Homily: 3rd Sunday in Lent – Cycle C
To be clear from the start, I am not an “outdoorsman”. I like being outdoors—in the woods, even—but real “off the grid” living is probably not for me. Nevertheless, I do know a thing or two about being in the wilderness. Like the adage about bears. You know, the one when someone asks, “Do you think you could outrun a bear if you encountered one?” and the outdoorsman says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you!” This is how we can think, oftentimes, isn’t it? “I don’t have to overcome everything; I just have to outdo the next guy!” We can apply this to our spiritual lives, too, right? We think, “Well, I could be better; but I’m already so much better than a lot of people, so I’m okay.” Our Scripture readings today, however, remind us that perhaps we shouldn’t feel so secure.
In our second reading, we heard one of Saint Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians. The backstory to today’s reading is that the Corinthians had been thinking that, since they were now on the “right team” (that is, Team Jesus), that they were secure and that it didn’t matter what they did. In a sense, they thought: “Well, we’re ‘running faster’ than those pagans, so the bear is going to eat them, and we’ll be fine.” Saint Paul, however, goes back to the story of the Exodus and reminds them of how the Israelites were on the “right team” (that is, Team Yahweh) when they left Egypt, but because of their constant grumbling against God and their repeated expressions of lack of trust in him, God did not permit them to enter the Promised Land; rather, that generation died in the desert. Then he admonishes them: “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall”. In other words, “Take care, because you could find yourself on the wrong side of judgment.”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus is confronted by some folks who want his opinion about the “judgment” declared on some Galileans who had been killed by the Romans and whose blood was then mixed in with the blood of their pagan sacrifices (which, if it isn’t clear to you, is about the most ignominious death a Jew could have ever endured). “Where these guys really bad sinners?” is the question behind their question. Jesus doesn’t respond directly to their question, but rather admonishes them, saying: “Let this be a warning to you! Regardless of what you’re doing, you, too, could suffer this same fate! Therefore, don’t be complacent! Rather, strive for purity and greatness!” In other words, “The same judgment that fell on them, may fall on sinners of any magnitude. Therefore, don’t try only to be ‘better than the next worse sinner’, but rather to be pure and holy so that the judgment will not come upon you.”
This, it seems, is our Lenten message. As I said, too often in the spiritual life we compare ourselves with others, saying: “I’m not perfect, but I’m not like those guys, so God will be lenient with me.” In other words, “I don’t have to be faster than the bear, just a little faster than someone else.” Lent, however, calls us to compare ourselves to the ideal, not just to one another. In other words, it reminds us that, in the race against the bear, it’s just you and the bear! And so, the question that Lent asks us isn’t “Are you living a better Christian life than most?”, but rather, “Are you living the best Christian life that you can live?” Our work during Lent is first to answer that question (pro-tip: the answer is probably “no”) and then to put ourselves to the work that moves us towards living the best Christian life that we can live.
To help you, perhaps, to come at this another way, I’ll share this story. In my ministry I often spend time with elderly folks: many of whom are either confined to their homes or to assisted living facilities because of health problems. These folks can be particularly prone to bouts with depression. Most have had rather full lives: they’ve worked and raised a family. But now they are feeling a little useless and so start to question things. They’ll often say to me, “Father, I just don’t know why I’m still here” and, sometimes, “Well, I guess God must not be ready for me yet.” When they say that, I’ll usually smile and, as gently as I can, say to them: “You know, it’s more likely that you’re not yet ready for God.”
This, of course, is the point of the parable that Jesus adds to his admonition in the Gospel. The fig tree (which, in the Scriptures, always refers to the Jewish people) was specially planted by the orchard owner (which refers to God) in his orchard (which refers to the Promised Land). There, he expected the tree to produce fruit. When he came looking for it, however, he found none. The tree, in other words, wasn’t yet ready for God. Thanks to the intervention of the gardener (who, in this parable, refers to Jesus), the tree is given more time to be cultivated and, perhaps, to produce fruit. Thus, to our homebound brothers and sisters I can say: “If you’re still here, it’s because God is giving you time to produce more fruit.” And to all of us here today I can say, “Lent is our reminder that we, too, are not yet ready for God; and so, must allow ourselves to be pruned, cultivated, and fertilized so that we, too, can produce more fruit for God’s kingdom.”
Friends, we’ve already begun our Lenten journey; but if we’re not sure that we’ve begun in the right place, then how should we begin again? For the answer, let’s look at the example of Moses. In our first reading today, we heard how God called Moses to himself. Moses, however, could only come part way to God by himself. At one point, he had to completely submit himself to be under God’s power. This is represented by God commanding him to remove his shoes: his shoes being both a sign of his worldly impurity (all of the muck we walk through sticks to our shoes, right?) and also of his own powers to accomplish things (since shoes make it possible to do a lot of things!). And so, in order to become all that God was calling him to be, Moses had to make himself vulnerable before God. This is what we are called to do during Lent.
My brothers and sisters, God doesn’t need, nor does he want our Lenten sacrifices; rather, he wants us! Lent, therefore, is the time to separate ourselves from worldly things and our reliance on ourselves (that is, from our shoes!), and it is a time to expose ourselves to the bewildering power of the Lord (represented by the bewildering bush that was burning, but not consumed). When we do this, the Lord will then equip us with his grace to go out and bear fruit in the world. Therefore, let us not rest on our laurels, thinking that “as long as I can outrun you, I’m okay”; but rather let’s turn away from the things of the world and towards God once again, who desires to cultivate us and make us fruitful trees in his garden: bearing fruit that will be his saving nourishment in the world.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – March 24th, 2019