Justified

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Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

There we were on our first day of seminary:
a brand new class of future priests,
all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,
all ready for this big, new adventure,
all, presumably, called by God.

And on that first day,
the Dean of Students stood and said,
“Welcome. We’re so glad you’ve come
to Virginia Theological Seminary.
Let’s get to know one another.
Tell us your name,
where you’re from,
and one interesting thing about yourself.”

You’d think that would have been
a simple exercise, but no.

Maybe it was our nerves.
Maybe it was our insecurities.
Maybe it was the devil himself!

But before you knew it,
the whole thing quickly turned
into a weird competition.

None of us were actually all that interesting,
but as each person spoke,
our “interesting facts”
got crazier, bigger, and more embellished.

“My name is so-and-so,
and I once owned a used bookstore.”

“My name is so-and-so,
and I once owned a used bookstore,
and I’ve published seventeen books.”

“My name is so-and-so,
and I’ve published seventeen books,
and I found the cure for cancer.”

Not really, but you get the point.

It wasn’t until we got toward the end
that one of our classmates stood up and said,
“Uh, my name’s Bill,
and I haven’t done any of that.”

Somehow it cut the tension.
We all laughed and realized
how stupid and pretentious we had been.

There we were,
a bunch of new seminarians
all called by the living God
to the sacred life of the priesthood,
and somehow that wasn’t good enough.

Somehow we all felt
we had to justify ourselves:
justify our being there,
justify our calls,
justify our very existence.

Thank God for Bill,
who held up the mirror on our first day
and showed us how stupid we were being.

*     *     *

The thing is,
we all do this
all the time.

All of us
are always trying
to justify ourselves
in one way or another.

It’s not always
with embellishment,
or pretense,
or bombast.
In fact, it’s usually
far more subtle than that.

It’s that part of us that’s
always taking notes,
always comparing ourselves to others,
always trying to show
that we’ve got our act together
when deep down inside
we know that we’re
a hot mess of contradiction and sin.

And so, even we who are loved by God—
who ought to know different—
spend so much of our time
trying to justify ourselves.

It’s not that we think
we’re better than others;
it’s that we’re terrified by the fact
that we know we’re not.

*     *     *

This is a large part of
what was going on with the Pharisees
when they come up against Jesus
in the today’s gospel lesson.

You and I give the Pharisees a hard time
as though we know so much better,
but they were trying to be good guys, too,
the best way they knew how.

They were trying to follow the Law.
They were trying to honor God.
They were trying to justify themselves,
just like we all do.

So when they find Jesus eating with the riffraff
not following the letter of the Law,
they say, “Wait a minute. What gives?
You’re doing it all wrong.
You’re supposed to purify.
You’re supposed to cleanse yourself.
You’re supposed to honor God
and make yourself clean.”

To which Jesus replies,
“Guys, have I got news for you.

“You can wash, and wash, and wash
‘til the cows come home,
but by that method,
you’ll never be clean enough.

“The truth is
it’s what’s on the inside that defiles you,
and no amount of washing,
no amount of posturing,
no amount of self-justification
can scrub that away.”

*     *     *

You and I as Christians
can hear this story and say,
“At least we’re not that dumb.
At least we know that God loves us,
even if we don’t wash our hands.”

But even saying that
is a kind of self-justification.

We really are just like them.

All of us are running around,
trying to justify ourselves,
trying to prove ourselves,
trying to convince God,
and ourselves,
and one another
that we’re not a big ol’ mess
deep down on the inside.

The scandal of Jesus
is that he says,
“Yes    you    are,
but    I    love    you    anyway.”

When will we ever learn
that God’s grace and love
really are good enough,
even when we aren’t?

*     *     *

I want to close with a mention
of Senator John McCain.

A lot of great words have been said
about Senator McCain
in the last few days,
and rightly so:

But as great as Senator McCain was—
and he was—
he was also,
like the rest of us,
a mess of contradictions.

He, too, had his flaws.
He, too, was imperfect.

For that reason,
the best article I read about him this week
focused not on all his accomplishments,
but focused instead on the strength
of his quiet faith. [1]

It was a mainstream article
written in the mainstream media,
but I’ll bet it went largely unnoticed.

You see, for many years,
John McCain wondered and worried
about what God would say
on the day of his death and final judgment.

He had gotten so much right,
and so much wrong.
He had done so much good,
and he had made many mistakes.
He had loved, and served,
and fought, and killed.

But then finally, one day,
he realized that no one in this life
can ever justify themselves,
and that only the grace of our Lord Jesus
can put us back on the side of good,
back on the side of God.

And so, with quiet confidence
for the rest of his life—
without ever using his faith as a weapon
or as a political stunt piece
even though his advisors often begged him to—
John McCain walked this earth
certain that God loved him,
that the grace of God covered him,
and that despite all his contradictions,
God would one day welcome him home.

So, while many people are talking this week
about the greatness of John McCain,
I have the sneaking suspicion
that John McCain would say
the biggest story this week—
the real point, and the real winner—
is the greatness and grace of God.

*     *     *

And that, my friends,
is the greatness and grace
for you today, too.

Stop trying to justify yourself.
Stop trying to show how great you are.
Stop making everything a competition.

It’s a losing proposition every time,
and besides, you are loved by a God
who stopped keeping score
a long, long time ago.

Amen.

 

 

[1]Reston, Maeve. How McCain’s Faith Sustained Him and Allowed Him to Forgive Himself. CNN, 30 Aug. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/08/30/politics/mccain-faith-service/index.html.