The Adventurous Lectionary -The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 15, 2019
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 and ours is a time of directionless and chaotic leadership and polarization in the body politic. Our behaviors and lifestyle and deliberate political policies have the potential to destroy the planet and radically alter the lives of future generations. Yet, God seeks our healing, personally and nationally, even when we have gone astray.
The Jeremiah reading is appropriate for September 15. Later in the week, across the globe and throughout the USA, on September 20, there will actions in response to the current climate emergency as part of a Global Climate Strike. On Cape Cod where I live, congregations will ring their bells at 11:00 a.m. ET to alert our communities of the emergency. 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, the prophet claims. This is God’s message to Jeremiah’s listeners and 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, glacial melting, hurricanes, and extended fire seasons, are, in good measure, 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 our USA leaders are doing virtually nothing. While the issues are complicated, we often prefer comfort and short-term economic gain to protecting our planet. In fact, despite the clear association of human actions and climate church, the current administration is rolling back environmental protections, intentionally turning its back on God’s creation for short term profit. 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 and the Psalmist asks, “have they no knowledge?” I don’t believe that the Psalmist is talking about garden variety atheism, but a “practical atheism” of those who say they believe in God’s existence and yet act as if there is no God, or as if they are gods themselves. The Psalmist 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 earth is destroyed for the sake of short-term profit as if future generations don’t matter. 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,” “it’s our profit,” 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.” This is not “cheap grace,” but grace that requires transformed lives and changed priorities. 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 the interplay God’s grace and repentant responses.
Luke 15 addresses four experiences of being lost. The first form of lostness is subtle and insidious: the lostness of those who think they are righteous and upholding the values of society and faith. Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son in response to those who criticize Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them. The complainers believe they are righteous – good citizens, faithful churchgoers, the morality police – but they lack grace and forgiveness. Their hearts have closed down to sinners and in so doing they have closed their hearts to God.
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. None are saved until all our saved.
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 from God, and in the case of the intentional lostness of the prodigal son (our materialistic and earth-destroying nation), 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 over fifty books, including “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” “A Center in the Cyclone: 21 Century Clergy Self-care,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.”