Monday, October 10, 2011

Meant to be Offensive

Meant To Be Offensive
Matthew 22: 1-14

Three Deaths in Seven Months

On Tuesday, March 22nd, John Kruger, aged 50, fell from an upper level of the Lancaster County Prison. He died of traumatic head injuries. He had been arrested and was facing assault charges.

On Thursday, July 21st, Matthew McNamara, aged 45, jumped from an upper level of the Lancaster County Prison. He died 3 days later of traumatic head injuries. He had been arrested for homicide by vehicle and other charges.

On Wednesday, September 28th, Ronald Snyder, aged 26, hung himself in his cell at the Lancaster County Prison. He was found dead by prison staff at 5:42 p.m. He had been arrested and was facing rape charges.

All three of these men were in pre-trial detention. None was serving a sentence.

Words of consolation must be extended, first, to the families and friends of the people these three men had violated or killed. I will not be presumptuousness enough to presume I know what they are experiencing.

Words of consolation must be extended, second, to the prison staff, who witnessed or were first on the scene at the times of these deaths.

Words of consolation are also extended to the families, children, and friends of these three men.

County and prison officials have reviewed the situation and determined proper protocol was followed. It appears as if the three deaths in seven months falls into the category of what is considered acceptable.

Framing the Topic

In the Gospel of Matthew, read today, we have a parable.

Parables can be handled allegorically, matching the situation and characters with real life situations and characters, as Pastor Sadie did masterfully last week. But, I want to offer another use of parables. This additional way was suggested by Professor Amy Jill Levine, from Vanderbilt, speaking at the Chautauqua Institute. Parables can be used to offend.

Let’s look at this parable.
1. About a wedding banquet. An evening meal, normally begun in the late hours of the afternoon.
2. Host has issued first invitation prior to the event. Politeness leads him to send servants out to remind and gather.
3. Guest begin to excuse themselves. In Mark or Luke, bought a cow or a piece of land. Not poor excuses. Must inspect them, and must do so in the light of day.
4. Not that they would not attend, but that they would arrive late. This was an acceptable custom. Etiquette allowed them to arrive as late as the end of 1st course. After that, sign removed from house. Indicated not to come in.
5. Issue, not that they were not coming to the feast, but that they were not coming NOW.

There was a Jewish expectation of the kingdom of God that led Jews to claim, “How well it will be one day for those who have been invited to the banquet that God will prepare for the righteous at the time when he will reveal his kingdom.” It was believed that there would be a time when God fulfilled the promise and comes out of hiding. This day, in the hereafter, will be a time of great joy. For that reason, [in the present moment] many held fast to the laws of the time. (From Exposition of Parables)

The invitation to the banquet. The time is NOW. The kingdom of God has arrived NOW, in the presence of Jesus. As they, good religious folk, wait for the hereafter, Jesus is giving the riches of the kingdom to the outcast and lost.
When taking this parable allegorically, the theme becomes who is in and who is out. When taken as a story meant to offend, we are confronted with NOW. We may be doing what is acceptable, but there is more.

Why is the NOW significant? NOW is about seeing more than what is currently held as acceptable.

This parable and its teaching could speak to many parts of our lives, how do I get to the point where I apply it to the suicide deaths in the Lancaster County Prison. Christian precedent. Nicodemus, gathered the body of Jesus, and took him to a tomb. Women went the next day to prepare the body with spices.

Christian precedent is for the followers of Jesus to tend to the bodies of dead criminals.(Walt Wangerin)

Now as More than What is Acceptable

God is present in Jesus. Jesus is present in the church. The church is present in the world.

The NOW is a call to move beyond what is considered acceptable or reasonable within the limitations of what we have, and hold fast the present kingdom of God.

The NOW is a call to MORE.

1. More than Meets the Eye.

Hardened people have an ability to adapt to the prison setting more easily. For those with no such experience in life, there is terror. In the face of the horror of suicide, we may miss the reality that for some, taking one’s life is the least painful option they have in front of them. And, it may not be guilt that motivates it. We must also consider the implications of mental illness, not that it removes culpability, but that a different set of standards apply.

2. More than Intensity.
The situation in which we find ourselves is more than intensity. Thomas de Zengotita writes of intensity. He writes “People felt motivated to coherent action only by something they could consistently ‘identify with’ or, more occasionally, by something so compelling it could not be resisted, at least for as long as the excitement lasted.” From this intensity, we move from stating “the reality is” which leads to the necessity of action to optionality. When is it, that we cross the line, and there is one suicide death is too many? How do we determine that number? Statistically? By conscience?

People who have been hurt, or have had friends hurt or killed impacts are at a different place emotionally and mentally.

3. More than Election.
We have been taught to accept that the political realm is the realm where all our societal ills are solved. We vie for the controlling stake in that realm. The party in power changes the course. Presumption that ousting one elected official for another will bring about change in government. We overlook the reality that the majority of our government is not elected official, but institution. These institutions are staffed by people who are not up for election. (From James Davison Hunter)

The head of the institution sets the tone for the rest of the institution. If we claim we do not believe that, listen to the conversation about Steve Jobs, after his death.

The Warden of the Lancaster County Prison sets the tone for the entire staff of the prison. He is accountable for the decisions, and the tone of the prison. We desire a leader who has a fire in his belly to do what is right, as opposed to one who make corrections only when challenged. Can the warden do that?

4. More than Political
Our political system will give us a functional solution, with the support of a simple majority, that may or may not be moral.(Robert Jenson)

We must lay over that political system a public discourse, outside of the political arena.

This is where each of you, as lay preachers, is called to work.

Let me describe what that may look like for you:

One on One Conversation: Talk with each other, talk with your neighbor, talk with your co-workers and friends. Disagree with me. Many of you naturally do anyway, so that won’t be too hard.

Educator: College or High School. Have this conversation as part of your classes on sociology, history, psychology, government. Share the reports of those conversations with our elected officials. These officials are not resident experts in all disciplines.

Legal Profession: Ask the question, what happens to our criminal justice system when a suspect commits suicide prior to a conviction. Is justice served, is there a conclusion for the victims or family of the victims, is there the presumption that the one who took his own life is guilty, without the benefits of a trial?

5. More than Compulsion
In the parable, there is one man at the banquet, who is not wearing the wedding garb. He has chosen not to engage.

Wallace Fisher, my predecessor, states, “Continuity and change go hand in hand. Dynamic conversation and responsible innovation are interdependent.”

The call to renewal confronts the leaders of the Lancaster County Prison with language that creates and honors life. That Word confronts each leader. However, here is where we have difficulty, each person has the God-given freedom to respond. (Wallace Fisher, From Tradition to Mission)

They have the freedom to respond, and they are held accountable for those decisions.

The Gospel is present tense language. It is the language of NOW. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation. NOW means more than what is commonly considered acceptable. NOW is the very in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Go out and start preaching.


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