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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Transfiguration – Last Epiphany A

by Terrance “Lil Bear” Plummer

Matthew 17:1-9

NO ONE IS EXCLUDED FROM THE CALL, SEEING THE GLORY, AND LISTENING TO JESUS

We often feel marginalized by free society, those of us in prison. Many of us don’t believe that God would want to call us for anything. We often feel alienated from God, and disqualified from any service in The Kingdom, because of where we are. Continue reading

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

Lectionary: Baptism of Christ A

by Keith Wiglusz

Acts 10:34-43

Peter preached that “God shows no favoritism”. We certainly serve an inclusive God. “Come all those who are tired and heavy laden” seems to be what we all want to hear in this busy world.

I live in a very sheltered world and at times I feel insignificant. I also live in a world of loneliness and deep regret. Could God actually care or even use me still? His word assures me He does and it’s funny how the least of us can actually be used by God.

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Epiphany C4

by Matthew B. Harper

January 31, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4–10
Psalm 71:1 –6
1 Corinthians 13:1 –13
Luke 4:21 –30

Fear, Love, Wombs. today’s readings offer us a great deal to wrestle with.

God’s call is a scary thing. Scripture repeatedly shows God calling upon otherwise ordinary people to do extraordinary things through His power. Fear seems a logical response. Fear, the ever-present human emotion. Fear of not being good enough, of not measuring up. Fear of moving out of your comfort zone, into the unknown. Fear of being rejected, of being found wanting. Fear of bodily harm.

God speaks to us in our fear: “Do not be afraid.”

Why not? Why shouldn’t we fear? All our fears are entirely predictable, entirely reasonable.

“Do not be afraid” says the Lord, “For I am with you.”

WITH me? With ME? You don’t know me.

“I have known you,” Says the Lord, “since before you were in your mother’s womb.”

The words that are calling and anointing Jeremiah are unexpected. Jeremiah is a young man on the path to the priesthood when God interrupted his life. God challenged him, anointed him, and called him out of his comfort zone to serve as God’s Prophet. The rest of Jeremiah’s writings show us how powerfully God used him. His words convey the deep love God has for His people, as they are carried away into captivity. Jeremiah’s tears convey the depth of his own love for God and for God’s people.

God has known each of us since before we were formed in our mother’s womb. It is a shocking statement, a declaration to God’s omniscience. Many of us fear being that well known, that intimately watched over. We fear that if we are so well known, we will no longer be loved. We don’t want others to know our weaknesses and sins.

The psalmist, crying out for deliverance, again speaks to our fear, reminding us “I have relied upon you from my mother’s womb.”

God doesn’t just know us, God gives us life, sustains us each and every day, and gives us the love that makes life worth living. From the moment of conception we are dependent upon God for all that we are. As Christians we seek to always remember and honor that. As the psalmist finds himself beset by fear and in need of deliverance, he is comforted by the reminder of God’s omniscience and providence.

We can trust God’s knowledge of our lives because it isn’t voyeurism. God is neither “Big Brother” nor a ‘peeping tom.’ God knows us so intimately simply because God loves us. The love of God is reflected in the eyes of young lovers on their honeymoon and old lovers celebrating 60 years of marriage. It is in the face of a mother seeing her baby for the first time, and in the look of agony upon her face as she watches her son hang from the cross. It is in the eyes of Christ, on that cross, looking down upon the woman who is both His mother and His child.

A mother’s love is a special reflection of the divine love. Yesterday I had a visit with my mothers. One woman, who gave birth to me, raised me, and has never stopped loving me; and the other, who with her husband and children has chosen to love me as if she had. It was a visit full of love and laughter.

Looking around the prison visiting room, crowded on a New Year’s holiday, I was struck by how many mothers and sons I saw. These women know us. They changed our diapers, nursed us, and still stood beside us in court. When others abandon us, they visit. When the world chooses to forget us, they hold our memory precious. It is a love that was born in the womb, yet one that transcends it. As Paul reminds us, it is that love that gives value to this life and endures into the next.

