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As part of the new vicar’s “getting to know” the parish, Diane duly arranged a meeting for us a couple of months ago. We discussed many things and eventually ended up with the diaries out looking at suitable dates for me to preach. Having settled on today, Diane informed that this is Prison Sunday.
I have to admit that I didn’t really know we had a Prison Sunday in the calendar, so for a bit of research I did a quick check of the internet which reveals a website. This website informs that “for forty years now, Prisons Week has prepared prayer literature to enable the Christian community, through individuals and churches, to pray for the needs of all those affected by prisons: prisoners and their families, victims of crime and their communities, those working in the criminal justice system and the many people who are involved in caring for those affected by crime on the inside and outside of our prisons.”
Knowing this I will now certainly pray for all those people and things mentioned in that passage but I felt at a loss to personalise it further. I am not a reformed gangster and don’t know anyone who is. As there were still a couple of months to go, and as I was off on holiday with Julia and Hannah then as often these things do when we cannot connect with a prayer topic it slipped out of my mind. While on holiday we found a really quaint bookshop where Julia found a cartoon book of the musical Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. To entertain Hannah on the journey we broke out into song, Julia doing the words with Hannah and I joining in with the Ah-ha-ha-has. I won’t reprise it here but I am sure that you know the part. I hasten to add that this story is not linked with Prison Sunday by the fact the rendition of the song was criminal. But rather, as God has a habit of doing things as he wants, I couldn’t really escape that there is a link. That link is of course that Joseph ends up in prison. You will remember that while he is a slave working for the wealthy Egyptian Potiphar, Joseph rejects the advances of Potiphar’s wife, she lies to her husband and gets Joseph put in jail. It triggered me to thinking that actually many of the famous characters in the bible do actually end up in prison for one reason or another. In the OT we have Joseph and Daniel and in the NT we have John the Baptist, Peter, James, Jesus himself and of course from our reading today, Paul.
He writes “This is my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal.” This is not a metaphor, he is actually chained and in prison. It occurred to me that maybe if I study the bible then I was wrong when I thought that I didn’t know much about anyone who was a criminal.
Before I go on there are a couple of points which are worth making, firstly that it might be said that these “holy” characters are not really criminals, they are jailed by corrupt people. Well some of them did break the law of the land even though they were morally right, Daniel by praying to God rather than the king, and Paul did cause riots and civil unrest pretty much everywhere he went by preaching the word of God. Even if that was not the case, then Paul did a number of questionable things when he was on the right side of the law, namely persecuting the church and even assisting in stoning to death those he felt were corrupting Israel, this of course being before converted.
Of course what makes them different, what makes them worthy of the stories we hear is what they do with the time in jail. This includes both how they react to what has happened (justly or unjustly) and how they relate it to God’s will and God’s plan. Daniel does not deny praying and does not lose faith in God, he has done what God asked of him and trusts that, live or die in the lion’s den that that is reward in itself. Paul simply states his facts again 8 “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel.“ His statement is that he owns the foundation of faith even more than before, “This is MY gospel.” They reflect on their sentences and review what it is that God is looking for either them to learn, or demonstrate with their actions. Paul sums in it up in today’s reading, Paul says : “Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him, he will also disown us;
Of course this comes from a place within them where they already have faith and are imprisoned because of it, that faith is being tested. Maybe I can personalise prison Sunday and pray for those today who are in prison in many countries for their Christian faith, or indeed those who face death because of it. But we are called to do more, what of the task of prison Sunday where we are to pray those in prison, those who have been rightly convicted of crimes which are not a matter of faith?
It his here that my thoughts return to Joseph. While he unjustly ended up a prisoner because as a slave (sold by his brothers remember) he had no rights I had never considered before that his tale of woe began because, although gifted and talented, he wasn’t actually a particularly nice person. You may remember that he was very self-absorbed and self-important, foretelling that he would rise above his father and brothers and that they would come begging to him. His father fostered this favouritism with the coat and Joseph seems to have revelled in it. He rubbed his brother’s noses in his position as favourite at every opportunity. So even when as a slave his innate abilities meant that he rose through Potiphar’s household to live a comfortable life again, God still had to change him to be a better person. Joseph still had to realise that justice and forgiveness and repentance all come together and he does this in prison. The fact he ended up in prison for something he didn’t do was part of God’s plan to reform him.
Interestingly enough when his brothers do come to him for help he tests them to see if they have changed from the men who punished their brother, but it takes them years to accept being forgiven themselves by Joseph. Certainly this is something that we can and should deeply pray for those in prison and in the justice system as a whole. That it will work as method for those who commit crimes to realise the damage they have done, repent of it and follow a right path, and for those around them to support it. Otherwise if it becomes only a means of punishment then consequently re-offending rates are high. We have to believe that even the faithless, the criminal, the unbelieving can realise they come back to society.
If you follow this thought then there is of course a direct analogy here to our Christianity. For we were all lost once, maybe not a criminal in prison but certainly sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and a faith to redeem us. Sin, the breaking of God’s law, comes with a penalty. The uniqueness of our faith is that Jesus’ can forgive our sins if we be believe in him and we repent and change. You can’t buy your way out of it with good deeds or serve your time and be let out. I think that the hardest bit though is for us to accept that this miraculous thing can happen, do we have faith that this can really be the case?
Paul gives us this to cling to in v13 “if we are faithless,
he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
God is there for everyone, and will hear them if they turn and will hear us when we ask him to intervene in their lives.
What then do we make of today’s Gospel reading? What do the ten people suffering from leprosy have to teach us about prison and the analogy I have drawn to being in the prison of our own sin? Well while writing this sermon it occurred to me that these 10 are essentially imprisoned in two ways.
Firstly by the medical conditions they had. Medical afflictions can affect anyone at any time, our bodies are frail and fleeting things. Our time here is limited and we need to realise that it is God that holds the keys to eternal life. Could we remain faithful under such conditions as these 10? Can we endure? Secondly they are imprisoned by social conventions. They are the outcasts, those marginalised by society; they may as well be in prison – separated from their family and friends. Being isolated from society in the case of crime or God in the case of sin is usually the start of a downward spiral. Going to church isn’t about attendance but about seeing God as present in our lives.
If you ever wanted proof that Jesus can save us from either of these imprisonments you only have to look at his actions here, “They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.”
What is their prayer? Is it complicated or difficult? “Jesus, master have pity on us”, but they have faith! Social convention would have Jesus shun them and ignore them, they are the unclean. but Jesus heals them without a second thought. Physical and social frailty is nothing for Jesus. The call for us to pray for the for the victim AND the criminal is vital to helping them both and no more than we ourselves have received.
But there is a word of caution at the end, all 10 are healed, but you can hear the exasperation in Jesus’s voice when only one comes back. Having freed them from both the frailty of human bodies and from the stigma of social outcast he says : Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
When we are released from our prison of sin or face death do we really give thanks to God? When our prayers are answered for ourselves and our family or friends. When our prayers for prison Sunday are answered in a more just society where the offender repents and the victim forgives, do we really openly give thanks to God? If we did would we attract people to call on Jesus to?
So I will close by joining with their prayer “Jesus, Master, have pity on the criminal and the victim but also have pity on me.”
And I will believe Jesus and I urge you to really believe when he says “rise and go, your faith has made you well.”
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