Lectionary: Epiphany 4B


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.

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Easter Sunday

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 16:6 – But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that without Easter all our hopes are in vain. I agree. Easter is the undeniable declaration that God is in command, and God is triumphant over the forces of the world that will steal, kill, and destroy. Whatever evil you know, whatever sins you are responsible for, whatever it is that you struggle with, God is over it all.

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Wednesday, Fourth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 8:24 – And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

One girlfriend I had used to love to call me her “blind-as-a-bat boyfriend,” and that was before my eyes got really bad. When I told some prison friends I was learning sign language, they laughed and told me I should learn Braille. I’m nearly blind without my glasses, and without them people to me look like little more than trees walking. And my vision is slowly but steadily deteriorating. Yet I am at peace.

One source of strength in this is from a young woman I knew ten years ago who was totally blind. A college friend, she had the courage and faith to spend a year studying abroad in Paris. When I visited there it was she who was my tour guide.

The eye doctor has joked with me and told me only one man at the prison has worse vision; it turns out that he is a friend of mine. He is the drummer of a band I am in, and diabetes has left him almost totally blind. You would assume that his handicap would leave him a perpetual victim in prison, and the reverse is true. The men in here look out for him, help him, and accommodate him in many little ways.

And it is fair to say that all of us know well many people who are spiritually blind. Their vision may be 20/20, but their eyes are blind to the ways of God. Jesus opened the worldly eyes of this man, but only after the man begged Jesus to touch him. His spiritual eyes were working just fine.

God has opened my eyes and ears to his ways and his being. My earthly eyes are in His hands, and I am at peace whatever happens, because I am in His hands.

That it may please thee to preserve all who are in danger by reason of their labor or their travel, We beseech thee to hear us good Lord.” BCP 151

Monday, Fourth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 7:28 – But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children‘s crumbs.”

Prison ministry is unpopular. It isn’t often thought of, and the few people who decide to work in it often approach it with fear and apprehension. We are always hard pressed to raise donations and to find willing volunteers. We gladly settle for the ‘crumbs’ from the regular ministries. I am writing this on a used donated computer, work in a library full of used donated books, and play music on a used donated guitar. The music is at least a joyful noise to the Lord.

Jesus came to minister to the sick, the friendless, and the needy. Jesus did not come for the healthy; he came as a physician to heal the sick. Who were the children that this lady spoke of? The Gentiles. Us.

In prison ministry or any other, spend your time ministering to those people who most need it, not those who you think most deserve it.

Please remember prison ministry and other non-traditional ministries when you make your tithe of money and time. Even small gifts of yours, or a short period of your time, can make a profound impact on the life of another.

That it may please thee to give and preserve to our use the bountiful fruits of the earth, so that in due time all may enjoy them, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 151

Friday, Third Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 6:51-52 – And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened

We like to look to the Apostles as men of faith. We remember how they taught, ministered, and remained faithful unto death. But when we look to the Gospels and the book of Acts, we see that they were much more human. They suffered from doubts and fears. They walked beside Jesus everyday, and they often missed the point. Often Christ is frustrated and angry with the disciples because of their inability to realize who he was, or what His true purpose was.

But they were willing to follow Christ, to trust Christ, and to become transformed. Christ did not choose them because they “got it” or because they were great men of faith or intellect when they started. He called them because of what they could become, and then he helped them become it.

“He [a Christian] does not think that God will love us because we are good, but rather that God will make us good because he loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but rather becomes bright because the sun shines upon us.”

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

God chose you, not because of what you were, but because of whose you were and what you will become. This Lent don’t just put something aside, or take something on; this Lent – be transformed.

That it may please thee to make wars to cease in all the world; to give to all nations unity, peace, and concord; and to bestow freedom upon all peoples, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.” BCP 151

Thursday, Third Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 6:37 – But He answered and said to them, “You give them something to eat.”

On Easter Sunday in 2003 I decided I would cook food for anybody in my housing pod who would eat. Prison food here is much better than most, but it is possible to combine different foods from the canteen to cook up something special. With plenty of advance planning I saved some money and assembled quite a spread. I had some friends in the kitchen acquire vegetables and spices; from the canteen I got some of every good food offered. They served boiled eggs for breakfast that morning, and we brought dozens back to the building. My mom taught me how to cook, and my friends were looking forward to it this feast.

But things in prison are never that easy. Some of my friends don’t like some of my other friends. Everybody wanted some of the food, but some insisted on eating at separate tables, away from each other. I grieved over this, but agreed. I wanted to do this for them. When it came time to cook and prepare the food we had ten men show up to my cell to help cook. We had guys from all over showing up with cold sodas to drink and cookies for desert. One of my kitchen connections refused to let me pay them for the vegetables. We fed over twenty men, and most of the ones who didn’t help cook, helped clean. It was Easter, and it was good. Most of my cooking helpers were Christians and we prayed over the food as we fixed it. Our prayers were answered.

Some say Jesus feeding 5000 men is a miracle; others say that all he did was convince the crowd to share. To me that is a miracle either way.

