September 11, 2016
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Fifteen years ago today it was a beautiful September morning. I was in Rosslyn, conducting a meeting of the heads of the military services’ social services program that addresses child abuse and domestic violence in military families. We were meeting with staff of the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence to discuss the challenges in implementing its recommendations. I would be drafting a proposed DoD response for the Deputy Secretary of Defense to transmit to the Congress. Based on the discussion we anticipated stressful months ahead and we were ready for a break, earlier than usual at a little after 9 am.
Then we heard cries from the adjoining room and rushed in to see and hear the news that two jet airliners had crashed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. Then we heard that a third airliner had just crashed into the Pentagon and that another airliner was heading for Washington. In the space of a few minutes all of our assumptions about our country’s safety and a peaceful world were shattered. We were all afraid — we are still afraid — and out of that fear we made a national commitment to end such terrorism by every means possible. We are in our fifteenth year of that fear-based commitment, with no end in sight. Our national election is primarily driven by fear of what the other party’s candidates might do if elected.
Jeremiah’s prophecy in this week’s lectionary predicted a sirocco-like Babylonian invasion of the kingdom of Judah: a scorching wind of death, overwhelming it, God’s doom visited upon the people, caused by their own deeds of faithlessness and injustice. Jeremiah’s prophecy depicted a reversal of the creation story in Genesis, an un-creation where the earth reverted to being a void without form, the heavens dark without the light of the stars, the mountains shaken, humans gone, birds disappeared, the land desolate.
Was Jeremiah’s prophecy also meant for us? Was September 11 and the subsequent years of war and terrorism Jeremiah’s vision come to life, God’s punishment for our sins? America is the city shining upon the hill, the beacon to the world, God’s special blessing to the world! We’ve shown the world how to live in freedom with a government of the people, by the people, and for the people; how to expand rights and suffrage, creating space for people to come and develop their talents so that they can live in prosperity. We are the first to help countries when disaster strikes them. We are the good guys, or in the phrase Richard Lawrence used last week, “the respectables.”
Jeremiah would look us in the eye and say we are not the good guys, “the respectables.” He would remind us that we’ve laid ruined the land here and abroad to extract minerals, natural gas, coal, and oil without returning the land to its natural state. We’ve wasted water, polluted our rivers and streams and have overfished our rivers and the ocean. We’ve polluted the land and air around our factories so that it the lives of all creatures nearby are threatened. And we deny that our actions have changed the climate so that we won’t have to take painful steps to address it. We are making the un-creation of the world.
Jeremiah would say we have always been a nation of injustice. Our history towards Native Americans can only be described as sinful. (I love the cartoon that shows Native Americans looking at arriving colonial ships with one saying to another, “We should have built a wall and made them pay for it.”) Within twelve years after the Jamestown settlement the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia a year before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts. The stain of slavery undergirded our economy so broadly that nearly everyone from New England to the Deep South benefitted from it. One hundred fifty years after the Thirteenth Amendment racism is still thriving. If all lives matter why do we white Americans continue to act as if black lives do not matter? Nearly one hundred years after getting the right to vote women continue to be victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and discrimination in pay, and there is no groundswell for an Equal Rights Amendment. We underfund services for those with disabilities, especially mental illness, and we both underfund and stigmatize services for those who are poor. Our injustice extends to those with different ways of worshipping God. American Protestants demonized the Roman Catholic Church from colonial days up until John F. Kennedy’s presidency. American Christians unknowingly continue to make anti-Semitic statements. This year several Presidential candidates intentionally demonized an entire religion, Islam.
Maybe God’s sirocco should come upon us American “respectables.” Maybe God’s justice requires that we should be devastated, even “uncreated.” As Abraham Lincoln noted this in his second inaugural address, if God chooses to punish our nation for the two hundred and fifty year old sin of slavery by making us undergo two hundred and fifty years of bloodshed, nonetheless “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
In today’s passage from Letter to Timothy the central point is that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” When this letter was written the persecutions of Christians were continuing. Jesus had not returned to bring about the new kingdom of God. Some of the congregations had lost faith, lost hope, were backsliding into previous pagan practices. Paul’s conversion was seen as prescriptive: Paul had not deserved God’s grace and yet he had received it. If the young struggling congregations were to keep their hope alive, to keep acting as the body of Christ in a way that attracted Gentiles, to live in faith, they needed to acknowledge themselves as sinful and see themselves as the recipients of God’s redeeming love as Paul had. There is hope; Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. The church had not deserved God’s grace and yet had received grace. The writer of the Letter to Timothy wanted Christians committed to Christ out of gratitude, not out of fear.
