THE COMPANY OF SINNERS
Ever since I got serious about being a Christian over 40 years ago, I’ve been fascinated… maybe even obsessed with the Gospel. When I was a minister and taught Bible classes in my former protestant Bible Church I’d make the point that St. Paul said to the Corinthians “I desire to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified…” Our Church for the most part desired to know mostly St. Paul and his epistles and the gospels were merely supporting documents of our interpretations of the Pauline teachings. I’d dare to say, the gospels were even a bit mysterious and intimidating… at least they were the way I taught them. But, I reasoned with my classes that if we don’t know Christ, we can’t understand St. Paul because all of St. Paul’s instructions flowed from a knowledge of Christ and the meaning of His crucifixion…, and we know Christ and Him crucified from the Gospels. When I encountered the Orthodox Church I was delighted to say the least to see the centrality of the Gospel in the tradition of the Church.
Anyway… in my ministry I took the gospel seriously. I went out into the highways and byways and invited the lame, the lost, the least, the little, those who couldn’t pay their way for the banquet, the outcasts and social lepers. “What would Jesus do” was my guiding principle decades before marketing a bracelet made it a popular lifestyle.
Once I invited a gang of bikers to Church (actually only 3 of them came) and they came all decked out in their colors, bandanas, gloves with the fingers cut off, and … with their guns. They actually liked the Church and started coming regularly. One of the elders met them at the door one Sunday and told them “no guns”. I went out to the parking lot and told them to come in, guns and all. And I got called in to the Monday night elders meeting (as usual).
“They’re freaking people out…”
That’s because no one is taking the time to get to know them, they’re nice guys.
“What if one of them flips out and shoots the place up?”
He’s only got 6 bullets and there’s 450 of us, and besides…what about what that missionary you brought in last month who said, “If we REALLY believed in the worth of a single soul, we’d crawl on broken glass across the globe to teach the gospel…”
Do we believe the gospel and are we Christians or not? What’s the worst he can do… send six of us to heaven?
Well, we have a liability issue, if something happened and someone sued us we’re sunk, our insurance won’t cover something like this.
OK, call the insurance company buy a policy you think you need and deduct it from my paycheck.
That was only one meeting… I was eventually fired, although it was a fairly mutual parting of the ways. I knew long before that, that I wasn’t cut out for full time Church work.
So in 1982 I was a former minister looking for a job. My brother and two of his friends had a started a drywall contracting company and they landed a huge contract remodeling a mall, mostly because of drug dealing contacts and friends. My brother had compasson on me and offered me a part time job. So I went to work for them as a ten dollar an hour laborer while I looked for a real job with all my useless college degrees and a ministry background. There is nothing harder on the male ego than job hunting with few “real” qualifications. Hauling trash and sweeping floors was actually a blessing to my psyche, at the end of the day I could see tangible results of my work and sweat.
Two months into the project they got a big progress payment. They bought three company trucks and a kilo of cocaine that they were going to sell for a profit, and they left 15 employees standing around on Friday and didn’t show up with paychecks. They all knew my brother and his buddies and what was up. After a quick meeting among the crew, they packed up all the company tools and walked off the job with them. On Monday morning I was the only person who showed up for work. The general contractor came to me and said, “your brother and his buddies are out of here… you seem pretty sharp and the guys all like you… we don’t have time to rebid this project, so if we set you up with a company and write you a check to cover payroll will you call everyone back and finish the project for us?” Sure… I had nothing better to do for the next 3-4 months… so with 3 months experience pushing brooms and moving sheetrock from here to there, I owned a construction company with 15 employees. I finished the mall and landed more contracts through word of mouth.
To keep a short story short, by 1987 I had nearly 50 employees. I was making a good living, good enough to feel guilty about. Now, I wasn’t and never have been, a “prosperity gospel” person by any stretch, but I have to admit I did think it was God prospering me because I had committed to run my business on Biblical principles. But not the “biblical principles” the prosperity gospel people taught, nor the ones you are probably thinking of.
Early on I decided I would be a “Christian businessman” and manage my company by the gospels. I did what got me fired from my ministry job. I sought out and hired drug addicts, alchoholics, criminals, and ex-criminals, the homeless, and a few “normal sinners”. “Management by the Parables” I called it: I’d hire the people standing on the corners, the worthless and lazy and conspicuously pay them a full day’s wages for one hour’s work at the end of the day. I lent money to anyone who asked and then forgive the debts if they asked. I hired the prodigals back if they showed up back home after disappearing into the far country for a week or two. I forgave seventy times seven. I threw out the net and pulled up all manner of stuff from the dregs of humanity, I sowed the gospel and determined to allow the wheat and the tares to grow up together and wait for the angels on judgment day to sort it all out rather than judge myself…. Although I have to admit I didn’t quite have a clue when or how “judgment day” would come.
