LENT #5: New, not Normal

5th Sunday of Lent (C) – April 3, 2022

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126:1-6; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

“I can’t wait until things go back to normal!”

One of the most common complaints that is lodged against priests, and priests’ preaching, is that we’re so moralistic—always preaching about sin and hell. The caricature is that we stand up here Sunday after Sunday berating people with all of this oppressive morality, making people feel real small for having been such terrible sinners, having made all of these mistakes—all the while pretending we’re so perfect. And it’s infuriating. Some Sundays I can feel it coming off of you, looking at me like, “You little…running your mouth off, like you’re untouchable, like you’ve never made the same mistakes in your life.” Listen, that’s fair, I’m as bad as all y’all. I’m as bad as all y’all. I make the same mistakes every day of my life, I never learn. Same mistakes every day, never learn. Every day. I’ve got a set of blinds in my bedroom, nine months I’ve been living in that house, not once have I pulled the right string to open them! Not once. There’s two options by the way. It’s not like there’s a wall of strings, like a harp. There’s two strings about that far apart, every morning I look at them…“I have no idea.” I always get a really good feeling about one of them, for some reason. In my heart I get a really good feeling about one of them—as soon as I reach for it…convince myself it must be that string…as soon as I pull that one, with such purpose, sometimes I shout, “Let the sun shine!” *Pff* Every day. Two options and I get it wrong every day.

But that’s how it is with us. Especially with our sins. Especially when we’re caught-up in our own sins and bad habits and situations. Two options, every day, and for some reason we get a real good feeling that that one string might finally give us what we’re looking for…and *pff* nothing. Really, we get so used to some of our sins that we don’t even realize that we do them. Or we have been doing something for so long we don’t know how to do anything else. It is much easier to stick with what you know than it is to do something new. I tell people this in confession a lot, “One of the hardest parts of confession is confessing your sins, because you are finally admitting to yourself that you know what you did was wrong and you know that you need to change. But even harder than that is walking out the door and knowing how to change.” Again, we’ve all been there: confess our sins and we fall right back into it.

It’s like the Pandemic. I remember the start of the Pandemic and the shutdown like it was yesterday! We probably all do, it was pretty recent. I don’t know why I showed off about that. I remember it like it was yesterday… And almost immediately as soon as it started, people almost immediately began saying, “Man, I can’t wait until things go back to normal!” Almost immediately. And fair enough, we were in a new and stressful environment, things were a mess. Fair play: anytime we’re forced into a new and uncomfortable situation our natural reaction is to want to go back to normal, to go back to something comfortable, back to what we’ve always done. That’s one of the subplots of the whole story of the Exodus: Moses frees the people from four hundred years of slavery, promises to take them to a land of freedom, a land flowing with milk and honey, and what do the people say once the journey gets a little uncomfortable: “Why did you take us out of Egypt?” (Ex 17:3). The people want to go back to slavery! Why? Because it’s normal, it’s comfortable. “Just take us back! I just want things to go back to normal.” Two options, and our default? “Let’s go back to what we’ve tried before and we know wasn’t working.”

The things is that we can easily carry that attitude into our faith: “Being a Catholic, being a Christian? Oh, that’s just ‘normal’ stuff. I believe in God that Father almighty…I believe in Jesus Christ, suffered died and was buried, rose again. Normal stuff. Normal. Just normal.” We’re about to celebrate Easter in a few weeks: “Easter? Oh yeah, Jesus rose from the dead. So let’s go put some candy in eggs and hide them.” That’s a “normal” Easter. All of *this* is just normal stuff. “Nothing new here. Just the same ol’ same ol’.”

But this is not normal. It’s not. Easter, the Resurrection of Christ—this is the beginning of something new. Totally and completely new. The reason we are here, the reason this church is here, the reason I’m here—it’s all because a dead man rose from the dead. And dead people don’t do that. That’s not a normal thing. No, we’re not here for something normal—we’re here because something new is going on. Finally. Something new.

“See, I am doing something new! Do you not perceive it?”

But again, “normal”—that’s what people always want to go back to. That’s what’s behind our first reading from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is speaking to the people who have been taken out of their land. Long before this they came out of Egypt, settled in this land, King David built a great kingdom, Solomon built the great Temple, many years have passed…and now they are captured by the foreign nation of Babylon: watched their city and their temple destroyed, forced to leave their homes. But let’s not forget why they are forced to leave, why they are taken captive by Babylon: it’s because they had abandoned God, stopped following Him, weren’t keeping the Sabbath, they were oppressing widows, and on and one. They were taken captive because they had really fallen off the wagon.

