It ain’t over

The early 20th century evangelist, Billy Sunday is reported to have said once that the best thing that could happen to any person would be to reach a moment of deep conversion, to be justified, to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, walk out of the revival tent, be hit by a truck, and killed instantly. There would be no backsliding, no withering under the scorching sun of modern life, and no chance to move from this one moment.

I am sure most of us think that Pharisee had better avoid that truck. But wait a moment…. he is praying, fasting, and giving generously to the poor. He is doing what the Law demands, what God requires. He is doing what all the prophets demanded. He is grateful! How is he the “bad guy” in this parable? I think we would all respond that it is what lurks in his heart that is troublesome: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.” You can hear the contempt, the judgment, and his condescension toward others that forms his self-justification.  And therein lies the problem: self-justification. Only God justifies.

Well, thanks be to God, that we are not trapped in the models of self-justification. You would never hear us talk (or think) “thank God I am not like that person. Thank you, Lord, for by your grace and my hard work…” and begin a litany of gratitude as we list out our accomplishments, status, perks, position, and privileges:

  • Our alma mater (I graduated from this prestigious school… how about you?);
  • money, car, vacations, etc. (am I living the good life or what?);
  • family (My kids did this and that; she got a 4 zillion on her SAT);
  • sports (I work out 90 times a week….);
  • politics (My vote is enlightened and reasoned; yours is ideological and thoughtless),
  • work and position (I work at X; so…what do you do?).
  • zip code (“Where do you live?”)

Ouch! Maybe there are parts of our life that are a lot more like the Pharisee’s life than we care to admit.  Maybe we are well short of the finish line and we cannot yet claim with St. Paul: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” Maybe we need that simple moment of recognition when we put aside all our works of righteousness and attempts at self-justification and quietly pray: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  Then we too can go home justified – maybe run into the Billy Sunday truck of salvation! Beyond self-justification and now justified by God….  Hopefully you avoid the truck and live a long life competing well and finishing well, having kept the faith.

Let’s check in at the Temple a year later. What if you saw that same tax collector extorting people, shaking them down for the Roman overlords and some profit for himself. It would be as if that prior moment of change, of redemption, of salvation got suspended in the gospel parable like an ancient insect forever suspended in amber. Nice to look at, but…. if his life hasn’t changed and he is just stuck in permanent penitence… What good is that?

I want to shake both and remind them of the words of St. Paul: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”  I want to say to them, “Hey, it ain’t over.  Life isn’t over. Get going from this suspended moment and trust that you are called to more. Accept God’s grace and move beyond pride, remorse, and confession of sins.  Move beyond self-justification and loathing. Move into life and be blessed; be a blessing to others. Be fully grateful and truly humble! And change! God’s grace is there for you to change, to be whole, to be complete! Grace is not pixie dust to instantly change; Grace is fuel for the race.

Neither true gratitude or humility is ever suspended in the amber of one moment. True virtue allows the power of God to work through us unencumbered by the arrogance that assumes that we are to be placed above others. Past the one moment we confess our sins and think so little of ourselves.  Grace to know ourselves, imperfect for sure, but made in the image of God and loved by God. Called to compete well in this race called life.

Billy Sunday had it wrong. The best thing would be to live fully, receiving the grace to change, move closer to God, to feel the full depth of gratitude and humility, to compete well, to finish the race, and be received into the arms of our loving and ever waiting God who whispers, my good and faithful steward.

The race ain’t over until then.

Amen.

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