Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Ordinary 24C; Proper 19
Oh Jeremiah, you are in touch with God’s anger like seemingly no other!
This week we get the word that we are stupid children, skilled at doing evil. As a result, God will rightfully bring desolation to the whole land, no relenting, no turning back. Is this a word we are willing to share? The only bit of relief comes with this short sentence, “Yet, I will not make a full end.” A glimpse of hope remains. God destroys in order to build up, but what of those living through the present-day wrath? I spent a lot of pastoral breath assuring people that God does not give us what we deserve, but rather extends a grace and mercy that belies reason and human imagination. Hence, this text from Jeremiah causes me pause. Does God sometimes drop the hammer on our misdeeds and let us suffer the painful consequences of our actions?
I think of this more in terms of our corporate harm to creation and others, rather than our individual bad acts. At some point, the weight of our exploitation of the earth, the greed made evident in our unwillingness to provide for all people, our ignoring of the vulnerable and our unwillingness to go and seek the lost comes back to haunt us and God does not intervene – at least not for a season – forcing us to confront that which for too long we ignored or justified. Creation will withstand our abuse for only so long. The oppressed will not submit forever. Rigged systems and corrupt institutions eventually collapse, the bubble bursts, the Ponzi scam crumbles, everyone now sees that the emperor has no clothes. Upheaval comes and only a radical turning brings restoration. Could this be a word we are willing to share?
The blessing of Jeremiah’s harsh judgment comes only when we deign to recognize the stupidity and evil of our own actions and inactions. Only then do we cling to that lone sentence of reprieve: “Yet, I will not make a full end.” We contemporary readers of the prophet get the benefit of advanced notice and the opportunity to repent. The other two readings for this week show the glorious possibility of recognizing our need for God’s mercy and God’s yearning to transform our evil into good and our stupidity into wisdom.
Timothy tells his conversion story. He lists his former evil, stupid traits and then praises God that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. Even this foremost among sinners God can transform into a conduit for divine love and grace. Surely, this is a word for us to share. Certainly, we could bear witness to this truth, too. Undoubtedly, God’s power to save extends not only to individuals but to nations and communities as well. Might we proclaim that word of hopeful possibility? We no longer live in ignorance and therefore, knowing Jesus Christ, we now have the opportunity to step into God’s open end and do good.
Jesus speaks a word of grace this week, too. Tax collectors and sinners crowd around Jesus, leaning in to hear him. Pharisees and scribes grumble at the scandalous sight of this teacher eating with the disreputable and unclean. Jesus surveys the scene, hears the complaints, knows the need of the crowds and the judgment of the religious leaders and tells a parable. “Which one of you, would not leave the 99 sheep and go after the one that is lost?” Well, truth be told, I would more likely cut my losses and stand guard over the 99. It makes sense. It is that whole bird in the hand idiom. It is the ethics of triage, save as many as you can, the best as you can, knowing some will inevitably be lost, a painful unavoidable truth. Why make the 99 vulnerable for the sake of one?
But apparently, God does not work this way. The lost one gets preferential treatment. God is true to God’s word and does not make a full end. God does not write off those most of us would deem at best unworthy, and at worst irredeemable. This familiar parable of the lost sheep and then the lost coin reveals the extent to which God will go not to make that full end, to not leave us to our own devices and destruction. God takes a tremendous risk, sending the Son to seek and save the lost no matter how stupid and skilled at evil we sinners are, individually and corporately.
Jesus’ story of foolish, risky, nonsensical grace is good news, however, only to those who recognize themselves as the lost, rather than the well-behaved, secure, content 99. The tax collectors and sinners rejoice, while the Pharisees and scribes grumble. What’s our response? If we listen to Jeremiah, we know we stand solidly outside the confines of the pasture’s boundaries. If we listen to Timothy and to Jesus, we know we do not stand outside the purview of God’s compassion and love. We need both perspectives if we are to experience the overflowing mercy of Jesus Christ and live accordingly.
God has not made and does not make a full end. Though we wander far from God’s wisdom and will, Jesus relentlessly seeks us out. After all, he came to save sinners. Right now, God yearns to rejoice over our salvation, our turning, our transformation, making of us an example to others of divine goodness and power. Which ones of us would leave the 99 and go after the one? Who among us would take such a risk on such a poor bet? What group of people would survey the world, see the evil of which they are a part, repent and do good? Those who know what it is to be lost, sought, found, restored and celebrated — they know the extraordinary possibilities God creates in that small, open-ended space of saving grace.
- Would you go after the one, leaving the 99 vulnerable? Can you think of an example of doing this?
- When have been the lost sheep? How did Jesus find you and what changed as a result?
- When you read Jeremiah’s harsh word, do you imagine that it is a word for us and our age? Why or why not?
- What have we lost as a society that we need to seek and save for Christ’s sake?
- When do we rejoice with others at their restoration or transformation? When are we tempted to grumble about them instead of celebrate them?
- Where do you see us acting like stupid children, skilled at doing evil? Where do you see evidence of wisdom and doing good?
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