Gospel Text: Matthew 21:23-32
When I was in the fourth grade I got a C in Mrs. Cheek’s Social Studies class. Now, to be fair, I’d had a nasty flu and was out of school for, like, two weeks. I’d fallen behind, and, as a result, earned my first C.
I knew it was coming for at least a week, but denial is a powerful force even for an 8-year-old. I can still feel the surprise drop in my stomach from the first sight of the grade. It was like a gaping wound on the carbon paper. The C was written in blue ink and perfectly centered in the box labeled “Social Studies”. Mrs. Cheek’s handwriting was beautiful—I’d been trying to mimic it for months—it was a font that’d I’d practice on the surface of all my folders. And that practice came in handy when—with a steady hand and an identical blue ink pen—I changed the grade. It wasn’t hard. I simply rounded out the corners of the C and added a line at it’s left side. Done. I went from “average” to “above average.” Just like that.
My parents totally fell for it. Of course they did. It was perfect. I got away with it, and was set. Everything’s gonna be alright.
Only, not so much.
I hardly slept for three solid weeks, and when I did it was restless and fraught with nightmares about getting caught. Finally, one night well after bedtime, I crept downstairs to where my parents were watching late night television, and I fessed up. I told the whole pathetic truth.
My parents listened carefully as I confessed my shame, my secret, my lie. It was late, and after I ran out of words and tears (I was terribly dramatic), I was unbearably exhausted. My father picked me up and carried me to bed where I slept like a baby. Seriously, it was the best sleep I’ve ever had. It was so good that now—22 years later—I can still remember the feeling I had when I woke up. I felt light and peaceful. Rest.
That morning, my parents told me that they loved me very much, that I was forgiven, that I needed to eat some breakfast and go to school. They decided not to punish me—it was clear that I punished myself enough. But I did have to come clean with Mrs. Cheek. They knew I could be brave enough to do it.
And, just like that, I was free.
At the age of 8, I started learning something very, very important—something I’m still sorting out: That no matter how shameful and painful and sinful and secretive it is, the truth will always, always set us free.
And the truth is that we’re all miserably flawed. We do things so full of shame and regret and pain that when it comes to confession, there’s not enough time in the world rattle off our sins, our grievances. Our secrets and our pain stretch out for miles. It's the way of the human condition.
And we coil up the miles and miles of our pain and sin. We wind it up tight and shove it into our souls like a tapeworm. In the still, small hours when we tap into our still, small voice, we can feel it, eating away at our lives. But most of the time, we hold our chins high and carry on.
Because we live in a society that honors bucking up. Chin up, move on. No time to be vulnerable. No time to come face to face with our flaws. Be put together. Be precise. Commit to as many things as you possibly can. Look busy. Be busy. And be really, really good at it. Get the highest grades. Go to the best colleges. Be on the faddiest of the fad diets. You must be gorgeous. Have gorgeous, well-behaved, perfect children. Have the best looking yard in the neighborhood. Nothing shall be out of place. Drive the right car. Marry the right person. Get it together, people. Strive for perfection.
(It is not possible. Is it?)
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
This Gospel lesson messes with our sensibilities. It’s calling us to a New Order where rotten people get into heaven first. It’s the prostitutes and the tax collectors who get to meet God. That hardly seems fair. After all, we’re trying really hard over here!
But listen carefully—the prostitutes and the tax collectors that Jesus is talking about aren’t run-of-the-mill sinners. They’re believers. The bought it. They got what John the Baptist was doing. They wanted it. They saw forgiveness, believed it was possible, and they wanted to be forgiven more than they wanted their lifestyle. They needed healing, forgiveness, and wholeness, just like we do, but they were not afraid to admit it.
It hurts to come face-to-face with all the wrongs we’ve done to each other and to ourselves. And we find ourselves in the back of the baptism-slash-forgiveness-slash-atonement-healing line, wearing the plastic-nose-and-fake-mustache glasses, hoping that God won’t recognize us when we confess. But God always does. And God will wait. God will wait for us to take off our masks and own our grief.
It’s so hard to be so vulnerable. I hate nothing more than feeling as though I’ve let someone down. I hate messing up. I hate what it feels like when I realize that I've wronged someone else--or even myself. It’s easier, it seems, to just pretend like it’s not there. To put my grief and my shame in a box on a shelf and leave it there. I've got a lot to lose. There's a long way to fall.
Maybe it seems easy for the prostitutes and the tax collectors…They don’t have much to lose, right? Everyone already hates them. But me? Us? We can’t be that bad. If we admit our sins we’re no better than they are, right?
The Good News is that we aren’t any better than anyone else. We stink. And God loves us anyway. And there is nothing in the whole world that compares to this kind of love. The kind of love that sees us as exactly who we are—warts and sin and shame—and loves us anyway. The kind of love that will blow secrets into oblivion. The kind of love that reveals the truth and forgives us over and over again…we’re forgiven a million times over for the things we have done, the things we have yet to do, and the things we’ve left undone.
The Good News is that—as hard as it may be—there is power in telling the truth. It’s got the force of a title wave and it will propel you to the front of the line. You’ll be in interesting company—honest people, truth tellers are a rarity—the new company you keep might seem a little bizarre. But it’s good. It’s the Truth. It’s the Kingdom. And, let me tell ya, you’ll sleep like an 8-year-old set free from the bonds of tiny secret, put to bed by her father, and forgiven for no other reason than the Love that Passes All Understanding.
Thanks be to God.