March 1, 2020
First Sunday of Lent
(Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11)
One evening a while back in San Bernardino County, a car chase began about 6:30 p.m., coming to a conclusion about 90 minutes later.
The suspect in a car theft took off from Chino and led police on a chase that ended in Hawthorne. The erratic and meandering journey took officers to the Ventura Freeway, where the suspect vehicle sideswiped a Prius and nearly hit a tanker truck. After driving in the wrong direction, the thief pulled the car into the southbound lanes of the San Diego Freeway. There, the stolen vehicle was rammed once by a patrol car, but that did not deter this guy.
When he got into the Hawthorne area, having eluded capture for almost an hour and a half, a California Highway Patrol SUV executed a PIT maneuver, and game over. The car went sideways into a spin, and the driver was apprehended.
An increasing number of law enforcement agencies across the country are using the PIT maneuver as a way to bring car chases to safe conclusions. Using this tactic, an officer in pursuit uses their vehicle as a weapon to force a fleeing car to abruptly swivel sideways, thus going into a spin resulting in a loss of control by the driver. If this maneuver is initiated in an area where property and citizens are not at risk, it is a safe alternative to chasing a suspect into populated areas.
It might be unpleasant to use this as a metaphor for our relationship with God. But, in fact, it is a very common one, not only in the Bible, but in literature.
Notice that in the Bible, people are often running. They’re described as running away from God who, alternatively, is frequently depicted as wooing or chasing them.
Jonah is perhaps the best example. God’s hand is upon him, but Jonah is not comfortable with what God has in mind, and he tries to sneak away. He takes a compartment in the steerage of a ship hoping to hide out. You know the story.
The PIT maneuver in this case is the great fish which, by the way, was God’s idea. “But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17). Game over. And after three days, the leviathan, irritated by the pit in its stomach, spits Jonah onto a beach where he lies prostrate and in complete surrender to the will of God.
The psalmist David writes, “Where shall I go from your spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).
The Israelites are often depicted as people careening down a path to destruction. And in battle, they sometimes ran away, rather than standing their ground. (1 Samuel 17:8-11)
The prophet describes sheep as having a propensity to wander astray (Isaiah 53:6), and Jesus also refers to the shepherd who, although in possession of 99 sheep, sallies forth at great risk to himself to find the 100th lamb that’s run afield (Luke 15:1-7).
In that same chapter, Jesus tells the story of a young man who runs away from home. We know how that turns out.
It’s weird. Sometimes we mortals believe we can outrun and outmaneuver God.
The 19th-century poet, Francis Thompson, captures this in his 182-line poem, “Hound of Heaven,” published in 1893. One review says: “As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and unperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by his Divine grace.
One person fitting this profile was, by her own admission, the 20th-century activist, Dorothy Day.
In his book about Day, Johann Cristoph Arnold writes, “Day felt the call to discipleship early in life (though only vaguely), but she first threw herself into other, ‘more important things.’ There was the lure of journalism school, and then politics. Then there was travel and a taste of the Roaring Twenties in New York City, Italy and Hollywood. There was also a novel, several film scripts, an abortion, a short-lived marriage and a baby daughter. Still it did not dawn on her that she was running from God, and that her yearning would never be stilled until she was obedient to him.
“Then came an unforgettable night in a Greenwich Village bar where her friend, playwright Eugene O’Neill, recited Francis Thompson’s ‘Hound of Heaven’ for her — a poem whose message left her reeling. It contains the verse:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days
I fled Him, down the arches of the years
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
“Day experienced what can only be called a conversion. Leftist friends mocked her new interest in the Gospels: didn’t she of all people, a Communist, know that religion was just a crutch for the weak? But Dorothy dug in her heels. Jesus promised the new society of peace and justice they were all looking for, she said, and if the Christians they knew were soft-minded hypocrites, that was not Jesus’ fault. She was determined to give him a try.”
Dorothy Day, like King David, the prophet Jonah and others before her, was the object of God’s loving and persistent Pursuit Intervention Technique.
To review this analogy: When the police department engages a suspect in a car chase, they hope first that the vehicle will run out of gas. Failing that, they hope the suspect will have a change of heart. The suspects who flee clearly understand that the law takes a dim view of their behavior. Police officers in pursuit might try to get roadblocks into place. Failing that, officers may throw spike strips across the road.
