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.

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Poem: “Blood, Sweat, and Tears”

by AMN

Blood, Sweat and Tears,
constant heckling and nasty jeers.
Wrongfully convicted by a jury of
His peers.
When He gave up the ghost,
A soldier blatantly chose
To pierce His side with a spear.
That’s the same pain I felt when
the judge handed me sixty
years,
Blood, Sweat and Tears…

Christmas in Prison 7

by Jessica McGee

This year I have decided to spend my Christmas with Christ. That is the beginning of what Christmas means to me. See, a little baby was born to die for my sins, so why should I walk around moping because I am not home with my family? God is with me wherever I am, so He is with me right here in prison. He wants me to share the Word with others and that’s what I have been doing. I have given so many presents to others in the Name Of Jesus and just spreading Christmas cheer, I haven’t noticed that Christmas is here already. God has given me so much joy this season, and it’s all because I focused on the Christ in “Christ-mas.” Thank you Lord for all you do and if you don’t do nothing else I’m still grateful. I hope that I have the right attitude, because your attitude directs your actions and your actions show your beliefs and your beliefs reflect your circumstances. I want everything to reflect the one I serve, and that’s Christ Jesus. Merry Christmas and Happy New Years!

Christmas in Prison 2

by Hugh Brown
Perhaps the most challenging Christmas in prison was the first one. I had only been incarcerated four months so my adjustment to this environment was far from being completed. The only gift I wanted for Christmas that year was to be home. Well, there was something else I wanted, but I couldn’t turn back the hands of time to undo the hurt I’d caused. As the years have passed, Christmas away from family and friends has a new meaning. Yes, I’m physically separated from my biological family; however, I’ve been blessed to enjoy the true spirit of Christmas with the men around me – my extended family.

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Essay: Insights, 17 Years in Prison

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INSIGHTS, 17 YEARS IN PRISON
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by Matthew B. Harper Different Shoes

A month ago I met with two wonderful clergy, and our conversation meandered into fruitful territory. An important conversation, it was also the kind you can’t prepare for. So when our wandering words brought us to an important precipice, and I was invited to jump off, I quailed. Seventeen years of incarceration and over thinking about my crimes has led me to an untold number of insights and revelations so imagine my regret when, after being invited to share some, I failed at the task.

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Saturday, First Week in Advent

by Matthew B. Harper

And Jesus said to them…, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:20-21)

When Mary accepted God’s call to her, I don’t think that she had any idea what was coming. She risked so much, and lost so much, all for God. Being pregnant and unmarried she risked being rejected by Joseph and her family, she risked being stoned for adultery, she risked being condemned. When Mary traveled to Bethlehem she left her friends and family behind. There would be no midwife to deliver her baby, no family to welcome it, and no village to celebrate, rejoice, and bring gifts.

In all that Mary lost, she willingly gave it up for God. And God, in turn, blessed her so overwhelmingly. With no midwife to announce the birth, God sent the choirs of heavenly angels. With no family to gather, God sent the shepherds. With no village gifts for the child, God sent the wise men bearing gifts for a king. Mary offered up to God what little she had, and God gave it back to her with divine abundance.

We get so caught up in stuff this time of year. We get so focused on things. And I love stuff, I love things. But these things are so incidental to our faith. In my life I have lost so much. And not just lost, I have thrown away, wasted, squandered and destroyed so much. And I think that to some degree we all have. We offer to God what little we have left. And God blesses us, God restores with divine abundance in ways we could never have foreseen.

God restored to Mary, and through Mary’s offering God blessed all of humanity beyond compare. Our God is a loving God of restoration. God restores, and God continues to restore to us.

Born thy people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king, born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring. (Hymn 66)

Friday, First Week in Advent

by Matthew B. Harper

Then he said to his servants, ‘the wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find. (Matthew 22:8-9)

The shocking thing about this parable of Christ’s is that we are the latecomers to the banquet. The ones who were out and about in the alleyways and poorhouses that night; those that were brought to the wedding feast and clothed with the festal garments, they are us.

It is humbling to think of ourselves in this context. But it is in this capacity that Christ comes to us, and that God offers us so much. I would rather think that God somehow needs me, but God doesn’t. It is that God wants me! I might think that I can do God’s work, but I can’t. It is the amazing and nearly unspeakable miracle that God wants to do some of God’s work through me!

And just this month as children sit and hope for the gifts of Santa, we must be ready to accept the gifts of God. We must be willing to come before Christ humbled and ready to receive the commissioning that God has for us. If we have talents and skills, then they were only given to us for a purpose. Jesus talks in this parable of giving the guests the wedding garments to wear. What garment has Christ given you? Do you have the humility to accept it? Do you have the courage to wear it?

