Easter Vigil

by Matthew B. Harper

Isaiah 55:7 – Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thought; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon…

Psalm 42:1 – As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

Romans 6:4 – Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death…so we too might walk in newness of life

Matthew 28:7 – Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘he has been raised from the dead

All of these readings come to us from the service for the Easter Vigil, and together they sum up our faith journey.

The words from Isaiah are in a chapter that my Bible titles “invitation to an abundant life.” They are the words that invite us out of our old life of Sin, and into the life of God. We are a fallen people, and the only way back is through a proper relationship with our God. But we cannot go as we are. We cannot be with God when we love our wicked ways.

I am in constant fellowship with godly men who have been criminals of all kinds. The very foundation of their repentance and transformation is to forsake their wicked ways. There comes a day in every person’s life when they are just tired of being wrong, sinful, and alone. To give up what is wrong, and to return to the Lord, is the beginning of all good things.

When we first begin to turn from our sin, and to turn our face back to the Lord we have such a passionate hunger for our God. We want to be with God and to know God’s ways in all things. It is a sad truth that the ways of the world can make that passion dull in our minds and hearts over time. When we are complacent we can forget that there are bigger things than us. We lose our focus on God, and that puts the whole world out of focus. We have to take time to refocus our hearts and minds.

Christ’s death is something we like to talk about, and we cannot allow ourselves to forget that it is our death as well. When we were baptized we were buried with Christ, so that we could be raised in Christ. This Lent we have worked to put to death those things not of God, and to bring forth those things that are of God. This Easter morning we will celebrate Christ’s rebirth just as we celebrate our own rebirth through Christ. Through Christ all of us are in newness of Life.

Mary Magdalene has often been called the ‘disciple to the disciple’ because of the commandment given to her by the angel. It was she that was the first one told to ‘go’ and to tell the good news, and she did. But it did not stop there, and this commandment is given to us as well.

When we realized we are a fallen people, we turned to God; when we thirsted for God, we were filled; when we were crucified with Christ, we were resurrected to new life. In all things we have been given an unbelievable gift from the creator of all creation, and it is the only natural thing that we should go forth and proclaim this goodness to all people. If you are a Christian, how can you not want that very same thing for everyone?

Tonight is the Easter Vigil, and we sit and await the resurrection of our Lord. We sit as if we were children on Christmas Eve; we sit with great anticipation awaiting the new morning. We may already know what will happen on Easter morning, but we cannot allow ourselves to miss the majesty of it. So rise again this Easter. Rise again a new creation, forgiven of your sins, and alive in Christ. Trade your happiness for Joy, find Peace in a troubled world, and pass on the Love of Christ to everybody you meet.

O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection: Stir up in your Church that Spirit of adoption which is given to us in Baptism, that we, being renewed both in body and mind, may worship you in sincerity and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. BCP 295

 

Wednesday in Holy Week

by Matthew B. Harper

Matthew 26:25 – Judas, who betrayed him, said “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

According to Dante, Judas sits alongside Brutus in the 9th circle of hell. As people who betrayed those they were closest to, they are confined to the deepest circle of hell, chewed forever in the mouth of Lucifer. Creepy.

It is a subject I have thought of often over the years. During the legal process of my incarceration I had to endure people that I had loved and trusted, and those I hadn’t, speak up to denounce me and to betray my trusts. One in particular went from hateful before my crimes, to vindictive after them as she wrote letters to the judge as some self-appointed jury.

And yet I believe that there may be a place for Judas in heaven. I believe in a Christ who loved and forgave. On this night all those years ago Christ shared the Passover supper, in what would later be called the first communion, and he handed the cup of life itself to Judas. Christ knew of his betrayal, and he rejected him not. And this is the Christ of my faith, the one who knew intimately the worst that we are capable of, and loved us in spite of it.

I also know this Jesus because I have worked through his betrayal to make peace with mine. I am angry with no one, and I begrudge no one. I understand their pain and confusion, because I too have pain and confusion. If their betrayal came as a result of my own, then my sin is again at the root of my compassion for them.

I do not know if Judas is in hell, but if he is then I believe Jesus weeps for him, and reserves a seat for him in heaven.

O Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave His back to the smiters and hid not His face from shame: Grant us grace to take joyfully the sufferings of the present time, in full assurance of the glory that shall be revealed. Amen. BCP 169

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)

Ash Wednesday

by Matthew B. Harper

Matthew 6:20-21 – …Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

In the Sermon on the Mount Christ is imploring us not to value the things of the world, and not to live according to the rules of the world. Christ has come to us to remind us to live our lives for the things that matter. This is a powerful reminder as we begin the period of Lent. In this full passage we are reading about fasting. For Christ does not ask us to fast, but simply tells us what to do when we fast. It is taken as a given that we will fast for periods on our walk.

Fasting is not about punishing ourselves; it is about showing our devotion and obedience to God. Fasting is a tool God has given us to help correct and control the urges that are out of control. Fasting is a way that we put aside those things of the world so that we may focus more fully on God. To let lose from those things that will pass away, and hold tight to those things that are eternal

So when we read these words of Matthew, we are not being told to forsake the world, or to reject it. Instead we are told to hold dear those treasures that are of God, those that will endure for all time, and to let go of everything else. St. Paul reminds us what those things are: “Purity, understanding, patience and kindness, in Holy Spirit and sincere Love, in Truthful speech and in the power of God.

“Create in us new and contrite hearts, that we, lamenting of our sins, may obtain, by the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness.” BCP166

Christmas Day, December 25th

by Matthew B. Harper

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ (Matthew 1:23)

More than for any other reason, we read the Bible to understand that we are alone. We read this book, cherished and handed down to us over the centuries, to hear the words and stories of a God who loves us so very much and comes to be with us.

There was a time when we could not get to God, when we were forever isolated and alone, and that time is gone. When we could not get to God, God came to us. That is not just true today, that is true every day.

Growing up in church my choir director used to joke about the “C&E Christians,” those people who only came to church on Christmas and Easter. Because Church is not just a place, and Christmas is not just a day. Emmanuel, God is with us, is with us everyday and always. Everyday of our lives is a day spend kneeling in the straw of the manger, and everyday is a day spent standing before the cross. God’s enduring presence is always with us.

Out in the desert today will be a long and hard day. The prison visiting room will be crowded, and there will be long lines for the phones. Church will be full tonight, and men will show up that we haven’t seen since Easter. (We have our “C&E Christians” in here as well.) In the midst of our longing and loneliness we will celebrate and find joy. We will find comfort and community. We will be able to do this because of Emmanuel. Because God is with us even in here.

We are not alone, and it is Christmas.

That is what Christmas is.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide in us, our Lord Emmanuel! (Hymn 78)

 

Friday, Third Week in Advent

by Matthew B. Harper

For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his abilities. (Matthew 25:14,15)

How many of us are afraid or feel unworthy? How many of us have felt this way at one time or another? How many of us do not step out, speak up, sing louder, or laugh more – all because we fear our own self-worth in the eyes of another? The simple truth is that we have not been given the same talents, or in the same measure, and that is a difficult and sometimes painful thing.

But being faithful to God does not mean having more talents, it is about using what you have been given to the best of your ability in the ways that God has shown you to use them. All too often we feel like the one who got the last and least talent, and we just want to go and bury it somewhere and not show it to anybody. But the master did not judge his servants by how many talents they had, only by what they had done with them.

If you have ever received a hand made gift from a small child, then you know something of the master’s feelings. Children cannot craft, write, or draw things with great skill, only with great love and total abandon. And we receive them and cherish them because they are indeed precious. They offer whatever talent they have in faithful love to us. So should we offer to our Father.

This Christmas I dare to step out more, and dare to do your best with what you have been given, whatever that may be. I promise it will be enough.

At your great name, O Jesus, now all knees must bend, all hearts must bow: all things on earth with one accord, like those in heaven, shall call you Lord. (Hymn 60)

Thursday, Third Week in Advent

by Matthew B. Harper

Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps…Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:7,13)

Throughout the Gospel Jesus often likens the Kingdom of God to a lamp burning in the darkness. He calls it a lamp and a light, but as a child I knew it as a candle.

On Christmas Eve the church services would often end in darkness. The choir would light a candle, and the light would spread. The flame would be passed through the congregation, and the light would grow and spread more. If a candle was blown out by a chance gust, it was quickly relit from another candle in the community. In the deepest darkness of a cold winter night the warm glow of light would encompass the church as the voices sang a beautiful and old hymn. Christ was here, Christmas was here, and the celebrations could begin.

It is dark at night in the desert. Away from the city and the community the night becomes heavy and oppressive. St. John of the cross described his desert experiences as the ‘dark night of the soul.’ Prison is just such a darkness for me, and we all have darkness like this in our lives.

