This sermon was first preached for an online service with Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Northwest Arkansas.
Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.
In 2018 I was a part of a direct action at the Cook County Courthouse titled, “Free the Captives.” It was a direct allusion to the verses from Isaiah we are reading today, words that Jesus quoted in his first sermon and inaugural address as a kind of mission statement of sorts letting us know what he was all about.
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
I grew up in the church and I was the biggest Bible nerd, so I had grown up hearing these verses. But at the time, I didn’t think that the prophet Isaiah or Jesus really meant “release the prisoners.” Large swaths of the congregation I grew up in were big into literalism… when it came to things like Hell, or affirming LGBTQIA+ people. In fact, they took their interpretations of scripture as literal so seriously that after 2009, they left the ELCA and pushed me out for pushing back, even though I wasn’t yet out to them as bisexual. But my “Bible-believing” church and my Sunday School teachers never talked to me about proclaiming release for the captives and freedom for prisoners. It felt safer, I guess, especially in our comfortable white suburbs, to think of those things as metaphors than it did to recognize them as clear signs of the Reign of God.
At the action in Chicago in 2018 we chanted the words from these verses as a kind of call and response as we occupied the Cook County Courthouse to demand an end to money bail and unjust pretrial detention. At that time inside the Cook County Jail there were over 2500 people who were stuck in jail who had not been convicted of a crime, merely because they were too poor, too Brown, too Black, to pay their way out. When people are incarcerated pretrial, while they are still supposed to be presumed innocent, they often lose their jobs which means losing their homes and even their kids. And it does nothing to keep us safer. Studies show that releasing people pre-trial actually decreases crime. And further, these 2500 people held pretrial are people who had been screened, even by the criminal justice’s own skewed standards, as “safe for release.”
All they had to do was pay a ransom of a few thousand dollars.
For white and wealthy people this was usually no problem. It was definitely no problem for Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago Police Officer who murdered Black teenager Laquan McDonald by shooting him 16 times as he walked away from him and then – with cooperation of his fellow officers and government officials – covered up the crime. Officer Jason Van Dyke was released on bail almost immediately when his father and other police officers coughed up cash and paid bail. So Van Dyke was able to sleep at home in his bed at night while awaiting trial for 16 shots and a cover up while 2500 people lost their rights because they couldn’t afford to pay bail.
This story is from Chicago but I would bet that there are similar stories where you live. According to an Arkansas state representative, Rep. Collins, Arkansas spends over 100 million dollars each year on pre-trial detention alone. Money that could be used to prevent crimes by getting at the root of problems, money that could be resources for the community, money that could go to school or jobs. What would you do with that 100$ million dollars?
Advent is a time in our church calendar that is rife with prophetic voices. In today’s readings alone we hear from 3 different prophets; Isaiah, Mary (Mother of God), and John the Baptist. Each of these prophets cast a vision for the way things could be, the way things will be when the Reign of God comes in all of its fullness. And the prophets we hear today speak in line with many of our spiritual ancestors when they say in the Reign of God tyrants are cast out, the poor are lifted up, the hungry are fed, and prisoners are released. In the Reign of God there are no prisons, there are no more captives. The Reign of God includes a world beyond our prison industrial complex. The Reign of God embraces police and prison abolition.
It would be easy to relegate this to imagery or allegory. But when Jesus quoted these abolitionist words from Isaiah, its original hearers didn’t see it that way. They didn’t smile and think to themselves, “Sounds nice, what a wonderful utopian image.” When Jesus preached these very same words in the synagogue in his hometown, the people were angry enough to try to throw him off a cliff. And we know that for both John the Baptist and Jesus, the Empire took their words quite seriously. Their resistance to the powers of their time eventually got them killed.
There are prophets today in our own streets and in our own Twitter newsfeeds. In the tradition of Isaiah and Mary and John the Baptist and Sojourner Truth and so many others, they are casting a vision for the future where our collective liberation isn’t just a nice dream, but a reality. They are telling us stories of a future where captives are set free, a future that is coming, a future already on its way. It’s a true story, a story that threatens kings and terrifies tyrants. They are inviting us to be a part of that future as coworkers instead of obstacles. As we get ready for Jesus’ birth and the birth of this new world, we have to prepare. Not only by baking cookies or hanging lights or wrapping gifts or making cards, but by swinging the doors to prisons and jails wide open.