Letters from Prison, V: The Theology of Rummage
Whatever gains I had, I count them as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.
I regard this whole past as rubbish in order to obtain the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ.
"Beware of the dogs!” writes Paul to the Christians at Philippi. There is a little bit of Donald Trump in St. Paul. He will not pull punches. He will not mince words. He is not subtle.
“Beware of the dogs!” The dogs, of course, were those who insisted on strict adherence to the Torah as a way of gaining God’s good favor. The dogs, of course, are the kind of people Paul was one of for about half his lifetime.
“Watch out for those legalistic hooligans,” says Paul. “Don’t let them seduce you back into an old, dead theology.”
Can you hear in Paul something of the exaggerated zeal of the convert? If someone is really, really committed to an idea, chances are good that they haven’t always been part of that idea. That is to say, we are more passionate about convictions we choose than about those we inherit. We are more fervent in our commitment to ideas we discover for ourselves than those that have been given to us by others.
For instance, I am not a cradle Presbyterian; I converted to the Presbyterian Church at the age of 25, and for a long time I thought it was so cool to be a Presbyterian that I probably got a little too evangelical about how wonderful it is to be Presbyterian.
In his youth, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian street thug into liquor, drugs, prostitutes, and tattoos. Then he converted to Islam and had a friend remove his tattoos with a razor blade. Hard-drinking, drug-dealing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the person who started the movement that eventually became the Islamic State. That’s conversion from one extreme to its opposite.
Have you ever met a Reagan Republican who has a eureka moment and suddenly becomes a Sanders Democrat? Or vice versa? Have you ever met a Texas cowboy who becomes a vegan? Or vice versa. Don’t invite her to your dinner party. The exaggerated zeal of the convert.
This is St. Paul. Did you hear his catalogue of Jewish accomplishments in his letter to his friends? “I was a Hebrew born of the Hebrews, he says, a Pharisee among the Pharisees. I was from the purest tribe of the only Chosen People on earth. I was circumcised on the right day in the right way by the right mohel. I kept kosher fastidiously and honored the Sabbath scrupulously and prayed my prayers earnestly. This was the way to get right with God.”
It’s hard to tell if Paul is confessing an errant past or boasting a high achievement. Maybe a little of both.
Then of course, Paul gets knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus and becomes the Mother of All Christians. He tells the Philippians, “Whatever gains I had, I count them as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. I regard this whole past as rubbish in order to obtain the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ.”
This is not a righteousness that comes from law or effort or accomplishment but simply by faith in Jesus. This righteousness is not earned; it is given. This righteousness is not achievement but gift.
Paul wants to say: We cannot get close to God by what we do or work or win or earn; we cannot get close to God at all under our own power; God must come close to us.
It is the distilled essence of the Gospel. Martin Luther puts it most aptly: We are not loved because we are beautiful; we are beautiful because we are loved. God loves what is imperfect.
And so in New Testament theology, polished élan or diligent achievement or burnished performance are more obstacle than vehicle to God.
God loves what is not self-sufficient. God loves what is unfinished. God loves what is broken and halt and limping.
So today I want to talk to you about The Theology of Rummage. Don’t fire me just yet for being quaint and small; give me a minute. In a very fine sermon from a couple of weeks ago, Jo Forrest talked about the pragmatic, communal value of our annual garage sale. In the accomplishment of this huge task for a good cause, Jo said, we learn to work together and become a caring community.
Jo’s right about that, but I don’t care about practical this morning. I want to talk about the theological meaning of rummage, the symbolic nature of a garage sale.
This is what I mean: every summer, we redeem the broken. Notice the verb: we redeem the broken and restore the used-up. We re-purpose what has lost its value. We find something precious in what someone else has thrown away. And that’s exactly what God does in Christ. That’s Gospel work.
