Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent 2018

In the golden days of radio, Gracie Allen once called a repairman to fix her electric clock.  “There’s nothing wrong with it,” he told her. “You just have to plug it in.”


But Gracie insisted: “I’m saving electricity, and I only plug it in when I need to know what time it is!”


We all love a bargain.  But many so-called bargains make no sense, because the best things in life are NOT FREE!  They’re bought at GREAT PRICE.  And that’s Jesus’ point in today’s Gospel when he says: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a tiny grain of wheat.  But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”


     Each Fall, our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate, what for them, is the HOLIEST DAY of the year, “Yom Kippur” or the “Day of Atonement.”  On this day that they are invited to confront the REALITY of their OWN DEATH.


     The traditional garb on “Yom Kippur” is a WHITE GARMENT.  That is because white is the color of (the “tachrichin” – [“tack-ree-him”]) – the SHROUD in which an Orthodox Jew is buried. 


     Those keeping “Yom Kippur” neither eat; nor wash.  They spend the day, imagining what it will be like to be dead! — Many people, today, SHRINK from the harshness of this “Holiest of Days” – but, the REALITY REMAINS: “If we cannot ENVISION what it is to DIE; then we will not be able to SAVOR LIFE and LIVE IT WELL! — (Much like the phenomenon of those who have had “near-death” experiences and who now “treasure” each moment of life!)


     The liturgical “high point” of “Yom Kippur” is the recitation of the prayer: “UNETANEH TOKEF” – (“uun-ah-tha-naw  toe-kef”). This prayer is a brutal summary of how fragile human life is. “Who shall live and who shall die?” the prayer asks. — And, because this prayer is only recited once a year, it is inevitable that the congregation will look around for faces of family members and friends who were present and praying, last year; but who are now gone!  Those people, too, recited the words of the “Unetaneh Tokef”, not knowing that the coming year would claim them for death! — The MESSAGE of the prayer is that death shows no favorites!  Death will strike everyone.  It will even strike me…. and you!


     “Who shall die by fire, and who by water, who by sword, and who by wild beast; who by famine, and who by thirst, who by strangling, and who by stoning….?”  The words are specific and tied to the medieval age in which they were written. But, if one substitutes modern terms; then, the IMMEDIACY and INTENSITY of the PRAYER begins to be FELT: “Who shall die by heart attack, and who by car crash; who by pneumonia, and who by cancer; who by stroke; and who by despair…?”


     The “Unetaneh Tokef” (“uun-ah-tha-naw  toe-kef”), is a telling reminder that DEATH and LOSS are not incidental in life; they are INEVITABLE!  And while thinking about the fact that we are all going to die, one day, is not the most pleasant thought; DENYING DEATH is futile!


     That is exactly what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel.  He is looking into his future, and is aware that he will soon be DEAD – lifted high on the cross… 


     Today, as WE stand poised, to CELEBRATE our “CHRISTIAN High Holy Days”: Passion or Palm Sunday; Holy Thursday; Good Friday; and Easter Sunday — and so, today’s Scriptures invite us to experience our own “Yom Kippur.” — Today, you and I are being invited to come to terms with the FACT that – One day, we will not be here; and it won’t be because we’re on vacation or have moved to a different part of town! — WE WON’T BE HERE BECAUSE WE’LL BE DEAD!  And, that’s pretty SCARY STUFF to think about, isn’t it? — So, this could easily turn into a VERY DEPRESSING HOMILY – WERE IT NOT for the FACT that you and I have Jesus’ PROMISE, (as heard in today’s Gospel), that death will NOT have the final say: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and DIES, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it DIES, it produces MUCH FRUIT.”

     Today’s Gospel gives us a “SNEAK PREVIEW” of the EASTER MESSAGE: — That God has engineered life so that DEATH WILL NOT BE THE END OF EVERYTHING that we hold near and dear! — In the Easter RESURRECTION of Jesus Christ from the dead, we catch a “SNEAK PREVIEW” of how OUR OWN STORY will END!   


