The Third Sunday of Lent: Trust in God’s Mercy

Today’s readings

God is extremely patient when it comes to extending mercy. That’s what Jesus is talking about in this rather odd parable. I have to admit that I’m no gardener: I’m just not patient enough for that! So I needed to do a little digging to get a real sense of where this parable is going. I discovered that there are a couple of things we should all know before we roll up our sleeves and dig in to this little story. First of all, fig trees actually did take three years to bear fruit. During those three years, of course, they would need to be nourished and watered and pruned and tended. It was a lot of work, so when those three years of hard work were up, you better believe the farmer certainly wanted fig newtons on his table! And the second piece of background is that, since the days of the prophet Micah, the fig tree has been a symbol for the nation of Israel, and Jesus’ hearers would have known that. So when they hear of a fruitless fig tree, it was a little bit of an accusation.

Conventional wisdom is that if the tree doesn’t bear fruit after three years of labor and throwing resources at it, you cut it down and plant a new one; why exhaust the nutrients of the soil? And if you’re an impatient gardener like me, why exhaust the gardener?! But this gardener is a patient one; he plans to give it another year and some extra TLC in hopes that it will bear fruit.

So here’s the important take-away: God is not like Father Pat; he’s the patient gardener! And we, the heirs to the promise to Israel, if we are found unfruitful, our Lord gives us extra time and TLC in order that we might have time to repent, take up the Gospel, and bear fruit for the kingdom of God. That’s kind of what Lent is all about.

But we have to remember: we don’t get forever; if we still don’t bear fruit when the end comes, then we will have lost the opportunity to be friends of God, and once cut down in death, we don’t have time to get serious about it. The time for repentance is now. The time for us to receive and share God’s grace is now. The time for us to live justly and work for the kingdom is now. Because we don’t know that there will be tomorrow; we can never be presumptuous of God’s mercy and grace.

The consolation, though is this: we don’t have to do it alone. The Psalmist today sings that our God is kind and merciful: We get the TLC that our Gardener offers; the grace of God and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We can trust in the Lord God, our great “I AM,” to come to us and lead us out of captivity to sin just as he was preparing to do for the Israelites in the first reading today. We can put our trust in God’s mercy. We are always offered the grace of exodus, all we have to do is get started on the journey and begin once again to bear the fruit of our relationship with Christ.

Thursday of the Second Week of Lent: Letting Go of Passing Things

Today’s readings

I’m going to say something that is probably going to make you think I’m wrong. And that is that the great sin of the rich man was not the sin of neglecting poor Lazarus. Sure, that was certainly bad, but his greatest sin, I think, was that he trusted in himself instead of in God. That’s the deadly sin of pride, and the Fathers of the Church often tell us of the devastating effects of it. So for the rich man, well he had everything he thought he needed in life, and he trusted in himself and in his own means to get it. But he never had a relationship with God; he didn’t see that as something he needed. You don’t see him praying in the story or even giving thanks to God for his riches. All you see is him doing is enjoying what he has amassed, to the neglect of the poor.

So later on in the story, in death, he wants the good things God will provide for those who trust in him, people like Lazarus for example.   Lazarus has suffered much, and as the Old Testament Prophets proclaim, God is especially close to the poor and needy, so now he is exalted. But the rich man isn’t. He has already made his choice, and unfortunately now, trusting in himself doesn’t bring him anything good.

So the problem with this is that we are often the rich man and not so much Lazarus. We have a lot of stuff, we are blessed on earth more than most of the people in the world today. But sadly that often puts us at odds with the things of heaven. We can’t reach out for those when we’re holding on to the passing things of this world. We can’t take the hand of Jesus when we’re juggling the stuff life throws our way. That’s why fasting is so important during Lent, as well as almsgiving: both bid us let go of passing things so that we can have, like Lazarus, things eternal. Both bid us trust in God, not in ourselves and other human beings. Jeremiah says it plainly today: “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” But, conversely, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD.”

So the question is, in whom do we trust? In ourselves? In other people? Or in God? “Blessed are they,” the Psalmist says today, “who hope in the Lord.”

Thursday of the First Week of Lent: Persistent Prayer

Today’s readings

The readings for these early days of Lent are focused on teaching us how to accomplish the various disciplines of Lent – which really are the various disciplines of the spiritual life. The whole point is that we enter more deeply into the spiritual life during these days of Lent, with a view toward growing in holiness. Today’s discipline then, I think, would be persistence in prayer. And this is a tough one, because I know very well that there are some of you here, maybe most of you, who have been frustrated by unanswered prayer, or at least prayer not answered in the way that you had hoped. So bear with me.

