Lectionary: Epiphany 4B

jail-bars-bent

Matthew B. Harper

A Sermon for Epiphany 4B

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1st Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Sometimes I think that perhaps life is simply safer and easier in prison than out. Life in here can be difficult, painful, and violent, but there is a clarity and honesty to it. The outside world, one I’ve only seen on TV and in glossy magazines for 20 years now, seems to be consumed with acrimony and judgment. Rather than bringing us closer together, new technology is just documenting how we are splitting ourselves into tribes, and casting our anger at others. We are a world in need of a savior.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Lectionary: Epiphany 2A

by Matthew B. Harper

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-4

The words of the prophet Isaiah contain four “servant” songs, and today we read from the second one. Each of these songs assumes the guise of The Servant of God, and praise God for all that has been, is being, and will be done. But who is the servant? Continue reading

POEM: “Unconditional Love (godmother)”

Taj 1

by Taj Alexander Mahon-Haft

in dialogue with 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

She rises before dawn on a Sunday
just to catch an early Southbound train.

She makes 800 miles round trip
just a single day
for a mere three hours together
then says after the initial squeeze
it’s already worth it.

She hires a driver from the station
just to avoid getting lost, getting late
pays him to idle the visitation hours
watching Southern asphalt bake in August swamp simmer.

She shirks off thanks
looks deep in my eyes
dusts the backs of my hands
(that she just won’t let go)
with tender kisses that seed tomorrows
into my pores.

Taj 2She comes
simply shows
to visit at Greensville
(mid-70’s-Soviet-chic, turreted hell)
just to commingle our talk with presence and affection.

She cares little about frisks,
even less about growling coyotes
posturing in uniforms and scowls
flashing teeth and gnashing bad ‘tudes,
and not one bit about the sharp summer glare
reflecting off surround-sound razor wire, cuffs, and chains.

She enthusiastically proclaims
over the thrill of posing
just for a standard prison photo op
despite the full senior-prom-phony grins
and my state-issued, elastic-wasted attire.

 

Saturday, Fourth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Psalm 108 – My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast

1 Corinthians 13:8 – Love never ends.

The Bible seems clear that, more than anything else from us, God wants our steadfast love. God values our faith, and what is faith if not a steadfast heart focused on God.

It is possible, maybe even guaranteed, that you will love people who will hurt you, and you will love people who you don’t always like very much. We disappoint and hurt each other all too often, but steadfast love will endure all things and it never ends.

Some of my friends from before prison are still my friends during prison. They aren’t my friends because I never made them mad; because I never hurt them; or because they have always liked me. They are my friends because their steadfast love for me was greater than their anger.

In a world where divorce is rampant and destructively out of control, I have seen some prisoners’ marriages survive for years in spite of their hardships. The couples’ love is steadfast. There are some people who were in my life, and we loved each other dearly, but prison was too hard to stay in touch. The love has changed, but the love has never died.

God’s love for us encompasses all that we have done, and all that we might do. God’s love for us is steadfast. The Israelites constantly disobeyed God, and God remained steadfast in Love. I have disobeyed God in horrible ways, and God has never stopped showing me the mercy and grace of God’s love. The enduring power of God’s Love is the greatest force in all of creation.

Love is steadfast, anything less is less then love.

That it may please thee to support, help, and comfort all who are in danger, necessity, and tribulation, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 151

Friday, Fourth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

1 Corinthians 13:2 – And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith… but do not have love, I am nothing.

In prison I see what some people call “Christianity” in the way that they despise prisoners. They are quick to cut freedoms, programs, opportunities, and education. They scorn prison ministry as a waste of time. They believe that the Christian focus for prison has to be the ‘eye for an eye’ that appears in the Old Testament.

But in prison I have also found true Christianity. I have seen it in the work of the men and women who come into the prisons to teach the faith, to lift up the men to better lives, and to love them as God does. These people believe that the basis for ministry in prison is ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” These people are not on any crusade to free prisoners from prison, just to free them from despair and sin.

Which side are you on? We are commanded to test all things by the spirit, and we are warned that many will come to us preaching the name of Christ, and they will be false messengers. We are taught to judge what is proclaimed by the fruit that it bears. The true work of God in the prisons brings forth repentance and newness of life. It brings forth not only clean and godly living on the outside, but it brings forth peace and joy. That is the true work of God.

Whatever your knowledge, whatever your faith, whatever your politics, whatever you have, do, or are; if you do not act out of love, then all else is as nothing.

That it may please thee to visit the lonely: to strengthen all who suffer in mind, body, and spirit; and to comfort with thy presence those who are failing and infirm We beseech thee to hear us good Lord” BCP 151

Thursday, Fouth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

1 Corinthians 12:20 – As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

I always thought that prison was full of thugs, thieves, rapists, and murderers; and it is. But prison is also full of artists, poets, musicians, teachers, and ministers. God has given everybody a different gift.

But all of us are in prison. We came to prison because we didn’t use the gifts we were given, or we misused them. Ultimately it matters very little what gifts we were given, what matters is how we use them.

All men are here because of misuse, but now many use their gifts properly. Our church is filled with beautiful singing and playing, our G.E.D. classes are taught by inmates as much as staff members, our Bible studies are taught by inmates, our art classes make Christian comic books and flyers, one brother has published poems, I play, I write, I teach. All of us serve each other for the glory of God. As a leader of the community here I work with other brothers to discern the gifts some people have, and we work to help them grow into using them for the glory of God.

