Exodus 32:7-14 7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they 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!’” 9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now 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.” 11But 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? 12Why 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. 13Remember 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.’” 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Psalm 51 1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
1 Timothy 1:12-17 12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But 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. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Luke 15:1-10 15Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“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? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just 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. 8“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? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray.
Lord, each and every day, we are faced with a thousand decisions. Some we know we make – others we make unconsciously or we choose blindly, driven by historical pain and the unexamined wounds of the past. On this day when we celebrate the work of the church in service to the world, and commemorate the shocking attacks of 9/11, we ask that you would send your Spirit to teach us wisdom in our choices, and grant us the grace to know in your love we can always begin again to follow the paths you have called us to walk.
In your Holy Name, we pray, Amen.
On Labour Day, I found myself with the opportunity to do something I have never done before – binge watch a show I had wanted to follow and kept missing, called “The Fall”. It was a three season British show set in Northern Ireland that followed the criminal case of a serial killer. First of all, I really recommend the show as it has a brain that is truly AMAZING – there are layers and hints and a “peeling of the onion” that are just so satisfying. The writing and the acting are extraordinary. BUT – I will also say that I am not meant for bingeing. My head was swimming – it was like eating some really rich dessert nonstop for hours. It still tasted good – but it was just too much!
So that being said, one thread of the story was the gradual revealing of how the killer became a killer. There were so many things that had gone wrong in his life, that he had become enslaved to ever more awful choices. Yet the brilliance of the writing made it clear that they were his choices to make. In one set of choices, he had fashioned a life with a loving wife and kids, and a steady job in service to others. But his own wounds were so deep and so warping of his character, that he simply could not see how life and love were actually in his grasp. Instead, as the detective chasing him points out, he has become addicted to evil that engulfs him, eventually destroying all the good he has sought to create. The series concludes with a rampage in which his rage overwhelms him and destroys all of his choices.
This idea of being in a place where there are no choices may feel like 20th century nihilism, but that perspective was rampant throughout the ancient world. If you look at the Greek and Roman myths, the heroes and heras all get caught in webs that they cannot escape. Oedipus is born with the prophecy that he will kill his father the King, and so he is abandoned in the woods to die. But, being found by a friendly woodsman, he is saved and adopted by a neighbouring King and grows to be the hero of Thebes, defeating the mighty Sphinx. Oedipus does not he is adopted, and of course, all unknowing, he meets the original King. In a road rage incident, they fight and the King is killed. No matter how hard they tried to avoid the prophecy – fate would not be cheated. There was a set path, and it could never, ever change.
Hold that despair in your heart – it is a despair that has come to us all through the centuries, that things are as they are and nothing can ever change. And it has become acute in our time. Richard Rohr, in Quest for the Grail writes:
I believe we live in a time when the quest is no longer real. People are unsure of the goal, insecure in their search for meaningful patterns, and even unconvinced of any divine origins. It is a major crisis of meaning for the West; at the deepest level, it is a loss of hope. The anxiety and solutions to this crisis cannot be addressed at a mere surface or problem-solving level. Only sacred psychology or mythology are deep and true enough to address questions of meaning and hope.
And from where do these stories of deep meaning hope come to us? For those who have encountered the God of Abraham, they have always been there – we have always lived in a faith where choice was possible. In Eden, there is a choice to eat or not eat the forbidden fruit. When John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, he includes this note:
Lee (a Chinese household cook who is on his own time a great scholar) … has just revealed to the other men the outcome of the research he did on the meaning of timshel, the word that God utters to Cain when exiling him to the lands east of Eden. According to one translation of the Bible, God orders Cain to triumph over sin, while according to another, God promises Cain that he will defeat sin. Lee’s research, however, has revealed that timshel means “thou mayest,” implying that God tells Cain that he has a choice whether or not to overcome sin. Lee sees this idea of free choice over evil a token of optimism that is central to the human condition. (This allows the central character to realize he himself has the power to overcome his family’s legacy of evil.
In other words, even in Genesis we hear that God has planted deep within creation the possibility that we may listen and change – no matter how far down the wrong path we have gone. It by no means that the journey back to the right path will be easy – but it will be possible.
This hopeful faith is so important to understanding the Gospel for today. Why the one who has gone astray matters so much. In the world’s math, losing one of many matters not a bit – there will always be more. When it was originally founded, Planned Parenthood had among its guiding precepts that every child should be a wanted child, a being so precious that they could not be wasted in war or subjugation. I have always loved that mission statement. And it speaks to me about my relationship with the Divine. For the God we meet in the Bible, we meet a Creator who is working with us, guiding us to the right choices, a God for whom we are precious children who must not be lost – not even one. This is not a god full of tricks and rock solid, never to be changed fate. This is the God in whose image we are created, whom we are to name as Father, Mother, Brother, Sister, Sibling. This is not the inaccessible, cruel god of myths, more concerned with manipulating people than doing them any good – this is the God who walks with us in the cool of the Garden, who comes to earth as a poor man’s son and once again offers to us the choice to live into our better selves, to be the people we were created to be.
Now this then comes to a place where many people struggle. Almost all of us in the West, and in many other places thanks to Western missionaries, have been given an understanding of God as this grand unchanging judge sitting high on a throne with a long beard, glowing robes and a deep resonant voice. This God knows everything and all and cannot change their mind or be surprised by our choices. But let’s go slowly here, because this God is a God of human understanding and limitation, a God who thinks in the same linear way as we do. But God is not that God – if we could capture God in such a box, God would be too small to matter much to our lives, becoming instead that trickster more to be avoided and appeased rather than loved.
But God busts out of that box at every turn! Instead of God living a world of fixed points, God lives in a world where all of us have choices and where God is capable of moderating and adjusting to accommodate those choices. In the Exodus text, we see that given the choice, the newly freed Israelites go back to the presumed comfort of believing in and worshipping a god they can control – a god who for the right sacrifice will do what you ask him to do. Guess what? Their choices have consequences and one of those is God get mad! God speaks to Moses about this anger – about the consequences that the choices of the people will bring. Moses asks for another chance for the Israelites. Wait – did you hear that? The God we meet through Moses is a God who will allow us to make new choices. A God from whom we can expect change – if WE change! The nature of God is to create and to love – therefore God does not want even one of their beloved creation to be lost, and so, right up to the very last second, will seek to give us the choice to join God in that love and creation.
On this day when we look to celebrate the work of the church through God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday, we are reminded that the work we do is both service to our neighbour and a response to God’s grace filled love. God has provided us with a compass for this journey – in the King James version, many of the psalms lift up the great phrase “thou compassest my path”. God is the North Star – like the Magi, we follow not knowing the terrain we will cross but sure of the one leading, and of the goal. In such a journey, we are almost guaranteed to falter, to fall, to fail. There will probably even be times when we are so lost, we don’t see how it is possible to go on. But if we look up and choose to keep following that star, we are promised a strength greater than our own.
Perhaps one of the saddest things about that Old Man in the Sky version of God, is that that god is never joyful, you can’t imagine that god celebrating a good choice – only punishing bad ones. But the Psalmist reminds us that joy IS part of the journey: 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. The commentator Kendra A. Mohn, Lead Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Worth, Texas, writes of the Gospel story:
…ultimately, the focus here is on God’s orientation as the seeker (of the lost), and (of) Jesus as God’s agent in that endeavour. The parable ends on the joy of the shepherd shared collectively with his friends and neighbours. The absence of joy, (of failing to see that God rejoices in our good choices) … closes us off to the reward of God’s labour. The burden of seeking the lost is not solely ours. We are the ones who get to rejoice in God’s work among us. Our work involves preparing ourselves and our communities to receive (all) those God brings in and (make our choices to) figure out a way to work together in this new world.
God still rejoices in us (whether we are of the 99 or the 1). Putting one more piece of the puzzle (one more beloved child) into place in God’s community is cause for celebration. … The joy of God is Good News, both for the 99 and for the 1.
Today, and every day, you have both paths – one of your own choosing or one that the Lord compasses – in front of you. God will never be defeated in carrying out their will and in sharing their joy, yet God waits for you to choose. Remember always – timshel – thou mayest – always choose to pray: 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.