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Pentecost 14 Proper 19C September 15, 2019

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Our first reading today comes from the prophet Jeremiah. There is an enemy from the North, probably the Babylonian Empire, and the attack of this enemy is going to cause such vast destruction that scholars tell us the wording is similar to that used to describe the chaos before the creation. The earth becomes “waste and void,” and the heavens have no light.

The attack is described as a hot desert wind, and scholars such as Walter Bouzard tell us that, though this passage refers to events that happened about two thousand six hundred years ago, we, the people of God in the twenty-first century, can read this passage as an indication of what human activity is doing to God’s creation. Bouzard writes, “The link between human sin and environmental degradation has received a new and less metaphorical meaning in recent decades. Whatever one thinks about the scientific causes of global warming,  the fact remains that human consumption has filled our seas with plastic and our rain with acids. This is not the direct judgment of God, of course, but it does seem that God has created the world in such a way that sin’s consequences are felt in our environment. What might Christians do?” (Bouzard, New Proclamation Year C 2013, Easter through Christ the King, p. 176

Whether it is an enemy from the North, or some other threat, the devastation described in our reading is profound. “The whole land shall be a desolation,” God says. Biblical scholar James D. Newsome says that we might describe the situation portrayed in this reading in two words: “total despair.” (Newsome, Texts for Preaching Year C, p. 507.) But this is not the last word. There is a final note of hope. God says, “Yet I will not make a full end.”

Our epistle for today is from the First Letter to Timothy. Scholars have spent long hours, days, and years debating whether this letter was written by Paul late in his ministry or by a faithful disciple of Paul. In either case, the latter is written to convey the thought and spirit of Paul, and it is directed to his beloved helper, Timothy. Once again, we hear the theme of hope. If anyone deserved to be written off by God, it was Saul, the merciless persecutor of the followers of Christ. 

But what did our Lord do? The risen Jesus spoke to Saul of Tarsus and asked Saul why he was killing followers of what was then called The Way.  And Saul was transformed by the mercy and love of Christ.

In our gospel for today, the Pharisees and the scribes are complaining because Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors. Always, we need to keep in mind that the Pharisees and scribes were people like us. We should not label them as the hated Other. They were just trying to keep their faith as it had been handed down to them. Unfortunately, the legal scholars had expanded the ten commandments into six hundred thirty-three rules and regulations that only people of wealth and leisure could follow.

In response to their complaints, Jesus tells two parables. The first one is about the one lost sheep out of a flock of one hundred. Jesus asks which shepherd would not leave the flock and go to find the lost sheep.  The shepherds listening to Jesus would have asked, “Are you crazy? You want us to leave our flock to be eaten by wild animals and go off and find the one lost sheep?”

Thus is just another example of how the kingdom of Jesus turns everything upside down. Yes, Jesus goes out and finds the lost sheep. And he lays it across his shoulders, takes it home, and invites his neighbors in for a feast. In a similar fashion, the woman who has lost the silver coin searches and searches until she finds it and invites her neighbors in to celebrate with her.

In his book, Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, Robert Farrar Capon writes, “Jesus’ plan of salvation works only with the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead; the living, the great, the successful, the found, and the first simply will not consent to the radical slimming down that Jesus, the Needle of God, calls for if he is to pull them through into the kingdom.” (p. 388)

On the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep. Capon writes, “The entire cause of the recovery operation in both stories is the shepherd’s, or the woman’s, determination to find the lost. Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin does a blessed thing except hang around in its lostness. On the strength of this parable, therefore, it is precisely our sins, and not our goodnesses, that most commend us to the grace of God.  Capon says that the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin “…are parables about God’s determination to move before we do—in short, to make lostness and death the only tickets we need to the Supper of the Lamb…. These stories are parables of grace, and grace only.” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 186-187.)

Capon concludes, “It is about the ‘one thing necessary’ (See Luke 10:42): the response of trust, of faith in Jesus’ free acceptance of us by the grace of his death and resurrection. It is, in other words, about a faithful, Mary-like waiting upon Jesus himself as the embodiment of the mystery—and about the danger of substituting some prudent, fretful, Martha-like business of our own for that waiting.” (Kingdom,Grace,Judgment, p. 424.)

I think that “Mary-like waiting” is what our Collect for today is about. This prayer dates back to at least 750 A.D. Our traditional version goes back to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The 1549 version of the prayer reads,  “O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee, grant that the working of thy mercy may in all things direct and rule our hearts.”

It is not that we cannot do good things without God. Of course we can. It is, rather, that God is calling us to respond to God’s gifts of grace, love, and mercy, and to trust God to lead us in everything that we think and do because trusting in God frees us from our lostness and allows us to live in our foundness and our freedom as God’s beloved children. May we accept God’s gift of grace. Amen.

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