     DEATH is INEVITABLE! — THAT’S the “Bad News!” — But, the “GOOD NEWS” is Jesus’ ASSURANCE that what we “perceive” as death is actually the beginning of NEW LIFE! — In other words, DEATH is not ANNILIATION!  DEATH is TRANSFORMATION!


     Of course, we have no “PROOF” of this!  We have to take JESUS’ PROMISE on FAITH! — But, if we are willing to OPEN OUR EYES and LOOK AROUND; we will find that God has planted a whole world-full of “CLUES” that point to the fact that life is stronger than death! — For example, each and every year, the “death” of Winter is followed by the “new birth” of Spring!  Branches which appeared dry and dead, (like those in the church this Lent) – suddenly are cloaked in fresh, green foliage!  What looks like death, is, in fact, a preparation for a new beginning.


     Today, Jesus speaks of this phenomenon in terms of a grain of wheat falling to the ground.  It “appears” to die; but, after a period of time, it brings forth a NEW and abundant harvest! 


     Having assured us that death is NOT the END of our story; today’s Scriptures then address our second “big concern in life” — the MYSTERY of SUFFERING.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, (which we heard as the Second Reading), doesn’t try to “explain” the “WHY” of suffering; he simply reminds us that Jesus, (God’s own SON) – SUFFERED – just as we ALL do! — And then he makes a STARTLING STATEMENT!  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that: through his suffering, Jesus learned “OBEDIENCE.” — (Since the Latin root for the word “obedience” – “obe-dire” means to “listen deeply” – [as in how one “should” listen to one’s teacher]); the Letter to the Hebrews seems to be saying that through SUFFERING, Jesus learned to “listen deeply” to His Father-God!


     In other words, suffering is a TEACHER!  And, it has some very VALUABLE LESSONS to teach us; but, they are not lessons that we are very anxious to, or particularly willing to learn! — For example, I have an Oncologist friend who says that she has never had a patient who survived cancer for any length of time, who did not end up blessing the cancer! 


     Sometimes the “lesson” that suffering “teaches” us is that we are a lot STRONGER and more RESELIANT than we ever thought possible! — At other times, suffering helps us to discover just how much other PEOPLE LOVE US.   


     Suffering can also teach us something about our DEPENDENCE on GOD! — In the early years of life we THINK that WE’RE in CONTROL of things, don’t we? — We THINK that we’re the MASTERS of our own DESTINY! — But, given a few years of life-experience under our belts; we come to a whole new appreciation for how suddenly life can veer “OUT OF CONTROL!” — A lump in the breast; an automobile accident; a sports’ injury; an abnormally elevated PSA; a pink slip from work; the sudden downward spiral of the Stock Market; — or a whole host of other surprising “bumps in the road of life” and SUDDENLY we’re reminded that WE’RE “NOT” in CONTROL! — That we’re NOT INVINCIBLE! — And that we’re just as vulnerable to LIFE’S DISASTERS, as anyone else!


     Finally, suffering can make us more COMPASSIONATE toward other people who are facing their share in the cross just like we are. — Maybe it’s are not the “sameshare in the cross that we’re facing or have faced; but it’s a share in the cross just the same! — And, perhaps, COMPASSION for the sufferings of others is the MOST IMPORTANT LESSON that we can LEARN in this life!


     NOW, (on this 5th Sunday of Lent, 2018) – is the SEASON for OUR OWN “Yom Kippur.”  NOW is the time to come “face to face” with the REALITY OF OUR OWN SUFFERING and DEATH! —- because SUFFERING and LOSS and DEATH are not incidental in life; they are INEVITABLE! — Jesus KNEW THIS and was preparing himself for the inevitable; and you and I must be PREPARED, as well. 


     But, there is GOOD NEWS, as well — the PROMISE of JESUS in today’s Gospel: (The promise that gave Jesus the courage to face his own death on the cross.) – “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; BUT if it dies, it produces much fruit.”