Yet not every story is a good one, and so God’s work must continue. Mother’s deliver babies alone and afraid; too often mother’s die. Children are born sick, addicted, and are too often abused. There is work yet to be done.

God is calling us out. Go forth and proclaim the gospel. Do the work of loving service. Transform the world.

Fear not.

Yes, God really does want us, for God knows us and loves us from before the womb. God is with us and, when all else passes away, that love endures.

Epiphany 3C

by Matthew Harper

January 24th, 2106

Nehemiah 8:1 –3, 5–6, 8–10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12–31a
Luke 4:14–21

What does it mean to be The Body of Christ? What does it mean to love one another and still welcome into our midst the stranger? When Jesus announces Himself amongst us, will we be able to receive Him?

One beautiful gift of a prison church is its diversity. Prison is full of men of every age, race, and background. Some have grown up here, some have grown old. we have doctors, the mentally disabled, and everyone in-between. Our church has the most diverse congregation I have ever heard of.

But our diversity isn’t a magic cure-all for sin. Into this community each individual brings their own gifts, and the baggage of their own sin. We judge, we gossip, and struggle. We are a holy work-in-progress. As much as we learn from one another, and as deeply as we love, we also wound.

I am blessed to be a part of another congregation, at Saint David’s Episcopal. They befriended and welcomed me, even though it hasn’t always been easy.

Several years ago Saint David’s, as a congregation, identified and named the core values of their community. Among those values was “inclusion.” That is a good Christian value, one comfortable to proclaim but often uncomfortable to live. When questions about my joining the community were raised, they challenged them to live out this value. They choose to include me. I believe it has enriched all of us.

Diversity and inclusion are hallmarks of a Christian community, but they can be a challenge we struggle with. In his first letter to the church at Corinth Paul taught about the struggle. Chastising jealousy and envy Paul reminded them, and us, that our unity is as The Body of Christ, and it is a unity that requires and honors a diversity of individual identities and gifts.

Finding community with someone different from ourselves takes work. honoring each others’ gifts demands humility. Living in a prison cell with another person demands accommodation. Often I have worked to find a cell-mate similar to me, but over the years I have also had many cell-mates far different. When I was young, some were old; I am white, some have been black; I am a Christian, some have been Muslim; and as I grow older, some are now young. To find our common identity demands that we see with more than our eyes and hear with more than our ears. It demands the faith to look and listen to one another with our hearts.

Honoring Christian community in the face of disagreements on challenging social issues can be even more difficult. Recently an international prison ministry to which I have devoted 16 years of love, prayers, and service faced this very question. Challenged with how to move forward and honor our diversity, they retreated. Struggling to be The Body of Christ, they chose amputation.

Doing so they rejected not only me, but my entire faith community and denomination. They did this because we chose to stand beside and honor the work of God in and through a member of our community who is a married lesbian.

Amputation. After 15 years of war in the Middle East we don’t have to look very far to see wounded bodies. Heroes like my step-brother are the wounded warriors in our midst and show us the challenges. What if The Body of Christ looked like that? How would we walk with no legs, hug with no arms, or love with only half a heart? Who would we be?

Luke’s Gospel shows us Jesus returning to the place he grew up, ready to begin His incarnate ministry. With the words of Isaiah He proclaims God’s work. The results are…. underwhelming. The community chooses to retreat into familiarity, and it blinds them to Christ’s identity and mission.

Familiarity can be a gift, but it can blind us to the presence of God. We cannot always retreat to what is comfortable. Our diversity is what keeps us open to the new works God is doing. Only when familiarity and diversity balance and challenge one another can our communities flourish. Together we grow, together we hear God. We must be ecumenical; we must be inter-denominational. We must honor and welcome the unique gifts we bring. We must welcome the stranger in our midst. We can’t just say we are The Body of Christ. We have to live it.

