There are a couple of ways you can pronounce the title of today’s blog post. “Really?!” is a statement of joyful disbelief, when you can’t believe our good fortune. You got the job you didn’t think you were qualified for. You passed the test you didn’t study for. “Really?!” It’s what you might say Christmas morning if you find a big gift under the tree that you weren’t expecting. “Really?!”
The other pronunciation is more exasperation. Someone lets you down. You find out the meeting you thought was at 9 was actually at 8:30. “Really?” You wake up Christmas morning to find socks under the tree. “Really?” I got to use both pronunciations one morning the week before Christmas.
You can probably figure out that the pre-Christmas week is a busy one for a pastor. There’s a lot of places to be and people to see, extra sermons to write, and so on. You’ve also got to take care of family stuff, which I was doing during a rare free hour one morning late in the week. I was heading down Richie Highway to pick up Karen’s Christmas Present. I was hurrying down the road – well not really hurrying because I was catching every light red. I approached the next intersection and just then the light turned yellow.
I came to a quick stop. I was first in line and figured it would be a while before the light turned green again because it had to go through all its sequence, so I took out my smartphone and did what you’re not supposed to do in the car. I checked my calendar and my e-mail and so on. I was stopped, I figured, what’s the harm?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw cars begin to move in my direction. So I started forward – slowly, because I was focused on shutting off my cell phone.
The car horn really surprised me.
You see, the cars I had seen moving were in the left turn lane.
The folks trying to turn left coming from the other direction weren’t too happy with me. They were the ones honking. I’m glad they stopped!
This is really stupid, I thought. I was embarrassed.
At least embarrassment was my main emotion until I noticed the lights flashing in my rearview mirror. Now, I’ve been driving almost 35 years and can’t remember ever running a red light. Now, I had gone through this one at low speed and guess who was RIGHT behind me?
That’s right – an Anne Arundel Sherriff’s Deputy. Those lights flashing in my rearview mirror were red and blue. What are the odds? It had to be the easiest violation this guy had ever seen.
So I sort of froze, then I pulled over in the closest place I could – off to the left across the intersection. Richie Highway doesn’t have a real shoulder on the left side, so I was mostly still in the road. I wasn’t thinking too clear at that point.
Oh, the other thing I did when I pulled over was put the car in neutral, pull on the emergency brake (I drive a 5-speed) and just reflexively unbuckle my seatbelt.
Anyway, the deputy got on his loudspeaker. “PULL OVER ON THE OTHER SIDE.” I had the radio on and didn’t really hear what he said, but I could tell he was talking to me and wasn’t real happy. So I turned down the radio and sort of shrugged my shoulders. “PULL OVER ON THE OTHER SIDE, IDIOT.” He didn’t say that last word, but it was there in his tone.
So I did. After a while he walked up to my car. Now, I was wearing a clerical shirt but he stood sort of back from the window so he couldn’t see it. I had to resist that urge to try to use that in my favor and twist my body all the way toward him – “Hey, I’m a pastor!” But I didn’t.
He said, “Are you okay?” He sounded real concerned about my mental state.
All I said was, “I messed up.” And I handed him my license. At that point I realized my seatbelt was unbuckled.
He walked back to the car. I was doing two things while he was back there – praying and adding. I guess it’s obvious why I was praying. The adding was my trying to figure out how much the tickets – running a red light, no seatbelt – and my insurance increase would be.
Finally he came back. He handed me my documents back and a yellow piece of paper. “I’m giving you a warning today. Next time, be careful.”
That was an honest exclamation, but it didn’t sound quite right. So I quickly added, “Yes sir, thank you sir.” And I very carefully pulled back into traffic.
I deserved a ticket that morning.
I didn’t get one.
That, my friends, is GRACE.
Grace is not being punished when you deserve it. Grace is the GIFT of forgiveness when you most certainly don’t deserve it.
Grace is Christ on the Cross, dying for your sins and mine.
(Adapted from the opening of my Christmas Eve sermon at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville.)