Because it is Prisoners Week, my Roman Catholic colleague and I held an ecumenical service in one of the jails tonight (we'll be repeating it all in the other prison) to which prisoners were invited but also members of local churches. I thought it went really well and I was particularly impressed by the spirit of unity. Amongst the many "outside" people, i.e. non-prisoners, there were at least six congregations represented (and that was on a night when Scotland and Argentina were playing!). We had some singing, courtesy of some musicians mostly from my colleague's church, and most of the usual components of a service - except for an offering. My colleague's homily was excellent. It was based on this:
"Matthew 25:31-46 (The Message translation)
When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.'
Then those 'sheep' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?' Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.'
Then he will turn to the 'goats,' the ones on his left, and say, 'Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—
I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.'
Then those 'goats' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn't help?'
He will answer them, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me — you failed to do it to me.'
Then those 'goats' will be herded to their eternal doom, but the 'sheep' to their eternal reward."
My colleague's message included the point that there are prisoners who are, in spite of the restrictions on them, actually fulfilling the calling of this passage and there are people on the outside who aren't at all, even though they have both the ability and the freedom to do so.
Before praying the Prisoners Week prayer out loud together (see two posts ago) a prisoner (NOT one incarcerated for wilful fireraising!) lit five candles. One was for the prisoners. One was for their families. One was for those who work in prisons. One was for the victims of crime. And the fifth was for the Church.
During the last hymn I suddenly remembered we hadn't brought any teaspoons over to the place where the service was happening. We had paper cups, coffee, tea, milk, sugar, biscuits, hot water, but no teaspoons. Then I noticed one prisoner (whom I don't yet know) had brought his mug - it was under his chair - and it had a teaspoon sticking out of it. As soon as the service was over, I asked him if we could borrow it, and our Prison Fellowship volunteer and her friend made coffee and tea for the entire congregation using one teaspoon, brought by a prisoner. I thought that was very symbolic, actually, of the unity that was in the air during the service. Such was the fellowship and chat going on at the end that we had to shoo them all out of the door just in time for prisoner lock-up.