Friday, March 1, 2013

YOLO: Seizing the Opportunity (Lent 3, March 3 2013)

Homily:  Yr C Lent 3, March 7 2010, Huntley
Readings: Exodus 3:1-15; Is 55:1-9; Ps 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9

‘YOLO:  Seizing the opportunity’

Tragedy has a way of getting our attention. 

Earthquakes.  Plane crashes.  Terrorist attacks.  The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, just this past December.  This is perhaps the most recent tragedy to get our attention. And when tragedy strikes, when we are faced with calamities, questions are raised.  Why did this happen?  Where is God in this?  And perhaps the unstated question, could this happen to me?
Today’s gospel begins with the report of two calamities that strike close to home for Jesus and his Galilean listeners.  Every Galilean at some point in his or her life would make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the Temple.  For many this was an annual trip.  And so when the report came back from Jerusalem that Pilate, the Roman governor, had murdered the most recent group of Galileans to travel to the Temple, their friends and relatives back home must have been shocked and saddened, outraged and fearful. 

And they would have asked the same question that we asked in the aftermath of Newtown.  Why did this happen?  It seems that no matter which century we’re talking about, or on which continent, humans have a need to reassure themselves in the face of tragedy by coming up with answers to the question of why.  I suppose it’s something of a coping strategy, an attempt to reassert some kind of control in the face of events that are clearly beyond our control. It’s also an expression of hope, the hope that if we can understand what just happened perhaps we can prevent similar occurrences in the future.

In our time and place we tend to come up with political, psychological and scientific answers.  We talk about gun control and mental illness.  We talk about a culture of violence.  We look for psychological explanations and legal solutions.  In Jesus time and place, however, it was common to give theological answers.  And the prevalent theological explanation of Jesus day in the wake of massacre in Jerusalem was that those who had died in these calamities must have been sinners, and that somehow in these events God was punishing them for their sins.  

But Jesus rejects this explanation outright.  The victims of Pilate’s evil acts did nothing wrong.  Neither did those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them.  The reality of our human existence is that life is a gift, a fragile gift that can be taken away at any time.  There is no sense reassuring ourselves that it couldn’t happen to us.  It can and it will.  It is only a matter of time and circumstance.

And so in the wake of tragedy, Jesus changes the question.  His question becomes not “why did this happen to them?” but rather, “What about you?  How are you going to live this fragile life that you’ve been given?”

The fragility of life reminds us that there is a certain urgency to how we live.  We may have 100 years left, or 1 year, or 1 day.  Each one of us was created for a purpose, each one of us is meant to live lives that are fruitful.  And because of the very fragility of life itself, the question of how I am to live the life that I have been given demands an answer not tomorrow, but today.

Jesus demands an answer, not once, but twice with these words:  “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Ya think he’s trying to get our attention?  I think so.  But what is this repentance that Jesus is talking about, this urgent action that he is calling us to?

Often, we think of repentance in quite a narrow way.  We think of it as expressing regret for our mistakes, or changing from bad behavior to good behavior.  But repentance is much more than that.  Repentance literally means to turn around.  It’s a turning aside from the path that we’re on in order to see things in a new way. It is the adoption of a different perspective.  It is a complete reorientation of who we are as people and how we see and act in the world.  And as a result, repentance can be sufficiently disruptive in our lives that it’s easier to put it off until tomorrow than to do it today.

Which is why calamities, which remind us of the fragility of our lives and the importance of living in the present, can serve as catalysts for repentance.

Or as my teen daughter might say, YOLO!

Do you remember the Vancouver Olympics from 2010.  I watched a lot of the Vancouver Olympics on TV.  And though I was impressed by the athletic excellence and competition, and though I celebrated the medals like everyone else, what I remember most about those Olympic games now, three years later, is the story of the Bilodeau family.  Do you remember them?  Alexandre of course was the hero, the first Canadian gold medallist on Canadian soil, in moguls skiing.  But that was only a small part of the story. 

