The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19 - 12 September 2010

Contemporary Reading: Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11
I Timothy 1:12-17
Saint Luke 15:1-10


The parable of the Lost Coin, or of the Lost Sheep probably don’t read well in our time or in our culture – at least if we live in the northern hemisphere.  We intentionally loose things everyday, as we toss them out to be placed in some land-fill somewhere in someone else’s backyard.  It is our luxury, perhaps our bane that we should feel free to lose so much.  Perhaps it is why we have the attitudes that we do regarding the homeless and the poor.  They seem to be expendable, not worth the effort.  In the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Gospel for this Sunday we see a different tack – where the loss of something is real and painful – extraordinary measures are taken to retain, hold, and restore.  Keep these readings in mind as you throw out your trash, or pass a beggar, sitting at the freeway entrance or at the storefront. 

Exodus 32:7-14

The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."

But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Aaron offers worship at the Golden Calf
This reading is really a scene within a scene.  The context is the Story of the Golden Calf, in which the Israelites, journeying in the desert, are waiting for Moses to come down from the Mount of Sinai.  When he does not quickly return, the people feel abandoned and prevail upon Aaron, Moses’ brother, to build them “gods who will go before us.”  Then the scene changes to the Mount, where God and Moses are having a conversation – God being aware of what is going on in the camp below.  Moses takes on Abraham’s role, as at Sodom, when he asks God to be patient, and above all to remember what God has done for the people. 

The text has been structured by several editors, all of which had their own ax to grind.  Were the text to end here, we might have a lovely ending – however later verses see a both a demonized and forgiven Aaron, punishments to the people recommended by Moses and God.  What we have here is a crucial concept (that God is the God of Israel, and that this God and this particular people have a covenant with each other) that will be toyed with in the future.  Future editors want to make certain that Israel is reminded of her agreement with God.  Other themes that appear are the nature and duties of the priesthood, the place of worship and the who of worship.  Also interesting to note is that in the ancient near east the ba’alim (literally “the lords”, or “Baal”) were often pictured standing on a bull.  Thus, what the people may have asked of Aaron was to build the throne of a god, and not the actual god itself.

Breaking open Exodus:

1.     Do you ever argue with God or pray for the impossible?
2.     Do you ever remind God of past promises?

Psalm 51:1-11 Miserere mei, Deus

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.

Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.

Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.

And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.

Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother's womb.

For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.

Purge me with hyssop

This psalm is certainly familiar to liturgical Christians in the great role it plays in the liturgies of Lent, and in the role certain verses play in the prayer offices, and other rites.  The psalm was most likely written after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, hence the mention of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in verse 20.  The introduction of the psalm, however, would have the reader/hearer look back to a different time that provides a thematic context for the material that follows.  The dedication reads: “For the lead player, a David psalm, upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.” The theme generally “sin”, with specific references in the introduction to adultery (explicit) and murder (implicit).  The more poignant theme is of “cleansing” and “regeneration”.  Hyssop branches were used in temple ceremonial to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the person confessing sin, and so the psalm implores “purify me with a hyssop, that I be clean.” (Alter).  This psalm recognizes the interruption that sin imposes upon the believer’s relationship with God, and also recognizes the graciousness that over-rides God’s reaction to sin.  In a way, the psalm functions as a tutorial to God, on how to retain those who offend God.  In a way, it takes the same tone that Moses does in the first lesson.

Breaking open Psalm 51
1.       What kind of awareness of your own sinfulness do you have?
2.       How does that knowledge affect you, do you ever talk about it with someone?
3.       Is it the subject of your prayers?

I Timothy 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that 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, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

St. Timothy

Early Christianity was not born or formed in a quiet setting, filled with certainty and order.  Rather it was formed in spiritual universe that was alive with a variety of “Christianities” (Borg and Spong), competing mystery cults, established state religions, lively philosophical worlds, and within Christianity other theologies, and christologies.  This first letter to Timothy stands right in the middle of the controversies about how “orthodox” Christianity was formed.  Was it written by Paul, or rather by some later author, defending Pauline Christianity in a time of emerging Gnosticism, and other developments in Christianity?  At any rate, the author’s intention is to instruct a younger “pastor” in how to guide a flock of believers into the way of Christ.  The reading today is Paul’s introduction of himself to Timothy in which he recalls his opposition to Christian teaching, his subsequent conversion, and the faith in Christ that is given to him.  Readings on following Sunday’s will go deeper into Paul’s instruction of Timothy.

Breaking open I Timothy:
  1. Read through the verses that rehearse Paul’s religious history?  What is your history of faith?
  2. Paul calls himself the foremost sinner.  What do you think he means?
  3. What do you understand by the words “patience” and “mercy”?  How do these words relate to your relationship with Jesus?

Saint Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

In the parables that form today’s Gospel, Luke has Jesus explore the qualities of mercy – a mercy that extends to those whom others would just as likely ignore.  The context is set for us in an introduction in which Luke paints a society that dislikes Jesus’ habit of eating with “sinners”, something forbidden in the Law.  What follows are two parables, both of which are familiar: 1) The parable of the lost sheep, and 2) The parable of the lost coin.  The Lost Sheep parable is shared with Matthew and John.  Matthew uses it in instruction that Jesus gives to the disciples about guiding those entrusted to them.  Luke, however, uses it as an explanation for why Jesus does eat with “sinners.”  It is a part of Jesus’ radical vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, and Luke’s program that recognizes the value of those whom society has cast out. 

The second parable, The Lost Coin, is peculiar to Luke.  His character, a poor woman, has lost one of the coins that adorned her headdress, a way in which women announced their social standing to those about them.  That Luke should place a woman in this situation is typical of his program, mentioned above.  The goals of the parable are consistent with those in the “Lost Sheep.” 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Have you ever lost something really important to you?  Why was it important?
  2. Have you ever lost-track of someone?  Were they important to you?
  3. Has someone ever “found” you, or recovered you?
Johann Sebastian Bach

Contemporary Reading: “Ceti” from The Lives of a Cell – Notes of a Biology Watcher, Lewis Thomas.

Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.

Lewis Thomas (25 November 1913 3 December 1993) was a physician, poet, etymologist, essayist, administrator, educator, policy advisor, and researcher. Thomas was born in Flushing, New York and attended Princeton University and Harvard Medical School. He became Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine, and President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute. He was invited to write regular essays in the New England Journal of Medicine, and won a National Book Award for the 1974 collection of those essays, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. He also won a Christopher Award for this book. Two other collections of essays (from NEJM and other sources) are The Medusa and the Snail and Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. His autobiography, The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher is a record of a century of medicine and the changes which occurred in it. He also published a book on etymology entitled Et Cetera, Et Cetera, poems, and numerous scientific papers.

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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