limbo of our mass incarceration system. He’s living in a demoralizing, dehumanizing place. Yet he greeted us with a big smile, a hearty handshake, and a loud hello. He talked about his life of prayer, the bible study he attends, the work he does in the jail. He talked about how he tries to encourage and mentor the younger men in the pod. Jim is salt and light. Jim is an inspiration to those around him. Jim inspired me. Jim is salt and light.
To be light, and salt, is to reach out to those in need, to share our bread, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless. To hope in what seems to be a hopeless or desperate situation. That is being light and hope. Those are the things we do as followers of Jesus. Whatever else we come hear for, for solace and healing, for hope, we also come to receive strength and inspiration to do those things, to be salt and light to the world.