Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that you brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” MT. 5:23-24
Martha had a horrible childhood. “Mom regularly beat me with a strap. She was even mean when I did nothing wrong.” She told her pastor as she continued. “My dad was cruel for reasons I don’t understand. He’d pack my lunch for school and often put a rock in it instead of a sandwich. As hungry as I was after school, I dreaded coming home.”
What’s amazing about this cruelty is that Martha’s parents had adopted her, a decision normally undertaken by adults who have a deep and caring desire to secure a child’s future. Something backfired in Martha’s case, and it may be due to the circumstances of her adoption.
Born in 1923, Martha was one of the last children to ride an orphan train, a transportation system that brought parentless children from eastern cities to prospective families in western and Midwestern towns. Between 1854 and 1929, children’s aid organizations in cities like New York and Philadelphia placed an estimated 200,000 orphaned children aboard trains for adoption by families in other states.
Many beautiful families were formed despite weak or non-existent processes for identifying qualified parents. At times an auction-like atmosphere filled train depots as crowds of rural townsfolk gathered to gawk at children or choose a child on the spot.
In later life, when asked how she and her husband managed to raise a beautiful child of their own, despite her hellish childhood, Martha said, “I was determined to do the complete opposite of what my parents did for me.”
That’s a lot of grace and fortitude, but not really surprising when Martha explains that she rests her life on the conviction of Ephesians 2:8. Karl Barth’s rendering of that verse: “For by grace you have been saved through the faithfulness of God, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” underscores God’s beneficence toward us. That God would want us or love us just as we are, and not as God might wish we were, is astounding. Martha used this, rather than nay anger or judgment against her parents as she raised her child.
Yesterday at the presbytery meeting we heard from the Virginia League for Safer Streets, a group that Lamar’s POJ committee awarded a $7,000 grant to. It is an organization founded by former incarcerated men that aims to help African-American men ages 17-28 make better choices in life. In a word, to avoid a criminal lifestyle.
They told us that while in prison they made the conscious decision to work after release to ensure that others could learn from them safer, healthier ways to relate to others. They hold workshops, meet one on one, and assist with job training and searchers. Richmond’s police chief noted that with the advent of their workshops, there is a noticeable drop in violent crime in Richmond’s Housing projects.
We also heard about a new worshipping community at Bon Air Correctional Center that has formed as a choir of incarcerated youth. The leaders spoke about how once a youth has ended up in the system it is as if they are forever branded “bad.” That the system fails to see them as human beings, and seems to treat each as if they will never amount to anything.
As I listened to those stories, thought about Martha and her story, and placed them in the context of Christ’s words about squaring relationships before coming to worship, I could not help but think about our human proclivity to judge others. And in our current context, to seemingly judge others not like us, or thinking like us, or living like us, as less than, frankly, human.
We judge as “evil” those with opposing political views, we judge as less than those with differing lifestyles. And if we take a moment to think about it, while we’re busy judging others, chances are we’re being judged as well.
Humanity has a vast capacity for goodness. But our proclivity to chip away at the dignity and humanity of others is also vast. Throughout the social and political history of our nation, a tactic used to “win” in struggles big and small is to dehumanize and other our enemy. This tactic knows no ideological bounds, as all people fall into this trap of creating distance between themselves and others with drastically different opinions, perspectives, life styles and life choices.
But no matter what we do as human beings, God somehow still loves us, all of us, as God’s own. This love does not mean acceptance or approval of acts or thoughts that dehumanize, but it is a love that is grounded in grace that goes far beyond anything that my heart or head could ever imagine.
As their choir formed at the correctional center, the youth chose a contemporary Christian song as their anthem: “I am who you say I am.” In part the lyric says: “I am chosen, not forsaken. I am who you say I am. I am a child of God, Yes I am. In my Father’s house there’s a place for me…” In God’s outrageous grace, there’s a place for everyone.
Jesus knows we are nowhere nearly as gracious with one another, but he calls us to repentance and reconciliation with this command to repair the breaches in relationships that we have created before we make our offerings to God.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount may seem like mere rules but at their core is a call to see the humanity in one another first and foremost. A call to treat one another with the grace we would want for ourselves.
This does not mean glossing over differences for the sake of “unity.” Nor does it mean accepting abusive behavior. We can maintain healthy boundaries of behavior and belief yet still acknowledge that all human beings are God’s
Years ago a friend bought an inexpensive used car. For a few days he left the dealer’s sticker in the window. You know the one I mean, the one that says AS IS. His translation of those two words was, “This may be a lemon, so consider yourself paying for surprise.”
When I think about Martha, the men I heard yesterday, the youth of Bon Air Correctional Center and one of the biggest mysteries of faith, I imagine an AS IS sticker on my back and everyone else’s and the Lord willing and desirously loving all of us in that AS IS condition. Biblical faith insists that God doesn’t love us because we are worthy; we have worth and value because God loves us. The ordering is critically important. It’s an ordering that faithful adoptive parents and the folks who give their time working with the incarcerated never lose sight of.