That it may please thee so to rule the hearts of thy servants, this nation, and all in authority, that they may do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 150

Saturday, First Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 2:27 – Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

One of the greatest gifts we have in the modern church, the gift of the Liturgy. Our book of Common Prayer contains prayers and orders of service that date back to the first days of the Apostolic Fathers. It has been changed and revised over the years to meet our changing needs, but that is only the evolution of something rooted in our foundation in Christ.

But we cannot become a slave to ritual. One thing I learned, even as a young child, is that the liturgy and ritual is to help us, not God. God does not need the right words, or the right orders of service, to do God’s work. As a child at Shrinemont summer camp I remember celebrating Christmas in July. How could this be, I wondered. But December 25 is just a day; Christmas is any day that we celebrate the birth of our Lord; just as we celebrate Easter with every prayer, and every praise. So we had Christmas in the middle of the summer.

Since then I have seen classrooms, gymnasiums, and prison visiting rooms turned into chapels, and seen communion given with water and Ritz crackers, and God has done God’s work.

I miss the liturgy. When an Episcopal priest celebrated communion with me simply hearing the words I know so well was a gift, and a blessing. But I know that all of our Prayer Book, and all of our Theology, is subservient to God, not the other way around.

Today is Saturday, the day of the Jewish Sabbath, and Christ is Lord of the Sabbath.

By the mystery of thy holy incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and submission to the Law; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord deliver us.” BCP 149

Friday, First Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 2:14 – and as he was walking along, he saw Levi…sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him. “Follow Me.” And he got up and followed him

Levi was an unpopular man. Levi was a Jew, and he was a Jew who worked with the Roman oppressors. The tax booth, or ‘customs-house’ in some translations, was a place known for injustice and abuses of power. It was often common that such a position would have to be bought, knowing then that you could become rich profiting form your fellow Jews. Levi would have been seen as a traitor to his own people. But Jesus calls him, and immediately he answers.

John Calvin, writing on this passage, writes: “[Levi was selected] that he might be an example of Christ’s undeserved goodness, and might show in his person that the calling of all of us depends, not on the merits of our own righteousness, but on His pure kindness. [Levi] therefore, was not only a witness and a preacher, but was also a proof and illustration of the grace exhibited in Christ.”

And of all the passages in the bible, this story (in Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is one of the most special to me. Why? Because in modern English we don’t use the word ‘Levi”, we use the name ‘Matthew”. And when I hear the Lord calling my name, it resonates in my soul. Matthew followed the Lord on his ministry, wrote a Gospel that stands today, and was eventually killed for his faith. When I think of all of that, I can only pray that I have the same courage in following Christ as he calls to me in my life.

From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord deliver us” (BCP, 149)

Thursday, First Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 2:5,11-12 – When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven…I say to you stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up…so that they were all amazed and glorified God

These friends were willing to do anything to get the paralyzed man before Jesus. They climbed on top of a house, cut a hole in the roof, and lowered the man down before Jesus. And Jesus saw their faith. Jesus did not reward them for the work they had done any more than he reprimanded them for cutting a hole in the roof. It wasn’t because of their hard work that he tended to them; it was because of their faith.

And Jesus clearly sets his eyes on the priority, the forgiveness of sins. Jesus knew the man would walk in this life or the next, so his priority was in making sure that there was a ‘next’ for this man. Jesus only heals him right then as a secondary thing, and as a demonstration to the unbelievers that he did have the authority given to him by God to do such things.

It is humbling to think of the majesty of giving movement to a man paralyzed, and then to realize that it is only secondary in the eyes of God to the forgiveness for our sins. I know that any of us would go to great lengths if we could help a friend who was paralyzed regain their movement, but we are more reluctant to go to the same lengths to bring a friend before God. We need to realign our thinking to that of God’s.

From lightening and tempest; from earthquake, fire, and flood; from plague, pestilence, and famine, Good Lord deliver us” BCP 149

Tuesday, First Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

Mark 1:17 – And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

When God called forth men to serve him in earthly ministry he did not choose the wise, the learned, or the successful. When Christ came he did not choose men of wealth or power. Only God can judge what is in the true heart of man, and who will serve God’s glory to the fullest.

The reason for this is that teaching and faith comes from God, above all. God raises up those who would be raised up. The poor of the world have the least to lose for their faith, and the most to gain. They are less encumbered by the things of the world and the things of the flesh. What the world sees as loss and poverty, the Lord sees as freedom from the things that ensnare us. When we know that we have nothing outside of God, then we can be more faithful to God. The poor and lost are more willing to risk it all for God, and to accept what God has to give.

God calls whom God wills, and God calls to us wherever we are, whatever we are doing. The only thing that separates us is how we respond to that call. These fishermen dropped everything that they had and followed Christ; later they would be the Disciples Simon and Andrew. They would minister for Christ all of their life, and they would be killed for their faith. God called, and they gave their lives to answer.

Where is your wisdom from? When God calls you, what is it that holds you back? Whatever it is, put it to death this lent, let it be crucified with Christ, so that you might be resurrected anew.

From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord deliver us.” BCP149