Sunday, March 3, 2013

Full of It

Sorry this homily is so...umm..."crappy."

   Third Sunday of Lent   C 

President Harry S. Truman was once invited
to give a speech to the Washington Garden Club
during which he praised these high society ladies
for the good “manure” they must have been using
to make their beautiful gardens grow. 
One of the members—a bit offended—
asked the First Lady if she might get her husband
to say “fertilizer” instead of “manure.”
“Heavens,” she replied,
“it’s taken me 25 years to get him to say ‘manure’!”

Well, the Catholic Church sure has been getting
a lot of attention in recent days, hasn’t it?
And the eyes of the world
will be on her for a little while longer yet.
It’s kind of nice, in a way,
to have everybody looking in our direction—
at least fascinated by who we are and how we do things,
even if not always taking us quite as seriously as we’d like.
But with all that attention comes an awful lot of scrutiny, too,
and that’s not always very comfortable.
Following nearly every feel-good story
about the Church or the Pope,
there has also been heavy reporting on a whole string of scandals—
some of them accurate, others merely hearsay—
along with the usual parade of hot-button issues
facing the Church in the modern world.

This sort of close scrutiny tends to stir up a whole lot of…
…well, to quote Mr. Truman: manure.

In a tradition going back to the early Church,
the Sundays of Lent are set aside
as a particular time for careful scrutiny.
During this season,
those preparing for Baptism at Easter
were given their “final exams,” you might say.
Yes, they were examined on how well they’d learned
the essentials of the Christian faith,
such as the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.
But they were also scrutinized
about the progress of their conversion:
whether they’d really turned away from their former way of life;
whether they’d really broken with the sins of their past;
whether they’d really made a meaningful change.
While in their modern form the scrutinies of Lent
are more about self-searching than a public examination,
they nonetheless have the same purpose as in days of old:
to uncover then to heal
all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the heart,
and to bring out then to strengthen
all that is upright, strong, and good.  (cf. R.C.I.A., #141)

Clearly, the self-searching expected of those soon to be baptized
can only be of great benefit, too,
for those of us who were baptized some time ago.
The work of our conversion,
of turning from sin and turning toward God,
is one that is never done—
not this side of the grave, anyway.
But like the close scrutiny
the Church is lately enduring in the press,
this sort of careful examination is rather uncomfortable.
It tends to bring to light
things we’d previously swept deep under the rug.
With all the stink and mess implied,
it’s likely to shovel up a whole heap of manure.

In this Sunday’s gospel,
the urgency of our repentance, the urgency of our conversion,
is clearly on the mind of Jesus.
Contemporary stories from his time—
much like those from our own—
about people dying completely unexpectedly
in tragic accidents or because of human cruelty
make it rather plain:
saints and sinners alike, we are all going to die,
and we know not when.
Thus, when it comes to making necessary changes in our lives,
why take any chance in waiting,
in case we happen to wait until it’s too late?

So Jesus tells us the parable of the fig tree.
You, me: we’re fig trees.
God owns the orchard, 
and Jesus is the gardener.
God comes looking for fruit:
God has expectations of us—
expectations we often fail to meet;
expectations which, if we’re honest,
are not only pretty reasonable 
but also for our own good.
God is patient with us—very, very patient—
but we won’t have forever.
Not even his Son—
who’s come to know 
our weak human nature from the inside—
can gain us unlimited opportunities to produce.
The Lord is kind and merciful, 
but he isn’t wishy-washy!

So, knowing that the clock is ticking, what can be done?

Our gardener, Jesus, first proposes that he cultivate the ground.
We have to let Jesus scrutinize us.
We must allow him to dig around in our hearts—
not just in the pretty and presentable places,
but down deep, where things get dark and scary.
We can keep no secrets hidden away from these eyes,
and neither must we shield our own—in fear or shame—
from whatever he brings to the surface.
After all, it would have been downright impossible
for the God of our fathers to lead his people out of slavery
if they didn’t first recognize the heavy chains which held them bound.

Jesus then proposes that he fertilize us—
or, as it literally says in the Greek, to throw manure at us.
(Those high society ladies wouldn’t have liked him, either!)
All that stinky, messy stuff which Jesus digs out of our hearts
mustn’t be wasted.
You don’t have to grow up on a farm to know
that manure is a valuable commodity.
As one of our spiritual directors in the seminary used to say,
“God is the great recycler;
he never wastes any of our experiences.”  (cf. Fr. T. Radloff, SJ)
If God could take the horror of the Cross
and turn it into the source of the world’s salvation,
then God can certainly convert
whatever is weak, defective, or sinful in our hearts
into good fertilizer for our growth…
…but only if we first let Jesus dig it up—and dig it all up.

As catechumens preparing for Baptism,
as individual Catholics, as the Church as a whole,
are we ready to be examined, to be carefully scrutinized,
about whether we’ve really turned away from our former way of life;
whether we’ve really broken with the sins of our past;
whether we’ve really made a meaningful change?
Admittedly, this conversion—this repentance—
isn’t exactly a comfortable process.
But Jesus has made the dead-end alternative perfectly clear.

Manure is a renewable resource that surely will never be lacking.
And Jesus is always standing by ready, with shovel in hand.
We know not when God will come looking for fruit.
So just what are we waiting for?

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