Sermon: The Longest Night

prison-bars-with-candle(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.
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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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Reflection: Forgetting the Past

by Bro. Joe Miles

Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before”

(Phil 3:13, KVJ)

The Apostle Paul had what some would call a checkered past. Like all of us, he did some things which he later regretted doing. Unfortunately, with human nature being what it is, even after working in ministry for several years there were most likely some people who still felt inclined to remind him of how he use to persecute Christians. Thankfully, Paul had come to understand that the hope he had in Christ enabled him to let go of his past mistakes and look forward to becoming the man of God he was destined to be.  Continue reading

An Epistle of the Incarcerated to the 21st Century Church

St SilasApostolic Letters from Prison

In the book Ministry with Prisoners & Families: The Way Forward, Madeline McClenny-Sadler offers a “Letter to African American Churches Concerning the Saints Coming Home from Prison.” It uses “the hybrid style of a Pauline epistle and a scholarly article” as a call to action (140).

Inspired by her letter, several contributors took up the same task. The second comes to us from “AMN .”

In case you missed the first, you can find it here.

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Letter of EB to the Churches

St SilasApostolic Letters from Prison

In the book Ministry with Prisoners & Families: The Way Forward, Madeline McClenny-Sadler writes

“What would the apostle Paul do if he heard about the mistreatment of brothers and sisters who return to our congregations and communities after being released from prison? I think we know exactly what Paul would do. Paul would write a letter!” (140)

Thus, McClenny-Sadler offers a “Letter to African American Churches Concerning the Saints Coming Home from Prison.” It uses “the hybrid style of a Pauline epistle and a scholarly article” as a call to action (ibid.)

Inspired by her letter, several contributors take up the same task. The first comes to us from “EB .”

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Monday in Holy Week

by Matthew B. Harper

Heb 12:1 – Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

The Christian life is a fine balancing act. It is a balance of working to have meaning and purpose, while also taking care of the cares and concerns of our present life. This requires balance.

Paul often talks of ‘working’, of ‘running’ of ‘toiling’ in his ministry and life. We try to follow this example by being busy, but business is a far cry from purposeful action. Modern life seems to be about running very fast just to stay still, and this is pointless. Action must have purpose.

The life of a monk is a good example of a balanced life. They live a daily schedule of study, toil, prayer, and worship. When the monks can live a good schedule then great peace and balance are found. And yet a monk, by definition, does not have the blessed chaos of a spouse or young children.

In prison we have a lot of free time, but it is rigidly divided up into blocks of time, divided by counts, meals, searches, and other security procedures. So it becomes necessary to designate blocks of time for prayer, work, study, rest, and other vocations. I take a lot of guidance from the monks, and the prison becomes my monastery. It is amazing that when you get out of bed a few minutes earlier, to study and pray, that it does more for your soul than that little bit of sleep. When you turn your TV off for a while, that you really don’t miss anything. Prayer can be done in cars or on buses; you can read the Bible while in the bathroom.

Carve out some time this week for God, try to find some balance, think and pray. Make your actions purposeful.

Almighty God: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through thy son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” BCP 168

Friday, Fifth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

2 Corinthians 4:8-9– We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;

If there is a theme song for our community church it is the praise song ‘Trading My Sorrows.’ The bridge for the song is based on this passage “I am pressed but not crushed, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed, I am blessed beyond the curse for the promise that endures that His joy will be my strength.” That is such a beautiful assurance.

Our culture tells us over and over again to simply ‘be happy’. But I have wasted many years trying to be happy, and it is a totally false preoccupation. It always requires something to be happy. Happiness comes from an external source. In prison our lives are almost totally devoid of the things that would make us happy. Yet we sing this song with great joy and abandon because we agree with every word. The feeling that allows us to be ‘struck down but not destroyed’ comes from the Holy Spirit that dwells within us, not from stuff.

As a child of God we should be in search for a reason for happiness. We have all of the stuff to live, but often nothing to live for. My reason is that deep from within I know the joy of the Lord, and that joy is my strength.

As the verse of that song goes “I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my pain, I’m laying it all down for the joy of the Lord.” I’m trading my search for happiness; I’m trading it all for the joy of the Lord.

That it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts to you, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 152

Thursday, Fifth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

2 Corinthians 3:12 – Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness.

Jesus didn’t pull any punches. He spoke with great boldness of a gospel message that defied all conventional social laws. He denounced the corrupt and the blind, and he offered them a way to God.

It is such an amazing thing that we may call God our dearest father, our “abba.” And this is no less than how Christ referred to God. It is from this relationship that our boldness should spring. We must, out of our hope and our great love, be willing at times to speak the truth regardless of the risk of offending someone.

We have great hope in Christ, and this blessed assurance should empower us to be bold, but often it doesn’t. We are shy in our love, be if for humans or God. We will proclaim our love for our favorite sports team on our clothing and we will espouse political doctrine on the bumpers of our cars, but we will be quiet about God.

I do not suggest that everybody should suddenly become a “Bible-thumpin’-Christian” but simply that we need to be bold about who we are when the chances present themselves. St. Francis of Assisi once said we should “proclaim the Gospel always, use words only when necessary.” If you are not bold in your speech, be bold in your lifestyle, and always be bold in your faith.

That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand; to comfort and help the weak-hearted; to raise up those who fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 152

Wednesday, Fifth Week in Lent

by Matthew B. Harper

2 Corinthians 3:3 – …you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

In prison, we are often moved between institutions. Such movement comes without warning. The officers simply show up and tell a man to pack up, and within 24 hours he very may well be on the other side of the state.

In our Christian communities here these very words take on special new meanings. I have good friends at my institution, and we work to preach and minister to each other, but we may also leave at any given moment. We work hard to prepare each other as a letter of Christ. When a young man comes to the faith, we rejoice. But we know that what we are seeing is a turning point on a journey that started long before we entered into the young man’s life. And when this same man is sent away, we have to trust and pray that wherever he arrives, his new faith will be ‘watered’ by the Christian community there.

This is no different from what all of us experience in all of our lives, and no different from what parents go through when their children grow up and move out. I have felt terrible frustration in my life when I worked to teach and minister to a man, only to see him transfer, or be released, still on a path of destruction. I can only trust that I might have been able to sow seeds that will be watered by others, and harvested in God’s time.

So we must simply commit ourselves to working for God everywhere and with whomever God places before us, at all times, in all places.

That it may please thee to give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sins, negligence, and ignorance; and to endure us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit to amend our lives according to thy holy Word, We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord” BCP 152