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God Is Just And Merciful – Fr. Gary Pennings

Fr. Gary Pennings’ Homily March 20, 2022

“I’d say the themes of the readings for this Sunday are both and. We see that in all three of the readings in a way. In the Gospel Jesus starts by challenging the common theology of the day and one that’s still present often today: that when bad things happen, it’s because of sin. It’s always because of sin. So if someone looks like a good person but they have tragedy in their life, then somehow there must be some secret sin and God’s punishing them for that. And Jesus says, ‘nonsense.’ Bad things sometimes happen to really good people. But he tells the crowd, ‘but however,’ you know, because they’re citing all these tragedies that happened what pilot did to murder people, a tower that fell over on people. But Jesus said to them, ‘No, unless you repent, something even worse will happen to you. You, too, will be destroyed.’ So he invites them to stop focusing on others and focus on themselves. In the parable of the fig tree that he then gives, he points out that God is just and merciful, both and. That’s hard for us to kind of understand sometimes because it seems like we’re fully merciful then we can’t be just and if we’re fully just we don’t seem very merciful sometimes, but God is both. It’s clear that if we refuse to bear fruit, we’ll be cut down. That’s justice. We’re meant to bear fruit trees are meant to bear fruit. And yet his mercy shows immense patience symbolized by the caretaker. Give me more time. You’ve already given a lot of time to give more. And God’s grace symbolized by the cultivating and the fertilizing. Give it a chance to bear fruit. That’s our God that’s always showing us that merciful patience, trying to give us every opportunity to respond to him. Yes, God is merciful, justice means getting what you deserve, mercy means giving/getting blessings, you don’t deserve God, giving us more good than we deserve. He’s merciful, but we can’t abuse that mercy and fail to strive to live, rightly for he’s also just and wrongs must be righted.

The second reading is another, I think, both and example. He recalls how the ancient Hebrews were under the cloud of Moses, the cloud of God that was with Moses. They were in God’s presence with him, united with him, and they were baptized of sorts in the Red Sea as they passed dry shot through the Red Sea, kind of a foretaste of Christian baptism. In that sense, the ancient Hebrews wandering the desert were saved. They were chosen by God. Yet their evil rebellion and grumbling against God led to their destruction. They were chosen and yet capable of being lost, both and. Lastly, the first reading, probably one of the most grave or powerful or important readings in the whole of the Bible. About the nature of God himself, who is God? He, too, is both and. He’s both eminent close to us more close, he knows us better than we know ourselves, and yet he’s transcended, other, beyond us. He calls Moses by name. Now we all know Moses. He’s in the Bible. He’s famous, but back then he was nobody. He was a murderer in exile, trying to raise some sheep to keep himself alive in the middle of nowhere. And God knew him by name and called him by name. He chose. He is close to Moses, and he knows him better than Moses knows himself. He knows his motivations. He knows his strengths, his weaknesses. This God also knows the struggle of the Hebrews in Egypt. Now, again, to the world, back then they were nothing. They were some slaves in Egypt that had no power, no influence on world events. And yet God heard their cry. He was close to them and he was moved by their suffering. That’s the kind of closeness and compassion this God has. He’s immensely imminent or close, yet he tells Moses, ‘Take off your sandals because you are on holy ground here.’ Now he does the complete opposite. He says, the Sandals involved some kind of control. When you’ve got shoes on, you can go anywhere. When you’re barefoot, it’s like ew. You can’t step on anything, right? It’s a reminder that you’re not in control in the rubric for Good Friday, it says when the priest venerates the cross, it’s supposed to remind us that we are not in control. We bow it all before the cross. He does the same to Moses. He reminds Moses that he is far beyond him. Moses then asked, God, what is your name? When they ask me, what God should I tell them you are? God responds in a way that reveals his profound transcendent, his profound distance, his profound otherness. He says that he is not one of many things, not one God among many. He’s not a particular thing. One of the many things in all creation, no God is far, far beyond that. His name reveals that he’s not a mere being. Rather, he is the one who holds everything else in being. Without him, everything would cease to exist. He is being itself. So he tells Moses his name is I am who am. Tell them I am. Tell them that existence itself, tell them that being itself sent you. He’s both imminent, very imminent, knows you and me better than we could ever know ourselves. And he’s utterly transcendent, wholly different beyond, both and.

So what does it mean to us? Great theology father( copied a lot of it from Bishop Barron, actually,) but good theology. But what does it mean to us? Well, there’s two extremes often how we deal with God, and I see it all the time in my own life and in yours when you come to confession or when you come talk and they’re both dangerous. On one hand, we tend to sentimentalize God, to make him warm and fuzzy, our comfort blanket, our binky. We try to control him and make him fit in with our limited categories. We try to understand, we try to make him fit within our understanding of how things should be and when he doesn’t then we get mad at him, or then we turn from him or then we resort to relying solely on ourself. That’s one extreme, the other is equally bad or worse, maybe we act like he doesn’t even exist, and for some, they don’t even believe he exists. We hide from him. We go on without any consideration of him. And if he does exist, we think he’s kind of an impersonal force. Just like the Star Wars thing, the force be with you. We don’t bother trying to know him, we go just through the motions of religion if even that. Both of these positions are in grave error. Lent invites us to stop trying to control God, but also to stop running from him. Stop acting like he doesn’t exist. This God that holds everything in existence knows you. He knows everything about you. He’s known it from the moment of your conception before even. He is merciful. He is generous in mercy. He wants to offer you every mercy. But he is also just. Wrongs will have to be righted. He is near and personal and everything. But also gloriously transcended outside of everything. He is everywhere. And yet, at the same time, nowhere. To borrow words from my old professor and now Bishop. ‘Stop trying to control God and stop running from him, both of those are hopeless. Rather,’ he says, ‘surrender to this God who is closer to you than you are to yourself and greater than anything you could possibly imagine. This God is both and, and he wants to set you on fire, Bishop Barron says, ‘he wants to set you on fire with his own presence to make you as radiant and as beautiful as possible.’ Yes, you the sinner. Yes, moses the murderer. Yes, David, the adulterer and murderer. Yes, you. He wants to do that to you, but you have to cooperate. You can’t hide from him. Lent invites us to find that proper relationship to God. Our disciplines of Lent invite us to not minimize this God and make him some puppet, nor to shy away and hide from him or worse, deny that everything he says is important. This God that revealed himself to Moses was both merciful and just both saving us and choosing us, and yet we can be lost, is both immanent and transcendent. That’s the God who appeared to Moses. That’s the God we come here every Sunday and bow down and kneel before. That’s the God we are invited to open our hearts to you. That’s the God who speaks to us every Sunday and calls us to surrender to his love so that love, that love can transform us. Lent’s a great time to come to know that God.”