Monday, October 13, 2014

Cake or Death?

To stay awake while driving home from the jail, I listen to podcasts on my Stitcher app. Usually I listen to NPR shows like Freakonomics, or Wait, Wait, Don't Tell me, or This American Life. The latter has created a spin-off series called Serial. Whereas This American Life usually presents 3 or 4 stories an episode, united by a common theme, Serial presents a long complicated story over several episodes. The pilot episode presented a doozy. In 1999, a teenage girl was killed. Her ex-boyfriend was convicted based entirely on the testimony of a friend who says he helped bury the body. The accused has always maintained his innocence and just about everybody who knew him couldn't believe he had done the crime. Inexplicably, another friend who said she was chatting with the presumed killer at the library during the time of the murder was never contacted by the defense attorney. Nor was she called to the stand to give the accused an alibi. 15 years later the reporter is trying to figure out the truth. Is the man in prison or his self-confessed accomplice lying? Why didn't the defense lawyer use the alibi provided? Why didn't the girl come forward herself? Why did she talk to the reporter and confirm her earlier story but not appear at an appeal hearing a few weeks earlier that could have reopened the case? It's an involving mystery and one so complex it will take several episodes to explore. And who knows if we will ever find out the truth.

One of the most popular forms of entertainment is the murder mystery. Every since Edgar Allen Poe created the form, authors have been churning out tales of death and detection. TV networks are brimming with shows about eccentric detectives, procedurals, updates on Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes wannabees, like Psych, The Mentalist, Bones, C.S.I. and Monk, as well as true crime shows. Why do we like these? Because at the end, they generally reveal the truth and the bad guys get punished. 

Real life is more like the case being examined in Serial. In real life 30 to 40% of homicides go unsolved. The FBI estimates that every year about 6000 people get away with murder. That's roughly 120 per state. (BTW if you want your murderer to get caught get killed in Idaho. At 3.9% they have the lowest rate of unsolved homicides.)

People get away with other violent crimes as well. Domestic violence leads to 4 million assaults on women and 3 million on men. 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are sexually abused. But only an estimated 5% of pedophiles are caught. There are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking, 5 ½ million of whom are children and 55% of whom are women and girls. Very few of the perpetrators get caught. Right now 64 countries all over the globe are involved in armed conflicts. How often are those who commit war crimes tried?

You can destroy a person's life without resorting to violence. In 2012, nearly 9 million property crimes—burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson—were reported in the U.S. Identity fraud, using someone's personal information to access money, strikes a new victim every 2 seconds. That amounts to 13 million victims in 2013. But you don't have to steal someone's goods or identity to hurt them financially. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis says of all the wealth lost in the Great Recession the average household has only regained 45%. That's why so many still feel the effects though officially the recession ended in 2010. And remember that long line of bankers tried and imprisoned for the financial chicanery that caused the economy to nearly crash? Neither do I. It is said that Bernie Madoff is the only stockbroker and financier in jail because he ripped off the rich.

You can make a person's life miserable just for who he or she is. A recent AP poll showed that 51% of Americans express explicit anti-black attitudes and 52% of non-Hispanic whites expressed anti-Latino attitudes. Religious groups are persecuted in 184 countries. Christians are persecuted in the most, in 139 countries, followed by Muslims who are persecuted in 121 countries.

Many if not most of these injustices will not be redressed during the lifetimes of their victims. Which probably explains the popularity of crimefighters and superheroes in today's popular culture. We wish we could have justice in this life and we realize it would take someone extraordinary to accomplish it.

Which brings me to the uncomfortable aspects of the parables of Jesus that we've been reading of late. Jesus is talking about how people will not simply get away with murder. In today's reading from Matthew 22:1-14, people invited to a wedding banquet a king throws for his son abuse and even kill slaves sent to invite them. “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Last week, in the story of a vineyard owner whose tenants mistreat those sent to get his share and kill his son are dealt with similarly. Jesus' audience tells him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” And last month, Jesus spoke of a slave forgiven a colossal debt who has a fellow slave thrown into jail for a much smaller debt. Jesus says, “And in his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would repay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”

Whoa! What happened to Jesus, meek and mild? I personally have never understood how anyone who actually read the gospels could describe him that way. A more accurate depiction would be “Jesus, assertive and wild.” Jesus was gentle with those who needed it but could be harsh with those who needed to be confronted. He famously chased the crooked moneychangers out of the temple with an improvised whip. How do we reconcile that with Jesus, advocate of love?