In the first reading, we have Queen Esther, who is really between a rock and a hard place. The king does not know she is Hebrew, and worse than that, if she goes to the king without being summoned, she could well lose her life. But, Mordecai, the man who was her guardian and raised her as his own daughter, revealed to her that the king’s advisor had planned genocide against the Jews, and she was the only person in a position to beg the king to change his mind. So today, she prays that her life, as well as those of her people would be spared. Esther prayed for three days and nights that her prayer would be answered, and her persistence was rewarded. She received the reward that Jesus promised when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

So we see in Esther’s case the beauty of persistent prayer answered. And we have in the Gospel Jesus’ directive to be persistent in prayer. But that brings us back to the issue I started with: how frustrating it is when prayer is not answered. I think that what we always need to remember about prayer is that it is not like wishing on a star or anything like that. There’s no magic to our words. We may or may not be rewarded with the exact gift we pray for; in fact, that rarely happens. But we will always be rewarded with the loving presence of our God in our lives. In fact, it could well be that God’s answer to our prayer is “no” – for whatever reason – but even in that “no” we have the grace of a relationship that has been strengthened by our prayerful persistence.

The Psalmist prays, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” This Lent, may the discipline of persistence in prayer lead us to a renewed and enlivened sense of the Lord’s will and presence in our lives.

The First Sunday of Lent: Remembering Who We Are

Today’s readings

Perhaps the greatest sin of modern times, maybe of all time, is that we sometimes forget who we are. Politicians forget that they are elected officials, given the trust of the people they serve, and so they become embroiled in a scandal or sell themselves to special interest groups. Church leaders forget that they are ordained by God for holiness and so they give in to keeping up appearances, and bring scandal to the Church. But it’s not just these people; all of us fall to this temptation at one time or another – maybe several times – in our lives. Young people forget that they have been raised in good Christian, loving homes, and in their quest to define themselves, turn away from the values they have been taught. Adults forget that they are vocationally called to love their spouse and their children and so get caught up in their careers to the detriment of their family. Think of any problem we have or any scandal that has been endured and deep at the core of it, I think it stems from forgetting who we are.

Forgetting who we are changes everything for the worse. It makes solving problems or ending scandal seem insurmountable: we have to constantly cook up new solutions to new problems, because we’ve gone in a new direction on a road that never should have been traveled. That was the scandal of Eden, and the scandal of the Tower of Babel, among others. Once we’ve forgotten who we are and acted impetuously, it’s hard to un-ring the bell.

One of the consequences of forgetting who we are is that we forget who God is too. We no longer look to God to be our Savior, because we instead would like to solve things on our own. Perhaps we are embarrassed to come to God because we are deep in a problem of our own making. We see this all the time in our lives: who of us wants to go to a parent or boss or authority figure – or anyone, really – and tell them that we thought we had all the answers but now we’ve messed up and we can’t fix it and we desperately need their help? If that’s true then we’re all the more reluctant to go to God, aren’t we?

This forgetting who we are, and forgetting who God is, is the spiritual problem that our readings are trying to address today. Moses meets the people on the occasion of the harvest sacrifice, and challenges them not to make the sacrifice an empty, rote repetition of a familiar ritual. They are to remember that their ancestors were wandering people who ended up in slavery in Egypt, only to be delivered by God and brought to a land flowing with milk and honey. And it is for that reason that they are to joyfully offer the sacrifice.

St. Paul exhorts the Romans to remember who Jesus was and to remember his saving sacrifice and glorious resurrection. They are to remember that this faith in Christ gives them hope of eternity and that, calling on the Lord, they can find salvation.

But it is the familiar story of Christ being tempted in the desert that speaks to us most clearly of the temptation to forget who we are and who God is. The devil would like nothing more than for Jesus to forget who he was and why he was here. He would have Jesus forget that real hunger is not satisfied by mere bread, but must be satisfied by God’s word. He would have Jesus forget that there is only one God and that real glory comes from obedience to God’s command and from living according to God’s call. He would have Jesus forget that life itself is God’s gift and that we must cherish it as much as God does.

But Jesus won’t forget. He refuses to turn stones into bread, remembering that God will take care of all his real hunger. He refuses to worship Satan and gain every kingdom of the world, remembering that he belongs to God’s kingdom. He refuses to throw away his life in a pathetic attempt to test God, remembering that God is trustworthy and that he doesn’t need to prove it.

The way that we remember who we are as a Church is through Liturgy. In the Liturgy of the Word, we hear the stories of faith handed down from generation to generation. These are the stories of our ancestors, from the Old Testament and the New. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we re-present the story of Christ’s Passion and death, and as we do that, it becomes new for us once again. There is no better way for us to remember who we are as a people than to faithfully participate in the Sacred Liturgy.

And so we come to this holy place on this holy day to remember that we are a holy people, made holy by our God. We remember who we are and who God is. We rely on the Spirit’s help to reject the temptations of Satan that would call us to forget who we are and instead become a people of our own making. We have come again to another Lent. Lent is a time of conversion. For the people in our Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – RCIA – it is a time of conversion from one way of life to another. For the rest of us, Lent is a time of continued re-conversion. Our Church teaches us that conversion is a life-long process. In conversion, we see who our God is more clearly and we see ourselves in a new, and truer light – indeed we see who we really are before God.