Into all of this darkness comes the light of Christ. The kingdom burns brightly with a light that cannot be put out, only spread. As the community grows in faith and joy the light glows brighter. The light always defeats the darkness. Always.

Even in prison it is a holy night.

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and Child! Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace. (Hymn 73)

Wednesday, Third Week in Advent

by Matthew B. Harper

Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. (Matthew 24:46-47)

Every year that I was with the Canterbury Ministry at James Madison University, we went Christmas caroling. Every year here at Greensville the church goes to sing Christmas carols in the Medical unit. Working with my mother for our Cursillo community we helped bake cookies for prisoners going on a Kairos retreat. Now I am in prison, and I enjoy eating theses homemade cookies, cooked with love and ministry.

For many of us, when God calls us to an assigned task, we do not like it. God, as our master, calls us out of our comfort zone, calls us to use talents we don’t think we have, and to do things that the world might not understand or praise. Read again the story of Moses, or of Jonah, or of Paul. When we yield to the calling of our Lord, then we find we have talents that we didn’t know we had. We discover a fulfillment greater than what the world can give.

I always try to do the work of the Lord. I try to do those tasks that my God has set me to. I often do them badly, and I often find myself, and my work, blessed.

Caroling and cookies. In prison and out. Same work, different place. Same master, same God, same Lord.

What is God calling you to do today?

There’s a voice in the wilderness crying, a call from the ways untrod: “prepare in the desert a highway, a highway for our God. (Hymn 75)

Friday, Second Week in Advent

by Matthew B. Harper

Thus you witness against yourselves that you are the sons of those who murdered prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. (Matthew 23:31-32)

If God were to hold the full measure of our wrongdoing against us, who could possibly stand? And if the sins of our ancestors were added to that tally, we would be condemned indeed. These words of Christ do not sound much like a welcome, and come instead as a warning. It is a common expression in here that if we were to be sentenced for every crime we had committed, then we would all be serving multiple life sentences.

During this time of year we like to throw parties. As a free man my family often threw big and wonderful parties during the holidays. Before each party we spent days cleaning the house, polishing the furniture , and washing the crystal. Preparing our house was a way to honor the coming guests.

Unfortunately many men in here recognize the honor and majesty of Christ, without recognizing the loving mercy. They know very well their crimes and sins, and insist that their lives would need serious spiritual housecleaning before Christ would be willing to enter in. But Christ loves us so much that he enters our lives when they are broken and messy. He comes to the site of the party weeks in advance, when the dirty laundry is on the floor and the dishes have spots. He loves us so much that he comes, and then he helps clean up the mess we have made of our lives.

These words of warning are also words of invitation. There is no cleaning that we could do to clean up our sins, or the ‘measure of our fathers.’ In the midst of brokenness and strife, God speaks warning, but brings healing.

Lo! The Lamb, so expected, comes with pardon down from heaven; let us haste, with tears of sorrow, one and all to be forgiven; (Hymn 59)

Tuesday, Second Week in Advent

by Matthew B. Harper

Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is He?” (Matthew 22:41-42)

Whom do you say that Christ is? That seems like an easy question, but what do you secretly expect or long for in God?

There are so very many people who become Christians expecting an easy life. They suddenly expect their worldly troubles to disappear and for life to be easy. Unfortunately there are many preachers out there who are preaching a ‘health and wealth’ gospel that tells this lie.

Such a faith will not cut it in here. Men who become Christians and expect the court decision to suddenly go their way are often disappointed and fall away. They expect Christianity to be an easy life, and then must ask where is their faith when the parole board turns them down, or their children and spouse leave, or a family member dies? Where is God when our prayers go unanswered? Where was God when I committed my crimes?

It is the great gift that Jesus is the Messiah who has come to us, but following Christ does not make our lives easy or pain free. Emmanuel, Christ is with us, is a Christ who does not free us from hard times, but rather dwells with us in them. Where is God when it hurts and doesn’t make sense? God is right here. And in our longing and barrenness a faith is born that changes everything. In the midst of that need, great joy can be experienced and lived. It may not change the hardship of our lives, but God’s comfort brings hope. It brings peace, and it makes a path for us to return to God.

Who do you say Christ is? I say Christ is here.

Savior of the nations come! Virgin’s Son, make here your home. Marvel now, both heaven and earth, that the Lord choose such a birth. (Hymn 54)