The poor and destitute are always more ready to receive God’s love. We already know that we cannot make it on our own. All too often we think we can do it ourselves, and we are so wrong. So today I dare you to climb onto the lap of you divine father, and when you are done telling him what you want for Christmas, I dare you to receive and accept what God brings you.

He comes, the prisoners to release – He comes, the broken hearted to bind, the bleeding soul to cure; – let every heart prepare a throne, and every voice a song. (Hymn 71)

Thursday, First Week in Advent

by Matthew B. Harper

Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him… and count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation (2 Peter 3:14-15)

It is inevitable that we, human that we are, will work to seek God. We will try to learn, and to do, to bridge the immense gap between God and us. And yet, as Peter so strongly reminds us, it is Christ who comes to find us.

I have been angry at God. In the pain and anger of my life I have rebuked God, and blamed God. I have heaped the unfairness of the world on God, and I have laid both the wrongdoings that I have done and that have been done to me on God. And I have turned my back on Christ and looked elsewhere for answers.

If you were to give a thirsty man advice on digging a well, the advice would be simple: find the right spot, dig a deep hole. You would not stand by and let him dig 20 different wells only 10 feet deep; but that is what I did, and many of us do, with other religions and philosophies. When you need a well you dig one 200-foot hole. I may have picked up some Buddhist tendencies, but it was only when I came home to Christ, and was willing to dig deep, that I found solace and comfort. God found me, called me home, and welcomed me.

When we are angry at God, when our faith wavers, the answer is never to go on some superficial journey to other ideas. Instead it takes a step of deliberate faith to dig deeper. When we don’t have an answer, we know God does. Dig deeper. Like the wise men that we remember on Epiphany, be willing to journey and to go to a new place to search and find Christ, and to be found by Christ.

Thank God that our straying and questioning are accepted and forgiven. The forbearance of God is great. Be zealous to be found.

With God the Father you are one, and one with us in human flesh. Oh fill our weak and dying frame with godly strength which never fails. (Hymn 55)

Wednesday, First Week in Advent

by Matthew B. Harper

Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, the tax-collectors and the harlots go to the kingdom of God before you.” (Matthew 21:31)

It is disturbing to think that the people we least approve might be the first ones into heaven. And not just might be, according to Jesus, they are. If you think you are humble, think of the prisoners getting into heaven ahead of you. Does it disturb you?

The question is no easier from behind bars. In here there are inmates who are hated and despised. The rapists are a second class citizen in prison, the snitches rank a little lower, and it simply doesn’t get lower than the child molesters. And yet when I find it difficult in my heart to reach out to them in kindness, I hear these words of Christ in my head. When I harbor judgment and resentment, it is indeed they who will go before me into heaven.

The repentant criminals are among my favorite people in the world. The person who has honestly looked into the depths of their own heart, and seen the guilt and the need; and who has then in their longing and grief turned to God and let Christ fill and sanctify them; I love these men. But I find that I love those who aren’t repentant as well. When I see them in their pride and anger, self-righteous before man and God; I find only love, pity, and sorrow in my heart.

Is our church a Sunday country club or a hospital for sinners? I welcome and rejoice with my favorite people in church. We are all repentant sinners. But I also welcome those that I struggle with. I welcome the snitches, the child molesters, the rapists. I struggle, for I too need the maturing ministry of Christ, but I welcome them.

Christ turned none away, not even me, can I do less?

Herald, sound the note of pardon – those repenting are forgiven; God receives his wayward children, and to them new life is given. (Hymn 70)

Advent Devotional Introduction (part 5)

On Sunday, November 29th and every day until Christmas, a daily reflection will appear to accompany and inspire readers in their own time of preparation.

Highways in the Desert

by Matthew B. Harper

Introduction

Part 5

click here to start with Part 1 (in case you missed it)

This is a time to gather in love with our communities. This is a time to spend with those whom we love, and love us. This is a time to reach out to those who need our help. This is a time to show love in whatever actions, ways, or gifts we can. And all of this is in celebration and love for God, and the love of God.

During this time of year we light candles. We do it to mark and remember how Christ came as a light into a dark and lost world. Prison is a darkness difficult to understand or imagine, and the light of Christ shines brightly. This is a barren desert, and Christ is here. Whatever the desert in your life, whatever the joy, let us build a highway for our God.

What follows are 42 devotionals: one for each day of Advent, for Christmas Eve, for the 12 days of Christmas, and for the Epiphany feast. All scripture references are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the bible, but any good translation will suffice. I encourage you to read the Daily office readings, read the devotional, and then spend a few quiet moments in prayer meditating on what God is speaking to you on this day. The scripture verse for each day can serve as a powerful focus for meditation, and so can the names of God used during the twelve days of Christmas. At the end of each devotion are some words of prayer and praise from the seasonal hymns of the Episcopal Hymnal of 1982.

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