Brief Synopsis of the Readings: We begin with Exodus where Moses, working for his father in law Jethro, was confronted by God who came to him in a burning bush. God called Moses to return to Egypt and liberate his fellow Hebrews. When Moses asked God for his name he was told: “I am who I am.” Luke’s Gospel describes his followers telling him how murdered Galileans’ blood was mixed with the blood of sacrificed animals. Jesus then told them that unless they repented they would suffer the same fate. He then spoke of a man who planted a fig tree that didn’t produce fruit. He told his servant to cut down the tree but the servant asked for a year’s reprieve.
Preachers around the world will have one of two reactions today’s Gospel: some will run away in fear and others will double down on the horrible state of sin in our world. The cowards will preach only on the first reading from Exodus and the modern day pharisees will scold us our sinfulness.
I’m choosing a different path. While I love the imagery of Moses and the burning bush and I find his life and place in our history compelling, I wish today to focus on the Gospel.
At first blush Jesus’ message sounds pretty harsh to us: unless you repent, all sorts of bad things are going to happen to you like they happened to others. And in fairness, today’s Gospel belongs to a longer discourse where Jesus’ words spoke about the need to repent. His followers came to Jesus with a really bad thing that happened. They told him about about Galileans who were murdered; not only that but their blood was mixed with the blood of sacrificed animals. This mixing of blood increased the pain of the murders because the Romans did this to describe these Galileans as nothing more than animals.
So here’s the problem: it’s easy, too easy, to think of repentance as a one time decision. If you don’t repent you’ll suffer and if you do repent, you won’t.
But let’s face it: repentance isn’t a one time decision, it’s a decision we make over and over. Last week I wrote about how the season of Lent doesn’t simply call us to give up something we like, but instead it calls us to journey toward the light and away from darkness. We repent over and over in the knowledge that we’ll never be able to outrun suffering, but we repent nonetheless because it’s the right thing to do.
Recently I listened to someone interviewing the parents of children who live with autism. One of the parents expressed frustration over other adults who attempt to compliment them by saying: “You must be a saint to do what you do to raise your child.” The parent of the child felt anger. He didn’t ask to have a child with special needs but he dealt with what he had, saying: “What kind of parent wouldn’t do what I’m doing?”
He expressed a frustration that I think I understand. It’s become a cliche to say that God won’t give us more than we can handle; it’s often believed that Mother Theresa (St. Theresa of Calcutta) once said that she understood that God wouldn’t give her more than she could handle but she wished God didn’t trust her so much.
We live our lives in the awareness that bad things sometimes happen to good people and that we all live in the fear that bad things may happen to us. When we say that God won’t give us more than we can handle, particularly in the face of those who suffer things we can’t imagine, we find solace in our own weakness.
But we shouldn’t. Choosing weakness in the hopes of avoiding suffering doesn’t lead us to the lives that we’re called to. In February of 1963 (nine months before his death) President Kennedy quoted Rev. Phillip Brooks when he said: “Don’t pray for easy lives, pray to be stronger men [and women].”
And yes, I’m going to talk about Moses. By any measure he had a difficult early life. He was born into slavery and under a death sentence from Pharaoh but was delivered into safety. Knowing who he was, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and hid his identity from her father. As an adult Moses witnessed an Egyptian beating a slave and killed the Egyptian, and then fled into exile.
In exile he built a life for himself. He married and was working for his father in law when God called him back to Egypt. Life was good for him and we can understand how he might have passed on his call from God. But much like a parent with a child with special needs, Moses recognized that he couldn’t walk away from his call to do the right thing with those still enslaved in Egypt.
Like those who live in difficult situations today, Moses didn’t look on the Hebrew slaves as people he could ignore. Instead he saw them and recognized himself as the parent who cannot walk away from children with special needs.
They weren’t autistic or lived with Down’s Syndrome. They weren’t bipolar or schizophrenic. But that doesn’t matter. They were people in need of care.
As we continue to journey in the season of Lent, let us understand that we are not called to repent once so that we will no longer suffer. Instead we are called to repent again and again so that we can see those people who are in need of healing.