I have been a priest now for more than 20 years and I know that there are standards that I have to live up to that others don’t have. I know that there are expectations placed upon me that other people don’t have to live with. And I know that there are values that I have to craft my life around completely that others don’t have the same pressure to live their life in such a value-centered way.
I know these things, and when I fall short of those high standards, of those expectations, of those values that I live by – I feel it intensely and I feel it painfully. And yet, even in those moments in which I don’t live up to what I am called to be, even in those moments in which I realize that I am not being my best self, and I am being all too human – even in those moments, I can experience grace.
I can experience a kind of self-knowledge that makes my life more beautiful and full of love. Even in those moments, when I fail, I begin to see a window into greater things. And one such moment happened to me about 12 years ago when we were living in New York City. It was our pattern for me to take our eldest daughter, Phoebe, who was about seven at the time, and I would take her by the hand and I’d walk across the island of Manhattan from 21st Street to 5th Avenue, 9th Avenue to 5th Avenue and then go down and drop her at school.
And one morning it was snowing like crazy. There was all of this snow and we wanted to get an early start but it turned out we got a start that was a little late. And so we tried to go for about half a block and the snow removal people hadn’t gotten there yet, and we were walking through these huge drifts. And I saw a taxi cab pull over. And I saw in the corner of my eye, a green army navy kind of fatigue parka. Now in New York City, when you are competing for a cab, you never look at your competition in the eye – because that humanizes him or her.
You cannot do that. When you see a cab and it’s time for you to get into that cab, you grab hold of whatever you got and you run like the dickens. It is a fight and a contest of the fittest. And so without even thinking I grabbed Phoebe by the hand and I said, “Come on,” and I run like crazy. And I beat him so badly. It was so amazing. He hardly had a chance to even recognize there was a competition. And so as I got about three steps ahead of him, he said, “Sir, please.” And I yelled out the excuse that was building inside of me which was, “I have to get my kid to school.”
Because I had this huge anxiety that I was living with. When we left the apartment that morning, I thought if I got my kid late to school that this would set in line a domino effect. There would be truancy and absenteeism, and finally she would drop out and then Phoebe would be living under a bridge somewhere. All because of that day. And I thought to myself, not on my watch – my kid’s going to be on time to school. And so I yelled it out, “I have to get my kid to school,” – the ultimate excuse. And I got to the cab and I tried the door, it was locked.
And so then I went up to the driver and I said, “Are you working? Are you working? Are you working?” And he just looked at me and he pointed back at the guy that I had beaten. And I turned around and I noticed he was on crutches. And before I could even say anything I just said, “But I have to get my kid to school.” And then Phoebe said, “Daddy.” And then I immediately reached up and I said, am I wearing my collar or not? Is this something I could walk away from? And I turned to him and I said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t see your crutches.” And he was not in the mood to hear an excuse.
But he got into the cab, they drove away. And we did find another cab. And Phoebe was moderately on time. But for the rest of that day and the weeks afterwards, I was just pondering that moment, what didn’t I see? What didn’t I see? What had gotten a hold of me? And I was thinking to myself all the things that I had done wrong, but then all of a sudden my prayer life shifted. I went from initially giving some excuses for my behavior which was those were silver crutches – the kind you get at the hospital. And it was snowing and you all know how silver and white, they look exactly the same, particularly if there’s a little bit of slush.
I went from excuses like that to actually realizing how grateful I was that there was a taxi driver in New York City who turned down the first fare he had in front of him to help someone who needed help getting to where he was going. And I suddenly realized that that taxi driver had been a sentinel to me – the kind of sentinel we read about in our reading from Ezekiel. In Ezekiel you have these sentinels that are meant to deliver the word of God which comes as judgment.
But, of course, when God ever judges us, also involved in God’s judgment is God’s forgiveness and reconciliation. And that taxi driver he was like a sentinel of grace. He was going to call my attention to what I had to be doing, and what I needed to focus on. He was like the people you read about in the gospel from Matthew when Jesus gives this whole process for bringing someone in. Now, we tend to focus on that process and that process is important and it’s something that should inform everything we do.
But behind the words that Jesus gives us and the gospel of Matthew is this vision of the Christian community which tries again and again and again to bring someone in. To make sure that that person is known – that they know that they are beloved of God and beloved of the community. And the members of that community aren’t just the people who go to your church. It’s the people you see every day. And in a sense, that taxi driver was to me the model of Christian charity, the model of grace, the model of grace filled confrontation.
And then I began to think about other things that I had gotten myself into because when you’re surrounded by grace you suddenly can see things more clearly. And I realized that I had done something with my role of being a parent. The psychologist Ernest Becker, in the 1970s, came up with this idea called the immortality symbol. And the immortality symbol for Becker is the thing that is utterly material in this world, but that we claim and imbue with so much mythic significance that it becomes a symbol of our God-like nature. A kind of way for us to attain a status of being God-like.
It gives us power and status, it gives us reach. And Ernest Becker in the 1970s said it was money that was the ultimate immortality symbol in our culture. Money gave you power and God-like status and reach. And that that was the thing that was afflicting us all, that in fact the reason why we couldn’t find our way to a more equal society according to Becker is because we have imbued money with so much meaning. It wasn’t about the economics for him, it was because we had created so many expectations that we placed around our money in our society and in our culture.
And my problem really isn’t money. But I came to realize that my immortality symbol was my being a parent, was my children – their success. That was the thing that could turn me into a reptile. I would do anything for my children. I would do anything for them, and I would give everything I had so that they would succeed. And that created an immortality symbol around my parenting, and my children’s success – so much so that I didn’t see my neighbor in need. So much that I was willing to threaten all of the values that I hoped to communicate so that she could get ahead.
And I think when I came to that realization I suddenly had this flood of empathy, because I think so many of us actually have that as our immortality symbol today. Now immortality symbols, they begin with a very natural thing, a normal thing – a normal desire that we make more than it ought to be. And so money which is an opportunity for us to be a blessing to others, if God has blessed us, becomes a way for us to actually attain God-like status. It becomes distorted, this normal everyday desire. And I think the same thing happens with our children, with parenting.
We tend to create – we take that normal desire to see them flourish, that normal protective nature, and we can create an immortality symbol on it so much so that it becomes an idol to us. And it could actually ruin the very thing we’re trying to achieve. Because when you make something into an idol, whatever you’ve done, it dies. It becomes lifeless like the idol it is.
And the key to Christianity, the good news of Jesus Christ, the power of love, and the reality of grace is this that once we let go of that desire to control, we actually come into contact with the thing that we desire most. We actually come into contact with that grace and love and acceptance and wonder that we find so elusive in our lives. In our reading today from the Book of Romans there is this incredible hidden dialectical relationship that Paul has been weaving throughout the text between law and love and grace. And the law for Paul is not just what you would read in the Bible, words like thou shalt not kill.
The law is any external that you create for yourself to measure yourself, and to place yourself in your world. Anything that you place your identity on is law to you. And Paul’s point is that law kills. The law might be good, but it’s role is to kill. You cannot live by law. What you can do, Paul says, is you can live by love. You can live by grace. And law does it’s work in your life the extent to which you allow the grace of God to reign. The extent to which you allow your grip upon law to loosen and to let go of those things. The minute you do that grace abounds. The minute you do that the Christian life becomes real for you. You become alive and you are reconciled and forgiven.
This passage we have before us today from Romans. Saint Augustine in his confessions written at the end of the 4th Century – this passage plays a pivotal role for him. Augustine is trying to decide whether or not to become a Christian. And he has already left behind his role as a tenure professor in Milan, and he has gone into Christian community of some sort, but he’s still holding back and he’s wondering what is it that I need? What do I need to hold on to God with both hands?
And as he’s in the midst of anguish, he hears a child singing a song next to him – in the garden next to him saying, “Take and read. Tolle, lege. Take and read.” And so he decides to do something you might hear about on AM radio. He decides to run to the Bible and he opens it up and he reads the first words that he finds, and this is what he reads.
“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably as in the day, not reveling in drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires. Let go, in other words, of all of the things that you’re trying to do to hold your life in being. Let go and let God – let God be God for you.” And Augustine closes the book or rolls up the scroll and believes.
Now, I think that what Augustine realized in that moment, just as much as he listened to God, what Augustine realized in that moment was that now was the time for him to live the Christian life. Not when he got his life sorted out, now was the time to live the Christian life. And the message of today’s scripture is for you today, is that now is the time for you to live the Christian life. Not when you’ve finished parenting, not when you’ve sorted out your career, not when you’ve gotten through an illness. Not when you have put together all the things you need to put together in your personal finances.
Now is the day to live the Christian life – not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, not next year. Now. And if now can be that time for you and for me, we will find our way into the love that is endless, and the grace that is infinite, and the God of Jesus Christ who gives life in the midst of death. And forgiveness in the face of hate. And whose hands were pierced and face spit at. For you and for me.