Did you notice that E. L. Doctorow died in July at the age of 84? He was one of the most critically acclaimed American novelists of our generation. He wrote 12 novels, including Ragtime, Loon Lake, and, my favorite, Billy Bathgate. Have you read Billy Bathgate? Maybe you saw the movie with Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman.
Billy Bathgate is a Bronx street urchin who unaccountably becomes errand boy and messenger for the brutal Mob boss Dutch Schultz in 1930’s New York, but the most memorable character in the novel is a pitiful orphan named Arnold Garbage. His name tells you everything you need to know about him: Arnold Garbage. Arnold spends his days pushing a broken-down baby carriage down the streets of New York, collecting cast-offs from garbage cans and dumpsters on the streets.
Billy Bathgate says of Arnold Garbage:
He lived as if he were alone and it all worked beautifully for this fat intelligent almost speechless boy who had found this way to live with such mysterious single-minded and insane purpose that it seemed natural, and logical, and you wondered why you didn’t live that way yourself. To love what was broken, torn, peeling. To love what didn’t work. To love what was twisted and cracked and missing its parts. To love what smelled and what nobody else would scrape away the filth of to identify…To love it and hold on to it.
I love that passage. For me, it’s a terse, fitting description of God’s grace: “To love what was broken, torn, and peeling. To love what didn’t work.” In God’s mysterious, single-minded, insane purpose, that is the kind of love God loves us with. That’s what Paul is trying to say with the exaggerated zeal of the convert.
Can you tell that my favorite part of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is when Santa lands on the Island of Misfit Toys to rescue a train with square wheels and a bird that doesn’t fly but swims and a boat that can’t float?
Or here’s another example: When he was growing up in Bogotá, Columbia, José Gutierrez’s mother read him stories every night of his childhood. José loves books. His favorite book is One Hundred Years of Solitude by fellow Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marquez. José grew up to be a garbage collector in Bogotá.
José’s been running the same enviable garbage route through Bogotá’s tonier neighborhoods for 20 years. José loves books so much it kills him to see the fine volumes his customers throw out, so very early in his career, José started rescuing the books from the garbage and taking them home with him. And he built a lending library.
Over those 20 years, José Gutierrez has compiled a library of 20,000 books. I thought I had a nice personal library; José’s library is five times the size of mine. José’s friends call him ‘The Lord of the Books.’ Not ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ not ‘The Lord of the Flies,’ but ‘The Lord of the Books.’ José finds value where others see none. José collects knowledge out of other people’s trash. José’s work is godly. God is in the same business. God loves what nobody else wants; God loves what is broken, torn, and peeling. God loves it and holds onto it.
Distilled to its absolute essence, the message of the New Testament is: Another chance. The unwanted: gathered in. The broken: repaired. The used up: re-purposed.
This week, to get in touch with the prison experience, I read a book about a black man who is falsely accused of a terrible crime against a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.
I wish I could tell you it was To Kill a Mockingbird, but it’s not. This book is called Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson.Have you seen this wonderful but troubling book? It’s been on many bestseller lists and many “Best Books of 2015″ lists. It is about the epidemic of unjust and excessive incarceration in the United States.
After he graduated from Harvard Law School, Bryan Stephenson went to Alabama to provide legal counsel to poor people, mostly minorities, who are in prison or on death row for crimes they did not commit, or crimes committed when they were juveniles.
In Just Mercy, Bryan tells the story of Walter McMillian, who was arrested in 1986 for the robbery and murder of a young white woman working at a dry cleaner. People were shocked by the crime, just like in Harper Lee’s novel. This is tiny Monroeville, Alabama; white people don’t get murdered in Harper Lee’s home town.
Sheriff Thomas Tate is an inept Keystone Cop but even worse, because he is an inveterate racist; he can’t find the murderer.
Months go by. Finally, they arrest Walter McMillian, a young black man who cuts wood in the Alabama forest and sells it for pulp, even though there is no physical evidence and no motive. All they have is the probably coerced and engineered testimony of a career criminal of legendary mendacity, invisible integrity, and questionable sanity. Forty people, including a policeman, are willing to testify that they saw Walter at a church party miles away from the dry cleaner while the crime was happening.
