(EDITOR’S NOTE: What follows is a sermon for December 21st, the longest night of the year. On this night many churches have a “Longest Night” service for those who are struggling to find joy this Christmas, often due to grief. This sermon was shared at St. David’s Episcopal Church, Richmond Virginia, in 2017.)
“The Longest Night”
A Sermon by Matthew B. Harper
The longest night of the year. A time when darkness comes early and stays late, when night feels unexpected and interminable. Tonight we gather to acknowledge that darkness, and to dwell in it quietly; we know it exists, and it’s okay that it does. “Merry Christmas” may not feel all that ‘Merry,’ but it is Christmas and we know the light of dawn is just over the horizon.
INSIGHTS, 17 YEARS IN PRISON
by Matthew B. Harper
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.
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)