Third Sunday of Lent

The parable of the fig tree

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  March 24, 2019

We are standing on holy ground.  The image placed before us for our meditation throughout last year was that of Moses removing his sandals, an expression of reverence for the Holy One who spoke to him out of that burning bush: revealing God’s name, identity, and mission – and ours as well.  This year, we are responding to that invitation by embracing our own call to be holy, to serve, to bear witness to the One who makes all ground holy.   

Many of us were shocked when we read the news or saw the reports of the assault on Fr. Claude Grou, the rector of St. Joseph’s Oratory, while he was celebrating the televised Mass on Friday morning.  We are grateful that he will make a full recovery, and that while we are always called to prudence and vigilance, there is no intention to put the Oratory into lockdown.  It is holy ground, where not only Catholics, but Christians of all denomination and people of all faiths, find a haven of welcome, peace and prayer.  We need our holy ground!   

I have also been very impressed by the response of the people of New Zealand, and their Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern, to the horrific slaughter of worshippers in the two mosques in Christchurch.  How they have reaffirmed their solidarity with those who suffered this violence, refused the temptation of blaming the victims or dividing the society into “us vs. them”, how they have come together in this time of tragic loss, with a commitment to build a better, more just society, where all may gather to pray and worship in freedom and safety.  On the radio this Friday, a Jewish rabbi declared that whenever violence is committed in this way, it is not only a crime, but also a desecration of the Name of God.  Not only because it happens in a place of worship, but because each of us bears the divine image and likeness.  We stand on holy ground; but even more importantly, we are holy ground! 

In today’s first reading, we are told the familiar story of Moses’ mysterious encounter with God in the “burning bush”.  First, God needs to get Moses’ attention: his curiosity is aroused by this strange sight of a bush blazing yet unconsumed.  But then, Moses approaches and hears God call him by name, with this message: “take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”  At first, we suspect that Moses will be asked to build an altar, create some kind of a shrine or place of worship. 

Yet in what follows, we learn that God is not focused on a place – as if this mountain, this ground, this particular piece of earth, is holy or sacred (unlike the unholy, secular ground you walk on the rest of the time).  No – the message goes far deeper.  The whole world is holy ground.  You are holy ground.  The mission for which I am about to set you apart is holy ground.  The memories of your people are holy ground.  The suffering and slavery they are enduring is holy ground.  My promise of deliverance, of faithfulness, is Holy Ground.  Holy Ground is not one place, as opposed to another.  In the words of the John Michael Talbot song: “This is Holy Ground.  We’re standing on Holy Ground.  For the Lord is present, and where God is, is holy.” 

As I reflected on this scene, several details jumped out at me.  First, Moses has not gone out looking for some kind of peak experience, some kind of spiritual high.  He is going about his daily business, taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep. Second, Moses is no paradigm of moral perfection.  Brought up in the household of Pharaoh – the very king who sought his destruction when he was a baby – Moses owes his life to the common efforts of resourceful women: the midwives who delivered him, his mother and sister Miriam, who concealed him from Pharaoh`s decrees that all the baby boys of the Hebrews be thrown into the river; Pharaoh’s own daughter, who rescued him and brought him up.  Having killed one of the hated Egyptian overseers, Moses has escaped and gone into hiding.  By his own admission, he is slow of speech, lacks eloquence.  So far, not exactly the obvious first choice as a spiritual and political leader to set God’s people free! 

All this notwithstanding, God saw something more in Moses.  God asks him to recognize not only the Holiness all around him – but more to the point, the holiness within, the call within, the vocation within.  Although Moses is afraid to look on God, God reveals himself to Moses.  He does so first by connecting him with his past, with the history of his people: “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel.”   

Next, he connects him with the present situation of his people: “I have seen the misery of my people, and I intend to deliver them.”  Finally, God connects Moses with the future, with the promise not only of a new homeland, a land “flowing with milk and honey,” but a place of God’s own abiding presence. “I will be with you.”  

Finally, God reveals God’s own name.  The translation of the Holy Name is here given as “I AM WHO I AM” – seemingly, a statement of God’s identity or being.  As you can imagine, this sentence has been parsed and analyzed by philosophers and theologians for centuries.  Many Scripture scholars suggest that a more accurate translation of the Hebrew is “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”: a focus not so much ontological (God’s being), but existential, God’s promise to BE WITH his people, God’s promise to remain always faithful to that identity.  YHWH is the God of their ancestors, is the God who liberates and stands in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, is the God who will always be there when they – and all those on the margins – cry out in need.  This is God’s name for “all generations”: mercy, forgiveness, liberation, passionate fire, burning yet unconsumed. 

