The Adventurous Lectionary -The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 11, 2016
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
I Timothy 1:12-17
Today’s readings speak of being lost and finding your way home. Nations as well as persons can be lost. Our behaviors and lifestyle can destroy the planet and future generations. Yet, God seeks our healing, even when we have gone astray.
Jeremiah speaks of a day of destruction as a result of the nation’s foolishness. We are skilled at doing evil, but we are not skilled at doing good. This God’s message Jeremiah’s listeners and the prophet and says to us today. The nation has turned away from its creator and liberator and there will be consequences. While there always have been natural and meteorological disasters, today’s readers can’t avoid reading these scriptures in light of our current situation of flood, forest fire, and earthquake. The earth appears to be in upheaval, and some of this, including fracking-related earthquakes and severe weather, may be the result of our own human actions. We are foolish in our lack of earth care. The signs of global climate change are obvious – and the scientific community is almost unanimous in connecting human actions to climate change – and yet we are responding at what used to be known as a “glacial pace.” Now, the glaciers are moving faster than we are in responding to human made climate changes. The handwriting is on the wall, the seas are rising, the unusual is becoming normal, and our children’s children are in peril, and yet we are doing virtually nothing. While the issues are complicated, we often prefer comfort and short-term economic gain to protecting our planet. There is a cost, and Jeremiah’s words describe the future that lies before us!
Psalm 14 continues a theme of divine denunciation. Fools say that there is no God. I don’t believe that the Psalmist is talking about garden variety atheism. He is addressing those who believe that they can do whatever they want because there is no future cost, no divine judgment, and no consequence to their behavior. The poor and vulnerable can be mistreated because there is no judgment either in history or through divine action. The worst kind of atheism is not intellectual – indeed many atheists are responding to dysfunctional images of God perpetuated by people of faith! – but “practical atheism,” the belief that we can do what we want, that we are in control, that we owe nothing to a higher power or to our fellow humans, and that we can use the earth and its peoples as we please. This is the practical atheism of “it’s my property,” “it’s my business,” “it’s my choice,” “it’s my gun,” without any concern for the larger good. Foolish humans, believing they are in control and can conduct their lives as they please without concern for the common good, wreak havoc on the planet and its peoples.
The author of Timothy, speaking in the spirit of Paul, confesses his sin, but proclaims more fully God’s grace. I was ignorant in my turning from God’s way, the author claims, but God’s mercy was greater than my sin. There is hope that we can turn from our foolishness and work toward a God-oriented, life-oriented, planet-oriented social and political order. This can only come from radical transformation, and ultimately this comes from God’s grace.
In today’s reading Jesus talks about a lost sheep and a lost coin – in neither case is the issue moral. The sheep foolishly wanders off. There is no malicious intent, just unintentional stupidity that leads to being lost and far from home, with no sense of how to get back. The coin just slips in the cracks, misplaced and forgotten by others. The lost coin reflects the overlooked and forgotten in our society. They have done no wrong, but they have no prestige and power and thus are unimportant to politicians, business people, and even churches.
In the case of the lost sheep, survival is at stake, but it is not just the sheep’s survival, but also the survival of the flock. The ninety nine can’t be complete until the hundredth is found. One hundred is a perfect number and perhaps in a parable that reflects later Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah), Jesus knew that when you save one soul, you save the world. The whole can’t be redeemed without all the parts reunited.
In the case of the lost coin, the watchword is “wake up,” see what others miss, look to the places where people are forgotten, and you will find a great treasure. Everyone matters to God, and this lays a moral burden on those who seek to be righteous.
God cares about all things lost. God rejoices in the discovery and redemption of lost coins, lost sheep, and lost people. Though there are consequences to our turning, God is able to transform any situation. God wants justice, hospitality, and healing, and we can be God’s partners in this process of healing the world.
Bruce Epperly is pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Centerville, MA, on Cape Cod. He is the author of forty books, including “Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians,” “A Center in the Cyclone: 21 Century Clergy Self-care,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure God.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.