You probably don’t need a reminder that this 9/11 was the anniversary of the suicide attack on the World Trade Towers fifteen years ago—the day that put Americans on notice that we’re not miraculously set apart from the rest of the world, that we would be experiencing a share of the violence that has become endemic in other places. In a world that’s increasingly globalized, boundaries become easier to cross, harder to fortify.
We’re still experiencing the consequences of that event in our current election campaigns. One side represents our visceral reaction to it—fury, outrage, indignation; the other our ongoing search for a meaningful, productive response. And all bound up in it are questions of who is worthy and deserving of good and who is evil and deserving of ill.
And the scriptures we heard this morning could almost have been chosen for this exact occasion. They all focus on the slippery issue of justice and grace and they confront it in ways that seem, at first, diametrically opposed.
We began with that argument between God and Moses over the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32:7-14). God is furious. After all the trouble he has gone to in rescuing Israel from slavery, the people have made a golden image and are saying “These are the gods that led us out of Egypt.” He tells Moses he’s going to wipe them all out and replace them with a new nation made up of Moses’ own descendants.
Moses, to his everlasting honor, declines the offer. Perhaps he is thinking, “There’s no future in this. Human beings are what we are. It will be the same story all over again in another generation or two.” Who knows? What we’re told is that he approaches God in terms of honor—part of the basic value system of his time and place. “If you do this,” he says, “if you destroy these people, your reputation is mud. You’ll never get another nation to call your own.”
(Now before you shake your head over Moses for thinking in such—to us—outdated terms, remember that we are as much creatures of our time and place as he of his. Sometimes, in our determinedly democratic way, we aren’t sure we want to allow God any sort of distinctive power at all.)
But the important thing here is that God relents. Is he persuaded by the argument? Did he set Moses up? We don’t know. We are told only that “The Lord changed his mind.” God, it seems, is capable of both anger and forgiveness. And God is one who works with human beings in our own terms as necessary. This is an extraordinary story of faithful boldness, one that leaves me a bit stunned every time I encounter it.
There is an old way of trivializing stories like this. It goes like so: the God of the New Testament is a loving, generous, forgiving God; the God of the Old Testament was an angry and demanding and punishing God. Not so. The New Testament is by no means free of punishment and the Old Testament has plenty of forgiveness in it. Just remember that Psalm we read together (51:1-11):
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
The Psalm appeals to God humbly, but confidently. It knows the God it’s addressing. It trusts. But it also knows that we human beings have faults, sometimes profound faults. It knows that these place barriers between us and God and between us and our neighbors. Grace and forgiveness are necessary parts of our lives, the only things that prevent sheer paralysis. It’s nothing to do with waving sin away, pretending it doesn’t exist. No, no. They’re ways of getting beyond it to something new and life-giving. Sin deserves punishment, yes; but only grace and forgiveness can get beyond it to create new life.
Our third reading was from the First Letter of Paul to Timothy (1:12-17). Actually, there are good reasons to think that Paul didn’t write this letter himself. Probably some thinker in a community Paul had founded was trying to “channel,” as we might now call it, what the apostle would say to the challenges the community was facing fifty years or so later. The effort isn’t always convincing, but in some places, he strikes the pure Pauline tone just right. The passage we heard today was one of those:
“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, [that’s our author trying to emphasize Paul’s authority; but he goes on] even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. . . . [And why would Jesus do this? He tells us] Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me . . . Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience. . .”
Paul the religious terrorist becomes Paul the apostle. And how confusing so you suppose that was for him? Paul himself tells us that, after his conversion he went off into the hinterlands of Arabia for several years (Gal. 1:17-18). I’ll bet he needed a little while to process all that. How does a persecutor deal with it when the God whose people he was persecuting suddenly confronts him and commissions him to be a missionary of the faith he was just trying to stamp out of existence?
Grace didn’t just dismiss his past. Grace built it into an extraordinary, life-giving future.
And finally we heard from Luke’s Gospel (15:1-10) two of Jesus’ most beloved parables: the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. (There’s the lost sheep right up behind me in the crook of Jesus’ arm.) Notice that both these little stories are drawn from every day life. Nothing exceptional here. Jesus makes that clear in the way he phrases the questions: What man . . . doesn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that’s lost? You know that’s what you’d do. What woman whose lost one of her ten coins doesn’t light a lamp, sweep the house and search for it? Of course! Anybody would do this.
The lost coin gets less attention, but I particularly love it. Here is a woman who’s missing a tenth of what she had to manage her household on for what? a week? a month? Who knows? She is a practical person. She doesn’t panic, but she isn’t going to stand for it. She lights a lamp. Who cares if it’s broad daylight? There are dark corners in every house. She gets our her broom to give every inch of that floor a thorough scouring. Nothing will be missed. If coins could tremble, this escapee would be quaking in its boots.
And so, too, God. Grace, the seeking out of the lost, God’s searching for us in our lostness in the hope of building something new—this isn’t exceptional behavior on God’s part. This is God’s immediate, everyday response to human waywardness.
Yes, God is indeed offended, appalled, even angry at that same waywardness. God, I think we can fairly say, hates cruelty, falsehood, oppression of the weak, arrogance, manipulation of religion for evil purposes, hard-heartedness of every variety. . . . The list is long. We may identify ourselves as great sinners, along with Paul, or as relatively minor ones. However that may be, God is out there every day, trying to retrieve me and my failures and turn them to good use through the workings of God’s grace.
This era we find ourselves living in—the era that turned up in so distressing a form fifteen years ago—calls us to remember all this and to set it at the very center of our consciousness. God is angry with all the harm. And God is searching relentlessly for the strayed sheep, the lost coin. Even the worst of them. And even you and me. Hoping for a way to transform the past wrongs of this world into new life for the future.
So let me leave you with one bit of advice: Watch out for that broom!
Preached at Good Shepherd, Berkeley, September 11, 2016, 17th Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 19C: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10)