There’s an old joke: New York will be a great city — if they ever finish it.
The city is constantly being dug up and paved over. Buildings are being torn down and rebuilt– and the older ones are always in a state of repair or renovation.
You can’t walk down a city block without having to go under or around one of those green scaffoldings. You see them a lot here in Forest Hills – they had one up around my building a couple years back. By law, they’re required to re-point the bricks of buildings of a certain age, or they’re considered a safety hazard. It costs a small fortune and takes months and it’s an eyesore. The head of our co-op board put it succinctly. He said: “The only people who come out ahead are the scaffolding companies.”
In fact, I’d wager if there’s one name that everybody in New York knows, it’s not necessarily Bloomberg or Giuliani or even A-Rod.
It’s “Spring Scaffolding.”
A few months ago, a friend was giving me a ride from Manhattan out to Flushing, and we went through Long Island City. We passed the Spring Scaffolding warehouse and I was so excited. I wanted him to stop the car so I could take a picture. It was like seeing the Hershey Chocolate Factory. THIS is where all those scaffolds come from!
I have a feeling those scaffoldings will always be with us. The fact is, New York City is, and probably always will be, unfinished.
It is a work in progress.
And so, for that matter, are we.
That is what makes the parable we hear in today’s gospel so powerful – and so poignant.
God isn’t interested in hearing from the Pharisee, who describes all he’s accomplished and all he’s doing. The Pharisee seems to think he’s just fine the way he is – and God should be congratulated because this Pharisee turned out so well.
But then there is the tax collector.
He stands apart. Alone. He can’t even bring himself to look up to heaven. And he prays only this:
“Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
In other words: Oh God, help me. I’m unworthy of You. And I’m deeply flawed. Help me to be better. Help me to complete what You have begun. Because I am a work in progress.
It may be the most brutally honest prayer any of us could give. It places us at the service of the one who made us – and it pleads for Him to help us. And it admits that we have work to do.
And THIS is the prayer God hears.
The first reading from Sirach puts it so beautifully:
“The one who serves God is willingly heard. His petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.”
Who wouldn’t want his or her prayer to do just that?
When I was in high school –back when dinosaurs roamed the earth – I remember a teacher who used to wear a pin:
“Please be patient: God isn’t finished with me yet.”
That is the attitude of the tax collector, the one whom God hears. And that should be the attitude of every Christian. God isn’t finished with us yet. He is still working on us. We are clay in the potter’s hands – and our prayer should be that he shapes us as He wants.
Which, of course, is central to that other prayer that each of us knows by heart, one of the first prayers many of us learn.
Thy will be done.
Make of me what you will – not what I will.
And be merciful to me, a sinner.
I am a work in progress.
And I know I have work to do.
To acknowledge that is to admit that we need to put up scaffolds and continually repair what is cracked, or crooked. People may not be able to see our imperfections from the street. But we know them. God knows them. They are the crevices and cracks that let sin seep in. Pettiness. Selfishness. Hostility. Anger. Jealousy. Hardness of heart.
It’s slamming the door when you leave the house after you’ve had a fight with your husband.
It’s refusing to answer your cell phone when you see that it’s your mother calling, wondering why you haven’t come home.
It’s gossip around the coffee machine, and lies around the dinner table.
And the cracks widen. And the holes deepen. And the pain threatens to pull you apart.
And we can so easily forget to whisper the words God is waiting to hear.
Be merciful to me, a sinner.
I am a work in progress.
What we so often forget is this: everyone is a work in a progress. The boss who annoys you, or the spouse who irritates you or the mother who keeps pestering you about your curfew…they are all clay. All being shaped by unseen hands. All struggling to become what God wants them to be.
Because He isn’t finished with any of us yet.
Friends, our great comfort, and hope, is that God hears the prayers of all of us who are struggling to be better. We pray that our cries to Him can even pierce the clouds.
And we pray for the grace to do the best with what we have. We erect scaffolding and work on our souls.
Thank God, it’s not a union job, or the overtime would kill us.
And it demands a lot of overtime. Because it’s never really done. That’s both the joy and the frustration of the Christian life: unlike the Pharisee, we live in the knowledge that there is always more to do on ourselves, more progress to be made on this “work in progress.”
It is the great adventure of living.
Meantime, we can take some consolation in this unchanging fact of life:
Creation continues in each of us. God isn’t finished.
And He’ll probably never finish New York, either.