Do not allow yourself to covet the gifts of others; do not allow yourself pride or regret over what you have or have not been given. Instead spend your time focusing on using the gifts God has given you for their proper purpose, not for your glory but for His.

That it may please thee to preserve, and provide for, all women in childbirth, young children and orphans, the widowed, and all whose homes are broken or torn by strife, We beseech thee to hear us good Lord” BCP 151

Saturday, Third Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

1 Corinthians 10:11 – These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us.

As people we learn by example, and we are instructed upon the authority of others. We learn from books, and by teaching, and by following the examples of those who have come before us.

When I first came to prison I knew that I knew nothing. I knew the tales and legends about prison, but nothing else. All I had to guide me was my faith and my integrity. It didn’t take me long to identify the leaders of the different communities and groups in the prison, and to begin to see their character.

We learn from others, so we must choose carefully and deliberately from whom we would learn and who our leaders will be. I owe a great debt of gratitude to many of the older cons who were men of great faith and integrity, and also well respected within the prison environment. Over the years these men have taught me how to live a life that I could respect, that would steer me clear of most of the troubles in prison, and how to stand rock solid when trouble comes to find me.

When we embark on any new task, in any new phase of our life, or need any guidance, then we must seek out good people to be our guides and examples. We must allow our selves to be guided by the spirit in this. And then we must learn from what they offer. And never underestimate the power of someone in authority to influence people, so be mindful of those who would learn from you. Choose your examples well. And be a good example to others.

That it may please thee to show pity upon all prisoners and captives, the homeless and the hungry, and all who are desolate and oppressed, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.” BCP 151

Wednesday, Third Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

1 Corinthians 8:11 – So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.

Paul reminds us that there are no other gods, and all false idols are simply that – false. But just because we know that truth, we have that knowledge, that doesn’t mean that all others do. And those people who are weak in the faith may be easily misled when they see us do ‘unchristian’ things.

All to often we strive to justify our actions by dividing our time into ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ time. This is false, for there is no moment that isn’t sacred. There are no ordinary moments in all of life. There are no moments that are not gifts to us from God, and no moments when we are free from our responsibility to God.

Our faith and our ministry are not something that we should ever be willing to put aside or turn off. There are no moments in all of time that we stop being Christians. Our responsibility is to not simply hold our faith in our minds, but to also hold it in our hearts and live it in our lives, and our lives will be viewed by others. We may have great knowledge of the ways of God, but we must not let our knowledge lead others astray. It is true that it would be their lack of knowledge that is the danger, but Paul cautions us to act out of Love, not Knowledge.

There are no ordinary moments in life, and we must act out of love to all people, in all times.

Remind yourself today, every time you think of it, that there are no ordinary moments. Simply remind yourself that this very moment has never been before, will never be again, and is a gift to you from God.

That it may please thee to give us a heart to love and fear thee, and diligently to live after thy commandments, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 150

Monday, Third Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

1 Corinthians 7:27 – Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife…

In this Chapter of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he seems very negative about marriage and about sexuality altogether. It may very well be my least favorite passage in Paul’s letters. It must be remembered though that Paul is here assuming that Christ would return within his lifetime, or very soon after. With that in mind it was important to put aside worldly things and focus only on the Lord.

Paul calls his celibacy a gift and it is one I was not given. Yet here I am. I have always been in relationships with women and most of my close friends have always been women. My greatest dream in life has never been more than to be a good husband and father. And here I am, single, childless, and celibate. It is a kind of suffering for me, but even in suffering meaning can be found.

And being totally unavailable has produced some great gifts. There are a few women in my life for whom I am able to be totally devoted to without any ulterior motives. When we talk and write I can open my heart to them totally without wanting anything other than friendship. For some of them this is something unique from a man.

God gave children to Abraham and to Zechariah when they were old men, and I pray that someday I might sail the world with my wife and children. But that is in the future and in God’s hands.

So for now I live and serve. And like the reluctant monk who used to pray: “Lord give me continence, but not yet,” I pray “Lord give me continence—but not forever!”

That it may please thee to give to all people increase of grace to hear and receive thy Word, and to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 150

 

Saturday, Second Week in Lent

By Matthew B. Harper

1 Corinthians 7:16 – Wife…you might save your husband. Husband, …you might save your wife.

Paul cautions us to remain tied to the people who would remain tied to us. Even if they are unbelievers, they may become saved through our lives and our ministry.

I am a young white male, a biker, a weight lifter, and wear too many tattoos. I am also a Christian, a teacher, and a worship leader. I often attract all sorts of people, and all sorts of friends. I turn none away, but minister to all who are in need, and all who will listen. I have often been criticized by some of my Christian brothers for spending time with men who were in biker gangs, or racist gangs, and it mystifies me. I have found many of these men to be good men, however misguided. Who will minister to them if not us?

Recently several men from the Christian Motorcycle Association came in to evangelize out on our recreation yard. These men from the CMA roared right onto the yard on beautiful bikes, and then in their leathers and tattoos they preached to men about our Lord. One older man, a semi-retired preacher, put 78,000 miles on his bike in the last two years just driving to different prisons across the country to evangelize! Paul cautioned the Corinthians to remain with God in whatever condition we were in when we were called.

So when you see bikers on the road, look to see if they wear a patch for an outlaw club, or for Christ. And even if they ride for a club, who will minister to them if not you? Minister to whomever God places before you; speak into whatever ears God has opened; turn none away. Christ’s table is open to all.

That it may please thee to send forth laborers into thy harvest, and to draw all mankind into thy kingdom, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 150