Epiphany 2C

by Matthew Harper

January 17th, 2016

Isaiah 62:1 –5
Psalm 36:5–10
1 Corinthians 12:1 –11
John 2:1 –11

Today is all about weddings. From the wedding poem in Isaiah to Mary’s plea during the wedding at Cana, Marriage is on our mind.

Throughout Scripture God uses the imagery of weddings to describe our relationship. Weddings speak to us of commitment, love, unity, and procreation. Despite how our earthly marriages fall short we are continually struggling to find the pure ideal that reflects God’s plan.

Isaiah’s poem is striking because of the deep longing it reveals on the part of the groom. Scriptural illustrations make it clear that we are the bride, and here we see God, the groom, who is yearning, working, and reworking us so that we might be vindicated, found worthy, and crowned.

Weddings are a big deal. In biblical times the wedding celebration was a sign of love and commitment, but also of family honor and the value and honor due the bride. We need to be vindicated because on our own we are far from worthy.

It is this family honor that is at stake for Mary. John’s gospel shows us Jesus and Mary at the wedding of a family or close community member. The size and quality of the party mattered, and demonstrated value and esteem. To run out of wine during such an occasion would have been a point of deep dishonor to the family and a devaluing of the bride.

Mary is focused on this honor, but Christ’s vision is larger. Christ has before Him the full vision of His life and ministry, and yet He is not deaf to His mother’s plea. Are His words a rebuke to her? Yes, in part, to create distance. Christ acts, but at His own choosing and not simply at His mother’s behest.

God’s gifts are always given by God’s own initiative, for God’s glory. We benefit, and we rejoice, but always to God’s greater purpose. All of today’s readings hold that as a central theme. When we have nothing left but loss, when all that we have and are has run out and we are left with the empty water of ritual, the sweet wine of the Gospel refreshes us and leaves us drunk on joy.

The patriarchy and honor-rituals of biblical weddings are foreign things we have mostly grown out of. They are best left in the past. But we can see in the imagery a powerful analogy of our relationship with God, and a vindication of our identity.

The movement from loss and ritual to joy is the testimony of every believer. It is not only the prisoner who knows destitution and rejection, it is not only we who need to be set right. All of God’s creation needs the gifts only God can provide.

God’s gifts are not charity. Each of the destitute has, at one time or another, received charity. It can feed your body, but not your soul. The yearning we hear in God’s wedding poem isn’t simple philanthropy. It’s Love. Our promise of Hephzibah, of Beulah, is a promise of Love, of Marriage, of a God who loves and delights in us.

Philanthropy, like the Canaanite Cults of Isaiah’s day, offer visions of fertility, but marriage is more than that. What God yearns for, and offers, is a fertile marriage of love and delight.

This celebration transforms us. The words of Isaiah promise a remaking, a vindication, and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians discusses the many gifts God gives and how they work together for our benefit and God’s glory. We will be a bride crowned with a royal diadem, a highest honor given not because of who we were but because of who God is and what God has made us.

Every bride is beautiful. The love of the groom has the power to transform her in the eyes of all present. It has never been that beautiful people are loved, but rather that love itself makes us beautiful. When we acknowledge and live in the overwhelming Love God has for us, we will be transformed.

You are loved and you are beautiful
You are married to God
Let the wine flow.

Let the party begin.

Epiphany

by Matthew B. Harper

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty’ (Genesis 17:1)

There comes a time in all of our lives when we have to gamble. We have to take the step out in faith, and say: “What if this is all really true?” So we step out over that cliff, and take our great leap of faith, and we are caught in the hands of God. And then the whole world is different and we are reborn a new creation.

During Christmas there are many gifts of jewels and precious metals given. But in order to forge the gold and silver there is a smelting process that it must go through. The metal is heated and melted so that the impurities will rise to the surface. Then the smelter will rake this dross off the surface to purify the metal. The metal is considered pure when the smelter can see their reflection in the metal.

