We lived in Florida for five years, before our older boy Will was born. It was a very decent neighborhood, although not in the nicest zip code. Lake Apopka was nearby, a significant body of water reminiscent of Homer Simpson's Lake Springfield and just as polluted: Even the gators didn't care much for it, and whatever was swimming in it on moonlight nights, creating ripples and splashes: Well, it wasn't fish. Still, we really loved the people there, and it was home.
If you passed far enough north, near very nice Lake Mary - think of the homes of professional golfers, basketball players, baseball players, and the like - eventually you arrived in Sanford. It was not a happy place, a railroad town renowned at the time for its racial divisions. There were older nice sections in Sanford; I recall driving through some. There was a zoo there, with a pony ride for Will that ended each of our visits. But it wasn't much of a zoo, and the crowd visiting there looked pretty rough. Heck, we looked kind of rough: Those were the years we searched under sofa cushions for loose coins to bank before our bill payments were cashed.
Sanford was real Florida, away from Busch Gardens and Disney. In a sense, Florida has been one of the United States' third world countries. It was, for a long time, the land of escape, of easy divorce and bankruptcy. It still taxes its citizens little and invests even less in its schools. It took awhile for us to decide to move. But when the neighbor killed his wife, cut her up into little pieces, and stuck her in the freezer, I was shocked. When what appeared to be the same freezer that showed up in front of the house during the pre-house sale yard auction, we moved to Des Moines.
In Sanford clustered the intergenerational poor, the sometimes working poor, the ones Florida and the nation have said will always be with us. Every state has them, but Sanford had lots of them. With insufficient employment and economic opportunity, competition could take the form of racial tension. Combine that with readily available handguns, and gun laws that strive to even the odds between the threatened and those perceived as threats - perception being reality, don't you know? - and the combination is deadly.
Public consensus blames the shooter, George Zimmerman, and I do to this extent: I don't keep a handgun in my home because I fear what I would do if feeling threatened or angry. I don't walk the streets looking for suspicious people in hoodies. I don't live in a town where racial differences alone constitute a justification for aggression. I don't live in a state where politicians advocate for loose gun laws for the sake of political advantage (hey - come to think of it . . . ). Quiet voices on the margins admit that they wonder how they would have acted if they had been in the place of the shooter. And why would they be in the place of the shooter?
But the issue is larger than Trawon Martin and George Zimmerman or us. Reality never comes as discrete, isolated persons in a vacuum or even as two separate individuals in a chance encounter. Yes, someone pulled the trigger: This is inescapable. But confining blame to these two lost souls can be distracting. Relationships are amazingly tangled, and these awful circumstances were fraught with complexity: between the two tragic characters, one black and one Latino; their neighbors; their police force; their community; the state of Florida; national racial and economic politics; and the history and current circumstances of all of us. Neither Trawon Martin nor George Zimmerman will ever receive justice. The rest of us still have a chance for it: We have another day to figure out how to get it.
This morning the text from Ephesians 2:1-10 came from the lectionary, as did John 3:14-21. These texts - combined - might lead to a conclusion that from the beginning of creation, a loving God predestined some for salvation. This is known as single predestination, John Calvin's view. Other folks like to fine tune the matter a bit, and elect to believe in double predestination: Some people are saved. Some people are chosen to cook in hell for the rest of eternity, for the glory of God. Left, right, up, down, 1, 0, heaven, hell: It all looks pretty tidy, like good accounting. Everybody gets categorized, catalogued, inventoried, and coming to a stove near you. This is what happens when the Bible is bent to obey Aristotelian logic. Not pretty.
It does beg a question: Why would anyone in their right mind - including God - come up with such a hare-brained way to run a world? Create people with the idea that you get to keep some and roast the rest. Love means loving barbecue. The whole idea staggers the imagine. So when it comes to this God, the God of eternal torment, I am an atheist: and proud of it.
Of course, there is another God.
Keep in mind that both of today's Scripture texts came out of the post-first generation church. They were having, pardon the expression, one hell of a time. They were oppressed and, putting it mildly, really angry.
Yet in the first generation church (years AD 30 to 60 approximately), people like Paul insisted that love and grace would win out. Paul himself said that someday every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God. Put plainly, in the first generation church, the good news was good and global. Paul stated in Romans 8 that all of creation was to be redeemed. Predestination was another name for God's providential care and the ultimate triumph of love. Remember that forgiveness thing that Jesus talked about?
By the time the second generation church came around - the one facing persecution, - Christians were good and mad. Suddenly it seemed that lots of folks were going to be tossed into hell: Jews, gays, gluttons, Romans who persecuted Christians, you name it. Of course, anger became compulsion: For the last 2000 years, whenever the church has come to political power, it has used force to come down on these same people. The good news becomes a formula for holocaust, pogroms, and concentration camps. We nuke 'em now, God gets to nuke 'em later, in eternity. What fun - for the glory of God.
I guess I am not mad enough: I don't think God has left it to us to manage heaven and hell, or to make these sort of judgments: Thank God. I do think God has left it to us to share the good news and to keep it good. Christ died to save sinners, which means all of us and all of "them." Yes, I don't like some of them. Some of them are evil. Nevertheless . . .
We make the invitation: Trust in the love of God. If you do, great. If you don't . . . well, I think God's love will triumph finally over all resistance, although it may take a very long time. One thing God may have to overcome is our resistance to the idea that people who disagree with us, or who believe something different, or who believe nothing at all, will also be allowed to go to heaven. Perhaps not immediately: But sometime, somehow, in God's providence. What if you and I don't like that idea? What if it makes us grumpy? I suppose we should spare everyone else a hassle, spare ourselves the trip, and not go . . . Of course, that wouldn't be predestination, would it? It is quite a dilemma.
Mercedes-Benz has come out with an invisible car - at least almost so. A camera on one side broadcasts pictures to LED panels on the other side. So as the car passes, the scene that normally would be blocked by the car appears on the car's side to be observed by passerbys. The news commentator describing the action noted the obvious: Mercedes typically doesn't build cars for the purpose of making them disappear. They get noticed.
People are quite different. It is amazing how completely invisible they can be. It is only when they disappear that they come to our attention. One of the great tragedies of the recent storms was a baby picked up a by a tornado and deposited in a field. Angel's parents and siblings had been killed when the tornado struck their mobile home. For a time she became a symbol of hope for victims and helpers alike. Now she has died, and she has a become a different symbol: of hopes dashed in the face of relentless nature. Of course, this is temporary: We will soon forget her completely.
Had there been no tornado, it is doubtful we would have heard of baby Angel at all. She might have grown up and grown old, and remained anonymous to most of us: anonymous like most people are to us, who are invisible to us. We see around and through them, and they do the same to us. Even in the church, where we are designed to be person to person, face to face, epiphanies to one another, it is hard to get people to take the time to really see each other. If they do see, they see people they know. They do not see Angel on the margins, the stranger near the back or beside the windows' glare, or in the corner. Funny how tornados and death can find and reveal people to us that we typically would overlook. Not so funny, actually.
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