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Do Or Die

Luke 18:9-14

The Rev. Jon Roberts

23 October

2022

Calvary Episcopal Church

Indian Rocks Beach, FL

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

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Pharisee and the Publican, James Tissot 1886-94

In the game of life, it’s a matter of do or die. It’s not a matter of being quick.
It’s about being quicker than the other guy.[1]

This does not sound right. Would you say this is good advice? Would you say this is godly advice? Would you say this is found in the lessons of life taught by Christ, to increase the gifts of faith, hope or charity?[2] In the game of life there are winners and losers. There are those who are wrong and those who are right. Where is the do and where is the die? Is it about being quick, quicker than the other guy?

Before becoming a priest, I had the blessed opportunity to work for two churches as a youth minister. One was part-time at a Baptist church, and the other was full-time at an Episcopal church. As a youth minister there were three important things, I made sure would happen whenever I had a scheduled youth meeting. You could say it was a matter of “do or die,” to win their hearts and develop their minds. First, you had to feed them. Second, you had to read them and third, you had to speed them. Food was paramount. Feed them and they will come. You had to read them. Knowing who were friends, their likes, and dislikes, what they needed to hear that day and take home was most important, but let me explain the last one, “Speed.” Speed is all about having sports. We always played a game. Young people love to play. Some may not act like they do, but deep down they want to win. It’s about acceptance. Sometimes, they venerated losing if they knew they could do with style and grace. There was always something learned as it turned into some form of relationship building, this winning or losing together thing.

They wanted to play what was familiar and the goal of the game must be easy to explain with clear rules. They wanted to be on a good team, the quicker, better side. Whether it was football, dodgeball, volleyball, woofle ball, (yes, a lot of games with sports) where there were sides, or games such as “hide & go seek” or “tag” where it was more of an individual sport, they tuned in. There are literally hundreds of variations, if not thousands, of hide & go seek, and freeze tag. There I was, announcing the game of tag, for example and immediately I had their attention. They knew the game and the rules, but I explained, nonetheless. “Over there (pointing) is home base.” It was usually a tree, or some other object clearly seen. Everyone knew that if you could make it to home base you could not be tagged. You were “safe.” I could look in their eyes and easily tell what they were thinking. Some of the girls would roll their eyes, as they knew they would have a hard time competing against some of the boys, who were also engaged, thinking they just had to be faster than the slower ones out there. Not sure why they always picked on the girls because some of them turned out to be some real speedsters. You could just see the dread and painful agony develop in some, imagining they were tagged, humiliated and frozen until someone else could exonerate them and set them free. So humbling. Then, there was jubilation in others, bragging just how fast they were, and how this would be like a walk in the park. So exalted. There was also the sneaky one. This was usually one who was thinking of how they could draw the least attention, where they could find cover and conceal.

Now, one of the most important moments, after they had fathomed distance, competition, and the goal, was to see who would go first as the “tagger.” “NOT IT”, they almost simultaneously yelled out. “NOT IT!” Weird, so it seemed that in a game of tag, you would think somebody would take the challenge. Somebody would want to go first, to test their speed and agility above the others. They, after all had power to tag. Why was there such resistance and pushing away? Didn’t they want to be better than all the rest? Then, I had to decide to pick someone or lead by example, so that is what I did. I recall the words of Jesus, who once said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and who humbled themselves will be exalted. I took quick account of those who were the slowest, the least, the ones who felt defeated before the game began. Instead of going for the easy tag, I did just the opposite. I singled out the fastest and got him first. There, frozen on the field and helpless he stood in disbelief while all the others flocked safely at home base.

If Tag is a universal game, we may wonder if it was around during the times of Jesus’ day. For St. Paul especially, we can hear the voice of one who ran the good race but now arrested himself, begins to inspect his own life. To Timothy, he wrote, “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!” “The Lord who will save me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.” In his case, Paul, who persecuted those who followed Christ played a dangerous game. He exalted himself above others. Trained to be one of the Pharisaic rabbis, he was in line to succeed the Sanhedrin, the highest, most influential party of individuals. They lorded over the poor, the meek, and the slow. Oh, how stunned he was to learn he was playing the game the wrong way. Instead of helping those, saving others from mortal sin, he became the worst assailant. After his conversion, he learned that in the game of life, it is not a matter of being quicker than the other guy. It’s about being poured out and to make a personal sacrifice to die to yourself. This is the matter of do or die.

This is the example of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. It could have very well been Paul himself; he was foreshadowing. Paul, you may remember was converted after the Ascension of Christ, after Pentecost, when Jesus “tagged” him to stop persecuting others. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: rogues, adulterers or even like this tax collector.” Just because you follow all the rules, does not make you a winner in the eyes of God. It’s about how you play the game. Another important point of the game of life, is who is assigned to be the one to tag. The devil prowls like a lion to pick off the weak, the slowest. Why does he do that? He lets the quicker ones go by because they are already tagged by their arrogance. Home base is a mirage. They didn’t earn it. They lost before the game began.

But when Jesus is assigned to be the one to tag, what does he do. He gives mercy to those who admit their slowness, their sin and disgrace. Forgiveness of their sins follows such repentance, and they can practically walk home. Jesus exalts the humble. It is the one full of pride, self-conceit, and dares not suspect they need forgiveness, nor repentance. They are without sin by their own admission. Jesus targets them. He freezes them in space where they are dumbfounded of why they were caught, by Jesus, of all people. Jesus is aware of our sins. He meets us on the playing field to see if we can admit them ourselves. What are the rules you play by? What is the game of life all about. We are called to do the humble act of bending the knee, clasping the hands, and praying the prayer. “Forgive me Lord, for I am a sinner.” When we change from exalting ourselves to being humble, we become a new creation. We become the “other guy.” We are called to die to self.

Here is some better advice, and something to learn quick. The way to increase one’s faith, hope and charity, is to do the work of changing to be more like Christ. It is to raise the lowly. Let that be your goal. In the game of life, it’s a matter of do or die. If it’s a matter of being humble, be humbler than that other guy.

[1] The Rev. Jon Roberts
[2] Collect Proper 24
[3] 2 Timothy 4:6-18
[4] Luke 18:9-14

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