Parable of Martha Oklahoma

When I was a young boy my father was serving a church in the small town of Martha, Oklahoma. My parents and I lived in a parsonage that had previously served as the home of the cotton farmer who donated the land on which the church was built. There was plenty of evidence about the parsonage that witnessed to the previous purpose of the home, and the life of its inhabitants. The farmer had built the house, and all of the outbuildings. The back yard had a perimeter defined by a low sway backed rock wall that was low enough for me to climb and play on without technically violating my mother’s instructions to not leave the yard. Inside this perimeter was a chicken coop that had housed the farmer’s chickens; a cistern raised about four feet off the ground that collected the rainwater off the roof. And in the middle of the yard, low to the ground, was a septic tank with a wooden lid covering the hand dug, rock lined pit, that collected the human waste from the house.

Growing up we did not have a TV, or the other media devices that consume so much of children's time today. Instead my parents would read books to me. My favorites were the westerns written by popular writers of the time like Zane Grey. During the day, I would spend hours in the back yard play-acting these western dramas.

I would often begin by pretending I was a sheriff, searching the badlands for a fugitive outlaw. I would search along the perimeter wall, walking back and forth, until finally I would catch that outlaw and drag him back to town, where I would throw him into the jail formally used for chickens. I would march up and down in front of that jail heroically protecting the town from the outlaw safely kept inside the coop. Then it would come time to take the outlaw before the judge for trial. Changing characters, I would climb on top of the cistern as a judge ascending the court bench. From this great height I would hear the pleas of the outlaw and the arguments of the prosecutor. At the end of a long, well argued trial, making sure I had heard all sides of the case, I would pass judgment on the outlaw and pronounce the verdict with a loud and authoritative voice, "Guilty"! Then I would pronounce the sentence, “having found you guilty of all charges brought against you, it is the decision of this court that you be taken to the gallows to be hung by the neck until you are dead!” 

Climbing down from the cistern of judgment I would then escort the condemned to the wooden gallows, located above the septic tank, where I would become the preacher. With a make believe bible in my hand I would address the gathered town folk and pronounce that God’s judgment was severe and without mercy for those who had sinned against God and humanity. I then would ask the condemned if he had any last words to say. After hearing his words pleading for mercy and forgiveness, I would turn my back on the condemned, face the gathered crowd, lift my hands to the heavens, and offer a final prayer. My prayers would be filled with the righteous thanksgiving for God's help in delivering us from this evil man, and prayers for the community that this act of judgment might be a lesson for all those who might be tempted to stray from the righteous path. 

One day as I was lifting my prayers toward heaven, in the midst of my prayer, suddenly, in the split second of an apocalyptic moment, the outlaw, the sheriff, the judge, and the preacher all became one, as the gallows opened up, and I fell into the septic tank, sinking deep into the human waste below, waste thought to be out of sight and out of mind. On that day my play-acting suddenly became a very real struggle between life and death. For the first time in my young life I found myself in deep s!*t, definitely in way over my head, confronted by one of life's unexpected trials, as my feet sunk deep into the human waste at the bottom of the septic tank.

Fortunately for me, the farmer who had dug the septic tank, and lined it with stone, had not been too particular about the quality of his mortar work, leaving crevices and gaps between the stones. As I reached out to the sides of the septic tank I was able to find in these imperfections hand and toeholds that provided me with just enough of a crevice between each stone to climb towards the surface until reaching the intake pipe I was able to climb out of the tank to safety.

As I climbed out of that septic tank I was greeted by the sight of my mother running towards me, with towels in both hands, proclaiming "thanks be to God for saving the life of my son."  Having survived the plunge, I was taken aback by the witness of my mother and proclaimed, “Mother, God had nothing to do with it, I climbed out all by myself!”

As I look back on that day a long time ago, I now realize how lucky I was to have survived. If I had fallen into a manufactured tank of poured concrete, or moulded plastic, with its perfectly smooth sides I would have died that day. Perhaps it was luck, perhaps it was grace, but I now know that my life that day was dependent on the imperfect work of a farmer who took it upon himself to build his own septic tank.

Thank you God for the imperfect work of the farmer who built that septic tank. 
Thank you God for the imperfect work of your faithful who gather to be your church. 
And thank you God for your grace offered freely to all, no matter who we are, or where we might be, on life's journey.   Amen.