Divine love naturally leads to justice. If you limit your love to yourself, or just your family or friends, or just your race or just your religion, or just your country, you can be unjust to outsiders. But if you love everyone, then you treat everyone equally well and demand that everyone treat each other in the same fashion. Since God is love, that love is manifested as justice wherever injustice arises. Since God is love, he cannot let those he loves harm one another or neglect the needs of one another.

God's basic way of dealing with injustice is the same as any good parent. You point it out to your child and expect them to change. If you read the prophets in the Bible, that's what it boils down to: here are your sins; now repent. And the reward is the same as it is with any good parent: forgiveness and a welcome back into the life of the family.

And God is very forgiving. As Jesus said to Peter, if he asks, forgive your brother 70 times 7. A whopping amount. And if we are to be that forgiving, then God is even more forgiving. We see that in the Bible. None of the patriarchs or kings or prophets or disciples are perfect. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter and Paul all screw up. But when they repent, when the turn from their sin and turn to God, he forgives them.

We see it in history. Bartolome de las Casas was one of the first Spanish colonists of the New World and a slave owner. He became convinced that this was a great injustice, gave up his slaves and began a long campaign to end slavery. He became the first Bishop of Chiapas and was declared Protector of the Indians.

Commander and later Captain Mitsuo Fuchida led the first wave of planes in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After World War II, he met a former flight engineer of his who had been a POW under the Americans. Not only was Fuchida surprised that the Americans did not torture their prisoners, he was astonished that they were ministered to by the daughter of missionaries who had been killed by the Japanese. That this woman, Peggy Covell, did not take revenge on the Japanese for her parents' deaths, a duty under the Bushido code, was inexplicable. He became obsessed in trying to understand such love and forgiveness. Later he read the story of an American bombadier who was captured by the Japanese and who came to God despite imprisonment and torture. Fuchida finally read the Bible and became a Christian. He spent the rest of his life telling people of how God's grace brought him to Jesus Christ.

It happens today. Joshua Milton Blahyi was an African warlord, who has confessed to killing 20,000 during the 14 year civil war in Liberia. He had performed human sacrifices since age 11 when he was made a tribal priest. He later became an adviser to then-President Samuel K. Doe. Blahyi would sacrifice children before each battle, sometimes eating their hearts. He was dubbed “General Butt Naked” because he would go into battle with only shoes and a gun because he believed he was invulnerable to bullets. Then, during one of the most brutal battles in the war, his life changed.

Blahyi says, in the middle of the fight, he saw Jesus appear to him in a bright light, rather as Paul did, telling him to repent. He laid down his weapons and left the battle. He was one of the few warlords to confess his crimes before Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Now he seeks out those he hurt, admits he is 100% guilty of what he did and asks forgiveness. Despite death threats, he preaches the love of Jesus. In a PBS documentary he said, “It's only Christianity that can help this nation, because Christianity, it is the only belief, the only faith that tell you to love your enemies, that tell you to accept and forgive the one who hurts you.”

Serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” killer, became Christians in prison. Dahmer was baptized before he was killed by another prisoner. Berkowitz has refused parole, seeing his mission field as the prison. He wrote an introduction to the Bibles I distribute in the jail. People can and do change and return God's love.

But what of those who don't, who are not moved by the love of God displayed in the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord Jesus? As C.S. Lewis said, there are those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom, ultimately, God must say, “Very well, your will be done. If you don't want any part of me, so be it.” Love can not be forced. God gave us the ability to choose so that our love would be real and not pre-programmed. But that means we can choose not to love him. And people do.

