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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.

Lent 4C    March 31, 2019

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5: 16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Laetere, Rejoice Sunday, from the opening words of the mass from Isaiah “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her….” (Isaiah 66:10)  In the British Isles, this day is known as as Mothering Sunday, when people would return to their mother church, the church where they were baptized and servants would be allowed to visit their mothers.

This joyful note is found in our opening reading from Joshua. After their long journey through the wilderness, the people of God celebrate their first Passover in their new home. The manna disappears and they eat the produce of the land. They have moved from slavery into freedom.

In our epistle, Paul echoes this sense of joy and freedom. “So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

In our gospel, we come to one of the best known of Jesus’ parables. Biblical scholar Fred Craddock calls this the “Parable of the Loving Father.” Before our Lord tells this story, the text tells us that “ all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.” We know that tax collectors were hated because they had taken jobs with the Roman occupation government and made good salaries collecting taxes from their neighbors to benefit the Roman occupiers. On the topic of sinners, Fred Craddock writes, “Sinners were persons so designated because their offenses had gotten them thrown out of the synagogues.” (Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year C, p. 259. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees and the scribes are upset that Jesus allows these people, who are generally considered offensive and beyond the pale, to actually draw near and listen to him. And now Jesus tells this parable.

“A man had two sons.” The focus is on the man. He  loves his two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance. A younger son was entitled to one-third of the estate, but he usually inherited this at the time of his father’s death. The father breaks with tradition and divides the property. Scholars tell us that the neighbors were probably scandalized.

The son goes to a “distant land” and spends every penny in “dissolute living.” Scholars tell us that this doesn’t necessarily mean that he spent it on prostitutes as his older brother will later accuse him of doing. It means he wasted the money on useless things. He has taken his family’s legacy and blown it. He has taken something very precious and ground it into the dirt.

Now a famine comes and he gets a job as a hired man feeding pigs. This means that he is breaking the religious law and is considered ritually unclean. Religious people should avoid him. He is eating the pods of the carob, something reserved for animals and the very poor.

Each of us in our own discipline of self-examination can identify with the feeling of shame, uselessness, and hopeless that arises when we make a series of unwise decisions and end up feeling alone, alienated from the people we love, and alienated from God.

We have a moment of sanity. The text says that the son “came to himself…” When we get off the path, we have to recover our true self. We have to go home. And we go over the list—I did this and this and this, and I am unworthy and I am sorry. And we want to get back on track.

If this father had been the traditional patriarch who says, “Jump” and you say “How high?” he wouldn’t have been out there at the end of the driveway waiting for his son. But he isn’t the traditional patriarch. Before his son says a word, he hugs and kisses him. Then he puts a robe on his son, probably his own robe, puts a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. Scholars tell us that no slaves wore sandals. Those sandals are signs that he is freed and restored to his true self. And then the feast begins.

But this father has another son. The elder son refuses to go to the feast. He is operating from a theology of scarcity. There’s only so much love to go around. My younger brother gets everything. I get nothing. His father loves him just as much as he loves his foolish younger son. The father comes out from the feast. The elder son lets him have it. The father stands there patiently, lovingly, And then he tells him, “Son, everything I have is yours, always has been, always will be,  but your brother was dead and now he’s alive. We have to celebrate.”

We have all made bad decisions. We have all done things we wish we had not done. We have all sinned.

For many centuries, we humans viewed God as someone who hurled thunderbolts, spewed forth fire and brimstone, and, all in all, was extremely scary. The word was that God did these things especially when we humans went astray. I suppose this was supposed to help us stay on the path. In my humble opinion, this misunderstanding about God is not very helpful to us, especially when we are acutely aware of our sinfulness. It makes us scared to go home.

Thanks be to God, Jesus came among us. Here he is, telling this parable because the Pharisees and scribes, the elder brothers so to speak, are grumbling that he hangs out with those detested tax collectors and sinners. Heaven forfend, he even called a tax collector to be one of his apostles!

For some of us humans, certainly for me, and I trust for you, the huge depth and breadth of God’s love is a source of great hope. The sheer fact of God’s love and grace makes everything new!  And here in the midst of Lent, we rejoice.

Amen.

 

Pentecost 17 Proper 19C RCL September 11, 2016

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

In our first reading, the prophet Jeremiah is telling the people that, because the people are drifting away from God, there will be an invasion from the north and the land will be laid waste.

