01 October 2017

Repent first. . .mercy follows

26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

So, you're in line before the Pearly Gates, and who do you see in front of you but the crooked IRS agent who audited your taxes and ruined you financially. And the infamous D.C. Drug Dealer who kept a client list and caused the downfall of several prominent politicians and televangelists. That abortionist who bragged on TV about performing more than 300,000 abortions in his lifetime. Imagine these folks ahead of you in line and think about how they might have gotten where they are. A tax collector, a drug dealer, a serial killer. We could add several others: the guy who intentionally spreads his venereal disease; the greedy bankers and portfolio managers who helped cause the 2008 economic disaster; political leaders in countries all over the world who deprive their fellow citizens of their human rights through corruption and murder. . .the list could go on, and so the line into heaven could get longer and longer. But the question here is: seeing these people ahead of you in line, you have to wonder, how did they get here? Such profoundly evil people in line to heaven. . .how?

The quick and easy answer, of course, is God’s grace. But that’s not much of an answer because no one is in that line without God’s grace. What does it mean for a serial killer or a greedy banker to experience God’s grace, repent of his sin, and find himself in a line to heaven? Remember our question from last week: are you envious of God’s generosity? Man’s capacity to receive God’s grace is not limitless. However, there is no limit to God’s generosity. Limitless grace poured into a limited vessel means one thing: overflow; assuming, of course, that the vessel is indeed filled. But for a sinner to be filled requires a certain awareness that he/she is empty in the first place. IOW, a sinner must acknowledge his/her sin as sin first.

Is this the point that Jesus is making about the son who refuses to work but then repents and does as he is asked to do. Having refused to work, the son is ripe with disobedience, rigid with refusal and dissent. Being so far from his father’s will, he is keenly aware of being lost. That despair drives him back to his father’s will and saves him. The other son, accepting his father’s will, eagerly agrees to work but fails to follow through. His disobedience is compounded by deceit. Believing himself to be filled with his father’s will, he is not “empty enough” to repent. He coasts, if you will, on his initial good will, believing that this is sufficient to save him from his father’s wrath.

How do serial killers, corrupt politicians, prostitutes end up in heaven with you, the righteous son or daughter? If they end up there, they do so first because being outside the Father’s will hurts too much to ignore. How long can a creature turn from its Creator and not feel the yawning emptiness of His absence? To be created is to have purpose. We are Purpose given flesh and spirit. You cannot NOT be what you were made to be for very long and fail to feel the corruption of your refusal. To repent of your refusal is like a tremendous rebound, the further you stretch away from God’s will, the harder, the faster, the tighter the comeback! A glorious SNAP! right back into the will of the Father.

Standing there in the heavenly line with the other former sinners – all of those who recognized the emptiness of their disobedience and repented – you can look around you and see some of the infamous wretches of history. If they are there with you, you are all there because you figured out that you are limited vessels, overflowing with the limitless graces of a loving God. The ones you are not likely to see standing in line are those who believed to the end that they were vessels once filled, always filled, and needing nothing more from God than His push for their own one-time yes, they pursue other, smaller desires. Having taken a sip of His grace, they believe their thirst is quenched and drink no more. Is that one little sip enough to keep them going for all eternity? I doubt it. We come back to the Father again and again, sometimes in joy, sometimes in tears, but always knowing that when we surrender ourselves and our sins to His mercy, we will be made new again. That newness – each and every time – pushes us out into the world to bear witness to the reality that any sinner and all sinners can receive the Father's mercy . . .if they first acknowledge their sins and turn to His will. It does no one any good to pretend that sin isn't sin. Or that God loves sinners despite their sin. Of course He does! He is Love, Love is who and what God is. That's not a serious question. The question is not: does God love the sinner? (Yes, He does!). The question is: which does the sinner love more – his/her sin or God? Our Father loves us so much that He wills that we choose, and He will honor our choice: eternal life with Him. Or eternal life w/o Him. If we choose eternal life with Him, the first step is to confess our disobedience and welcome Him into our lives with open hearts, open arms, and open minds. Then. . .our joy is complete.


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