Septuagesima – How do we change?

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You go into the vineyard too…
St Matthew 20:4

Today we are making a shift in our church year.  We are turning our minds from Christmas and Epiphany to the even more radical (if there could be!) aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry – his journey to Jerusalem: he will confront demons, he will confront the religious authorities, he will encounter the power of Rome and his body will be broken and his spirit crushed on the Cross before he is raised from the dead.

And we are invited to join this journey, this pilgrimage, that we too might undergo a radical transformation of our lives – even a kind of death and resurrection.

And we have three Sundays where we will prepare ourselves to join this pilgrimage and to figure out how much we will engage ourselves and in what way.

But how does real change come about in us?  Is it magic?  Just pray and it is done?

How real change happens in us is spoken about in our readings today.

In the Epistle [1 Corinthians 9:24-27], Paul reminds us that self-discipline is necessary in the Christian life.  

Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.
They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.

So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 
But I discipline my body and keep it under control,
lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Paul reminds us that athletes who are in training are able to exercise self-control in how much they sleep, in what they eat, in how and how much exercise.  If they are professionals they have trainers to guide them in all of these areas of life and physical training so that they may have success.  So the human soul – even without grace – has the capacity to choose to perfect in some way their behaviour.  What is needed is both the knowledge of what to do and the motivation to do it.

What motivates an athlete to change is the hope of some reward – in their case, the desire to win, the desire for a kind of glory.  But that glory is perishable, because it will fade away over time – the laurel leaves of that wreath will shrivel up, their success will be forgotten as others come to beat their record.

For the Christian, our incentive, Paul says, is the goal of an imperishable wreath – the gift of eternal life, and the perfection of our love for God, for others and for ourselves, the being infilled with wisdom and virtues.  Think of all the things of our body and our character that we would like to have now – whatever is good in that will be retained in the next life – this is the imperishable wreath.

But maybe this incentive is less clear for us now.  Maybe we are resting in the promise of our justification by faith – that if we have faith, we are saved.  And yet that justification is really only the beginning of our life in Christ.  How do we become certain that my bad habits can be done away with for all time and the virtuous aspects of my life strengthened and adorned and beautified by Christ to remain forever? What will move me today to keep growing in love and virtue?  To continue to change for the better?

This imperishable wreath is perhaps easier to understand as a motivation if we had a kind of radical conversion to Christ out of a lifestyle that was very destructive.  For some of us, including myself, in a moment of grace we saw more fully God’s mercy and love towards us, and we, in response to that love we experienced, somehow had strength, or were given strength, to radically change our way of life – giving up a drug addiction or moving away from an adulterous affair or some other destructive path. 

Maybe you experienced this radical change of life when you fell in love with a person who inspired you to put away a vice and become more virtuous. 

But maybe the intensity of that “falling in love” experience with God or with another is less now – in fact probably none of us could handle always being in that state of mind.  But the advantage of that state was that we were really inspired and took actions to change our lives out of true love.

The Church has taught that if we have become complacent, neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm in our love, that a disruption of our normal patterns can be helpful for our growth. And it follows the near universal experience in human existence that real growth comes through a certain struggle.  Think of the great novels through the ages or great stories in films – the characters face something uncertain, a danger, the unknown, and through that encounter and suffering, they are raised to a new level of awareness, of wisdom, a growth and change of heart.

For those who are not already suffering or struggling enough, the Church has suggested, following Jesus’ words [e.g. Mt 6:16-17; 9:14-15], fasting as one of the ways of disciplining our bodies, that we might re-ignite our love for God and bring some aspects of our life under better control.  Again, it’s not for those who are already super stressed, but for those who feel they are becoming complacent in their Christian journey – to induce a kind of disruption of the normal patterns to enable growth in virtue.

I’ll speak more of the place and purpose of fasting in relation to food and drink on Ash Wednesday. 

But there are other kinds of fasts.  St Paul reminded us a few weeks ago about being transformed through the renewing of our minds.  

This week I was listening to a podcast on our relation to technology (Conversations from Ralston College website – see conversation XI. Deep Thinking in a Distracted World: Cal Newport and Stephen Blackwood), which has radically shifted for much of humanity in the past fifteen years not just with the introduction of the smart phone technology but the concerted and sustained promotion of social media by those companies who spend incredible amounts of money figuring out how we will become more and more engaged in using them.  It is supposed to make us more connected – but in fact studies on our brains have shown that words are only a small part the communication necessary to actually feel connected to others.  So while people are connected through social media to more people, they are actually feeling more and more lonely all the time.  And the technology of emailing and of endless notifications on our computers  – makes us so distracted we can’t think deeply about things. (I turned the streams of notifications off my computer after listening to the podcast.)

What is important today is that we have three weeks before Lent to reflect on what seems to be out of control in our lives and what we might want to do about it so as to continue to grow in the Christian life.

In our Gospel this morning [St Matthew 20:1-16], Jesus is giving us a certain assurance.

For one thing, Jesus is calling us to engage with our abilities in the work in the vineyard.  Now in our daily lives, many of us are very busy doing things already – and many of those things are in fact being engaged in the work in the vineyard: whatever our job, outside the home or within the home, if we are attending to that work in love, and doing it with diligence and justly and wisely as a Christian, that is being engaged in the work to which we are called in His vineyard.

But Jesus refers specifically to work in a vineyard.  Remember Jesus says elsewhere, I am the vine, you are the branches. [John 15:1-8] We could see this work in the vineyard as the attending to that branch that we are, in the Vine that is Christ.  And maybe you know something about how vines grow best?  Vines need to be set out on trellises to grow, not along the ground where the fruit will spoil but up in the air; they also need to be trimmed back in some ways, so they will be more fruitful.  So the implication in going to work in the vineyard is to cut back on unhelpful habits and to guide that vine that is our life to places where it will catch better the sun.  (Some have compared the Scriptures as a kind of trellis, a structure upon which we can frame our lives healthfully.) Here is not an added burden on us when thinking about Lent, but actually a kind of rethinking of how our lives could be more fruitful in the Spirit if we were less busy and had more time for reflection and to rest in the light of God.  Can you imagine it?

The Gospel also gives us assurance, that it is never too late to start this task of working in the vineyard – whether we are in the first hour, the early part of our life, or whether it is the 11th hour – near the end of our life – we can all enter into that work.  And we will all receive the same reward – the gift of eternal life.  Our salvation is not dependent on the amount of work, but our responding to the call to be engaged.  And that should take out some of the stress if we think we need to do enough before we are saved – no, the gift is free and the same to all – enter in and enjoy the fruit and enjoy resting in the Son.

How do we change? Disrupt our normal pattern of living if we have become complacent through entering a Lenten fast. Discern in the coming weeks what fast would be helpful for you, if at all. And heed the call of Jesus to enter into the work of the vineyard, rejoicing in your salvation, and inspired to build upon that imperishable wreath we are promised.

This morning, as every Sunday morning, we are here to do some of that resting in the Son, that we may be recreated and become fruitful.  Let us prepare ourselves to receive Christ, to strengthen our union with that Vine that is Christ and enjoy the fruit.

You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.

Amen +