Saints and Sinners

The best moves I made when I was rector were often just keeping from messing things up. My parish had several special traditions, many of them quirky; all I needed to do was to keep them going. Here’s one.
    At the end of the school year—which in the great state of New York comes around Father’s Day—we had a parish picnic following the morning’s Eucharist. A softball game was part of the festivities. There were two teams, the Saints and the Sinners. But here’s the catch: you didn’t know which team you were on until the game was over. The winning team, whichever team it was, were the Saints.
    It seems theologically correct. In the long run the saints are the winners. Jesus as much as says so, when he affirms that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” They get comforted. They “inherit the earth” which is quite a different matter from inheriting the wind. Their deepest longings are for righteousness, and those longings will be satisfied. Mercy will be shown to them. They will see God face to face. Their efforts at making peace will reveal that they are God’s children. The kingdom of heaven really is theirs.
    In the game of life, in the end, the saints are the winners.
    Vice versa, the sinners are the losers. They end up without comfort, without their longings satisfied (because they longed for things that do not satisfy), without mercy, without vision, without peace. They end up “without”—i.e., outside—the kingdom of heaven.
    And yet, although theologically correct, it is a truth difficult to see. I just read (and would recommend) a short novel, recently translated from the Japanese: Heaven, by Mieko Kawakami. It features a boy and a girl in middle school who are bullied without mercy. I recommend it because, although it takes a strong stomach to read about the bullying, it also shows a remarkable friendship grow between them, while raising questions easily translatable into Christian thought. Should one fight back or turn the other cheek—for instance.
    In the center of the book, the boy confronts one of his tormentors. They have a difficult conversation. The tormentor turns out to be completely amoral. Asked why he beats up on him, the tormentor basically says why not. He denies he has a conscience or a sense of right and wrong, denies that there is anything in the world except people doing what they want to do and can do. The reason he is a bully is just that he can be a bully. And, turning the tables, he says that the reason the boy gets bullied is because he lets it happen.
    The boy resists this conclusion—and it’s complicated, but just barely he manages not to fall into wickedness. Or so I judge, as a reader of the book who believes there really are sins and awful deeds in the world, and there really are souls that can be lost. Nonetheless, when Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” he is saying something that is hardly obvious to many people.
    Only at the end will it become clear.
    Out & About. The next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar is set for 5 p.m. on Sunday, November 28. We will discuss Lewis Carroll’sAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
    On the Web: The Stead Center has published another essay by me on fear, this one occasioned by crippling acts of weather, such as last February’s deep freeze. People were blaming everyone—except God. That strikes me as odd.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."