Summit Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2016
Reason for a Party
Recently I read a memoir called Consequence by Eric Fair. Fair was an American interrogator with a private security firm under contract to the US army in Iraq. His book recounts the decisions and events and accidents and good intentions that led him there — and what he finds when he arrives. Violence. Disorganization. Fear. I won’t recount his downward slide, but eventually he becomes a practitioner of what’s euphemistically call “enhanced interrogation technique.” Towards the end of his time in Iraq, when he is at his lowest point, Fair says: “I am not disgusted by my actions. I am disgusted by how good it felt to wield power . . . I am terrified of where else that feeling might take me. In Iraq, I have not just taken the wrong path. I have walked in the wrong direction entirely.” He then describes what happens when he returns: his troubled mind and soul, his drinking, his anger, the call he hears to suicide. His bad heart and near death; a heart transplant at Penn; the birth of his son. Throughout, he talks about God. He talks about his faith and his lack of it. He is a Presbyterian. A cradle Presbyterian, raised in the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, PA, very active in the youth group and deeply influenced by his youth pastor. He even goes to Princeton Seminary, briefly, after Iraq. The church and its teaching are a touchstone. But the church didn’t keep him from walking in the wrong direction and it also doesn’t save him from pain and guilt on his return. Even when he begins to speak out, to try and make amends, there’s no neat resolution. No “born again” experience, no moment of Amazing Grace when he feels, as Paul puts, it, thaat the past is finished and gone; everything has become fresh and new. He doesn’t buy the argument that Christ has “paid” for our sins and we are therefore redeemed (I don’t blame him. The argument is problematic, especially in its more simplistic form). “I am a torturer,” says Fair. “I have not turned a corner or found my way back. I have not been redeemed. I do not believe that I ever will be. But I am still obligated to try.” (239). He finds hope in the idea of “earning” his way back. He writes his book, he visits regularly with a Rabbi, he raises his son and brings him to church and loves his wife. He comes to a limited peace with his past, an acceptance of his humanity, but he’s still haunted by what he’s done in Iraq. And that, he feels, is as it should be.
He also talks the reaction of others to his disclosure of torture and the part he played in it. After he wrote a couple of newspaper columns, the emails started coming in. He says many of them lauded his courage and honesty. He deleted those. Others said things like “I hope you die,” or “You’d be doing the world a favor by removing yourself from the gene pool.” He said he kept reading those. He also received an email with the subject line “welcome.” This is what it said: Welcome to the club bro. I was in the infantry in Vietnam in 1968. I murdered an NVA soldier who was trying to surrender. I gave the go ahead for two of our artillerymen to gun down those two soldiers. All I had to do was tell them not to but instead said “Fuck it!” This has been a burden for thirty-nine years and will continue to be so until I die. I don’t believe in any religion, I do believe in an Infinite Intelligence and perhaps our punishment is carrying this guilt to our grave. I just want to let you know you have plenty of company. Welcome.”
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This is a familiar and comforting passage for many of us, including the two parables that follow. We like to think of Jesus inviting everyone to the lunch table. But maybe we haven’t thought about it enough, at what it means to welcome sinners. When I’ve heard this word “sinner” in this passage, I’ve thought prostitutes, as sinners often does mean prostitutes in the Bible. When I’ve heard “tax collectors,” I’ve pictured government bureaucrats, corrupt, perhaps, even collaborators with the Roman overlords, but not that bad. I’ve thought of those people coming near to Jesus as outsiders rather than insiders, on the margin rather than the center, but —especially in the case of prostitutes — victims more than evil-doers. And the parables that follow reinforce this “soft” view: perhaps because the sheep and the coin and even the prodigal are lost but harmless. They don’t torture or abuse or kill anyone. So it’s easy to see those Pharisees as judgmental and hypocritical folks who deserve to be scolded.
But if we think of sinner in it’s full meaning, it’s graver, darker, and also more inclusive. It includes all of us, of course. We may feel we’ve managed, through righteousness or luck or both, to avoid committing sins that can’t be forgiven. But we’re all complicit, to some degree, through the sin of silence as well as speech or action, of allowing all kinds of evil to go unchallenged. Of letting young well-intentioned men and women go to war and do things that will haunt them for the rest of their life. “Sinners” also includes those among us who have tortured, like Fair; or who have dropped bombs or planted bombs or flown planes into buildings. Or who have abused children, or stolen large sums of money from widows and orphans, or executed political prisoners or beaten their wives. Most of us have some category of sin that we feel puts someone beyond the pale, even if they’ve stopped sinning in that particular way. We may feel that we belong in that category. We may point to others. We may not want them sitting at the table, or we may feel that we don’t belong ourselves.
But Jesus says welcome — Welcome, brother. Welcome, sister. You have company. He says welcome to all sinners, not just every-day ones. And he goes further — he claims that when a sinner repents there is joy in heaven; More joy over one sinner than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (although I can’t imagine who those people would be!). Not just a grudging acceptance for those who have served their time. Not just a seat at the end of the table. But rejoicing. A party. Yes, repentance is needed — which means turning to God who calls us to make amends, to work for justice and reconciliation through Christ. But then there’s joy.
It’s hard for us to accept that — for ourselves or others. We feel guilt over those we have hurt, or indignant on behalf of those who have been hurt. It doesn’t seem right, or just, that serious sinners should be received joyfully into the arms of God. But that’s because we’re human beings. We can’t fully grasp the mercy of God - so much wider than the sea. We can’t grasp the justice of God, which is perfect, not like ours, which often substitutes one injustice for another. We can’t fathom the depths of God’s love, for every creature on this earth. We’re not God. But we have met Jesus: the one who welcomes all sinners to the table. The one who asked forgiveness for those who tortured him. The one who rose from the dead, showing that love is far stronger than the evil he suffered. The one, who even now, calls each one of us to joyful fellowship. We may never be able to let go of the past entirely on this side of the grave. It may haunt us now matter how many amends we make how how much we try to forgive. But Jesus assures us that when we turn to God, when any sinner returns to God, the heavens rejoice. So let’s join the party — accepting God’s love and rejoicing in all of the guests.