Back in those days, people believed that everything that happened was directly caused by God. Herbert O’Driscoll offers a modern example. He writes, “Some time ago in Australia, rescuers had to drag bodies from  a number of shattered ski hostels that were demolished by a landslide. Nobody today would say that this was a judgment of God. Yet people did acknowledge that, because of the scarcity of good ski hills in Australia, this area had been heavily over-developed by business interests wishing to make high profits. It was well known that this development was stressing the mountain side severely. In other words—to use the language of morality—greed and stupidity prevailed over intelligence and a healthy respect for the created order.”

O’Driscoll is offering us an excellent example. In biblical times, people would have said that the landslide was sent by God. Now, we have a much more scientific understanding of events, and we also say that moral and ethical laxity have consequences. This is what was happening in Jeremiah’s time. Leaders were forgetting God and relying on human power. They were also failing to care for those who were most vulnerable in the society. Jeremiah is saying that there will be consequences, and he is also saying something else that is very important. God’s love and mercy will prevail.

Our epistle is from the First Letter to Timothy. Most scholars think the this letter was written by a student of Paul, but for simplicity’s sake, I am going to call the writer Paul. From his years of experience, Paul is advising and guiding his beloved assistant, Timothy. Paul can be so refreshingly blunt and honest. He begins by thanking God for judging him as faithful and appointing him to serve God, even though Paul has many flaws.

God chose a persecutor of the Church to be the apostle to the world. Through God’s love and mercy, Paul was given the gifts and strength to speak God’s love and forgiveness to hundreds and hundreds of people around the Mediterranean basin. But Paul does not focus on his life and ministry. He ends by giving glory to God in the words we use in one of our most beautiful hymns. He writes, “To the king of the ages, immortal, invisible. the only God, be honor and glory, forever and ever.”

In today’s gospel, the Pharisees and Scribes are saying that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Yes, our Lord opens his arms to us sinners and does that most intimate and nourishing thing. He breaks bread with us.

Then he tells us how he feels about us. If we are that lost sheep, he is going to look and look until he finds us and brings us back home on his shoulder. He is going to hunt for us the way the woman looked for that lost coin.

As my beloved mentor. David Brown, has said, “The Church is the Communion of Saints, but it is also a hospital for sick sinners.” We have all done things which we ought not to have done and we have all not done things which we ought to have done. We have sinned. We have committed sins of commission and omission. Our Lord has reached out and welcomed all of us. Because of his love and forgiveness and healing, we have been made new in him.

This very day, September 11, 2016, is the fifteenth anniversary of one of the most tragic and horrific events in our history. It is a day that we will never forget. It was such a terrible day that we actually call it by its date—Nine-Eleven.

I am not going to attempt to comment on the meaning of that day, except to say that it has marked each of us and all of us forever. I am not going to try to analyze how we might have avoided that day or how we might prevent another day such as that from ever happening on this earth. I know that we all pray for peace. We pray for all those who lost their lives, and those who were wounded on that day, and we pray for their loved ones. We also pray for the first responders, police, fire fighters, and the many others who went to help and who were injured or lost their lives, and for their families and all who love them.

We pray for the members of our armed forces who put their lives on the line in the fight against terrorism.

When I hear the fighter jets of the Vermont Air Guard flying overhead, as I often do, I always remember that they were the ones sent to protect New York, and we all know that they fly missions all over the world.

As we remember the events of fifteen years ago, our collect offers us some very profound and wise guidance. “O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts. through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

As we move forward in this day and beyond, may we seek the guidance of God in all things; may we work with God to bring in God’s shalom. Amen.

Lent 4C RCL March 6, 2016

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5: 16-21
Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32

In our opening reading today, Moses has died and God has called Joshua to lead God’s people. They have crossed the River Jordan and have reached the promised land. They celebrate their first Passover in their new home. They have escaped their slavery in Egypt and they are now free. They will no longer need the heavenly manna that has sustained them, for they will be enjoying the produce of their new land. In this lesson, we hear the important themes of freedom from slavery, new beginnings, and, of course, God’s generosity and guidance and love for all of us.