Opportunities to try to live the gospel were never lacking. Parabolic people came out of the woodwork. Lazy, blind, halt, lepers of every kind, legalists, Pharisees, prodigals, elder brothers, worthless, selfish, clueless… they all worked for me. But, everyone, for the most part, realized they were treated mercifully at one time or another and they truly appreciated it. Management by the gospel was working like I had always thought God’s grace worked to transform the hearts of sinners: Gratitude moved people where company policy or rules of law would not or could not. They showed their gratitude by working beyond the call of duty for me. They “evangelized”, they talked the praises of me to other construction workers, I was the best boss they ever had, my kingdom was the best company they ever worked for, and in spite of all their personal shortcomings they did the finest work in town. And they did it without being threatened, coerced, bribed with behavior modification programs and incentives and perks. Truly, my wish was their command. And my construction kingdom prospered beyond my wildest expectations. I thought I had finally come to grasp how it is the gospel of God’s grace works its mystery in the hearts of the sinner, the unworthy and worthless. That is, until July 1989. It was then that I found out I did not know grace or the gospel at all. But what I didn’t know is not what you are thinking I didn’t know.
Here is what I did not anticipate. After a few years under grace people began acting like the “other” people in the parables. They began to strangle one another for ten dollars when they had been forgiven of two thousand.
If someone THEY deemed “worthless” got the same wages they got, they decided it would even things up if they put in a lackadaisical four hours and then turn in eight on their timecards. The “elder brothers” raged at me against the prodigals who were welcomed back with a party simply because they showed up on my doorstep. “Unfair” they’d shout, I’m not working with that… “BLEEP”. They demanded to be made a foreman because they had seniority…they wanted authority in order to have the power to cleanse the field, bring down fire from heaven on the slackers, and root out the tares from the wheat. They asked for their paychecks up front then took off to the far country of the crack houses and strip bars. And it was in July that I realized my crew, through their deteriorating attitudes and performance and a conspiracy of silence by default (everyone thought someone else would tell me what was happening on the jobs), had consumed the nearly two hundred fifty thousand dollars of equity I had invested in the company.
My grace did not run out but my financial resources had. I could no longer make a thirty thousand dollar a week payroll so I began letting them go as I finished my contracts. I found each one of them new jobs with other contractors. I went from fifty five employees to two in three months. As they were being let go, nearly all of them told me they knew what was going on all along and each told me how it was everyone else’s fault the company went down the tubes. No repentance, just rationalizations. The grand experiment of management by the gospels had ultimately failed. Of course it would you idiot, I reasoned. I should have realized ultimately I am only human with limited resources. I’m not God. But my reasoning was false, and not for the reasons you might think.
It was Thanksgiving time. I sat overwhelmed, staring at my books. I owed the IRS twenty five thousand dollars in back payroll taxes, my bank twenty thousand, various suppliers thirtyfive thousand, and about another twenty something thousand to miscellaneous accounts. I had several accounts receivable that had gone nearly six months past due with no money in sight. I was thankful, marginally, that I still had some clients and a business. What was left of it. I still had food on the table, my house, my family. But I was not very happy.
It was also at this time my first book “The Lord of the Hunt and Other Tales of Grace” was making the rounds to publishers. It had racked up about ten rejections. It had been at a prestigious publisher for three months getting serious review; but ultimately it was rejected but with a nice complimentary letter from the senior editor. It was the nail in the coffin that my understanding of the gospel was bogus. I was, in the final analysis a failure at living and teaching the Christian life.
And how do I tell this? In the midst of all my failures, I was ruminating angrily over a comment made by a fellow Christian, a skeptic of my views of the gospels and the mercy of God. When he found out I had to fire everyone because I was on the verge of bankruptcy he came to me and said, “So, you finally wised up and cleaned house, huh? It’s about time you gave up on all those deadbeats and that management by the gospel stuff.” And in the midst of all this, a peace came. A peace that surpassed understanding…a peace that I could never have anticipated nor understood if I was not where I was.
Peace came when I finally realized I had done what I loved, or more exactly I still loved those who did me in. I hadn’t “cleaned house” because I hated them, they burned the house down around themselves and me. I didn’t fire them out of vindictiveness, I had just thrown them out the window to save them from the flames. And in the midst of my burning house I sat down, full of joy: I finally knew true grace.
Management by the gospel had not failed after all. I thought I was a failure because it didn’t ultimately work on my employees, but it had worked on me. It taught me that grace and mercy is not a technique, or a manipulative instrument God “uses on” people to get them to be grateful enough to change their behavior and attitudes, but it is love given solely from the heart of the lover regardless of the response of the beloved. Grace is loving someone to death. To show grace is to die, joyfully, because of your singleminded passion for the ones you love. Yes, Jesus showed grace when he healed, gave, fed, forgave and comforted people during his ministry and yes, the people followed. But the final act of the gospel is death as our Holy Week hymns teach us: death at the healed hands of the lepers, called for by the mouths of the ones whose tongues were loosed, watched by the eyes opened by his touch. And if we intend to follow his steps, live according to the gospel and show love to sinners we must be willing to die by their hands. And you will. You will.
We forgive one another in the same manner as God in Christ has forgiven us: laying down our lives for the unworthy, the ungrateful, the lowest, the least, the unlovely, and, trusting in the resurrection, letting them crucify us. Whether or not we think they’ll become worthy, grateful and lovely.
This is the Jesus Christ and Him crucified. This is the gospel. This is the Free gift. This is grace.
Well, there you have it. My quarter million dollar Sunday school lesson.
What would Jesus do? Live the gospel. Try it, if you dare. It will cost you your life.