Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 | Psalm 14 | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 | Luke 15:1-10
This morning we encounter with some pretty strong language (an understatement), particularly expressed by Jeremiah and the psalmist. “The whole land shall be a desolation yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black.”“Everyone has proved faithless, all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.”It can be difficult to hear we are lost. It can be discouraging to find one’s self, at the end of the day, a sinner, a straying sheep.
In light of the density and tone of the readings before us, I think an earlier translation of this morning’s Collect will help tune our ears to the Good News some of the strong language may hide from our hearing. “O God,” reads the Collect as it appears in the 1549 Prayer Book, “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.”Editions from 1662 onward elide the concept of mercy with the action of the Holy Spirit,and while there is nothing theologically dubious about this move, I want us to hold in mind the mercy of God as we walk through these texts this morning.
Time spent with scripture will always make us aware of a holy tension. We never approach scripture with a naked objectivity or set of eyes unchanged by time. We bring a world of experiences and assumptions, many we do not even suspect we carry. Some of these are of our own design, while others are made for us by the societies in which we live. We never read these words “as they are.”
If we are careful and sensitive to this tension, we discover we read much more than scripture in this way. We read history, biology, physics, whole nations and peoples, our selves—indeed, all of reality itself—according to legions of assumptions and contradictions. These means we very seldom, if ever, have the full picture of any event, phenomenon, or person.
In the last century, Thomas Merton observed, “We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own infallibility. … and therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions.”
Despite their hiddenness, scripture tells us we wind up living these blind spots out in our lives as judgments. Judgements about ourselves, others, texts, events, even God. Too often, we assume our judgements are infallible; or at the very least, contextually correct: I am irredeemable. I am unlovable. I am the most lovable. I have a right to so and so. That person over there isn’t really human. God can’t be trusted because of the evil of the world. Has God said? There is no God.
Or, no god but we. [if you don’t think you occasionally fall into this… just ask the people you live with]
Jeremiah describes the inevitable calamity wrought by generations of God’s own people when they seek collectively to build a world apart from God, on terms of their own devising.
I looked on earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord.
“Waste and void.” These words, tōhûwābōhû, appear first in the opening lines of Genesis. Here, however, the procession of creation is undone as Jeremiah’s own people turn from the Truth that seeks them. There is no God (but I). Contrary to how we might receive this passage, this is not a description of divine punishment or wrath. “For my people are foolish,” laments the heart-broken God of Jeremiah, “they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
C. S. Lewis paints for us a vivid picture of an eternity spent willfully blind or impassive to the scandalous extravagance of God’s goodness and mercy. In the fourth chapter of his allegory The Great Divorce, two people meet in the hereafter at the threshold of paradise. One, a “ghost,” is visiting from hell, and another, a “solid person,” a citizen of heaven, tries to get the ghost to accompany him up the mountain and enter into God’s joy. But the ghost will not let go of his judgments of himself, others, and God.
“‘I only want my rights,’” says the ghost, “‘I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’
‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’
‘That may do very well for you, I daresay. If they choose to let in a bloody murderer … But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I? I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.’
The other shook his head. ‘You can never do it like that,’ he said. ‘Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.’ Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it.
‘What isn’t true?’ asked the Ghost sulkily.
‘You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter now. 
Unable to relinquish to God control of his destiny or reading of reality, the ghost has reduced himself to almost nonexistence. He clings to an incomplete picture of reality. Deceived and drawn by the Enemy away from reality’s true fullness, he has made himself the arbiter of truth. “Unless the Lord builds the house,” writes the psalmist “their labor is in vain who build it.”
Much like the zealous young Paul, our limited vision of reality can seriously distort our concept of goodness. This distortion made Paul “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” It is not our work or strength that will make us whole; no program will lift us to that place from which we finally lose our tiny, creaturely perspective. For Paul as for us, the only thing that can restore our vision is the mercy of God—an encounter with Jesus, the shepherd who has left all to “tramp the hills”in search of you and me. Our invitation as God’s people is not to pretend to be good, or pious or saintly; it is to open ourselves to the searching, active mercy of God.
There is nothing flattering or becoming about the two images Jesus uses to describe lost humanity in this morning’s gospel—sheep are not known for being particularly bright or self-governing, and a coin lacks the ability to find or save itself altogether.
Ah, but we have assumed the parable was about us.
The good news for us today is less about us, and more about who God is. The good news is that Jesus shows us a God we can trust with the evil we see in the world, who has not kept himself distant from it or us. A God who spends everything to find and recover us. A God who empties himself to fill you with himself so that you might never be lost or alone again.
But it may just mean learning to leave our judgments behind as the Shepherd carries us to the other side of Jordan.
Collect for Proper 19, The Book of Common Prayer , as cited in Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 191-192.
Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, 225.
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce(C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd., 1946 & 1973, reprinted by HarperCollins, 2001), 28.
Psalm 127:1, The Book of Common Prayer, 782.
“Shepherd, do you tramp the hills,” no. 68 in Hymns for the Gospels (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2001)
When I was 26, I went to the Holy Land for the first time. The day I remember most was getting up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning with my fellow pilgrims and leaving our hotel in Jerusalem and getting into our coach, and in the dead of night driving due East. Ahead of us lay the great Judean wilderness. We could see very little, but eventually the coach stopped and we climbed out into the utter silence of the desert. As we stood in awe, our eyes slowly made out the shape of the hills, below the twinkling stars. Then the bus drove off. We were alone – standing together on the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
We, like the man in the parable, were going to walk from Jerusalem to Jericho. The ancient road is not the modern highway which now carries countless pilgrims down to Jericho in their air conditioned coaches. The road which we were taking winds its way between the hills and the rocks and the canyons, but always going down and down. For Jerusalem is high in the hills, while Jericho is way below sea level, one of the lowest points in the earth’s surface. The cities are less than 20 miles apart.
And so we set out for several hours of silent, prayerful walking .We began to see more and more clearly, and then there was a glorious sunrise, and we all sat down on the rocks and had Eucharist together.
On we walked, as the temperature rose; it became incredibly hot. “Keep drinking, keep drinking!” said our Palestinian guide. We did. But, sadly, we never made it to Jericho. The heat and sun became so intense as we walked lower and lower that some of our party felt unwell, and we called for the bus to drive us the last few miles into Jericho.
Why come to church? In an era of declining membership in mainline churches, in a time when more and more people – not justyoungpeople – are exercising the option not to attend church services, why do we keep coming back? What is it that we realize that we need, and that compels us to return to this place day after day, week after week?
There are many possible answers, and no doubt we would find a wide range of reasons if we polled the congregation today. Most of us would say we come first of all to worship and to give thanks to God. We realize that life is a gift – all of it –and we wantand needto return thanks to the Giver of all that we have received. Many of us would say we come to be fed by Word and Sacrament, to be nourished and strengthened by the holy gifts of Bread and Wine for the service we feel called to give in the world. Others of us come for community, to join together with people who have made a commitment to belonging to God and to following Christ. We take seriously the call to join ourselves to the Body of Christ, and we find strength in solidarity with others in this place. But here is another important reason why we come to church: We come because we realize that living as a Christian in the world is counter-cultural, and we need frequently to be remindedof that, instructedin that, and encouragedin that. When we realize that God asks us to live in ways that are often out of step with the culture that surrounds us, that God invites us to embrace and embody a different set of principles and values than the world promotes, namely the values of the kingdom of God, then we understand how much we need the support of others as we make this difficult and sometimes perilous journey upstream.
The prophet Malachi – whom we heard in our first lesson – could not be using more extreme language to prepare us for the coming Messiah. Our messenger comes “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”
- A refiner’s fire is a metallurgy process dating back to antiquity. A refiner’s fire is a crucible for heating precious metal, like gold and silver, to a molten state, from which then the dross – the impurities – are skimmed off. It’s a searing process, at a precise temperature for a specific length of time, which produces the pure, precious metal.
- The fullers were the launderers. Fuller’s soap is a caustic cleansing agent, made from lye and other repugnant chemicals.[i] Fuller’s soap was used to purify fabric and make it white. The stench from this soap was so great that the fullers had to work outside the Jerusalem city walls as they stamped on garments with their feet or used wooden bats in tubs of this blanching soap.
Matthew 7:6, 12-14
Many of you may know that for almost the entire fifty days of Easter, I was home in Tennessee visiting and caring for my ailing mother who passed away on May 8th. As you can imagine, this time with my mom was precious, bittersweet, and we shared many reminiscences of our relationship throughout the years, but especially from my youth. One such instance was when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was at my friend Patrick’s house, which had a large lot behind it consisting of hills made from the excavation of red clay dirt for the future building of new homes. We had had a lot of rain that week and at the bottom of these clay dirt hills were big puddles of water. Thinking they looked refreshing, Patrick and I stripped down to our underwear and proceeded to roll down the clay mud hills landing in the puddles with a big splash. It was a lot of fun! We did this over and over again until I heard my mom calling me to supper in the distance.
Our frolicking in the clay puddles had seemed like such a good idea at the time that I could not have predicted my mother’s dismay when I showed up in the house wearing nothing buy my soaked, red clay-stained tighty-whities, which would never again be white. (Mind you, not only did I walk home that way, two streets over and through several neighbors’ yards, but we had dinner guests that evening). As I plead my case before my agitated mother I said, “Well, Patrick did it first!” And we have all heard the retort that I remember mom using that evening: “If Patrick jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” As a young boy from the heart of Appalachia, I’m not sure I knew very much at that time about the Brooklyn Bridge, but I imagined if there was a red clay puddle at the bottom, then yes, absolutely!”
When I began studying our gospel lesson for this morning, the first thing I thought of was an event from this past week that made all the major newspapers and has been circulating as a video on social media. The video is of Senator Elizabeth Warren confronting Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf about taking responsibility for fraud committed by his company who then scapegoated lower level employees.[i] Senator Warren’s examination of Mr. Stumpf was scathing and I have to confess I took a slight sadistic pleasure in seeing him wide-eyed and squirming as she fired question after question, admitting damning evidence into public record from what seemed to be this great chasm separating the two. After seeing the video, I couldn’t help but to think how lucky the rich man in our gospel lesson was to have had his interchange with Father Abraham instead of Senator Warren. While Abraham’s interaction with the wealthy man is firm, his tone is at least compassionate. To be honest, I think my curiosity was more the result of my recognition and identification with Mr. Stumpf. Throughout my life, I have at times made poor choices based on selfish motives. I too have had to face up to my shortcomings, ask forgiveness, and make reparations for harm caused to those whom I’d hurt. Perhaps you can relate.
Wisdom of Solomon 7:21-8:1
The Kingdom of God is within you—among you, between you. Within you. Within you. Do you know the place? Have you found the way to that land of God that comes to us not in things that can be observed? That distant land, that land within you? That place closer to you than your own breath–and more distant than all stars. It’s here, it’s there; it’s not here, it’s not there—then, here it is again. It’s so easy to lose your way and then find it once more.
That land has a special atmosphere, a gentle breeze that is the breath of the power of God, a bright Spirit as of a reflection of the eternal light, as Solomon’s Wisdom put it. The bright Spirit of that place—within you—is more beautiful than the sun and surpasses every constellation of the stars. The only rain fall there is of a special quality, a quality of mercy, mercy that is not strained, but“… droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” As a poet once said. Mercy himself is enthroned within you.
Pause for a moment to consider your own response. “Do people who suffer deserve to suffer? Are the bad things that happen to us our fault? Is there a connection between suffering and sin? Is God punishing us when we suffer?”
While [Jesus] was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.