Preached at Holy Sepulcher Parish on February 27 and 28, 2016 on the Third Sunday of Lent (Year C) at the 4:00PM (Vigil), 8:00AM, and 10:30AM Masses
A hiker was resting along a narrow and steep mountain pass when he sees a truck driving backwards up the mountain. He flags the truck down and asks the men inside, “Why are you guys driving backwards?” “Because we don’t think there’s a place to make a U-turn at the top of the mountain,” the driver replied. About an hour later the hiker sees the same truck coming back down the mountain, still driving backwards. He flags the truck down again and asks the men inside, “Why are you guys still driving backwards?” And the disgusted driver replied, “Turns out, there was a place to make a U-turn up there.”
Not my best joke, but it fits well with my homily because today’s gospel is about U-turns, because today’s gospel is about repentance. Often we think of repentance we think of repentance of sins, asking for forgiveness and feeling sorry for whatever wrongs we have committed. While those are certainly important parts of repentance, the true meaning of the word repentance is to turn, or more accurately, to turn completely around and go in a new direction – a U-turn.
I have a navigation system in my car, so I often have two female voices giving me directions as I drive, Siri, the voice of the navigation system, and Karen, my wife. But being a man I feel I know which way to go better than the two female voices in the car, so I often tune them out and follow my own way. Of course I have been known to miss a turn or two. The moment I do Siri will say, “When it is safe to do so, make a legal U-turn,” which is quickly followed by Karen saying, “Don’t even think about it.” People think U-turns are illegal in Pennsylvania, but they’re actually not. But the rules for making one are so complicated it’s probably best to never make a U-turn.
But we should often make spiritual U-turns. They are an important part of our spiritual journey with God, because sometimes we get off track and become separated from him. Sometimes we’re like a driver who ignores their navigation system. We get lost. Sometimes we’re like the men driving backwards in the truck, pointed in one direction, but actually going another. Repentance, a turning around and return to God, a spiritual U-turn, should be done as soon as we realize that we are headed in the wrong direction.
The forty days of Lent are meant to draw us closer to God through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Yet sometimes we’re just going through the motions, maybe even wishing that Lent was over so that we can return to our normal lives: take a break from all of the prayer, fasting, almsgiving; to no longer participate in the Stations of the Cross and other extra devotions we may be doing; eat meat on Fridays; enjoy the chocolate, ice cream, cookies, or whatever else it is that we have given up for Lent. When we feel this way we might be headed toward God, but we’re facing away from him. Lent is not meant to be depressing or a drudgery, it is meant to be an encounter with God, and any time that we encounter God we receive special graces and we find peace, love, and most certainly joy. If we’re not feeling these graces, our spiritual navigation system should be telling us it’s time for a U-turn.
Lent is quickly passing us by. This week we reach the halfway point of Lent. If you use a Lenten devotional booklet, this week you will be reading the pages with the staples in them. For some this is unfortunate because we had big plans for Lent. We have prayed, fasted, given alms, practiced our devotions, and we may have even expected a special moment with God like Moses experienced in today’s first reading about the burning bush, God speaking to us clearly about the direction that we should be taking in our life. Yet we feel that somehow we have not connected with God or grown in our relationship with him. When we feel like this we know we’re facing toward God, but we feel like for whatever reason that we’re headed away from him, or maybe even that he is headed away from us. This is especially true when we or our families are experiencing the loss of a loved one or a job, poor health or facing surgery, a broken relationship or a marriage, drug or alcohol addiction, or whatever heavy crosses we are bearing in our lives. But God is always showering his grace, love, mercy, forgiveness, and other gifts on everyone: the Galileans who suffered in the gospel, the people who had the tower of Siloam fall on them, you, me – everyone, all the time. Repentance is not just about giving ourselves to God, it is also about turning to receive what God is already giving us. If we feel that God is not a “spiritual rock” for us right now, we have to keep making U-turns until he is.
But most of the time in our spiritual lives we’re like the hiker, we feel that we are neither going toward God or away from God, we’re just standing at the side of the road. We’re comfortable in our relationship with God and we’re happy with how things are. But there is never stillness in our walk with God. We are going toward him or away from him. Padre Pio said, “In the spiritual life, whoever doesn’t go forward goes backward.” In a similar way Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “There are no plains in the spiritual life; we are either going uphill or coming down.” If we feel our spiritual lives have been in one place for a long time, we are certainly headed away from God. It’s definitely time for a U-turn.
Repentance is so important that Matthew and Mark record in their gospels that the first subject of that Jesus’ preaching in his public ministry was repentance. In Matthew, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and in Mark, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” the same words we may have heard when we received our ashes on Ash Wednesday. And in today’s gospel from Luke Jesus warns us, “If you do not repent, you will all perish!” It is so important he repeats the warning, “If you do not repent, you will all perish!”
Repentance, and certainly the season of Lent, is about taking time from our busy lives to turn to God, to do a spiritual U-turn. It’s walking with God, encountering God, having a relationship with God, and receiving gifts from God. More importantly, repentance is life giving. It is not leaving our lives behind to turn to God, it’s turning to God so that we can welcome him into our lives and truly start living. Most importantly, repentance is the first step toward everlasting life! Repent and live forever! All we have to do is make a U-turn.
Rejoice and be glad!