Which brings us to Luke’s good news. When this gospel was written both Jewish religious leaders, including the Pharisees, and both Jews and Gentiles of the upper classes – (together “the respectables”) viewed the early church as composed of the wrong sort of people. Luke illustrated this by describing Jesus surrounded by tax collectors and other “bad characters”—sinners. The Pharisees expected Jesus as a religious teacher to be with the “the respectables,” the ones capable of earning God’s love, the ones who didn’t need to repent. Jesus knew what they were thinking and dished it right back to them. “If you had a hundred sheep and you lost one, wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine and go look for it? And when you found it, you’d be ecstatic. You’d lift it up and carry it back home on your shoulders and you’d call out to your friends and neighbors, joyously shouting, “I found my lost sheep!”
When I was a teenager I used to think, really? You’d leave ninety-nine sheep to look for one? The ninety-nine would run away too!. And if you had found it, you’d really carry it home and let everyone know that you’d been dumb enough to lose it? How stupid is that! And then during my Peace Corps service in Ethiopia I saw how there are always several shepherd boys watching their flocks together so that if one loses a sheep, the other watches both flocks until the first finds the missing sheep. When the shepherd does find it he carries it back to the flock to prevent it from straying off again.
Recently I reread Kenneth Bailey’s commentary on Luke and learned some other things from this passage. In Aramaic there was no verb “to own” so to “have” the sheep meant to be responsible for them on behalf of the family or clan or community. When Jesus asked the Pharisees whether they wouldn’t look for a lost sheep they were responsible for, he was accusing them of failing in their responsibilities by not welcoming those who couldn’t keep the Torah, such as shepherds, into the community of faith. Further, in Jesus’ time sheepherding was not a socially desirable job; it was for those who weren’t otherwise employable. A Pharisee would not have considered a shepherd to be respectable, but to be no better than the tax collectors and other bad characters around Jesus. Even worse, Jesus was equating them to shepherds — socially undesirable, like tax collectors and other bad characters. This must have infuriated the Pharisees. And then Jesus added, “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over the one sinner who repented than over the ninety-nine who didn’t need to repent.” The penitent sinner’s heart is full of gratitude for God’s grace, not self-satisfaction for having obeyed God’s teachings perfectly.
Today is the first Sunday of our annual recommitment season. In the tradition of the Church of the Saviour we spend time reflecting on our spiritual journey, how we exercise our gifts in this church and in the wider world, and whether we take on our responsibilities for this local expression of the Body of Christ. The Celebration Circle mission group has prepared materials to help us in our reflection.
In the words of Elizabeth O’Connor, in her first book about the Church of the Saviour, Call to Commitment,
Each year, under God, we will review our commitment to this expression of the Church. If we find at any time this doesn’t have meaning for us or we are automatically performing a ritual, we will not recommit…Recommitment is a time of re-examination, a time when we decide what our most basic belonging means after another year of pilgrimage. Are our roots deeper in God’s life? Does the common life which we know in Christ mean more to us than a year ago? Are we willing to give ourselves to the fellowship at greater cost?…Or is it true that Christ and his ministry mean less as more and more areas of loneliness and uncertainty and uneasiness have been satisfied? Do we toy now with conventional structures, which will be less pressing and less demanding and less revealing, and in which we can settle down more easily?…These days before recommitment Sunday bring into the open many repressed reservations and resistances. It is a time of pain and of healing, a season in which we try with brutal honesty to examine anew our original commitment to Christ.[i]
For me, my reflections for recommitment begin with gratitude that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I have been a straying sheep. God has found me and my healing comes through your efforts, you fellow sinners of this congregation. I live in God’s grace, grace that I did not earn and which sustains me.
It is out of that gratitude that I will recommit to being a member of this local expression of the body of Christ, that I will commit to being held accountable for my spiritual journey and the exercise of my gifts in it to the others in my mission group, to my fellow Stewards, and to the other three on the Servant Leadership Team. Out of that accountability will come both my repentance and my gratitude throughout the next year.
I invite you to your own reflections over the next month. I hope they begin with gratitude that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, including us “respectables.” Thanks be to God.
[i] Elizabeth O’Connor. Call to Commitment. New York: Harper & Row, 1963, pp. 37-38.