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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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3rd Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:1-9

Looking In to Live Out

Ground Hog Day

Phil Connor is a cynical, self-centered weather reporter who has been assigned to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on the well known Groundhog Day festival. Phil is appalled at the assignment. He considers the story below his professional standards. From the time he wakes in the morning his disdain for the residents of this small backwater town is apparent. Each conversation, each interaction is laced with tiny sarcastic barbs at the quaint, down home lifestyle of rural Pennsylvania. His on the air comments are brief and thoughtless. They only contain the barest of information.

Phil does not want to waste any time doing research about the festival. He does not care about meeting the people or learning their story. He only wants to return to the city and its fast paced, glittery lifestyle. But when the crew attempts to go home they discover that the interstate is closed by a snowstorm. He is stranded in tiny Punxsutawney and must stay another night.

When Phil's alarm clock goes off at 6:00am the next morning Phil makes a dreadful discovery. It is not just another day in Punxsutawney, it is not just dé-jàvu but he is actually reliving the same day. He meets the same people who do the same things, make the same comments, and make the same mistakes. Phil is stunned. He cannot quite comprehend what it all means. When the second day in Punxsutawney ends, Phil goes to sleep hoping that he just had a bad dream but the next day, it happens all over again. Without any explanation, Phil is forced to relive that same Groundhog Day, again and again and again.

He wonders why this nightmare of an existence is happening to him. At first it is fun. Phil realizes that he is literally invincible. He cannot die. He can step in front of a bus, or drive a car off a cliff. There are no consequences to his actions because after it is over he wakes up and restarts the same day all over, until he finally realizes why he is going through this repetitive experience.

While we do not have to relive the same days, our lives can be very similar to Phil Connor's life. We keep going through the same disappointments, the same rejections, the same failures. Why? Because we continue to hold onto the same character flaws. We refuse to change. We resist considering that we are wrong; that have an attitude, belief or value that God is working to change. We wonder why God does not answer our prayer and change the situation. We wonder why God seems so far from us. We seldom consider that God is in the difficulty. He is present in the trial working to change us. We have a gardener who is saying, “Give him another chance.” “Give her one more year.”

Most of us are like Phil Conner. We are judgmental and critical of others who do not meet our expectations. We are self-centered. We think that everyone should be focused upon our needs and our concerns. We assume that God is there to satisfy our longings of success and fulfill our cravings for pleasures. We seldom consider that maybe there is something in our own life that we should look at very seriously.

Whose to blame?

The religious people at the time of Jesus also thought that they were on God's side. They were members of his chosen race. They had Abraham as their father. They were children of the promise. They were the good guys. But there was one problem, Why did a building collapse and kill people? Why were such atrocities committed against brave Jewish nationalists? They were all children of the promise. There were also members of the chosen race. Why did God allow them suffer? Why didn't God do something? Had they broken the law? Was God punishing them for some hideous sin?

Jesus refused to allow these religious folk to demonize their neighbor. He would not engage in a theoretical discussion about a third party. He wanted them to learn from that tragedy. He wanted them to look at themselves; to examine their own lives; to consider if they themselves are bearing the fruit of righteousness. God is giving them another year. He is giving them another opportunity. Will they hear his voice and respond or will they squander this opportunity?

Part of the human personality always wants to know why things happen in the lives of others or in their own life? Why does one person escape and not someone else? Why do 10,000 vehicles drive down 1-696 during rush hour traffic but the one I am driving collides with another car? Why do I keep having to work with other people who do not finish their assignments on time, ask dumb questions, and have annoying habits? But in our asking we usually assign blame to someone else. We often appoint another person with the responsibility for our predicament. Jesus told the religious folk of the day to look at themselves; to quit projecting their weaknesses onto others; to cease their judgmental habits.

While this should be a part of our everyday lives, the season of Lent is designed for this very exercise. Richard Foster laments that in an age obsessed with introspection, the prayer of examen has been lost. He writes “it is actually possible today for people to go to church services week in and week out for years without having a single experience of spiritual examen.”1 The word examen is Latin and refers to the weight on a balance scale. The weight gives an accurate assessment of that placed on the other side. During the season of Lent we are suppose to take an accurate assessment of our spiritual lives.

The loss of the spiritual exercise is partially due to its abuse. The saints become overly critical of themselves and excessively introspective. Every motive, every attitude, every action was examined and analyzed. If there was the faint touch of selfishness, envy, conceit or pride the saint would lament over their sin and spend days begging God for forgiveness. This is not the type of examen that we should be doing.

