Preached on 17 March 2019 at Church of the Ascension in Seattle, Washington
The third Sunday in Lent, Year C
Do you think that the people slaughtered while at prayer in their mosques in Christchurch were worse sinners than other people of Christchurch?
Or those who died in the earthquake there a decade or so ago? Or the people on the Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed? Or people who lost everything in the wildfires or hurricanes or floods? Or the child who has cancer or is ill? Or the myriad other instances of unexplained suffering?
What did they do that displeased God? That’s the ancient question – and it still goes through the minds of some people, and sometimes it’s even voiced.
Nowadays, people who like to think of themselves as more sophisticated, ask questions about the various choices in diet, exercise, environment, and other factors we might be able to control. Could we have regulated it better? How could science or technology or better awareness have prevented this death or illness or injury.
We look for explanations. We try to figure out who or what to blame (sometimes it’s the victim). The point is the same, though – How do I make sure this doesn’t happen to me or my loved ones?
Jesus’ response is pretty clear, though. No. You’re asking the wrong questions. You’re looking in the wrong direction. Don’t even go down that rabbit hole. Wake up! Look around you! You can read the signs that a storm is coming, why can’t you read the signs of the times? Why can’t you see where you’re headed? He asks at the end of chapter 12 in Luke’s gospel.
Repent! While you still can. And he tells the parable of the fig tree. Ah yes, the fig tree. It seems so much gentler than the rather brutal examples he had just given.
Self-examination, Repentance, and Amendment-of-life are central to Christian living; especially so during Lent. Not only as individuals but as a community and as a society. Repentance begins with awareness; that self-examination. We have to see Reality with God’s vision so that we can recognize and name the systemic brokenness in the world. So that we have some idea of what salvation might mean.
Our psalm for today shows us how to start – by turning wholly to God, with deep longing for God. The psalmist describes a whole-body yearning: my throat thirsts, my flesh faints, I gaze, my lips praise, I kneel, I lift up my hands; my soul is content, I remember you, I meditate on you, I cling to you. Your right hand holds me fast; I am utterly dependent on you, O God.
Open our eyes, O God, to see the reality of the brokenness around us and give us the grace and courage to hear your call to respond.
One commentary offered a whole litany of repentance, of shifting our perception of the world to be in alignment with God’s:
Repentance for our silence; for not calling a thing what it is: racism, hatred, white supremacy, greed, atrocity, lies…
Repentance for making excuses and not addressing the issues that perpetuate an environment in which such events keep happening.
Repentance for ignoring the truth and not connecting the dots.
Repentance for our complicity and complacency, for our explanations and enabling.
Repentance for our self-justification.
Repentance for our self-image as helpless.
Repentance for our fear and our hopelessness.
Repentance for taking advantage of God’s patience, forgiveness and mercy, of God’s faithfulness and grace.
Repentance not only changes how we perceive the world; it not only opens our eyes to Reality, it changes how we function in the world; what we do, how we respond.
There’s an old Jewish saying, “Pray as though it’s all up to God and act as though it’s all up to us.”
God never acts alone. God called Moses and then Aaron and Miriam to lead the people out of Egypt; to free them from slavery. And yet, God never leaves us on our own. God accompanied them all along the way.
Every year, the Ignatian Spirituality Center offers a Novena of Grace and over the years, I have included this Novena in my Lenten practice. For nine days we pause in the middle of the day and literally come together for worship; to learn about the life of St. Francis Xavier, to pray, to hear the Word of God and a reflection on the theme, to share the bread and wine of holy communion. This year’s theme was “God walking with us.”
The three presenters took turns offering a homily, sharing a reflection on the Scripture readings for the day and on stories from our day, often their own experiences. We heard stories of deep pain and suffering, of repentance and instances of the need for repentance. The thread that went through all the stories was the discovery of God walking with them, walking with us, through even the most painful or troubling times.
Open our eyes, O God, to see the Reality of your kingdom breaking through the brokenness around us and give us grace and courage knowing you are always walking with us.
I keep thinking about the parable of the fig tree. And I keep wondering who’s the gardener? Are we the tree? Trees don’t bear fruit by sheer will. Are we passively waiting for a gardener? Or could we be gardeners, aerating the soil, spreading manure, nourishing the tree so that it will bear abundant fruit?
O Lord, our God, may there be an abundance of fruit; the fruit of repentance, the fruit of your realm of justice and truth.