The gold and silver that is given as gifts is precious, but how much more precious are you. When you are caught in God’s hands you will be cherished, and like that metal you will be purified. You may find things rising to the surface, but only so God can deal with them and heal you. You will be worked and purified until you reflect the image of God. Until, when someone looks at you, they see the glory of God.

There is no source of light that is as bright and wonderful as the star that Christmas night. Not just the star in the heavens, but the star that was in the manger. When we have been worked and purified in God, then it is not our lights that shine, it is we who have been able to reflect the light of Christ.

So we must be willing to step out in trust for God. We must be brave enough to take that first step and then be caught. We must work to prepare a highway in our lives, for God shall surely travel upon it, and meet us there.

What star is this, with beams so bright, more beauteous than the noonday light? It shines to herald forth the King, and gentiles to His crib to bring. (Hymn 124)

Epiphany 1C/The Baptism of Christ C

by Matthew Harper

January 10th, 2016

Isaiah 43:1 –7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14–17
Luke 3:15–17, 21 –22

Christ’s baptism is a defining moment in the redemption story. This event is a significant declaration to the world about who He is, and the beginning of Christ’s incarnate ministry. The baptism says a lot about Jesus, but perhaps it says even more about God, and about us.

Isaiah, in one of my favorite passages that we read today, shows us the radical initiative of God’s love. God, the creator and sustainer of the heavens and earth, is declaring a deeply personal love for each of us. God has “called us by name,” (v.1) we are “precious and honored,” (v.4) and we will be ‘ransomed’ (v.4-6). God’s redeeming love is a revelation.

But how will God ransom us? And from whom or what will be be ransomed? And, perhaps most importantly, why?

Luke shows us the beginning of the fulfillment of these promises. We are so loved that God’s only begotten Son, God incarnate, has come to ransom us. Jesus comes with both power and judgment. He has the power to see us as we are; He has the authority to judge; and He has the power to set things right.

In introducing us to the person and mission of Jesus Luke has recorded the words of John the Baptizer. John shows us a truth about ourselves, something we already know but never want to face. The power we are enslaved to, and need ransoming from, is, quite simply, us.

Christ offers us acceptance and forgiveness, but will demand repentance. We are imprisoned by our own sin, and the only way out is through repentance and faith in Christ; only through Him can things be set right.

Which brings us to the most important question for our purposes today: why? The baptism of Jesus is the beginning of His incarnate ministry, the anointing by God into Jesus’ earthly work. The same is true for us. Linked to Christ through faith, adopted into the very Body of Christ, our baptism was not only part of our rebirth it is also the beginning of our ministry.

Knowing we are enslaved by sin isn’t new knowledge to anyone in prison, but facing it is difficult. Bad things and bad people have happened to too many of us, and it is easy to point fingers; but the ultimate blame must always lie with us. It is our enslavement to pride, lust, anger and addiction—our own sin—that has left us destitute and distant from God. Only Christ can ransom us and set us free.

But why would He? Why would Christ bother with one such as me?

Love.

The words of God through Isaiah are a revelation. They are a life-giving breath of fresh air, a light in the darkness. The simple truth is that God loves us that much, not because of who we are, but because of who God is. We belong to God.

God does not ransom us only for our salvation, but also for our sending. Redemption isn’t the last word, there is also mission. What we have received we must share, what has been accomplished must be celebrated and proclaimed.

Being sent is scary. It will take us way outside of our comfort zone, and force us to question ourselves and our purpose. It will mean loving others, even those who are hard to love. We will have to talk, teach, and share our testimony. It will mean caring, and making ourselves vulnerable. But we begin our mission with those other powerful words from today’s reading in Isaiah: “fear not… for I am with you,” (v.1-2).

We are loved,
We are ransomed,
And we have work to do.