Every week members of our parish go to Coxsackie Correctional Facility to lead bible study classes. Last week, I went with them to compare the teachings of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. During the program some prisoners shared rather candid testimonies. They lamented over the lost opportunities in their lives and expressed guilt for the bad decisions made in the past.
They also talked about how they destroyed the lives of others by their selfish behavior. High on their list were the ways they disappointed their children, girlfriends, wives and parents. They told us how hard it is for them to give up bad habits. As I listened I thought about what they and we have in common, that is, how hard it is for every one of us to give up bad habits as we we try to grow and develop into better human beings ourselves.
My experience at the prison helped me think about today’s biblical texts. All three readings present stories of people who struggled in life trying to let go of the baggage weighing them down. Pastor Beverly Bingle offers a summary (paraphrased here): The widow in Zarephath felt guilty thinking her son got sick to death as punishment for her own sin. The apostle Paul was caught in the legalities of his ancestral traditions. The woman in Nain was the victim of cultural conventions that undervalued a woman’s place in society.
In the first reading the prophet Elijah breathes new life into the son of the widow. Scholars refer to Elijah as a prophet, a magician and a connector. In biblical terms prophets deliver messages from God. As magicians they make divine power available to us  and connect the gifts of God to the needs of the present world. 
In the gospel Luke replays the old testament story. So, Jesus, like Elijah, heals the son of the widow. He is thought to be revealing what the kingdom of God might look like, where people can be reborn to live freely, unencumbered by the injustices of the world. Jesus showed compassion and mercy toward the woman as much he did toward her son.
These passages present opportunities to think of our own destinies. They are promises that the God who made this earth is not subject to the limits of it.  Like the prisoners at Coxsackie we are doing time during this life struggling daily to find ways to break loose of whatever may imprison us from becoming more productive and caring human beings.
Most prisoners try to make the best of their time in jail. Some write memoirs, others earn a degree or learn a trade. The volunteers who visit our prisons bring support and hope to the men. They remind them, by their continual presence to them, that God does not give up on them nor do they.
The other evening one resident said he often thinks it is good for him to be in jail where, in this hellish place, he is forced to live simply, possess almost nothing and spend time reflecting and praying. What matters most in life becomes clearer to him. He is fearful that life on the outside (where you and I live) is far more complicated, filled with empty promises and temptations that cause people to make bad decisions that can affect a person’s growth and the lives of others.
Someone asked me “why do you go to the prison?” There are a couple of answers. I was invited to go just like I was nudged to volunteer at our food pantry. Both experiences have been rewarding for me. At Coxsackie I learn a lot from the prisoners about what it takes to keep on, to try again and again to restore and rejuvenate ourselves..
We can help one another to move beyond the sins of our past. We can be prophets to one another, showing ways to new visions that liberate us from worn out conventions. In the words of today’s psalm — with God by our side we can “change our mourning into dancing.”
- Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: Life of a Mediterranean Peasant. (San Francisco: Harper, 1971) 138
- Florence, Anna Carter (Ed.) Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011) 74
- Kavanaugh, John. The Word Encountered: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures. (Maryknoll: Orbis 1996) 33-35