Restorative Justice - Sermon for 1st Sunday In Lent 2015

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The Lent season is a time of reflection, self-examination and repentance. With a new cycle of Restorative Justice starting at San Quentin this coming Wednesday, that inspired me to tie in Jesus' call for repentance in the Gospel text with the Restorative Justice program.

The text notes I preached from are after the sermon audio for convenience, however,  always suggest you listen to the sermon audio, because it is in the delivery of a sermon in the midst of the people of God which is where he Holy Spirit is doing the strongest work within me; and there will not only be some changes to the notes but also emphasis and intonations that don't occur in the notes. 

Sermon delivered at United Lutheran Church of Oakland
February 22  - First Sunday in Lent

"Restorative Justice" - Lectionary text from Mark 1:9-15

San Quentin from Parking Lot.jpg
Greetings to you this day my sisters and brothers, saints and sinners, children of God.

As some of you may know, I am involved with and participate in several programs at the California State Prison known as San Quentin because as part of my calling into ministry is also to carry the love and grace that God has bestowed upon me with me into those facilities.

On Wednesday and Thursday evening are a prisoner-run program known as the Restorative Justice Roundtable, of which a new cycle starts this coming Wednesday and Thursday, and every week, each night, 2 to 8 volunteer guests come in and will be joining nearly 90 prisoners in groups of 6-10 people discussing Restorative Justice and its impact on the prisoners, their victims and victims families, their own families and the communities they leave behind on the outside.

If you have not heard of restorative justice, let me give you a quick rundown. You see, the criminal justice system as we know it today is one that is, for the most part what we call retributive justice, designed to punish or take revenge on the offender. It is based on the simple notion that those who offend against people, property or society as we deem with our laws, deserve to be punished for their crimes. And while that may be true, the simple fact is that the system and resulting punishment as it works, neglecting holistic circumstances such as deeper motivation for criminal acts such as poverty, mental illness, apathy resulting from long-term abuse or post-tramatic stress-disorder, and simple ignorance of the consequences of one's actions, has a tendency of causing further harm to the offender, victim, offender's family and community.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, would argue that while crime destroys both people and relationships, justice should seek to have the opposite effect, to restore and repair people and their relationships with each other and the community as a whole. And as such, Restorative Justice, or RJ as those of us who have participated in multiple cycles in the past have come to refer to it is designed not to simply warehouse offenders until an arbitrary date in the future without having done anything to address the reason behind their offenses, but empower the offenders to take steps to redress the nature of their offenses and the impact it has on the lives of those around them.

In our current Retributive Justice system, neither offender nor victim (or victim's family in some circumstances) has any agency in justice matters. The offender is disempowered from making any sort of amends from their wrongdoing, the victim and family have virtually no ability to confront their offender with questions or the impact that the offense has on their lives, and the community is left with gaping holes of the offender, members of the offenders family whose ability to participate has been lessened, and members of the victims family whose trust and participation is shattered.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, gives offenders and the affected parties an opportunity to dialog and move toward healing and reconciliation. Restorative Justice does not at all seek to remove the sentencing from prisoner offenders, however it does permit them to evolve from being resentful and angry wards of the state to individuals who become accountable for their actions and past behavior willing to give back to their communities and society as a whole whatever they may. And it goes a long way toward what the California rehabilitation system all to often fails at... rehabilitation.

Men and women who were once what many considered hopelessly lost to society as nothing more than criminals, are now made ready to reenter the public as productive, functional members of society. They have had a change of heart and mind. They are now repentant.

The Mark text that we have for today is the one that we usually find at the beginning of Lent, and with good reason: Jesus in the wilderness.  But devoting the item to merely two verses there seem to be some particulars missing that we find in Matthew and Luke.  We have the brief narrative of Jesus being baptized by John, and being claimed by the Holy Spirit, whereupon the voice from heaven is heard, "You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased."  Jesus, thus claimed, is  moved right into the wilderness which is described in two short verses: 

12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Missing are the specifics on the temptations of Satan, as if Mark is not interested in explaining what those specific temptations are. Are Mark's audience already familiar with the particulars of the temptations, or is Mark's focus not so much on the defeat of Satan by Jesus (which, as you can see, takes place at the very start of the gospel) and more to the point on the good news Jesus has for the world. 

And he comes out of the wild immediately, declaring that the time had come and preaching a message that is essentially summarized in the short statement in verse 15, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news."

I know if you are like me you are frightened of that word, "repent".  It brings to mind an image of this earnest sidewalk preacher on the corner of 14th and Broadway with a sign declaring that people must "repent" of their wicked ways. His sign speaking of nothing but the sins and the evils of the world. "Repent! Repent! Repent!" And what? Where is the fulfillment, the love of God, the hope?

 Jesus' statement is neither solely a declaration of repentance. He does not simply say "repent" on its own but "repent and believe in the good news". It does not end with repentance, but on an up note, that we believe. And not that we believe in anything, but the good news, that he has to share with us. 

And "repent" is not merely a demand of God to beg his forgiveness, to move toward contrition as we are so often associating the word. Repent is our translation of the Greek word, "μετανοεῖτε", which literally means "change your mind" or more accurately, change the way your mind is going. Certainly, it is not about simply deciding that you wanted to wear a blue shirt and changed your mind and decided to wear black.  It is about changing the way our minds thinks about the way that we have been living. This message that comes beginning with Jesus baptism in the Spirit by John and through the temptation of Christ in the desert by Satan is about changing our minds about living in harmful, destructive ways. 

So when Jesus is saying, repent and believe in the good news, he is not telling us that we must do some awful penance to be calculated and described by outside authority, but that the penance is, in fact, changing our minds, our hearts, that we need only seek the path of Christ, the way of God. That he has not bad news about the punishment that we are to receive but good news, gospel, about what he is to us and where he comes from.

God has not come to destroy the earth. He has entered into covenantial relationship with us, just look at the rainbow in the sky after it rains... however rare it might be in these parts... and remember that God does not wish to destroy the earth but we are his loving creation. The time that we spend these forty days that started on Wednesday, and continues until the end of Holy Week, is not time for us to suffer, is not time for us to punish ourselves. We fast, we pray, we give alms during this period because it gives us an opportunity to reflect back on what Jesus Christ means for us in our lives.

Those of us who are active members of society can still find it in ourselves to seek where sin affects us, where we find ourselves not being kind to our neighbors when we can, where we are impolite by our own thoughtlessness, where we are unforgiving because of our own bruised egos, we can learn something in this Lent, this time of reflection. We can pray, and become centered, carrying our Lord and Savior out of Sunday morning and into our lives the rest of the week.

And this coming Wednesday, when I go into San Quentin and enter into a new Restorative Justice cycle with prisoners, many of whom this will be a first time to take an active look at their own accountability, I know that the Holy Spirit will be in that place, helping people grow and change, not just the prisoners but those of us who go in with them.

God calls us to be reconciled, to be recovered, and to be restored. And this is, my sisters and brothers, indeed, the good news that Jesus Christ has given us in our lives today, and that we can, even as we live into self-examination, in our fasting and self-discipline, in our prayer and meditation, in our alms-giving and service, be fulfilled in the comfort of God's loving arms.


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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on February 22, 2015 2:16 PM.

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