The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19C)
12 September 2010
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
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, who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Exodus 32:1, 7-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
One of the major criticisms levelled against Jesus throughout the Gospels is that he consorts with unsavoury characters. These people go by a variety of epithets: tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, Samaritans. Each one, in the eyes of Judean society, is worse than the next. Judea being a crossroads of cultures, Jesus mixes with people from all ethnic groups and with people from all classes, with men and with women—especially women who have been shunned as harlots or widows or infirm. Each Gospel has its stories of Pharisees and Scribes, the Jewish authorities, working very hard to entangle Jesus in an accusation of wrongdoing over his connexions with such people. Each Gospel even has its stories of Jesus’ disciples being concerned about such behaviour.
Jesus always has the same answer and it boils down to this: he has come to bring everyone into relationship with the God of Israel. For Jesus, everyone includes those on the periphery of society and everyone includes those at the centre. Again and again, Jesus reminds the powerful that he has come to bring all people to the knowledge and love of God—especially those who have been excluded by society and who think that they are forgotten even by God. Today's lessons from Scripture are, therefore, about inclusion.
And yet, it is easy for us to hear those lessons as focussing on sin and sinners. We hear about the sin of Israel in forming and worshipping the golden calf. We hear Paul telling Timothy what a big sinner he is and that Jesus came into the world to save such people. We hear in the Gospel how “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” We can get bogged down in the mire of sin—those things we do that take us out of relationship with God, those actions that place our own narrow perceived self interest first—and beat ourselves up to the point where we can no longer see within ourselves the image and likeness of God. Indeed, humans are built to get ourselves into trouble, but we are also built partaking of God's love, able within ourselves to give and receive the love of God.
The stories from scripture that form our lessons for today help us to see that despite all our shortcomings, despite our unfailing ability to get things wrong, that God loves and cares for us—all of us. They show us that our worthiness, our lovability, is inherent in our very being because we are God's children and our connexion with him can not be broken.
As a parent myself, I can understand God getting really mad at the Children of Israel over the cow. You turn your back for one moment to talk to Moses—you know, when someone comes to the door or you have to take a phone call—and what do they do? They think you don't love them any more and build that golden calf. It's frustrating. You tell them you are unhappy and what do they do? They have an excuse: “I was just....” But then Moses brings God back to himself from his momentary anger. Moses reminds God of his love for his people, of his covenant with his people. Here God is certainly no Greek unmoved first mover. No, he is passionate about his people.
We Christians believe that God established his relationship with Israel and then "in these latter days" sent Jesus Christ into the world so that all the other people of the world might also be brought into relationship with him, with the God of Israel. In Jesus Christ, God expands his love outward to all those who had not been a part of that first—and still unbroken—covenant with the Jewish people. In a way, the Scribes and Pharisees act like first children on the arrival of a little brother or sister, or even like the children from a first marriage. They seem a little resentful that their God and Father is welcoming new children into his life, into his family, and making a new convent with them. They are particularly unhappy to see that these new children are different and not at all respectable in the eyes of society as they know it. They seek to challenge him in this and Jesus responds by saying that God’s love is big enough for everyone.
Jesus shows God's first children his abiding love for them, at the same time as he affirms that he seeks to bring into his fold all the other sheep of his pasture, going to great lengths to go after even one who has wandered off. God loves us so much that he is not satisfied until he has recovered each and every one of us and enfolds us in his love. He is constantly seeking us, calling out to us to come into his embrace, to enter his sheepfold, and partake of the divine life he offers us.
As I said last week, we may have the freedom to run in the other direction. This is, however, our choice. God still calls to us regardless of our place in society and especially if we are on its margins—prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners, Samaritans that we are. I believe that there can be something truly transformative in our coming to know and feel, really know and feel, that God loves each and every one of us, that he never stays angry with us, that he loves us always even when we may displease him, and that he calls out to us like that shepherd running off after the one sheep. Today on this first Sunday back after the Summer let us with new ears hear the Gospel that calls us into relationship with the God of Israel in the person of Jesus Christ and respond with all our hearts, engaging with the life of the Body of Christ—our community—and serving him as true ministers of that Gospel.
Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Alexander Crummell, 10 September 2010
© 2010 Andrew Charles Blume