Today’s lessons invite us to contemplate and enact repentance from a variety of perspectives. Before diving in, a reminder: repenting, turning, changing course, involves more than feelings. If I’ve got my foot on someone’s back, repentance isn’t simply about feeling badly. (“Oh, what a terrible person I am to have my foot on their back!”) It’s about moving my feet. So in the spirit of those old public service announcements “It’s 10:00 pm; do you know where your children are?” during Lent the Church asks us: “It’s Lent; do you know where your feet are?”
The Gospel: Jesus’ fig tree parable is a riff on Isaiah’s vineyard parable: the Lord looking for fruit and coming away empty handed.
“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!”
God engages with us for our own sake and for the sake of our neighbors. Isaiah’s “justice and righteousness:” we might understand this as describing a community that is life-giving for all its participants, in contrast to the communities our world tends to create, where “life-giving” varies depending on where we are on the totem pole. The last thing God needs is another totem pole, this one with a cross on the top. Lent reminds us that fruit is important, that folk experiencing our parishes as life-giving is important, that our neighbors encountering here an alternative to our society’s disfunctions is important.
The Epistle: it would be easy for Paul’s words to conjure up memories of touchy disciplinarians: behave or God’s gonna wop you. But what’s at stake here is the Corinthians’ and our capacity to remember what story we’re in: we really are bound for the promised land. And if that’s where we’re bound, the detours Paul lists (idolatry, immorality, etc.) lose their attraction. Lent invites us to recall that what story we’re in is an important question, and that every day we’re barraged by competing answers. “God helps those who help themselves.” “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” This is why the Book of Common Prayer begins with the Daily Office, readings and prayers for use throughout the day: remembering which story we’re in takes mindfulness. “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps. 24:1). Not Russia’s or America’s or Coca Cola’s or Google’s. Perhaps I need to hear that in the morning before turning to CNN, Fox, or MSNBC. Lent’s a time to experiment with ways of nurturing that mindfulness.
Exodus: To hear this story in Lent means, I think, to pay attention to the backstory. Why is Moses tending sheep in Midian? Moses, a Hebrew, had been raised in the Egyptian court. At some point he figured out that he’s a Hebrew, and since the Egyptians had the Hebrews enslaved, knowing that he was a Hebrew must have been a constant source of strong and conflicting emotions: shame, anger… One day he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew—and kills the Egyptian. The deed becomes known, Moses has to flee, and that’s how this prince of Egypt ends up herding sheep in Midian far from Egypt. If Moses’ career in Egypt were rated the way hotels are rated, he might end up with half a star.
And here’s God telling Moses to go back. That is, of course, for Israel’s sake. But it’s also for Moses’ sake. In Midian Moses has an important part of himself walled off, the key thrown away. There’s unfinished business. This may have been the sort of thing Henry David Thoreau was thinking about when he said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”—and maybe also in our parishes. And God comes to Moses: let’s revisit that; let’s see what we can do together. Lent is about noticing the occasional burning bush that might signal God inviting us to return to those sites of failure and loss, those sites we have under strict quarantine. That returning can be some of the more difficult work of Lent.
Finally, our psalm.
“O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”
Our culture encourages us to imagine God as the one who’s always saying “no.” That’s not a god we’re going to seek, thirst for, faint for. But, as Paul reminds us elsewhere, in Jesus “every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’” (2 Cor. 1:20). This God desires for us more than we can ask or imagine. Lent is about reencountering this God.
The psalmist’s “Under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice:” the psalmist may have had a static image in mind. But between God’s call to Moses to go back to Egypt and Paul’s evocation of Israel traveling through the wilderness, we might recognize that “the shadow of your wings” is often a moving shadow. To stay under that shadow we may need to get up and move.