That is life in God as it was always meant to be. Remembering our God, remembering who we are, we have promise of being set on high, as the Psalmist proclaims today. This Lent can lead us to new heights in our relationship with God. Praise God for the joy of remembering, praise God for the joy of Lent.

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

A lot of people say they aren’t giving up something for Lent, they’re just going to try to do something positive. I think that can be a little vague, to be honest. I usually tell people it doesn’t just have to be one or the other. Indeed, today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us that it should actually be both.

Fasting is important because it helps us to see how blessed we are. It is important because it helps us to realize that there is nothing that we hunger for that God can’t provide. Fasting teaches us, once again, that God is God and we are not. This is important for all of us independent-minded modern-day Americans. We like to be in charge, in control, and the fact is that whatever control we do have is an illusion. God is in control of all things, even when it seems like we are in chaos. Fasting teaches us that we can do without the things we’ve given up, and that God can provide for us in much richer ways. Fasting is absolutely essential to having an inspiring, life-changing Lent, and I absolutely think that people should give things up for Lent.

But giving something up for Lent does not excuse us from the obligation to love our neighbor. This falls under the general heading of almsgiving, and along with fasting and prayer, it is one of the traditional ways of preparing our hearts for Easter during Lent. We might be more mindful of the poor, contributing to our food pantry or a homeless shelter or relief organization. We might reach out by actually serving in some capacity, like at a soup kitchen, or spending an hour at PADS. We also might give the people closest to us in our lives a larger portion of the love that has been God’s gift to us, in some tangible way.

Today’s first reading reminds us that fasting to put on a big show is a sham. Fasting to bring ourselves closer to God includes the obligation of almsgiving and prayer. Together, these three facets of discipleship make us stronger Christians and give us a greater share of the grace that is promised to the sons and daughters of God.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday: The Road Less Traveled

Today’s readings

When I hear today’s readings, I very often think of the poem, “The Road Less Traveled,” by Robert Frost. It goes, of course, like this:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear;
though as for that, the passing there
had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no feet had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.

I think of that poem because today’s readings speak, more or less, to the same sentiment, but with a more radical and crucial twist. Frost’s opinion is that both roads are equally valid, he simply chooses to take the one most people don’t. But the Gospel tells us that there really is only the one valid path, and that certainly is the road less traveled. We commonly call it the Way of the Cross.

Moses makes it clear: he sets before the people life and death, and then begs them to choose life. Choosing life, for the Christian, means going down that less traveled Way of the Cross, a road that is hard and filled with pitfalls. And maybe the real problem is that there is a choice. Wouldn’t it be great if we only had the one way set before us and no matter how hard it would be, that was all we could choose? But God has given us freedom and wants us to follow that Way of the Cross in freedom, because that’s the only way that leads to life; the only way that leads to him.

Our Psalmist says it well today:

Blessed the one who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.

Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

The Scriptures today call us to repentance, which is an important spiritual theme for Lent. In fact, if it were not for our need for repentance, we wouldn’t need Jesus, he wouldn’t have to have taken on flesh, he wouldn’t have to suffer and die. But we do need a Savior, and so Jesus came and he did all of that – for us. He didn’t come and do all that just because religion in those days was out of whack, or that people in that time were more in need of repentance than people in other times, including our own. He did that because we all have need of repentance, now just as much as always. We all have things we need to let go of and move away from, so that we can return to the Lord, and be happy with him forever. So we all need to repent, in little or big ways.

Repentance is so much a part of Lent that one of the two instructions we can give when someone comes to us for ashes is “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The other, of course, is “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I tend to use both of these, alternating between the two, and letting the Holy Spirit decide who hears each.   I do that because I think they are both fitting reminders for us as we enter into holy Lent. We have to keep repentance, and our own return to dust one day, in our minds and hearts so that we can long for the salvation God wants to bring us.

We have come here today for all sorts of reasons. But the most importnat reason we come to Church on this, the first day of Lent, is for what we celebrate on the day after Lent: the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday. Through the Cross and Resurrection, Jesus has won for us salvation, and we have been blessed to be beneficiaries of that great gift. All of our Lenten observance, then, is a preparation for the joy of Easter.

Lent calls us to repent, to break our ties with the sinfulness and the entanglements that are keeping us tethered to the world instead of free to live with our God and receive his gift of salvation. Our Church offers us three ways to do that: fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Giving things up, spending more time in prayer and devotion, dedicating ourselves to works of charity, all of these help us to deeply experience the love of Christ as we enter into deeper relationship with him. That is Lent, and the time to begin it, as we are told, is now: Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!

And none of this, as the Gospel reminds us today, is to be done begrudgingly or half-heartedly. None of it is to be done with the express purpose of letting the world see how great we are. It is always to be done with great humility, but also with great joy. Our acts of fasting, prayer, and charity should be a celebration of who God is in our lives, and a beautiful effort to strengthen our relationship with him.

It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty-day retreat that will bring us all closer to God. May we all hear the voice of the prophet Joel from today’s first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart!”