But there in captivity, they long for “normal.” They just want things to go back to normal. But remember what their “normal” is! It’s not good. The situation they were in was very comfortable, very nice—they were doing whatever they wanted. But “normal” was not a good thing. They sure thought it was! But normal was far from “ideal.”

So what does God say? When all of the people are praying and crying out to God, “Take us back to the land of our fathers! Take us back to our normal life!”—what does God say to them? Through Isaiah, the Lord says, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not. Behold, I am doing something new!…Do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43:18-19). The Lord says, “Yes! I have done great things in the past! But forget them! I am doing something new! Do you not see? Do you not perceive it? Don’t you see that I’m doing something new?!”

Spoiler alert: the people miss the real point, they don’t see it. Eventually they get to go back to their land, eventually things go back to normal—at least it seems. Or at least, things don’t seem to be very “new” at all. This whole, “new thing” God has promised…didn’t seem to exist. And yet, they never forgot that promise.

“Straining forward to what lies ahead”

That is the promise embedded in us. As a human being—embedded in us is a promise that there is something more than all of this, something that is beyond our ability to create or provide—something beyond even the craziest thing we could ask for or imagine. And don’t get me wrong, we try—oh, do we ever try! Every morning we think we have finally figured out what it is, every morning we start going after the next thing we think will bring us happiness, or we keep going after the same things we tried yesterday, and the day before, and last week—and yet every morning *pff* nothing; still searching for something more. Our problem is, usually, what we think we’re searching, the something we’re looking for is “normal,” but times one million! Like I’ve joked before, “I need infinitely fast WiFi, the iPhone 35, and ten billion dollars! I just need normal on steroids!”

I guess my point is that we don’t want something “normal,” not really. We’ve tried normal. We try it day after day. But I think if you’re honest—if you sit in silence, in prayer, you’ll start to feel your heart expanding and stretching, your heart yearning for something completely unforeseen, completely unforeseeable—something completely new. Something that you didn’t even know that’s what you wanted until it hits you between the eyes.

“Awake, O Sleeper!”: A Provocation of Reality Awakens Us

This woman in our Gospel today, she has been living quite the life it seems. “A new husband,” that’s what she thought she wanted. A few of you can probably sympathize. She thought, “If I’m with this other guy, then I’ll be happy!” Do you see what she’s doing? She’s committing adultery, so we’re assuming she already has a husband—and so her thought is, “If only I had a different husband, if only I had a better husband…then I would be happy, then everything that I’m missing would finally be there!” Her desire wasn’t for something new, something unforeseen and unforeseeable, something that only God could provide in only a way God would provide, no. Her desire was narrowly focused on a man, on a different husband, a better husband. Which is exactly what we do. We desire only the things we can imagine: a better husband or wife, a better job, more money, a better car, better sleep, that our loved ones weren’t gone, that people were just nice to each other, that politicians made things better, that the economy was better, that we can give our kids the sports career we wish we had…things that aren’t even bad! And yet when we do this, we’re closing ourself off from the infinite number of ways the Lord will work…and he will work, just in ways you can’t imagine!

I know I’ve beaten this experience to a pulp, but it’s exactly what that young woman experienced at Totus Tuus Camp—“Jesus Sucks” Girl. There she was in a situation where she thought she could experience zero happiness or joy. Why? Because every “normal” thing was gone: her phone, her dog, her WiFi, hot water, good food, comfy bed, air conditioning. She was prepared for the most miserable week of her life. And yet, at the end of it, walking out of Adoration…what does she say? “I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. I don’t understand. But I’m happy. I’ve never been this happy in my entire life.”

The woman caught in adultery didn’t change because of anything normal. She changed because she encountered a presence, a man who was unforeseen and unforeseeable. Here was a man that looked at her differently than any other man every had. With all of her flaws, all of her guilt and shame and sinfulness laid bare…he looked at her in a way she had never been looked at before. In a situation where she should have been condemned, she left changed. And she left changed not because she got away with something, or because someone was nice to her. She was changed because she encountered that something she had been looking for all that time. And for the first time in her life she didn’t go back to normal. Something new had broken in to her life, and this newness changed everything.

We can have this same experience. But it means coming face-to-face with all of the ways we have deceived ourselves, all of the ways we have closed ourselves off to the newness that the Lord has tried to give us—and then placing ourselves before the Lord. I can think of no better place to do this than Adoration and in the sacrament of Reconciliation, in Confession. There, with all of our flaws and our guilt and our shame and our sinfulness laid bare…we are looked at in a new way. He looks at us and says, “Neither do I condemn you.” Amazing. But then he says, “Go and sin no more. Stop going back to ‘normal’ thinking it will give you something new. Sin no more.” Begin straining forward to what lies ahead. And see! He will do something new. We come before Him today, we encounter Him today, asking him to give us this newness.

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