The Urgency of Lent: Third Sunday of Lent, 2016

I never seem to have enough time. Perhaps you can relate to that. I try to squeeze everything in, but I always wish for just one or two more waking hours in the day.

Wednesday was like that for me. I had a day that started with an obligation in Boston in the morning and ending with two meetings here at night. The thing is, I really wanted to get to the YMCA to work out. But at the only time I could have possibly gone, I had a conference call.

IMG_7962So I came up with a brilliant idea. I’d plug my headphones into my phone, put myself on mute, and listen to the call while I lifted weights. So there I was, trying to listen to the meeting, and balancing heavy weight all at the same time, and I thought to myself…maybe this isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

That’s when I got to thinking about priorities. One of the lessons I try to teach our youth is this: Never give the best of yourself to someone or something that can never love you back.

I’ve been surprised at how much that advice resonates with young adults. Not only does it become the measure by which boyfriends and girlfriends are judged, but it becomes a metric for the larger questions in life too. Questions of meaning take center stage.

Most surprisingly, though, it also generates discussion in their families about the way precious resources, like time and money, are used. I have been amused that it is those discussions, more than any about dating or sex or love, that trouble their parents.

We don’t talk about idolatry much, despite the caution against it throughout Scripture. That is ironic given that idolatry flourishes in our culture. We have not yet started building literal golden calves, but we have all spent plenty of time worshipping at equally dangerous altars. Money, success, popularity, greatness, security…they are powerful gods. And in worshipping these gods we have too often driven ourselves to the point of living overwhelming lives.

In Lent we are called to turn away from what can never love us back, and toward that which can. Counter to the narrative we often write for ourselves, though, we are not called by a patient God who speaks to us casually or without urgency. Instead, we are called by a God with time-sensitive conviction.

In this week’s Scripture Jesus tells a story about a fig tree, a gardener, and a land owner. Year after year the tree fails to bear fruit. Tired of wasting good soil, the land owner tells the gardener to cut it down. But the gardener refuses to give up, and negotiates a one year reprieve for the tree. They pledge to take care of it and shore it up with good soil. If even after all of that it does not bear good fruit, the gardener says, then you can cut it down.

I often want to ask the people I know who feel overwhelmed “Why do you keep living like this? Why do you make the choices that leave you overextended and exhausted? Do you want to live a life utterly devoid of abundant new fruit?”

Or, put another way, “Why do you give the best of yourself to the things that can never love you back?”

I think we all want to believe that we have infinite time to start loving the right things, and bearing good fruit. But despite the urgency that defines the rest of our lives, scheduling everything from the car pool to the 401k contribution, we fail to respond to Christ’s call to transformation with anything other than hesitation. There is always tomorrow, after all.

In Lent, though, Christians are called to live with spiritual urgency. We have to proclaim boldly with our choices that our transformations can no longer wait. We have neglected bearing good fruit for far too long, choosing instead to focus on what will not bring us joy.

The good news is that there is great freedom in no longer having to wait to focus on what matters the most. Now is the time to put the first things first; no excuses.

This urgency does not come from a fear that God will smite us. I do not believe that God wants to destroy us the way the land owner wanted to destroy the dormant fig tree. But I do believe that Christ spoke with urgency because he knew how quickly most of us are destroying ourselves. And I believe God wants before for us than that.

One of the few fairnesses of life is the fact that each of us is given an equal 168 hours per week.
It is those 168 hours that somehow baffle us all though. I know of few people who feel they have enough time to do everything they need to get done, let alone do anything they want to do. It does not matter how many modern conveniences we have, we just will never have enough time.

The unfortunate reality is that because of that, our spiritual life often suffers. Instead of being our basic foundation, spiritual practices somehow become luxuries that we squeeze in only if we have enough time. Church is great, but we have to fix the roof Sunday morning. Prayer would be wonderful, but who has the time to sit around with their eyes closed and talk to God? It would be interesting to read the Bible one day, but these financial reports from work have to be read first.

I get that. Pastors are not immune and, despite literally being surrounded by church all day, I sometimes catch myself feeling disconnected from my spiritual life. But I have also noticed how that spiritual disconnection is unsustainable.

So often we look around to find that we are no longer bearing spiritual fruit. It is in those moments that we can become our own gardeners, cultivating the space and the good soil needed to once again grow in abundance.

That will not be easy, though. It is going to take a shifting of priorities, and the deliberate reapportionment of some of our 168 hours. But one lesson that focusing on spiritual growth has consistently taught me is this: no matter what other demands are made of us, we make time for what really matters to us in life.

Billy Graham once said that if you really want to find out what you worship, you should look at your checkbook. I think there’s wisdom in that. But in our over scheduled world, I’d say this instead: if you really want to find out what you worship, look at your calendars and planners. That will tell you the truth.

It the end, I believe that God wants us to have new life, and that this life will only happen when we start telling one another the hard truth: the clock is ticking, the time is now, and life is too short to waste another minute on what can never love us back.

So back to the story I was telling you. The conference call came to an end while I was bench pressing. No one on the other end was so much the wiser. But that’s when I heard someone say on the other end, “Emily…are you still there? Would you close us with prayer?”

And so right there, in the middle of the free weight area of the YMCA, I took the phone off mute and prayed out loud. My guess is a few fellow lifters were looking at me funny. But maybe it was the reminder I needed that sometimes it’s time to slow down, switch gears, and focus on what matters.

That moment illustrated to me in a very real way that God doesn’t always wait for us to be in the ideal place to get our attention. God is calling us now. And sometimes it’s urgent enough that we need to put down our heavy lifting, rethink our priorities, and pick up. Amen?

3 thoughts on “The Urgency of Lent: Third Sunday of Lent, 2016

  1. Emily, I can’t be there in person to hear your word every Sunday, and I so miss that. But I am very grateful I can read your sermons. They so inspire me each week, and I needed this one. It’s wonderful to be here with my daughter, my granddaughters, and my great-grandchildren, but nothing is ever perfect, as I’m sure you know well. Our love to you and our friends in the church.

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