A Living Sacrifice

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B)
First Lesson: 1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Second Lesson: Hebrews 9:24-28
Gospel: Mark 12:38-44

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

45702861_10156419538850845_6461514487055777792_nOn Election Day this past Tuesday, I saw a picture on social media that was posted by the Equal Justice Initiative (also known as EJI), a non-profit organization based in Montgomery that helps provide legal representation to prisoners in Alabama who may have been wrongfully convicted or denied a fair trial because of racial discrimination and other forms of inequality. They also work very closely with prisoners on death row. The picture was of a man named Anthony Ray Hinton, who in 1985 was accused and wrongfully convicted of murdering two restaurant managers in the Birmingham area. Mr. Hinton was sentenced to death for crimes that he didn’t commit, and he sat waiting on death row for almost thirty years, stripped of all his rights, before he was finally released in April of 2015.

This past Tuesday, he voted in the mid-term elections as a free man. The smile on his face in the picture that I saw was priceless. It filled my heart with joy to know that he was so happy.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been reading Mr. Hinton’s new book, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, which was released earlier this year. In his book, he writes about his life and the events that led to his incarceration. He writes with excruciating detail about his many years on death row in Holman prison and the struggles that he experienced while trying desperately to prove his innocence in a state where racial bigotry and discrimination often go unchecked in the criminal justice system. He writes about Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, who became his attorney and eventually won him his freedom.

Mr. Hinton’s book is a testimony to the power of forgiveness and the ability that we all have to overcome darkness and fear when we allow God’s love to shine in us and through us, despite our circumstances.

What happened to Mr. Hinton was unfair. He was stripped of the life that he knew before prison because of false accusations and the color of his skin. He was sentenced to die not because of choices that he made but because of cruel and biased legal practices. While he was on death row, he had no rights to speak of and no reason to show kindness or generosity to anyone. Yet, that’s exactly what he did. After years of living with hatred and anger in his heart, Mr. Hinton knew that he had a choice to make. He could continue on the same path and eventually be consumed by anger and resentment. Or, he could make the choice to turn away from those feelings and serve as an instrument of God’s love in a place where love and compassion were lost.

In one of the chapters in his book, Mr. Hinton describes the night when a prisoner named Arthur Julius was executed. After the execution, another man close by began to sob and cry out from his cell. The sobbing got louder and louder. At first, Mr. Hinton tried to drown out the noise, but eventually, he also started crying. He started crying for a man that he didn’t even know, and he began to realize that, even though most of his ability to make choices had been taken away from him, he still had the ability to choose love over hate. He still had the ability to choose life over death. He reached out to the man and began talking to him, ending a three-year period of silence and beginning a new chapter in his life on death row. Describing that night, Mr. Hinton writes, “I wondered why it is that the cries of another human being – whether it’s a baby or a woman in grief or a man in pain – can touch us in ways we don’t expect. I wasn’t expecting to have my heart break that night. I wasn’t expecting to end three years of silence. It was a revelation to realize that I wasn’t the only man on death row. I was born with the same gift from God we are all born with – the impulse to reach out and lessen the suffering of another human being. It was a gift, and we each had a choice whether to use this gift or not.”

Anthony Ray Hinton’s story is heartbreaking, but it’s also incredibly inspiring. His life is an example of how God’s love can turn darkness into light and how all of us have the ability to give to others, even when it seems like we have nothing left to give.

His story is not unlike that of the poor widow who we encounter in today’s lesson from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus and his disciples are in the temple in Jerusalem. He makes his way to the temple treasury, sits down, and watches as people come by to put in their offerings. He watches as rich people come by and put in large sums of money, and he watches as a poor widow comes by and puts in two copper coins, worth only a penny. Then, he calls his disciples over and says to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus draws a comparison between two groups of people: those who give out of their abundance and those who give out of their poverty. The rich people in our story who contribute to the treasury have no idea what it feels like to be poor and to be treated as the lowest of the low. Their gift to the treasury is important and needed for the work of the temple, but it doesn’t cost them nearly as much as it does the widow, who knows very well what it feels like to be poor and treated as an outcast.

The point that I think Jesus is trying to make in our Gospel lesson is that it isn’t about the quantity of the widow’s gift. It’s about the quality. Her offering to the treasury comes from a place of love and deep gratitude to God, despite her situation in life. She doesn’t offer her gift for the sake of appearances or to get anything in return. She offers all that she has, her whole life, as a sign of faith.

My brothers and sisters, we’re called upon to do the same in our own lives. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that God wants us to give all of our money away to the Church like the widow in our story. That’s not what I’m saying at all. What I mean is that we’re called upon to offer our whole selves, our “souls and bodies” as we say in the Eucharistic prayer, to be a “reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” to God, trusting that God will use us and all the gifts that we’ve been given for the building up of God’s Kingdom.

Anthony Ray Hinton heard God’s call on death row and responded by loving and serving his fellow inmates. Out of his despair and lowliness, he discovered freedom and peace by offering himself as a living sacrifice for others.

May we, in our own lives, discover that same freedom and peace by loving and serving our neighbors, especially those in need. May we come to realize that we all have something to offer, even when it seems like we have nothing left to give, and may we always know that God’s abiding love has the ability to shine its light even in the darkest of places. Amen.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.

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