But if we want no part of God, who is the source of all good things, that means rejecting those as well. Things such as those Paul commends to us in our passage from Philippians 4:1-9—whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is is excellent and worthy of praise. God cannot, Lewis reminds us, give us good apart from himself. It's like asking for sunlight but without the involvement of the sun. It's like asking for nutrition without the components of food. It's like asking to breathe without oxygen. Not wanting anything to do with God or his gifts means going into exile.

And it is a self-imposed exile. The gates of Hell are locked from the inside, said Lewis. And we see this all the time--people who reject the love of family and friends, and withdraw from their lives and lock themselves into a lifestyle where they only have room for their ego and their misery. They build barricades out of bottles, or drugs, or meaningless sex, or money or whatever else distracts their minds and dulls their feelings. Now, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, if one ceases to exist after 70 or 80 years then the kind of person you are doesn't matter much in the long run. Your misery will end. But if you are to live forever, then the kind of person you are becoming is of paramount importance. As Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “a person wrapped up in himself makes a small package.” And over eternity, such a self-centered person becomes ever smaller, a ever-denser ball of bitterness and resentment and grievances against God and other people. He becomes like a black hole, sucking all the joy and light out of anyone and anything near them. And that's hell.

Hell is not a place; it is a state of being. It is not where anyone is going; it is what they are becoming. It is what we become when we turn our back on God's love and grace, when we neglect his good gifts or twist them into uses he never intended, when our attitude is “to hell” with anyone other than ourselves or those we think of as ours, when we make ourselves or anything other than God the center of our universe, when we want to get as far from him as we can. In which case God doesn't need to torture or punish us; we are quite good at doing it ourselves. If we keep engaging in such toxic thinking, speech and behavior, if we refuse to change, the result is one hellish existence.

But because it is a process, there is time to reverse it. It is interesting that in today's parable Jesus uses the metaphor of a wedding banquet. This was not like a modern wedding reception which runs for hours. In Jesus' day, they would run for a week at least; for a king, 2 weeks or more. (That's why the wedding Jesus was at in Cana was in danger of running out of wine.) The whole community could then find some time to come and celebrate the wedding. Which makes the people in the parable especially rude. They couldn't find one day in 2 or more weeks to come to the king's banquet.

The point is--there is always time to come to God. Every second of your life is a second chance. Despite popular eschatology, God is not going to simply cut everybody off at an arbitrary time hidden in the scriptures. This week in the Huffington Post, there was an excellent article by Zack Hunt about how he discovered that there is no “Rapture,” as popularly imagined, in the Bible. He points out that God always journeys with his people through the hard times. He doesn't magically extract them from tough times. And he talked about the selfish attitude engendered by the false idea that Christians get pulled out of the world when it needs them most and distinguishes that from the very biblical belief that Jesus will return and expects us not to be standing around waiting for lift off but to be doing what he commanded us to do. He writes, “One allows us to neglect the present world and let it crumble away while we focus on our own eternal glory. The other beckons us to participate in God's restoration of creation by loving His people and showing them how to live the life God intended until He does return to bring that work of redemption to final completion.”

The time will come when God in his wisdom wraps things up. The point is that right now he is giving us the time to get on board with his mission to heal a very sick world. What looks like God delaying in giving sinful people the justice they deserve is really his mercy in giving them time to accept the grace that none of us deserve. And our task is heralding that good news. In the parable we are those the king sends out to invite everyone we encounter “both good and bad”--Jesus' words!--to the feast.

In the movie Auntie Mame, the title character's motto is “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” And oddly enough, that's what Jesus is saying in this parable. It puts a very different spin on Eddie Izzard's question, "Cake or death?" Why choose the latter when Jesus is inviting you to enjoy the former? The kingdom of God is a big banquet with love, forgiveness, healing, joy, and peace and, according to Jesus, the kingdom is in and among us now! A lot of people don't realize the true nature of what God is offering. Perhaps they've heard a false description of what it's like. So let us spread the word with love. Let's ring the dinner bell and yell, “Come and get it!” 

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