When all means have been exhausted, the chief will authorize the PIT maneuver. The officer’s car now becomes the tool bringing the suspect’s surrender. The patrol car makes contact with the suspect’s rear fender and then pushes, sending the vehicle into a sideways spin and causing a loss of control.
Then, surrounded with no place to go, the runner emerges from the car with hands in the air, and then is usually told to kneel, and then may be asked to lie prostrate, whereupon he is cuffed and taken into custody.
This patience and reluctance by law enforcement is mirrored in the way God handles us during the chase. As Francis Thompson’s hound with the hare, God is relentless but unhurried, patient and yet passionate.
God begins by giving human beings free reign in the created world. But the rebellion is obvious and odious.
God provides in writing what humans should have known in their hearts: the “law.” The running continues.
God sends adversity, obstacles, defeats, wars and pestilence and still — after momentary repentance — the resistance and fleeing continues. I liken this to me personally, when for many years through until this past year, I finally returned to my practice of daily hour-long prayer. God pursued, sent, I believe, a lay-off from a great paying job just to get me to finally notice him on my tail.
God also sometimes sends prophets to be the voice of God, to remove any ambiguity they may have about God’s love and aspirations for the people of God. Through the prophets, God reminds us that — by all rights — God is the one who should be running away from the mess; it is the people who should be chasing after God who, in turn, would be justified in washing his hands of the whole affair.
And yet, were the people to truly seek God, God would be found: “When you search for me, you will find me. If you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 29:13-14).
The Romans text explains how the PIT maneuver works.
The tool or vehicle is the cross. After providing the law, sending the prophets and exposing the people of God to disciplinary adversity, which failed to curb rebellion and disobedience, God uses the cross as a battering tool to send us spiraling into submission, hands in the air, on our knees and prostrate before him in complete surrender. That is what Lent should be for us.
Of course, the metaphor breaks down because, unlike the California Highway Patrol, God is not going to force us to get out of the car, hands in the air, kneel and surrender.
That thief on the run in the opening paragraphs? The CHP stopped him with a PIT maneuver, but they had to smash windows and send in a K-9 unit before that miscreant exited the car, knelt and surrendered.
God’s not going to force us to surrender. We may need to stop before the cross, but we might not kneel.
Yet, Paul explains why surrender is our best option.
He has already reminded us that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (v. 8).
It’s the first Sunday of Lent.
If we’re ever going to start anew, is there a better time than now?
Maybe we should stop running.
Maybe we should reverse direction, and instead of driving the wrong way against traffic, turn our lives around and go in the right way with Jesus.
If we don’t sense the cross as an intervention technique, maybe God has other ones that will bring us to attention.
Today is a good day to put our hands up in surrender.
Today is a good day to get down on our knees.
This is the meaning of the cross: There can be no more running away.
Sometimes, it is not the cross that is the PIT maneuver that redirects our lives, but a traumatic, seismic event we experience.
Takeaway: When God uses a PIT maneuver, it is best to surrender.
Let us pray.
Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are all tempted to do wrong from time to time. We pray, Lord, for the strength to resist temptation and to always do what is right and to follow your commandments. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for all those who keep the season of Lent. May their prayer and reflection, their fasting and almsgiving bring them renewal, reconciliation and closer unity with Christ, our Savior. We pray to the Lord.
Lord, during this season of Lent, we pray that the sacrifices we make may show to you our love and our gratitude for the multitude of wonderful gifts and benefits you bestow on us in our daily lives. We pray to the Lord.
For the victims and for the families and friends affected by the shootings at Molson Coors Brewery: May they find peace and comfort in this troubling time and may we strive even more fervently for peace and an end to all violence in our city, country, and world. We pray to the Lord.
For those suffering from the coronavirus, that the sick may recover quickly and completely and for the medical researchers to find a medicine quickly that will eliminate the virus. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Creative, passionate God, you delight to shape the world in beauty and harmony. You invite us to participate in the balance of creation. We grow in wisdom as our experience unfolds; we take good learning out of difficult situations yet also find our well-meant endeavors leading to unintended consequences. Too often we give in to temptation that disrupts the joyous, chaotic order of the universe. We cannot undo all our mistakes, but we can turn once more to the living presence of Jesus and find new ways to live and love each other and the earth. Help us each of us as we make our journey this Lent always remembering the passion of our Lord, your Son and the great gift he gives us in the coming Easter. We ask these things, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA