I am going to start this sermon with a poem I wrote about one of the places in which I work. It is a juvenile detention facility, which happens to be across the street from a very old, very large cemetery:
The opposite curve
There is a brick building
Gently tucked on the curve of a road
On the soft edge of a curve
Of burnished ruby brick
And tender, tended grass
Slashed through with razor wire
Glass eyes seeing,
On the opposite curve
A fate visited
In hundreds of soft putty brains,
Already written on with razor wire,
Far too soon,
The opposite curve
When Gretchen asked me to preach a sermon, I was hesitant. I told her that my theology was weak. I was raised Roman Catholic. We didn’t study the bible. Instead, I was doled out parts of the scripture and told what it meant. And, frankly, I am really no better today. I remember the first books of the new testament by a phrase I read once, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, you saddle a rat and I’ll jump on…” It is just in the past 10 years that I figured out that the much of the new testament is a series of letters. Still, Gretchen convinced me that I am able to tell a story. So, out of my love for her, and, lets face it, my own vanity, I took this challenge. I have had months to regret it. When I reviewed the readings from which I could choose, I was instantly drawn to the Epistle. Romans 5: versus 12-21. It seemed to me to be about sin and redemption. And who knows more about sin and redemption than I? Not only have I been a veteran sinner for many years, someone who has made the seeking of redemption into somewhat of a hobby, I have also worked in the MA Dept of Youth Services since 2013. For those who don’t know what DYS is, it is the Juvenile Justice system, formerly known as Juvie. Kid Jail. A place where caring people with the best of intentions perpetuate an inherently unjust system. Many days, I include myself with those people. And MA has a very progressive system. In fact, it is often looked upon as a model for other states. We use a vaguely restorative justice model, although it has been, in some places, bastardized to the point of being unrecognizable. So, upon reading today’s epistle I became excited. In my interpretation, Paul speaks of sin, (which, to me, is such an icky, fire and brimstone word) , as simply a disconnection from God’s love and trust, and redemption as a reconnection with that same love and trust. For what could be more illustrative of a disconnection than Adam’s direct and flagrant disregard of God’s law in eating from the tree of knowledge, and what could be a better example of reconnecting the whole of mankind with Jesus’s sacrifice of his safety, his dignity and his life? Recently, I have been working with my son, Sebastian, on viewing trust and love in a different way. For him, as for many people, trust and love are largely transactional. He believes that if he is “good” he gains my trust and love, and thus can get the things that he wants, like a $100 gift card to Gamestop. I have tried, mostly in vain thus far, to show him that love and trust are the very basis for human connection. That disconnection from love and trust, “Sin” if you will, are an inevitable part of the human condition, and that reconnection with love and trust, is God’s ultimate gift to humanity. In this reading, Paul refers to this gift. He says to the Romans “But the gift is not like the trespass”. No, he believes that the gift is so much more than the sin. The reconnection with God is greater, more powerful and ultimately more divine than whatever we did to disconnect. At least, that is what I thought until I began to read the commentaries. So many opinions, so many focuses. My excitement began to falter as I tried to prepare for this sermon. Some people were saying that this reading proved that human kind is only saved by an acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Oops. I don’t believe that. Other’s spoke about following God’s law. Still others were so dense with theology and philosophy, that I took to reading historical romances to cleanse my palate. In desperation, I turned to Gretchen to find commentaries that would speak to me. And she, like she has for the past 15 years, came to my rescue. She suggested commentaries to which I could relate my own ideas and experiences.
One commentary put the whole of Roman’s 5 into historical context. So very Gretchen. It was long, and frankly, boring. But it did show me that Paul, in his letter, was not speaking philosophically for the ages, but trying to beat down dissention in the early church. He was being practical, ticking off counters to arguments, not making a grand theological statement. The author, Robert Jewett, used the rhetorical method to follow Paul’s argument, which actually allowed me to have a better understanding of the time and the church at that time. And, it was so long it helped me to forget about the more troublesome commentaries that I had previously read. The commentary that truly spoke to me, however, was by Israel Kamudzandu. He said “Implicitly, and, at times, explicitly, the human family builds walls of separation with others, with the intent to control, silence and marginalize others. Embedded in this chapter is both humanity’s failure to live by God’s offer of love to all and the ever present reality of God’s generosity in terms of mercy, justice and grace of which the church is the instrument of God’s garden in which compassion is manifested”. To my mind, there is no better example of this than our very broken Justice System. And, because I work behind some of those walls of separation, it is from here I will tell you a story.
Early in my career at DYS, I met a young man who was to become my nemesis. I have left out details in order to protect his identity, but I doubt anyone would recognize him in this description. He was simply a boy, like dozens of others that I have met over the past 7 years, whose life circumstances had brought him to commitment behind the cinder block walls of a juvenile justice facility. He was a refugee from el Salvador. He had only come to the US 4 or 5 years earlier, but his English was excellent. A very smart, adaptable child who had seen horrors in his homeland and in his escape from that homeland, that I am unable to fully imagine. He came to live with relatives with whom he had no prior relationship, no bond of love. They fed him and clothed him, but had little time or patience for a boy who stopped going to school, who began to hang out with gangs, who finally got arrested. I forget the crime he committed that got him placed the facility in which I worked. Maybe gun charges, maybe rape, certainly not murder, since he was not charged as an adult. Immediately, he set himself apart by being excessively needing and demanding. We played a game that I call “Medical Whack-a Mole”. He would come to me with a vague complaint. I would try to get a history, which would be equally vague. His exam would be unremarkable. I would try to reassure him that all was well, but he would accuse me of not knowing my job, of ignoring his complaints. I would see him time and time again for the same complaint, until he grew tired of it, then he would declare himself well and reveal yet another complaint. Medical Whack a Mole. I tried to restrict his access; he upped the ante by complaining of more severe symptoms. He complained of chest pain one night and an ambulance was called. He had multiple, almost laughable, suicidal gestures. He managed to get his hands on 6 amoxicillin antibiotics and take them in an attempt to kill himself. He got diarrhea. He attempted to tie a tee shirt around a sprinkler head in his room and hang himself with staff standing right outside his door. The tee shirt stretched to the floor and the staff stopped him. Now, I am not without insight or compassion. I know that these are cries for help. An attempt to explain inner pain and turmoil by attributing them to physical disorders. A way to be heard. A way to scream “SEE ME”. However, to me, these methods were annoying and demoralizing. I couldn’t fix him, I couldn’t help him, so, I avoided him. Whenever possible, I had other providers see him. I, however, was the primary nurse practitioner at the facility, so I could not avoid him all the time. He stayed with us for over a year. Over that time, we began to talk. I told him a bit about my crazy, patch work family. He told me a bit about his former life. I am not sure if what he told me is true, but the feelings were. He was disconnected from love and trust… disconnected from his family, disconnected from his community, disconnected from his country. This is not a story of amazing re-connection healing all, however. It is a story about what happens when that reconnection fails. He and I came to an uneasy truce. We got used to each other. I like to think we began to see the God that was etched on both of our hearts. When he was due to leave, he was placed in the custody of the Dept. of Children and Families and put into a foster home. There had a difficult time placing him… he was a felon with behavioral issues…not a prime candidate for fostering. At one time, he asked me “Why can’t you just adopt me?” If this was a made for TV movie, I would have done so and he would now be going to Harvard. But it is not a made for TV movie. I had enough kids, thank you very much. The last thing I needed was another one, especially one with his issues. They did, however, finally find him a placement. A lovely Spanish-speaking Grandma who knew how to make his favorite foods. On his last day in the facility, he came to say good bye. He was so excited, looking forward to a new life. Knowing of his issues, however, I had my doubts. Rice and beans are lovely, but they do not heal trauma. Sadly, I was correct. From time to time, I heard about him from other people in DYS. His placement with the Grandma did not work out. He bounced around from foster home to foster home for almost a year. Then, right after he turned 18, he was arrested again. Three days into his detention, he managed to hang himself in his cell. A complete and total failure of connection.
Now, some might think that I am speaking of this young man’s disconnection to God’s love and trust. For certainly, all of the young men I work with have, in some way or another, sinned. They have become disconnected, for sure. But I am actually talking about my own disconnection. For is not the greatest sin and disconnection refusing to see someone as a human in pain? And am I disconnecting myself further by working in a system that holds black and brown youth so much more accountable for their actions than their white counterparts? Is not the ultimate disconnection living in a racist society that hones my implicit bias to a razor’s edge? The problems are so vast, so wide, so overwhelming, that is it easy to give in to despair. But this passage give us hope. For no matter how strong the disconnection, the reconnection is even stronger. Remember “But the gift is not like the trespass” Paul further goes on to say “For if the many died by the trespass of one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow the many?” So today, I issue you a challenge: look for areas in your life where you have disconnected from the love and trust of God. Look for small things…did you throw away a recyclable bottle? Did you start answering emails when your mother called you to complain about her day? And remember, the point is not to dwell on the disconnect. The point is to rejoice in the powerful, beautiful and totally attainable reconnection with the love of God. The point, my beloved community, is the joy.
Zondervan. (2019). Holy Bible: New International version. Grand Rapids, MI.
Jewett, R. (1986). Following the Argument of Romans. Word and World, 6(4), 382–389.
Kanudzandu, I. (n.d.). Death Through Adam, Life Through Christ. Working Preacher. Retrieved February 28, 2020, from http://www.workingpreacher.org/