Our gospel for today is the beloved parable of the prodigal son. Some people call it the parable of the lost son because it follows the parable of the lost sheep whose shepherd left the ninety-nine other sheep and searched until he found the lost one. It also follows right after the parable of the lost coin. The housewife searched and searched until she found it. Some people call this the parable of the loving father or the generous father.

Although this story is familiar, every time we hear it we can see it in a new way. We can identify with the younger son in that we, too, have made some unwise decisions in our lives and have asked God’s forgiveness. We can also identify with the older son in situations when we feel that our loyalty has been taken for granted and we have not received enough recognition for our hard work. We can also identify with the father when we think of all that we have done for our children.

The younger son asks for his inheritance and he goes to a far country and spends it all. He ends up feeding pigs, which, for a Jewish young man is terrible because pigs are unclean and now he is considered unclean. He comes to himself. We have all had experiences like this. We go off on a tangent and make a series of bad choices, and one day we realize that this is not who we want to be. This is not our real and true self. This is not who God is calling us to be.

The younger son goes home to ask his father for forgiveness.  His father is out there at the end of the driveway waiting for him with open arms. There is a feast because this son was lost and now is found. When one of us finds our way back, there is great joy in heaven.

The older son is fuming and he tells his father what is on his mind. “Here I have slaved and slaved for you and you never so much as let me have a party with my friends. Now you’re throwing a big wing ding for this son who has spent our family’s money.”

And then the father says the thing that tells us so much. “Son, I know that you have been with me always and you have worked very hard. Everything that I have is yours. This feast is for you, too. But we have to celebrate because your brother is now found.”

It’s a both-and. It’s not that the feast is just for the younger brother. It is a continuous feast for all of us in the Communion of Saints, and it is also a feast for those who have gone way off the path and have returned. It is a feast for those who have been faithful from the word go and all the rest of us who have made mistakes along the way.

Saint Paul addresses some of this when he writes, “We regard no one from a human point of view.” He knows what he is talking about because when he did regard things from a human point of view, he thought that anyone who did not follow the law and anyone who was not part of the in-group should be killed. That is why he went around persecuting the followers of Jesus.

But then he met our Lord on the road to Damascus and Jesus asked him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  Scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he saw the world in an entirely different way. He saw the world from the point of view of Christ. And that is why he can write, with stirring conviction, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. See, everything has become new!” Now I know that just because my father gives a feast for my brother who lost his way does not mean that I don’t get a feast, too. God is incredibly generous, loving, and inclusive.

God is reaching out to everyone in a spirit of reconciliation. and God is calling us to carry out the ministry of reconciliation.

But there is an important point to keep in mind. If Saul had not listened to Jesus, if he had continued on his destructive path, we would never have had this letter to read.  If the younger son had not come to himself and repented and turned back toward God and gone home to confess his destructive behavior which affected not only his family but all the workers on his father’s land and all the folks in the surrounding area who depended on his father for their livelihoods; if we humans do not come to our true selves and acknowledge our destructive behavior, and confess it with a sincere intention to change our behavior, there is no reconciliation possible. It is a two-way street. There are people who do all kinds of destructive things to other people and have no idea of the damage they are doing. They think they are doing just fine. Their chances of true repentance and full commitment to changing their behavior are small.

Most of us in this sacred place right now are somewhere on the other end of the spectrum. We are acutely aware of our errors and are genuinely pained by our sinfulness.  We sincerely confess, and we truly want to change. We know we need God’s help. The parable of the prodigal or lost son is for us. We feel so distressed and sad about our sins that it is easy for us to feel hopeless. This is why, especially during this season of self-examination and repentance and metanoia, conversion, we need to hear this parable.

God is out there at the end of the driveway waiting for us to come home—home to God, home to our best and truest self, home to the human family, home to the feast of forgiveness and new life. God is waiting to wrap us in a big hug and welcome us home to the awareness that God’s love and healing are far bigger and deeper than we could ever imagine and that we are welcome to God’s infinite and eternal feast.  Amen.

Pentecost 17 Proper 19C RCL September 15, 2013

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
 Psalm 14
 Timothy 1: 12-17
 Luke 15:1-10
In our opening lesson from Jeremiah, God’s people have strayed from God’s values of compassion. The ultimate result is that their society is crumbling and that they will suffer a foreign invasion.
In his letter to Timothy, his student and apprentice, Paul expresses his gratitude to Jesus, who has called Paul to minister in Jesus’ name and has given Paul grace to carry out his ministry even though Paul was, in his own words, “a persecutor and a man of violence.” As we know, until he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was totally dedicated to killing the followers of Jesus.
In our gospel for today, we see Jesus, our Good Shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who are safe and secure and goes out to rescue the one who is lost and in danger.
Our lessons and collect for today lead me to take some time to reflect on a topic we had discussed some time ago, and some folks had asked for some reflections on this topic of Original Sin and Original Blessing.
There is one strain of Christian theology that was strongly promoted by St. Augustine of Hippo, who had led a wild life before he finally found faith. This theology says that all of us are born sinners. Even little babies are born sinners, and we will all be very bad people and will do bad things except for the grace of God. This is also the theology that says that unbaptized babies will go to hell or limbo. And this theology says that we baptize babies to prevent them from going to hell or limbo. This theology makes God into a bad and hateful parent.
The theology of Original Blessing is a theology that looks at the account of the creation in the Book of Genesis and sees that, at every stage of that creation, there is a wonderful refrain, “ and God saw that it was good.” Original Blessing, or Creation Theology, also says that God created people as good. Little babies are not horrible sinners bent on doing evil. They are wonderful little human beings who are curious, open to love and learning. They need good guidance from all of us to grow up and be creative people.
The theology of Original Blessing says that all people are created essentially good and that God has given us free will. We have choices.God loves us with all of God’s heart. God loves us unconditionally. God wants us to love God back. But, if God simply programmed us to love God and others, like robots or puppets, that love would mean nothing because it would not be our free choice. So God gives us free will.
The story of Adam and Eve in the Bible is an early attempt to explain how evil came into the world. Adam and Eve are given a beautiful garden and all they have to do is not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and, as we all know they eat the fruit. This story is the basis for the theology of Original Sin. Basically, the theology says, Adam and Eve committed that first, original sin, and now we are all afflicted with the sin that originated with them, namely, Original Sin. That theology says that we were all mired in sin, and God sent God’s only Son to free us from that curse.
The theology of Original Blessing, described by Matthew Fox in his book, Original Blessing, says that God created the world and it was good, and God created people and they are basically good. God gave us the gift of free will and we can make some humdingers of bad choices and messes, but God never stops loving us and is always there to help us.
This loving God would never condemn his Son to die as a sacrifice for us because God is not a God who needs sacrifices. Jesus is God walking the face of the earth, God came among us to lead us and guide us and show us how to live, how to love God and how to love other people.
We humans do have a tendency to want to do it our own way rather than to follow God’s guidance. This is what we call the sin of pride. We don’t want to stick to those boring old Ten Commandments. We don’t want to pursue the virtues of faith, hope, and love, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. We can find ourselves at times drawn almost irresistibly to pride, wrath, envy, greed, lust, gluttony, and sloth. We can be like two year olds. We don’t want to love God back and love our neighbor.
All of this means that we can sure use some good help, and that is why Jesus came to be with us, to show us the way, to be someone we can follow and to give us the grace and power to follow in his footsteps. This is our loving God seeing that we need help and grace and coming to be with us.
Because the creation is good and we are trying to follow Jesus, we are also called to cherish the creation—the earth, the oceans and lakes and rivers and seas and skies, the plants and animals, everything that God has given us. In other words, we are called to be good stewards of every part of the beautiful world that God has given us.
Celtic theology expresses many of these concepts in a beautiful way, and there was a Celtic theologian, Pelagius, who tried to express the idea that God made the creation good and saw that it was good, and this included people. But his words and ideas were twisted and misinterpreted, and he was branded a heretic.
I have always loved our collect for today. Here is the version from the 1928 prayer book. “O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee; mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
In this prayer, we are saying that without God we are not able to please God. Does this mean that we cannot do anything good without God’s help? Does this mean that we are helpless without God? I don’t think that is the meaning. I think the meaning is that God has created us good and that we can do many good things, and that God wants us to choose to be partners with God. God wants us to be co-creators with God in doing and creating good things, in taking care of the creation, in loving
God back and in loving others as God loves them. I think that it means that what pleases God the most is our accepting God’s love and loving God back. When we do that, our “hearts are fixed where true joys are to be found.” We will be following Jesus for the rest of our eternal lives.
Amen.