The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19C)
11 September 2016
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
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing we heard this morning was in the passage from Exodus: “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.” This is somehow jarring because somewhere deep down in our collective psyche is the Aristotelian view of God as unmoved and unmoving, eternal and unchanging. We hold onto notions that God must be this way in order to be, well, God. Were God not complete, finished, fixed, then God would be somehow diminished, less than perfect.
Long ago we rejected Aristotle’s understanding of the physical universe as having these qualities. Indeed, on a visit to the Natural History Museum just last week, I was reminded that in 1573, in his treatise De nova stella, the Danish astronomer and alchemist Tycho Brahe, was the first to seriously challenge this view that the heavens and celestial bodies were unchanging. Yet in theology, this remained an attractive proposition, despite the Biblical evidence to the contrary. Amongst others, the great Post-Modern philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and his theologian-disciple Charles Hartshorne have argued strenuously against this view of God. They have offered a critique that allows us to understand God’s purpose and central identity, both of which we identify as Love, as unchanging, but yet who is moving forward through time, evolving and responding, in a process ultimately to reconcile all in all with that Love. God, therefore, is best understood, as we see in Hebrew Scripture, as engaged, dynamic, passionate, deeply caring for creation and the creatures therein. In this way God is personal—that is to say has the responsive, realtional character of personhood—and like Moses or Jacob, we can argue, wrestle, converse with, and, yes, even have an impact upon God.
We even see evidence of God’s ability to listen, adapt, respond to different circumstances and convincing arguments in the Gospel accounts. In Mark (7:24-30) and Matthew we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenecian woman who begs “him to cast the demon out of her daughter.” At first Jesus says no, suggesting that he has not come to heal Gentiles, but the woman replies, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus listens to her with an open mind and responds by offering her and her family the ministry and healing that she seeks, despite his first reaction to her identity as an outsider. Jesus is not unmoved, rather he exists in history and acts personally with those whom he encounters. Perhaps it is easier to see this quality in the man, Jesus we encounter in the synoptic Gospels. He is, of course, more relatable than the classic Old Testament God or even the philosophical Word of the Gospel of John.
In this story from Exodus, we encounter the Israelites frustrated that Moses has been up on the mountain for a very long time. They are waiting for him to come down with news of his encounter with God and they grow impatient. They go to Aaron and ask him to forge for them new gods to worship and they make the golden calf and worship and sacrifice to it. This makes God mad. God says to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.” God gives Moses the Noah-like opportunity to start again and be the seed of something new, but Moses does not take the bait.
Instead Moses argues for his people:
O Lord, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.”
Moses really goes to bat for the intensely human and fallible Israelites. He reminds God of all that God has done for the people and of the covenants already unfolding, and his words have an impact upon God. God’s purpose is unwavering, and yet God is able to be moved by what we say and what we do. For in those instances, what we say and do is itself responding to the Love of God given to us and is an expression of Divine Love into the here and now. God is moved by our ability to enact Love.
Today’s Gospel begins with the Pharisees criticising Jesus for associating with those society considers to be sinners. Jesus, in all the Gospel accounts, is constantly reaching out to the marginalised, associating with outsiders and seeking those who have been excluded, including those who have lost their way in life. Jesus talks in this passage about seeking after the one lost sheep or the one lost valuable item and shows us how each of us is important, that no one has to be lost for ever. We are called to seek after the lost and not count anyone as irredeemable, in the same way Moses argued for Israel before God. If God can be persuaded by love, if God can listen to and respond to the loving call for reconciliation and understanding, so can we.
On this fifteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, we have from our scriptures today not only words about the nature of sin, but more importantly about the nature of forgiveness. Knowing better who God is, we are given a strong message about how we are to react in the face of wrongs done to us and to our communities. We can never erase the pain and loss, the anger and frustration, we can never undo what has been done and we can not diminish the feelings we have all individually and collectively experienced, and yet we are still called to respond in Love. And indeed from the moment American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. that day, we began to respond in Love. It wasn't all perfect, and it certainly wasn’t easy, but broadly speaking, we New Yorkers responded in Love, responded the way God has shown us. We have been willing to listen and be open, seeking after the lost, looking for that one lost coin, seeking to make new life and rebuild, all the while remembering the sacrifice and the love that made this response possible. Let us follow God’s example, Jesus’ example, and be open to having our hearts turned back to Love and to seeking after the least and the lost, never counting anyone out.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Alexander Crummell, 10 September 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume