The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, 11 September 2016

Track One:
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14

Track Two:
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11

I Timothy 1:12-17
Saint Luke 15:1-10

Background: The Fertile Crescent and the Wilderness

If you begin at the head of the Persian Gulf and follow both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers north into ancient Assyrian, and then head west into Phoenicia and south through the Levant, where the crescent pinches in just below Gaza and continues south from the Nile River delta down to the first cataract, or even to the second around Abu Simbel. Here two great civilizations were born and flourished. And in this geography rests a great deal of the biblical narrative, but not all of it. To the south of Gaza lie the Sinai Peninsula, and the site of the great epic of wandering and the giving of the law. In this land bridge between Asia and Africa are some 60,000 square kilometers of harsh wilderness. The other great site is the Syrian Desert to the east, a much larger and much harsher territory of some 500,000 square kilometers. That it separated much of the biblical peoples from the aggressive peoples of the east caused it to serve as a symbol of threatened judgment (see the Track One first reading). The Sinai was a place of cleansing and preparation for entrance into the new land. The eastern desert was a place from which God’s judgments of Israel would arise.

Track One:

First Reading: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse-- a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.

"For my people are foolish,
they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but do not know how to do good."
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.

Because of this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
I have not relented nor will I turn back.

At this point Jeremiah leaves behind the images of God as the aggrieved husband, longing for his bride. A much darker mood is substituted, and God seems to be beyond the patience exhibited in the earlier sections. The first image is of a sharp hot wind that descends on the people from the heights of the desert. The purpose of this wind is beyond its usual utility – winnowing and cleansing. There is a different purpose here. At this point we jump several verses ahead to a poetic look at the situation. It begins with a less than flattering description of the audience, “foolish” and “stupid.” Their skills are all bent to no good. What follows is something like an anti-creation in which all the goodness that God had seen has been reversed, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void.” The original orientation of the hearer, facing the harsh winds from the east, is now made aware of the entire context. “The whole land shall be a desolation.” Now it is not only the people who mourn the situation, but indeed all of creation. Yet so, God chooses not to relent.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.     How can a wind be destructive?
2.     How can a wind be purifying?
3.    What has your experience with desolate wildernesses been?

Psalm 14 Dixit insipiens

     The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." *
All are corrupt and commit abominable acts;
there is none who does any good.
2      The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all, *
to see if there is any who is wise,
if there is one who seeks after God.
3      Every one has proved faithless;
all alike have turned bad; *
there is none who does good; no, not one.
4      Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers *
who eat up my people like bread
and do not call upon the Lord?
5      See how they tremble with fear, *
because God is in the company of the righteous.
6      Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, *
but the Lord is their refuge.
7      Oh, that Israel's deliverance would come out of Zion! *
when the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice and Israel be glad.

There is a prophetic cast to this psalm for it underscores the behavior of the people and God’s reaction to what they have done or not done. During the past weeks, especially last Sunday, the heavens and the earth were called upon to witness the call to faithfulness on the part of Israel (Track Two first reading). We have the same sentiment here, only it is the Lord alone who looks down from the heavens and observes what it is that human kind is doing. The results are disappointing in that “everyone has proved faithless.” There is a hopeful note that accompanies a very subtle threat of judgment at the end of the psalm, “Oh, that Israel’s deliverance would come out of Zion.”

Breaking open Psalm 14:

1.        What does God see in you?
2.        How do you judge your faithfulness to God?
3.        To others?


Track Two:

First Reading: 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.

Here we have a story of repentance, but not of Israel, but rather on the part of God.  Here the role of the bargainer is played by Moses not Abraham, and it is not Sodom over which the haggling is done but Israel itself. The conversation begins with an almost stereotypical cast of how parents discuss and errant child. God says to Moses, “Your people…” Later on, in making threats about the people whom God has saved, God makes the promise to Moses that he will become a great nation. The several roles of this pericope, and the allusions that they have to other stories become mixed up. The focus, however, is on the abandonment of God by Israel. The One who brought them out of Egypt is forgotten and cast aside. God’s intentions are clearly stated, “my wrath may burn hot against them.” Moses argues with an appeal to God’s self interest. Why, he wonders, would God want to earn the scorn of Egypt, from whom God liberated the people that God had chosen. There is more to remember as well, and that is the faithfulness of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Abraham alone was the recipient of several promises – why would God abandon those promises? The denouement is swift and elegant, “and the Lord changed his mind.”

Breaking open Exodus:
1.     How would you characterize Moses’ and God’s conversation?
2.     Have you ever argued with God? Why?
3.    Describe your relationship with God.

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.
2      Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
3      For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
4      Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
5      And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.
6      Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother's womb.
7      For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
8      Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
9      Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
10    Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.
11    Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.

It is unfortunate that the introductory verses to these psalms are omitted for their liturgical use. Here we miss a psychological and sexual cast to the psalm that only enhances the verses that form the heart of the psalm. Verses 1 and 2 read:

            “For the lead player, a David psalm,
            Upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him
            When he had come to bed with Bathsheba.”[1]

The verb “coming to” has both a spatial and a sexual meaning in this case, and provides a pun that informs the remainder of the psalm. The psalmist (although assigned to David, most likely not David) recognizes his own proclivity for sin, “indeed I have been wicked from my birth.” Is this a proof text for original sin, or is it hyperbole meant to underscore the all-pervasive nature of the sin that the psalmist wishes to address. The intimacy that is implied in the introductory verses seems evident in the intimate knowledge that the psalmist understands God to have. God not only knows, but searches for truth and wisdom within the individual. But it is not only truth and wisdom that are deeply hidden within, but also now God is bidden to hide God’s face from the sins, which the psalmist confesses.

Breaking open Psalm 51:
1.     How are you intimate with God?
2.     How is God intimate in return?
3.    In what ways are you a sinner?

The Second Reading: 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.

Over the next several weeks we shall be exploring these letters attributed to Paul and assigned to Timothy. Whether they are actually Pauline is debated, for they seem to address a different set of circumstances that follow the apostle’s death. None-the-less, they address questions of Christian leadership and service and are thus helpful to any who read them.

The initial verses of the pericope match the mentality of the psalm well – for the author underscores his sins (ostensibly Paul’s). The point however, is the forgiveness and the grace that is given. Thus we are introduced to the “author”, to his circumstance, and the grace of the Savior to whom which he will appeal during the coming weeks.

Breaking open I Timothy:
  1. Are you a Christian leader?
  2. How do you lead in your church?
  3. What has been disappointing in the church for you?

The Gospel: St. 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."

We have in this pericope three parables (although our reading embraces only two of them) all dealing with the notion of the lost. The intent of these parables is to address the concerns of the Pharisees about Jesus familiarity with tax collectors and other “sinners.” Thus Jesus addresses them about “the Lost”. The elements of these parables are the ardent search of a shepherd and a woman, the recovery, and the reaction of the community. Ideally these representations present us with a God who diligently searches for those who have wandered away, the individual who is recovered, and the community that is restored by the recovery of the lost. In the second parable we have one of Luke’s anawim (poor ones), here a woman.  She is not without means, however, having some money in her possession. Her intimate community (friends and relations) rejoice with her and lead the reader to recognize the heavenly community (?) or the church itself (?). For what is the community for Luke other than those who were lost and who now have been found.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What have you lost that was truly valuable?
2.     What kind of effort did you make to retrieve it?
3.    Have you sought to retrieve a friend? How?

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

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Alter, R. (2009), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 4380


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