Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Trinity (7 June 2015) by the Reverend Susie Simpson, Managing Prison Chaplain, HMP/YOI Isis, SE London

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Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Trinity (7 June 2015) by the Reverend Susie Simpson, Managing Prison Chaplain, HMP/YOI Isis, SE London

The Reverend Susie Simpson looks at those locked away in prison and says "our mission as chaplains is to help them to believe that they can start a new life...No matter how many times they fall, we return to them and encourage them to pick themselves up and try again."


In the psalm appointed for this evening, psalm 37, we were told not to fret because of the ungodly or be envious of the evildoers. There is no need to be worried or angry. They will be punished. In this country we are currently punishing over 85,000 people by putting them in prison. Depending on their crime they have been sentenced to a stretch of time locked in a cell, either alone or shared with other prisoners. During the day they may be unlocked to attend work or education, to have a shower or make a phonecall, but some days they will be locked up for 23 hours altogether. They are, as the psalm says, cut down like the grass and have become withered even as the green herb. Like a cut flower without water, prisoners are starved of some of the things that give our lives colour and purpose; contact with their families and friends; fresh air; freedom to come and go as they like; choice over what they eat, what they wear, when they go to bed and when they rise in the morning; choice over how often they have a shower or wash their clothes.
 
Good, we may say, this is what they deserve. They are the evildoers, the ungodly, they have been rooted out in order that the rest of us can live our lives without fear of them. Who cares whether they spend time locked away in a cell? They should have thought of that before they broke the law. It is God’s will that they should stumble and perish.
 
This is what many of us think before we have any experience of prisoners. We assume that the majority of people locked up in prison are wicked, murderous sinners, unrepentant and irredeemable. The reality is very different. People are sent to prison for a great variety of reasons but not all of them actively see themselves as evil. They are all, after all, people, created in the image of God.
 
HMP/YOI Isis, where I work, is named after the River Thames. It opened 5 years ago, just before the name Isis became quite so toxic. The prison houses up to 620 young men. So much youth, vitality and energy caged up because they have taken the wrong path. Amazingly only 70-80 of these young men say they have no religion. Nearly 300 of them are Christians. Many have attended church as children and around 100 of them come to chapel on Sundays. So these are young men who have been shown where the good way lies and have said, ‘we will not walk in it.’ They have heard the word of God like the sound of a trumpet and have said ‘we will not give heed.’ Like the people of Israel who have been given God’s commandments to obey, the prophets’ words to heed, they have gone against God’s law, and yet, also like the people of Israel they continue to worship God and acknowledge him.
 
Now, languishing in a cell, deprived of their mobile phone, the internet, their social life, their lives are on hold. Statistics show that if they are released from prison and do not have a job or accommodation or any kind of support, around 75% of them will commit further crimes and return to prison. The prison takes young men from all over London and we have over 130 different gangs represented amongst the prisoners. Gang members will often fight over disputes that have their origins outside, and they seem locked into a cycle of escalating violence and vengeance that can have no end until everyone is dead. It is fuelled by the enormous amounts of money that can change hands through drug dealing, it involves the carrying and using of knives and guns. It is an evil and ungodly way of life.
 
At some stage in their lives, these young men have looked at this wicked and ungodly way that prospers and have been envious. Out of a desire for money, success, status or power they have been sucked in to benefitting from evil yet lucrative deeds. They go into the life of crime with their eyes lowered. No-one commits crimes thinking they are going to be caught and imprisoned. Being arrested, found guilty, sentenced and sent to prison can be the shock they needed to open their eyes and see that they have joined the ranks of evildoers. 
 
Who can rescue them from this life of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
 
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect route out of the cycle of sin and violence that traps so many people in prison.
 
I am often asked why I work in a prison full of young men who have committed crimes, some of them very serious and violent. It is because I believe in a God who is just, but I also believe in a God who is merciful. The psalms in particular talk of God’s mercy; Psalm 103 speaks of our God ‘who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit’ or Psalm 146 the God ‘who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry, the Lord (who) sets the prisoners free; the Lord (who) opens the eyes of the blind.’ Or Psalm 136 with its refrain ‘for His mercy endures forever’.
 
In the midst of God’s merciful acts listed in the psalms, we see that God looks specifically to prisoners and offers them mercy. It does not mean God does not give justice to the oppressed and the victims of crime, but his justice does not mean a lack of forgiveness or the withdrawal of redemption for those who repent. We have all just confessed our sins and named ourselves as miserable offenders, but we have also called upon God to spare those who confess their faults and restore those who are penitent. No-one is excluded from this plea.
 
The greatest act of mercy is the sending of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ to live as one of us. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, God had sent the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises and the patriarchs. When even after all this the people rebelled and sinned, God did not give up but sent his beloved Son. Jesus is the face of God’s love and mercy. If we look at how Jesus treated sinners and criminals there is overwhelming evidence of him having mercy rather than a desire for punishment and retribution. His response to people who stood in the shame of their own misdeeds was one of compassion and forgiveness. He rescued the woman taken in adultery and told her to go and sin no more. He did not speak a word of rebuke to Peter about his repeated denial of him, but instead asked him three times to care for his flock. In the agony of his death, Jesus spoke words of hope and comfort to the thief on the cross beside him. That man, also dying in agony, did not say sorry or ask for forgiveness but simply asked to be remembered. Jesus said to him ‘today you will be with me in Paradise.’
 
‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ These words are the most profound words of hope that we speak in our prison chapel, and most strikingly on Good Friday. Our Good Friday service is always well attended, by Catholics, Anglicans and Pentecostal Christians all sitting together. During the service we bring in a life size cross which is processed to the front of the chapel. We then have veneration of the cross when the congregation is invited to come and touch or kiss the wood of the cross. Imagine how this feels for people who are in prison. They know that they are miserable sinners, and yet here they see the lengths to which God will go to show how much He loves them. How moving it is to see people who have been convicted and condemned by society being reassured by the cross of Christ that even so they are loved by God. It is through this act of loving mercy that all sinners are saved. As a repentant prisoner kneels before the cross of Christ and asks for forgiveness, surely he is one of the meek-spirited who shall possess the earth and shall be refreshed in the multitude of peace.
 
All the prisoners in our prison are going to be released, mostly within the next five to ten years. Our mission as chaplains is to help them to believe that they can start a new life following the ancient paths where the good way lies and walking in it. We have to persuade them that they can be good. Many of them want to follow the Christian way, but find it incredibly hard to choose that ancient path of good. They fall again and again. No matter how many times they fall, we return to them and encourage them to pick themselves up and try again. With God, nothing is impossible.
 
I would like to end by thanking Canon Philippa for inviting me to preach here. It is a great honour to take part in the worship in such a magnificent and beautiful historic building. It is very different from the chapel in prison where I normally preach, which is not really a chapel at all, it is just a large room which I share with Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. There is very little that is beautiful about our place of worship. But I cannot tell you what a great honour it is to be a prison chaplain, and time and time again to echo the joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.