The judge trying the case sends Walter to Death Row, BEFORE the trial, as if the verdict is inevitable. This, of course, is neither legal nor ethical. The Judge’s name is Robert E. Lee Key. If you are a black man arrested in Alabama for a horrible crime against a white woman, how would you like to sit in the courtroom of a man named Robert E. Lee Key?
The trial lasts less than two days. The all-white jury deliberates for all of three hours and quickly comes back with a ‘Guilty’ verdict. The jury recommends life in prison without parole, but in Alabama, Judges are omnipotent. Judge Robert E. Lee Key overrules the jury and sentences Walter to death.
Walter sits on death row for six years, a few yards from the machine they call Yellow Mama, Alabama’s electric chair. It takes Bryan Stephenson six years and hundreds of hours, and every trick they taught him at Harvard Law, before he finally gets Walter McMillian’s conviction overturned. Six years sitting in a prison cell next to Yellow Mama, then you walk out free at last.
All this happened in Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee’s hometown. It was as if Atticus Finch came to life in the flesh and, this time, won his case. It is a strong story of fierce Gospel Grace. A second chance. Life restored.
Well, so what, right? We’re not Walter McMillian. We are unlikely to need such fierce Gospel grace. Or do we? Somebody here does. Somebody here feels unwanted. Somebody here feels broken. Somebody here feels finished or used up or cast off. Somebody here needs to listen to the fierce Gospel grace of Paul’s prison letters: you are loved and loved and loved.
A while back a writer named Tim Kreider wrote a story for the Modern Love column in the Sunday New York Times. In that story Tim Kreider describes himself and many of his friends as relationally challenged. These are people in their 30’s or 40’s who are beginning to wonder if they will ever find a partner to love and share life with, talk about books with, go to movies with, take home to meet Mom, buy presents for, fall asleep with. They are beginning to ask themselves, “Will I be alone forever?’
After her latest break-up, one of Tim’s friends says to him, “I keep giving myself to people, but they don’t seem to want me.” He finds another friend crying at her dining room table because she hasn’t had a real relationship in years. “I must be doing something wrong,” she says, weeping. Tim’s friend Jasmine has been engaged to two different men and married to a third. She tells Tim, “I think I will always be single. I was single even when I was married.” Somebody here feels unwanted. Somebody here feels single even if they are married.
The whole thing made me think of those lines from W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety”: “It is getting late. Shall we ever be asked for? Are we simply not wanted at all?”
The New Testament has an answer to Mr. Auden’s question: You are very much wanted. You are not used up. You are not finished. You are loved and loved and loved.
So maybe this summer, you’ll be sorting through piles of old shoes, or mismatched golf clubs, or tacky Christmas tree ornaments, or maybe you’ll be working in the toy department, and you’ll watch a little girl snatch a stuffed animal off the shelf, and she’ll walk out with unchecked glee clutching a teddy bear some other kid threw away, and you’ll think of the Theology of Rummage—that God finds value in what nobody else wants.
You are not perfect, and you are not finished, and you are not a masterpiece. Some people would just throw you away. Nevertheless, you are loved and loved and loved. God finds value in what nobody else wants.
Michiko Kakutani, “The Birth of ISIS: It All Began with a Small-Time Thug,” a reivew of Joby Warrick Black Flags: the Rise of ISIS (Doubleday, 2015), The New York Times, December 1, 2015.
E. L. Doctorow, Billy Bathgate (New York: Random House, 1989), p. 32.
“Book Collector,” The Associated Press, quoted in The Christian Century, September 30, 2015, p. 8.
Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014).
Tim Kreider, “Quirkyalone Maybe, but Still Alone,” The New York Times, September 20, 2015.
W. H. Auden, “The Age of Anxiety,” in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), pp. 363-364.