We too are standing on Holy Ground.  God is present – around us, within us.  Some days, that is easy to believe.  But other days, it isn’t.  We can become so conscious of our unworthiness, of our sin, of all that separates us from God, that we experience shame, guilt, disconnection from our own self.  “Holy ground … me?  Give me a break!”  Alternately, we may look around us and wonder whether there are any traces of true holiness, any signs of the presence of a loving God.   

On Friday evening, we launched our diocesan Lenten Mission here at St. Monica’s with a projection of a wonderful documentary film entitled Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.  Watching the film, seeing Pope Francis exercising his pastoral ministry, speaking truth to power, sharing words of wisdom and tenderness and humour simply and directly, I was impressed not only by his own personal holiness, but his capacity to see in every single person, in every place, a holy temple where God dwells.  We see him moved by the plight of refugees whose rafts are sinking in the Mediterranean, seeking a safe haven.  We see him interacting playfully with children, blessing the sick, tenderly caressing the disabled, speaking words of hope to prisoners, washing the feet of a tattooed single mother and baby, pleading for a revolution of tenderness to counter the “globalization of indifference.”  

As we se scenes of environmental degradation, all the signs of our culture of waste, we hear him say: “If you ask me who is the poorest of the poor, I would say our sister Mother Earth.  We have plundered her and abused her.” Instead of revering the good creation God has entrusted to us as holy ground, being grateful for its bounty, carefully tending it as our common home, we exploit and abuse it.  When we do this, we are trampling on God’s holy ground.  When we abuse innocent men, women and children, when we treat the elderly, the disabled, the unborn, the refugee, the one who is culturally or religiously or sexually different from us, as something to be rejected, rather than as a brother or sister who just as much as us, bears God’s image and likeness – then we are trampling on holy ground.   

We can take consolation that even when we forget that we are holy ground, that our brothers and sisters and all of creation are holy ground, God never does.  God does not give up on us.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows that he had no illusions about the violence at work in the world.  Whether it was the evil of Pilate slaughtering Galilean worshippers, or the natural disaster of a tower collapsing on innocent people, violence happens.  But it is not a punishment for sin.  These victims were no better and no worse than anyone else. But the shortness of life, the fragility of life, should make us pause and reflect.  Where is my life going?  What am I choosing to do with the life God has given me?  How am I responding to my call to “be holy, just as God is holy?”  

In response, Jesus tells the parable of a fig tree entrusted to the care of a patient gardener.  The owner, concerned with efficiency and profitability, wants results now. The gardener is conscious of the sacredness of the ground he has been asked to tend.  He knows that a fig tree requires nurturing for several years before it can be expected to bear fruit. Aware of the sacredness of the ground, believing in the potential of this barren fig tree to bear fruit in abundance, the patient gardener, pleads on its behalf: “I will tend this earth, I will nurture and fertilize this tree – because I believe in it.  Because I know that God’s desire is that we all bear fruit, and bear it in abundance.” 

At the same time, we are expected to respond.  God takes the initiative in calling us, and God’s mercy is infinite, God’s love endures forever.  But from our point of view, we can’t keep putting off the hard work of tending the earth and bearing fruit forever.  “I’ll confront those areas of barrenness in my life eventually – but not now.  Now, it would be too painful, demand too much effort.  I’ll do so tomorrow –next week – next year – and so on.   

At the end, we are still not bearing fruit, still not producing a harvest of goodness for ourselves, for others, for God.  Sooner or later, we are accountable for how we choose to invest our lives.   

This week’s Lenten mission is an opportunity for us to make this commitment – not just as individuals, but as a community.  From Monday through Wednesday evening, between 7.00 and 9.00 PM, we will explore the wonderful teaching on holiness which is found in Pope Francis’ recent letter Gaudete et Exsultate, “Rejoice and be Glad!” We will discover that the call to holiness involves embracing our brokenness, growing into wholeness, so that we may joyfully respond to Jesus’ call to each of us: to be holy, to serve generously, and to bear witness courageously.  We will take time to praise God in song, to hear the teaching of Pope Francis, to listen to lay witnesses share their own stories of their journey to holiness, service and mission.  We will pray together and come together for fellowship and support.  You are all invited, and we hope you will bring a friend or two with you!!  

So, dear brothers and sisters, let us remember: We are standing on holy ground. We ARE holy ground.  Each of us individually is holy ground, all of us together are holy ground, all of God’s creation is holy ground.  So let us strengthen one another in our resolve this Lent to make space, to dig around those tired, crowded-in roots, to spread the fertilizer, to tend this Holy Ground in which God has planted us.  May we burn like that bush in the wilderness with a passion for God’s Kingdom, for the vision that Jesus has rooted in us, for the vocation to which he has called each of us.  May we burn with a flame blazing yet unconsumed: bringing light and warmth not only to ourselves,  but to all around us. 

“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, 
And kindle in us the fire of your love. 
Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created, 
And you will renew the face of the earth.”