Saturday, August 28, 2010

Proper 19 Year C

Proper 19 C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

The Lord is so thoroughly angry at "my people" that the text of Jeremiah discloses that the Lord speaks directly: "it is I who speak in judgement against them."  They are foolish, stupid, "with no understanding."  The crux of the offense is damming: "They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good."  The consequence is that the Lord is prepared to take creation back to primeval chaos and desolation.  The Lord is prepared to go right back to total annihilation, "yet I will not make a full end."

The psalmist records God's harrowing reaction to human behavior.  The fool has convinced himself that he can act with impunity.  The Lord looks for one person, just one, who does not "devour" the people, who does not "plot against the poor," and cannot find one!  But the psalm concludes with a plea/hope for that time "when the Lord restores the people's condition." 


Moses has not yet returned from the mountaintop to God's people soon enough, so they turn on him and ask Aaron to lead them in worship of other gods and the creation of a "golden calf."  This Sunday's appointed excerpt picks up when the Lord tells Moses to return "at once," because "Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn away from the the way I commanded...."  The Lord is so angry, ending the relationship is not out of the question.  But Moses personally makes the case for Israel.  He reminisces with the Lord all that they have been through together and the Lord's promises.  And the Lord has a change of heart/mind.

 The  psalmist recalls David's grave sin, when he seduced Bathsheba, the wife of another man whose death he had had arranged.  Against the memory this shameful deed, the writer throws himself on the Lord's grace/kindness/mercy and pleads that God will "wash away my transgressions" which "is always before me."  He does not question God's right to judge him, but begs to be washed clean.

Whether by Paul or from an anonymous writer in a "school" of the apostle, the text of this "letter" to a Timothy, nevertheless, draws on the powerful biography of Paul.  Although a former "blasphemer, a persecutor, and a  man of violence," Christ Jesus "appointed me to his service."  Although he previously acted out of ignorance and belief, "the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with faith and love that are in Christ Jesus."  Paul is the "foremost" example of the Christ's patience for one person so obviously and fully undeserving.

Luke makes three tactical moves in chapter 14 and these opening verses of chapter 15.  The actions and sayings of Jesus in this section first of all shattered every conceivable existing barrier to the open invitation for any and all to participate in God's reign.  But then an impossible threshold is thrown up, including sell "all your possessions."  Now Luke makes his third move, which is to focus God's full attention on each individual person.  The broad invitation issued by Jesus has attracted a rather savory lot, including "tax collectors and sinners...."  The religious leaders are scandalized.  Jesus responds with two parables; the first is similar to Matthew's version, the second is unique to Luke.  The first parable relates the intensity and relief a shepherd experiences when he gives his total attention to searching for and finally finding just one lost sheep.  The second compares the unrelenting, obsessive search of a woman for a significant amount of money lost somewhere in her house.  "Just so," says Jesus, "I tell you there is joy in  the presence of the angels of God over one lost sinner who repents." 

Most of these readings echo Luke's attention on the significance of the individual.  In Psalm 14, the Lord pleads to find one, just one, person who has not exploited the poor.  In the episode reported in Exodus, the direct, personal intervention of one person, Moses, reverses the Lord's anger at the Lord's people.  Psalm 51 begins by recalling the singular failure of one man, David, to pen one of the most enduring personal confessions of sin and plea for mercy.  The excerpt from I Timothy uses the biography of Paul to demonstrate the power of the "faith and love" in Christ Jesus in one man's life (and the ramifications  for the church and the world).  And Luke's narrative, even more than the other gospels, highlights how much the response of any single individual matters to God and, indeed, all of heaven!

Ludwig Wittgenstein considered the dynamic between a "system of reference," particularly a "religious belief," and the individual, this way:  "It strikes me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference.  Hence, although its belief, it's really a way of living, or a way of assessing life.  It's passionately seizing hold of this interpretation.  Instruction in a religious faith, therefore, would have to take the form or a portrayal, a description, of that system of reference, while at the same time being an appeal to conscience.  And this combination would have to result in the pupil himself, of his own accord, passionately taking hold of the system of reference.  It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it."  (Culture and Value, p. 64e)

This Sunday's readings and gospel present an awesome prospect: that the arc of God's love story with the whole of humankind comes down to every single individual and his or her response.  Others can tell you this love story (indeed, that is the only way you will ever know it), but only you can "seize" it.  It is a passionate "taking hold" for the sake of "rescue," which is precisely the stories of the individuals we have just heard about-- i.e. anyone one who "does not plot against the poor," Moses, David, Paul and "the one lost sinner who repents."