3rd Sunday of Lent (C)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
We – all of us! – are sinners. And all of us need to repent. That's the Word of God spoken to us this evening. Now, you might respond to this bit of news with a heartfelt, “Duh, Father. Like I don't know that.” Or maybe a less enthusiastic but still sincere, “I'm trying, Father, I really am. Lord, help me!” Or you might choose to push back a little by saying, “Come on, Father. . .the Church got ride of all that Sin and Repentance Stuff years ago. Fire and brimstone is so outdated and offensive.” What you might think but not say is this: “Yeah. I'm a sinner. But I know some people who are a WHOLE LOT worse sinners than me! Compared to THOSE people, I'm a regular Mother Teresa!” Objectively speaking, you're probably right. I doubt anyone here this evening is a serial rapist, a child molester, or a cannibal. I doubt anyone here is secretly worshiping Satan, or planning a terrorist bomb attack on St. Louis Cathedral during the Easter Morning Mass. Nonetheless, the Word of God spoken to us tonight tells us that we are all sinners, and that we all need to repent. My neighbor's greater sins do not diminish my small sins. And my repentance can show him a better way.
You don't have to be a church historian or theologian to know that preaching about sin has become something of a fashion faux-pas in the past few decades. In an effort to bring the Church “up to date,” we've largely abandoned the notion of sin and prefer instead to talk about mistakes, struggles, addictions, or lapses in judgment. All of these things happen, of course, but not all mistakes, struggles, addictions, and lapses in judgment are sinful. Sin is something else entirely. At its root, sin is a deliberately chosen thought, word, or deed that prevents us from receiving God's grace, a conscious decision we make to refuse God's offer to share in His divine life. Large or small, sin blocks the free-flowing graces we could be receiving from the Father. If you need an image, try this one, familiar one: sin is the hairy, gelatinous gunk clogging your spiritual pipes. At baptism you were given the gift of freedom, the grace of redemption, so you – and only you – can freely receive the divine help you need to blow your pipes clean. The first step is recognizing the sin in your life. The next step is repentance, conversion. Jesus warn us, “. . .if you do not repent, you will all perish.”
You might think that our Lord is using scare tactics here, trying to frighten us with tales of eternal fire and torment. He's not. He's simply stating fact. Sin prevents us from receiving God's grace. Sin prevents us from participating in the divine life. If I die outside the divine life, then I live eternally in the same way I live temporally. . .outside the divine life. That's hell. Telling me that I am sinning and need to repent is an act of love not hate or judgment. Imagine a friend is driving at night on I-10 toward Baton Rouge. She calls you to chat. Suddenly, your friend turns off the headlights, crosses the median, and drives a 100mph the wrong way. All the while she's telling you what she's doing. You can hear horns blowing, tires squealing, sirens in the background. What do you say to her? Do you say, “Well, I understand your choice to drive the wrong way on I-10 at 100mph, and I want to affirm you in your decision. If you believe – in good conscience – that these actions will make you happy, then go for it!” NO! Of course, you don't. You beg her to recognize the foolishness of her choices. You tell her that if she continues on her chosen path, she will likely crash and burn. So, you beg her to stop, turn around, and head the right way. Telling her the likely consequences of driving recklessly isn't judgmental. It's an act of love. And Christ has given us the benefits of his supreme act of love – his sacrifice on the cross.
One of the benefits of Christ's sacrifice for us is our ability to recognize sin and repent. The Devil obscures this benefit by tempting us to minimize our sin by comparing it with the sins of others. (You would think your friend insane if she said that her driving the wrong way on I-10 at 100mph at night was OK b/c some guy last week crashed and burned doing the same thing at 120mph). The temptation here is not just to minimize my sin but to call it something other than what it is – a mistake, a lapse in judgment, something I'm struggling with. Call it anything but what it is: a sin. You see, the Devil knows that you don't need to repent when you make a mistake. Mistakes aren't deliberate. Mistakes are just. . .mistakes. So, he tempts you to compare, measure your “mistakes” against the sins of others and conclude that you don't really need to repent. Jesus says that we do. We do need to repent. Or perish. Permanently.
Lent is our time to look deeply and carefully at our lives in Christ. Not through some sort of ghoulish fascination with human failure. Or a legalistic microscope, nit-picking every choice. We can and should exam our lives in Christ with the joy and freedom we have received as heirs to the Kingdom. We all need the free-flowing graces we can only receive from the Father. Unclogging our spiritual pipes can and should be happy work. Think of Lent as your chance to become a Holy Roto-Rooter!
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