The real story is how the Bilodeau family responded to the tragedy of discovering that their eldest son Frederic had cerebral palsy.  Now Frederic’s illness is a terrible thing, and not to be wished on anyone.  But it does seem to have given the Bilodeau family a new way of seeing things, a different perspective on the world.  That perspective inspired the family to switch Alex at the age of 8 from hockey to skiing so that the five of them could share an activity that they could all do together.  And as for his skiing, Alex credits his brother with being his inspiration.  “When I look at my Frederic,” says Alexandre, “it puts everything back in perspective.”  The limits that cerebral palsy places on his brother help Alexandre see his own health, and his own ability to ski in a new way, and that inspires him to keep going even when he is tired or when training gets difficult. 

This is a story of repentance.  It is the story of people who have been opened up to new ways of seeing, people who have re-oriented their lives and have adopted a different perspective.  And that re-orientation, that new way of seeing has produced all sorts of fruit, both in their own lives and in the lives of the millions of people who have been inspired by their story.

Our first reading from Exodus is another story of repentance.  Here we meet Moses.  Now we’re used to thinking of Moses as a great prophet and leader, but here at the beginning of the story in the third chapter of Exodus, Moses is a lost soul.  He is in the midst of an identity crisis.  He is a fugitive, having fled from Egypt after killing a man.  He was a prince in Egypt, now he’s tending his father-in-law’s sheep.  As we begin today’s story, Moses is, quite literally and figuratively, in the wilderness.  In fact not only is he in the wilderness, but we’re told that he’s gone beyond the wilderness!

Which is where he sees the burning bush.  The bush, it seems is off to the side.  Definitely not on the path that he’s following with his sheep.  When Moses sees it he says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.”  Moses didn’t have to do that.  He could have kept right on walking on his path, driving his sheep forward, maybe thinking to himself, “Oh isn’t it pretty the way the light is playing on that bush” as he walked right past.  Or maybe he could have thought to himself, “I’ll stop on the way back when I have more time.  But then he would never have been Moses.  Because what makes Moses Moses is his willingness to park his sheep, get off his path and turn aside to take a closer look.  And when he did that, God noticed.  When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses”.

Would you have turned aside to go and look at the bush?  Or would you have been in too much of a hurry because you had places to go, people to see, things to do?

Jesus calls his listeners to turn aside and take a new look.  Jesus calls us to repentance.  Moses turned aside, and became the great leader that led the people out of slavery in Egypt.

Jesus calls us to repent so that we too can live lives that are fruitful.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. There are times when our lives just don’t seem to be bearing fruit.   And so Jesus tells his listeners another story, a story about a fig tree.  It’s a fig tree that isn’t producing any figs, and so not surprisingly, the owner of the vineyard where it is planted wants to cut it down.  Nothing surprising in the story so far.  It was taking up space, consuming valuable water.  But then something curious happens.  The gardener, who works for the landowner, is told to cut down the tree.  And instead of simply following instructions as he should, instead, the gardener intervenes on behalf of the unfruitful fig tree.  “Give the tree another year,” he pleads, “and I’ll dig the soil around it and fertilize it, and maybe then it will bear fruit.”  And that is all we’re told.  We don’t know how the story ends, we don’t know how the future will unfold.  The parable leaves us in suspense:  will the tree become fruitful or will it be cut down?  That we don’t know.

But what we do know is this.  There is a crazy gardener who cares enough for that unfruitful tree that he is willing to risk his job by arguing with his boss, and willing to put time and effort into caring for the fig tree.

The call to repent, to turn aside and see in new ways, is universal, and important, and urgent.  But it is not something that we have to undertake all on our own.  Our God is like that gardener, patient and caring and compassionate, and he wants to give us everything we need to bear fruit in our lives.

What will that look like?  What sort of fruit are we being asked to produce?  For most of us, it won’t look like an Olympic gold medal, nor will it look like the parting of the Red Sea. The new vision and perspectives that we adopt, the reorientation of ourselves as people will play out in a unique way for each one of us.  But as followers of Jesus we can expect to see some common threads:  a deepening of our relationship with God, a love of neighbor, a thirsting for justice, a life of compassion and forgiveness.

God wants us to be the people that he created us to be, people who live abundant lives that bear fruit.  And he is committed to giving us everything we need along the way. 

And so today’s question is not “why did this happen to them?”  Rather, it is this: “are you willing to seize the opportunity you’ve been given and start today?”


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