Sunday, March 7, 2010

Merciful And Gracious Is The LORD!

Third Sunday of Lent
Reading I Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15
Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law
Jethro, the priest of Midian.
Leading the flock across the desert,
he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
There an angel of the LORD appeared to Moses
in fire flaming out of a bush.
As he looked on, he was surprised to see
that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed.
So Moses decided,
“I must go over to look at this remarkable sight,
and see why the bush is not burned.”

When the LORD saw him coming over
to look at it more closely,
God called out to him from the bush,
Moses! Moses!”
He answered, “Here I am.”
God said, “Come no nearer!
Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place where you stand is holy ground.
I am the God of your fathers, “ he continued,
“the God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac,
the God of Jacob.”
Moses hid his face,
for he was afraid to look at God.
But the LORD said,
“I have witnessed
the affliction of my people in Egypt
and have heard their cry
of complaint against their slave drivers,
so I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them
from the hands of the Egyptians
and lead them out of that land
into a good and spacious land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Moses said to God,
“But when I go to the Israelites
and say to them,
‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’
if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’
what am I to tell them?”
God replied, “I am who am.”
Then he added,
“This is what you shall tell the Israelites:
I AM sent me to you.”

God spoke further to Moses,
“Thus shall you say to the Israelites:
The LORD, the God of your fathers,
the God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac,
the God of Jacob,
has sent me to you.

“This is my name forever;
thus am I to be remembered
through all generations.”
Psalm 103
The Lord is kind and merciful.
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
The Lord is kind and merciful.
He pardons all your iniquities,
heals all your ills,
He redeems your life from destruction,
crowns you with kindness and compassion.
The Lord is kind and merciful.
The LORD secures justice
and the rights of all the oppressed.
He has made known his ways to Moses,
and his deeds to the children of Israel.
The Lord is kind and merciful.
Merciful and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.
The Lord is kind and merciful.
Reading II
1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12
I do not want you to be unaware,
brothers and sisters,
that our ancestors were all under the cloud
and all passed through the sea,
and all of them were baptized into Moses
in the cloud and in the sea.
All ate the same spiritual food,
and all drank the same spiritual drink,
for they drank from a spiritual rock
that followed them,
and the rock was the Christ.
Yet God was not pleased with most of them,
for they were struck down in the desert.

These things happened as examples for us,
so that we might not desire evil things, as they did.
Do not grumble as some of them did,
and suffered death by the destroyer.
These things happened to them as an example,
and they have been written down as a warning to us,
upon whom the end of the ages has come.
Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.
Luke 13:1-9
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled
with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Do you think that
because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person
who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search
of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come
in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground
around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’”
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The compassion and mercy of God is one of the recurrent themes of the Lenten season. It is something we constantly need to be reminded about. Our God is forever faithful: His love for us never changes, no matter how we behave, no matter how serious our sins may be. That is the way it is, because in God, LOVE is not only a verb, but a noun. Love is the very essence of God’s being: God cannot not love: God IS Love.

God’s love is like the sun that shines and gives its warmth to good and bad alike; like the gentle rain that falls on good and bad alike. And we are called, as far as we are able, to love one another as God has loved us: totally and unconditionally. We need to get beyond the image of an angry, disappointed, vengeful God who threatens catastrophe on the wicked world, a notion fostered by some shepherds who can’t control their flocks, teachers who can’t control their students and parents who can’t discipline their children because they do not love themselves as God has first loved them.

If God’s love for us is constant and unchanged by our behavior, does that mean that we can do anything we like? Does it matter whether we try to leave good lives, or not? Whether we commit sin, or not? I doubt that we would be justified in coming to that conclusion!

Today’s readings say three things to us:
1. God does not punish people because of their bad behavior.
2. We cannot attain wholeness now and salvation later without God’s love and mercy.
3. God cannot save us against our will or without our cooperation.
(It is the only thing that is impossible for God.)

In today’s Gospel, some people approach Jesus and tell him how some Galileans were killed by Roman soldiers in the Temple sanctuary. Did they think that Jesus, being from Galilee, would denounce the Roman authorities? Jesus responds by mentioning another incident, when a building collapsed and fell on some innocent people, killing many of them. Jesus asks his questioners this question: “Did these people die because of their sins? Was this God’s way of punishing them? If you or I do not suffer like they did, does that mean that we are without sin?

It is quite common to meet people who believe that such events are acts of punishment by God. Even more often, we meet folks who ask why a loving God does not prevent such things from happening. They seem to think that God is some kind of puppeteer who rules the world by pulling strings.

When a jumbo jet gets blown out of the sky because a terrorist’s bomb explodes, and everyone on board is killed, does that happen because the passengers are deserving of death?

Is the AIDS epidemic in Africa God’s way of punishing people there for their immorality? What about people who get AIDS through blood transfusions, or infants who get it even before they’re born, from their mother’s blood? AIDS may well be the price of promiscuous sexual activity. But there is no need to see God’s direct hand in it, since it affects the innocent and guilty alike.

When thousands of people are killed or made homeless as the result of some natural disaster, such as the recent earthquake in Chile, are we supposed to consider that an act of punishment for those people, or even for their country? If the tsunami resulting from that earthquake did not wreak the predicted disaster when it reached Hawaii, does that mean that there are no sinners in that state, or in this nation?

Does God love the victims of such disasters less than those who escape them? Perhaps it is the other way around. Those who died might have been ready to meet God face-to-face, while those who survive may be handed another opportunity to put things right in their lives. Jesus gives us clear warning: “Unless you repent, you will ALL die as they did!” Repentance (in Greek metanoia, which literally means “transformation”) implies not just regret for the past, but complete change in our way of living, by responding to, and becoming open to the love of God.

If I am regarded as “successful” in my life (money, career, status), that doesn’t mean that I am a good person, or that God loves me more. If I suffer in my life, that does not mean that I am a sinful, or that God loves me less. In this gospel, Jesus makes that quite clear.

In fact, every single experience I have is a sign of God’s love. If I am showered with blessings, they are given to me so that I might share them with others, and become a channel of God’s love to them. If I am stricken with pain, disease, disaster, it is a message for me to seek and find there the presence of a loving God. Paradoxically, it is often only through such experiences that we can grow closer to God and to others. Diseases like cancer or SIDS can draw out of family and friends extraordinary depths of care and compassion. Where there is love, there is God. Where there is no God, there is not likely to be much love.

So, today’s readings are asking us to take a close look at ourselves. We are like that tree Jesus speaks of in the parable. It is alive, but it bears no fruit. It ought to be cut down. But the gardener asks the property owner to give the tree one more year; after that, if there is no fruit, it will be cut down.

Every Lenten season is an opportunity for us to fertilize our tree and see how it can become more fruitful. For some reading this, it may be the last Lent, the last year they will have to take proper care of their tree.

You and I are not being called simply to survive as God’s children, to “hang in there” by avoiding sin and remaining in the “state of grace”. We are being called to grow continually in become a more perfect image of God, by loving Him, and all of our sisters and brothers as our Father loves us.

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