Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
“Turn, then, and live.”
“Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
There’s a reason Jesus tells religious people that tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God ahead of them: the tax collectors and prostitutes believed John the Baptist—they repented and were baptized, confessing their sins. They turned, but the religious people did not. They didn’t believe John, didn’t repent, and refused John’s baptism. Religion’s a curious thing: it often exposes in itself the very sin it opposes in others. The corollary is also true: public sinners often display more genuine piety than religious folk who live within the bounds of decency and respectability. It may be trite to say, but it’s nonetheless true that I hear more of God outside the homeless shelter at Grace Episcopal Church than I ever hear within the precincts of Luther Memorial or, for that matter, within Grace. There’s something about public sin that invites personal faith; conversely, there’s something about public righteousness that stimulates personal hypocrisy.
Before joining Alcoholics Anonymous, Junior had never been in a church. However, it must be said that, on account of alcoholic blackouts, he couldn’t honestly say for certain. The only thing he was sure of was that he couldn’t remember having been in a church before attending AA at St. Paul’s. But, even then, they met in the church basement, and always entered through the “red doors,” just off the parking lot on the building’s back side, about as far from the “nave” as you could get. So while technically Junior had been in a church, he had never “been to church.” That is to say, though he had been to Lambeau and other religious sites, he had never worshipped in a Christian liturgical space. Good though they are, brats and beer do not a Eucharist make.
Junior attended weekly 12-step meetings at St. Paul’s as required by court order. Not that he had to go to St. Paul’s, but he was required to participate in an AA group following prison; it was part of his parole, and the St. Paul’s meeting was nearest his apartment. As he was prohibited from driving, St. Paul’s was easiest to reach on foot.Truth is, Junior had probably driven drunk since God was a child. So far as he knew, he’d been born drunk and his drunken behavior was merely the working out of his DNA—his family inheritance, you might say. His father and grandfather before him had been alcoholic, as well as some uncles and an aunt. One of his cousins, Milton, had died drunk in a car crash, killing not one, but two women into the bargain. It was only sheer luck Junior hadn’t inflicted the same pain and suffered the same fate.It’s not like he hadn’t tried. The fact is, he’d probably lived a harder life than, Milton, his dead cousin. At 47 he’d run through more women, insurance policies, citations, lost jobs, junked cars, and ruined marriages than Sherman’s army burning its way to the sea. It’s not so much that Junior’s luck ran out, as he simply spiraled down to a drunk hermit’s existence; he almost never drove anyone anywhere; least of all a woman. When he finally hit a bridge abutment at two in the morning on his way home from the bar, there was no one around but the State Patrol to document his near demise: driving without a license, with no insurance, no sobriety, and no seatbelt. His only companions were an empty bottle of Jim Beam and a crushed carton of Camel studs. Of all the car crash cost him (including three years of freedom), he most lamented the lost Camels.
Prison’s certainly no picnic. But, if you manage to keep your nose clean, tend to business, and fly beneath the radar of inmate violence and guard retaliation, you can make a decent life out of an intolerably indecent situation. And Junior did: his small job in the kitchen enabled him to buy cigarettes, and that was about all he either wanted or needed. He had no one to write to, so paper, envelopes, and stamps were of no value; and he’d never seen the purpose of toiletries beyond a toothbrush. Shampoo and soap he thought silly, to say nothing of deodorant.
Junior wasn’t dumb. He saw instinctively that cooperation with authority was his ticket out. And so he cooperated: he did his job, joined a twelve step group, volunteered in the chapel, and even began going to Bible study. He hated it. But the more he hated it, the more he pretended to love it. The chaplain was an easy mark—well meant, but readily taken in by sentiment, pretentious weakness, and emotional manipulation—the kind of stuff Junior lived, breathed, and thrived on. Junior did his three, and was paroled early for good behavior.
That’s when St. Paul’s entered the picture. He’d gone to meetings for nearly a year when, one night, the group took a smoke break and, after cigarettes and conversation in the parking lot, they couldn’t get back in. The door had locked behind them. Junior volunteered to walk round to the office door and ring the bell. After a while, a rumpled woman in a pink clergy shirt, jeans, and Birkenstocks came to the door. She listened to Junior’s story while they walked through the building and downstairs to unlock the door. She asked him to come back the next day and check out a key in case it ever happened again. The next day, he went, got the key, and saw a sign saying “Sunday service, 11:00. Coffee following.” He asked the woman what that was about. Her name was Roberta, and she told him in a way he found strangely moving.
It was the first time anyone had ever said anything like that to him, and it played on his mind: “Our church needs you. You should come. You would be good for us.” The words stuck in his mind and would not leave. They addressed him over, and over again: “Our church needs you. You should come. You would be good for us.” He didn’t go that Sunday; but, the following one, he did. It was there he heard a sentence he couldn’t forget. It said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” He also heard, “Turn, then, and live.” Never having been there before, Junior returned—he lived. Roberta had been right. It was good for them. But they didn’t like it. Being last, Junior got there first—ahead of them. There’s nothing worse for self-righteous religion than sinners who truly repent: Jonah all over again. The public sinners are going in ahead of us. But, then, it may be a greater gift that we’re getting in at all!