The Prayer of Examen

St Ignatius first proposed the prayer or examen in his writings on his own spiritual exercises in 1522. He proposed the method as a way of finding God in all things and allowing God's will to be done through the life of the seeker. He suggested that it be twice a day but did not place a legal mandate on the practice. The five parts of the prayer are simple and extremely helpful in directing the seeker to heed Jesus, admonish that we should consider what we need to repent of. The five parts need only take 10-15 minutes to complete. Whenever I have done them I used a journal to write down my thoughts but that is not absolutely necessary. Remember Jesus never kept a journal and somehow he was able to have an intimate relationship with his Father.

As I go through these steps I would like for you to follow with me through your own life. Take a moment to change your posture by uncrossing your legs or arms, or squirming in your pew. I am going to light the Christ candle to signify that we have begun. We have entered into a new phase of the worship experience. You might take a few deep breaths to relax.

The first act of examen is to remember that God is PRESENCE. Here in the sanctuary that might be easier than when you are at home. But God is always presence. From the moment of your conception in your mothers womb, God has been with you. Become aware of God's presence, all around you. God knows the deepest longings of your heart. Capture in your mind a picture of God embracing you and showering you with love and affection. Hear the words that the Father spoke to the Son as the words of the Father to you, “You are my child, in whom I am well pleased.”

Now that you have remembered the PRESENCE of God, reflect with GRATITUDE on all that God has provided. If you do this at the end of the day you might want to write down all the things that happened for which you are grateful. Give thanks for the special pleasures that you enjoyed. Rejoice over the serendipitous moments that surprised you and brought joy. Think of all the acts of nature that you take for granted—the morning sun, the flight of a bird, the smile on a co-worker or a child. Express your gratitude for the things that you have—a home, a car, furniture, electricity, water, food—so many people of the world do not have these basic things.

Now reflect with GRATITUDE on how you are a gift to God and others. As you participate in the Body of Christ you contribute to its health and vitality. What did you bring to worship today? Maybe you passed out bulletins, or greeted someone with a smile, maybe you sang in the music team or taught in a Sunday school class. What gifts will you offer later today—a special desert, help making coffee, a warm embrace to one of our expecting mothers. The act does not have to be newsworthy. It may not be life changing but then again who knows what effect a simple act of love can accomplish. A nationally known youth leader was speaking to an audience of youth workers. Mike told about taking one of his student leaders out for a Coke talk. While they were sitting at a table in the restaurant he realized that he did not know how this student had come to faith so he asked, Jason why did you decide to become a Christian. Mike was inwardly hoping that the student would mention one of the talks that he gave or one of the worship services that he planned instead Jason surprised him. He said, “When you called me by my first name.”

Mike was a very gifted speaker. He could hold an audience in the palm of his hand as he told stories but none of these things mattered to Jason. What mattered was when Mike said “Hi, Jason,” Every person here has a gift that they can offer to someone else.

Now ask God to send you the HOLY SPIRIT to help you review everything that you did for the past few days. The Holy Spirit gives us the freedom to look at ourselves without condemnation and without complacency. Sometimes we need to be challenged, and sometimes we need the Spirit to say, “Be gentle with yourself.”

Now review your DAY. Recall all the things you did yesterday. Explore your actions in the context of the situations. Consider also your attitudes and motives,

What were your real motives when you shared your thoughts with a friend? Why did you do the things at work that you did? Why do you say no to the request to help with the youth group? Why did you spend money on a new electronic toy but reduced your contribution to the church or another charity?

This is the longest part of the exercise. It is also the most difficult. We must strike a balance between the condemnation and the complacency.

“Many situations will show that your heart was divided—wavering between helping and disregarding, scoffing and encouraging, listening and ignoring, rebuking and forgiving, speaking and silence, neglecting and thanking.”

If we are too easy on ourself we will be guilty of neglecting Jesus' warning. If we are too harsh we will only heap unwarranted shame.

The final step of the prayer of examen is to talk with JESUS. Share your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. More than likely you will need to ask for forgiveness. Express sorrow for your sin but also enjoy the grace and mercy that the Father gives. You may also take time to share a concern, ask about direction with a difficult situation or person. Form an action plan with Jesus on how to solve a problem or work through a crisis. Then finish your time with the Lord's prayer.

The parable of the fig tree warns us that one day God's patience will give way to his judgment. God has planted you like a fig tree in this world. He expects you to bear fruit. With the coming of his Son and the offering of his life on the Cross you have been spared and given another year. Will you use that time wisely by looking inward so that you are able to live out the gospel? Or will you squander the time? The choice now is yours.

1Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Hearts True Home, 1992, 27.

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