Maybe we should call this “Second Chance Sunday.” The first reading is the well-known story of Moses and the burning bush. But one needs to remember the reason Moses is out tending sheep in the desert of Midian is that he murdered a man back in Egypt and is on-the-run from the authorities. Yet God will give him a second chance and a major role in rescuing the Israelites from slavery. That’s a heck of a second chance. He takes advantage of it. Moses is leading a flock of sheep now, but will soon be leading the people of God in their Exodus to the promised land.
The reading from St. Paul to the Corinthians picks up the story of second chances as Moses leads the people through the desert. If you know the story of the Exodus, these were people who grumbled, rebelled, worshiped a golden calf, continually tested the Lord, and yet God gave them second, third, and fourth chances. But there are only so many chances. Some like Joshua took advantage of the second chances, changed, and inherited the covenant and the promises. But time eventually runs out. A generation of them wandered for 40 years and never saw the promised land.
We don’t know when time runs out. The Galileans that Pilate killed weren’t planning on dying. The folks that the tower fell on weren’t planning on dying. Their time ran out. That’s the one thing about life: no one gets out alive. But along the way we are given all manner of second chances – heck third, fourth, and umpteen many chances. And that is great, amazing and merciful – but we don’t always pay attention. Even more, sometimes we are so caught up in the troubles of our lives we even are asking the wrong questions.
In the story of Moses and the Exodus, the people who were just rescued from a life of slavery in Egpyt are asking Moses “Why did your God bring us out here in the desert? To die? It was better back in Egypt.” Wrong questions. But we shouldn’t be too surprised. When troubles and chaos envelopes our lives we start asking the “why” questions – why this, why me, why now. We can’t stop asking questions. We want an answer that is a Theory of Everything when bad stuff happens. We want an answer that eradicates mystery and makes sense of the senseless. Lacking that, we offer ourselves one of the following: “Nothing happens outside of God’s plan.” “God is growing my character through this tragedy.” “The Lord would never give me more than I can bear.” “OK, suck it up — other people have it worse.” But the “why questions” still linger. The people in the gospel are no different
Jesus tells us that it has nothing to do with being punished for their sins. It’s just life and life happens. Life is chaotic. Life generates lots of why-questions. And Jesus doesn’t answer a single one of their “why’s.” Instead he tells them a parable. Whenever Jesus shares a parable, it’s a signal to abandon a line of thinking and take a new look at things.
We are pretty good at asking “why.” When we get a chance to take a breath, we can be pretty good at acknowledging God is good and merciful – our God – a God of second chances. Second chances for what? I think that is the key question – and hence the parable. A second chance to think about who we are in our own story and make some changes. Moses went from murderer on the run to leader of God’s people. St. Paul went from executioner of Christians to Apostle of God. Chances and changes.
Instead of “why” and wanting the Theory of Everything to make sense of it all, here are what I think are some good questions to consider.
In what ways am I like the absentee landowner, standing apart from where life and death actually happen? How am I refusing to get my hands dirty? Quick to judge? Am I better at looking for waste, loss, and scarcity than potential and possibility? When have I given up on myself or others and prematurely called it quits, saying, “There’s no life here worth cultivating. Cut it down.”
In what ways am I like the fig tree? Unable or unwilling or simply not bearing fruit to nourish others? Am I mired in feeling helpless or hopeless? What kinds of care would it take to bring me back to life? Will I participate in my own regeneration? Am I willing to change, do the hard work? Am I willing to share the fruit of my life with others around them? Am I grateful that God gives me another year to thrive but will also someday call me to account?
In what ways am I like the gardener? Where in my life am I willing to accept Jesus’s invitation to go elbow-deep into the muck and manure? Where do I see life where others see death? How willing am I to pour hope into a project I can’t control? Am I brave enough to sacrifice time, effort, love, and hope into this tree — this relationship, this cause, this tragedy, this injustice — with no guarantee of a fruitful outcome? Do I believe the long arc of life bends towards justice – even if I will never see it?
We’ve been given the time. We’ve been given second chances. We will receive amazing grace in our Eucharist today. We’ve been given everything we need to figure out and make the changes in our lives.
As the psalm says, God indeed is kind and merciful.