Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 19, Year C

Exodus 32:7-14                                  Psalm 51:1-11                    1 Timothy 1:12-17                            Luke 15:1-10

          The God of the Old Testament is often described as a jealous God, quick to rain down terror upon the people of Israel, and a God who determines from the onset of war who will be victorious.  God tells the people what they should or should not do and punishes them when they fail to follow his commandments.  Life is far from sacred; God orders the wholesale slaughter of the people who live in the Promised Land in order to fulfill his promise to the people of Israel. 

          What we read in the Old Testament are stories about how the ancient tribes understand God and it is based on the world in which they lived.  Within these stories we do get a glimpse of a faith that is maturing through the years.  Today’s reading from Exodus is one that I particularly like because Moses convinces God not to bring a disaster upon the people of Israel after they have broken their covenant with God and have created a golden calf and began worshipping false gods. 

          Moses argues that if God rains down terror upon the people, the Egyptians will say, “It was with evil intent that he [their god] brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth.”  Moses speaks of God’s promise to the people that they shall inherit the land and then, we are told, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”  God changed his mind!  Moses convinces God to change his mind! 

          What a wonderful story.  Yes, God had every reason to be angry – the people had lost their way and began attributing to their deliverance from slavery to a false god.  As Jesus would later say, all the law and prophet flow from two commandments – love God and love one another.  The people have lost their love of God and God is hurt and angry. 

          Hurt and anger are human emotions – God’s ways are not our ways; Isaiah says much later.  Isaiah also teaches us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  Still, this passage challenges the notion that God is unchanging – and I think this is good. I think of God as constantly changing in response to us.  I believe our relationship with God is like a dance in which God moves in response to us – continually attempting to draw us into a relationship with the one who created and loves us.  We move away, God moves toward us. We move toward God and God draws us into an embrace. 

          Just look at the gospel lesson for today.  Jesus, who comes to bring a wayward people back to God, welcomes and eats with the sinners.  The Pharisees are upset that the tax collectors and sinners are coming to hear Jesus – and that Jesus is willing to become a part of their lives – to actually sit and eat with them.  Jesus responds to the Pharisees by telling them two parables.  The first is of losing one sheep in a flock of one hundred.  The shepherd leaves the flock and searches for the one lost sheep, then rejoices once it is found.  The second is of a woman who loses a coin (here, it is safe to assume it would be valued at more than $100).  She searches the house until she finds it and then calls together her family and friends to celebrate finding it.  Jesus then says, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  What the Pharisees fail to see is that God does not shun the sinner, God welcomes the sinner.  And, God rejoices when we, who lose our way frequently, repent and return to our Lord. 

          I do not believe, as some of the Old Testament scriptures suggest, that God rains down evil and calamities upon us when we fail to love God and one another. I believe God responds to our failures with loving kindness.

We do suffer the consequences of our own actions – and we suffer because of the actions of others.  We have the freedom to choose the path we follow – individually and collectively. We can remain with our flock or we can wander away and get lost.  We are mortals living on a planet where natural disasters have occurred since the beginning of time.  Add to this the missteps humanity has taken that have polluted our earth, the wars and conflict that infest our world and it is clear that life is uncertain.

          God may be constantly changing in response to our decisions and our actions, but God’s love does not. God’s love for all of creation and for each of us is ever present.  God is present in our time of need and we can draw strength from God in the midst of this pandemic, rampant worldwide inflation, and the violence that is reported on the daily news.  Even if we, ourselves, are not hurting, people all around us are. 

          I read a sermon in which the preacher spoke of an older woman who, on Sunday mornings, greeted people by saying, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in thee.”  This is, the preacher said, “an old-fashioned way of saying hello.  But it’s a very beautiful way as well, and I wish more of us would take it up. It recognizes that Christ dwells in each one of us, and so when we greet one another we aren’t just greeting another person, but we’re meeting the presence of Jesus Christ within that person.”

          The preacher also quoted the author of a book, The Homeless Jesus, who said: “It’s so easy to have a personal relationship with a Christ you never see.”  Having a relationship with the homeless and people who live on the margins is more challenging.  They want more than we can give; they need more than we can give. 

During the pandemic we stopped having a Wednesday evening services and I became more involved with the community meal. Then when we re-opened the doors, I started eating with our guests so I might get to know them.  I do now appreciate what the author of that book meant: getting to know the Christ in others can be difficult – some people do a really good job hiding the Christ within them.  I have however, learned that many of our guests come for the fellowship as well as the food. 

          In 1 Timothy we read, “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.”  Christ comes for us to teach us the way of love; Christ calls upon us to be an example to others of Christ’s love and God’s unfailing love for ALL of humanity.  Our community meal is one such example, our Care Team is another.  What are others ways that we might express the love of Christ to others? How might we greet the Christ within others?

Let us pray.

          God of mercy and God of grace, fill us with your grace that the Christ in us might greet the Christ in others and they may be filled with your love.  We offer our prayers in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Amen.