Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 – My people are stupid children with no understanding, who know how to do evil, but not good. The whole land shall be a desolation.
Exodus 32:7-14 – Moses pleads with God to turn back his wrath against the people.
Psalm 14 – The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” You confound the plans of the poor, but the LORD is their refuge.
Psalm 51:1-10 – I was a sinner from my mother’s womb. Create in me a clean heart, O God…
1 Timothy 1:12-17 – Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the foremost.
Luke 15:1-10 – Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin.
September 11, 2001 is the anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center (resources).
September 13, 2008 is the anniversary of Hurricane Ike.
September 23, 2005 is the anniversary of Hurricane Rita.
Jeremiah and 9/11
This coming Sunday is September 11, and everyone who walks through the door will know it. So the first lesson will sound ominous. In particular, this sentence:
They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good…
And why not? Certainly, we must steer people away from simplistic cause and effect. It is all too easy for victims of 9/11, the recent flooding in Baton Rouge, or the earthquake in Italy, to begin to feel God hates them or the universe is against them. Fundamentalist preachers of all faiths will likely point to the latest disaster and say, “See? You have been bad, very bad, and so God has sent calamity upon you.”
Jesus, of course, discounts this theology. “Remember those folks who died when the wall fell on them in Siloam?” Jesus asks. “Do you think they were worse sinners than everyone else?” It’s a rhetorical question. Of course not. Bad things happen. Sometimes we bring calamity upon ourselves. Other times, accidents happen.
We would not, however, be amiss if we pointed out the reality of human violence. It is true that we have become skilled at doing evil. Destroying the Twin Towers with our own planes was an act of evil genius. Our response with war in Afghanistan and two wars in Iraq has also wreaked much havoc. How many lives have been lost? What if we were as skilled at feeding the hungry of the world as we are at bombing?
Here is the entire text of the Jeremiah lesson:
At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse — a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them…
“For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger. For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
This text was written for a different context. There are, nevertheless, lessons which we can glean, if we are careful to listen deeply and not make simplistic associations. In what ways are we skilled at evil, knowing not how to do good? In what ways has our evil laid waste to the earth as Jeremiah describes? Even the birds of the air flee. How have human wars destroyed not just humans, but nature, leaving fruitful vineyards a wasteland? Even the earth mourns.
Beginning this week, we get carefully chosen 1 Timothy texts the rest of September, and then 2 Timothy for a while in October, until Reformation Sunday, when of course we get Romans.
September 11, 2016 – 1 Timothy 1:12-17
September 18, 2016 – 1 Timothy 2:1-7
September 25, 2016 – 1 Timothy 6:6-19
October 2, 2016 – 2 Timothy 1:1-14
October 9, 2016 – 2 Timothy 2:8-15
October 16, 2016 – 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
October 23, 2016 – 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
This week, we get the very first verses of 1 Timothy:
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that 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. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Students of the New Testament have read sufficiently to know that the language of the pastoral letters are neither Pauline, nor first century, but few congregations have been exposed to this kind of scholarship. Nevertheless, the author is using Paul’s name to invoke his authority.
Older folks who grew up in the Lutheran Church will no doubt hear in verse 15, where “Paul” says he is the “chief” or “foremost” of sinners, the old hymn, Chief of Sinners Though I Be. This hymn has survived to the ELW (609), but is rarely sung in congregations. Sung to the familiar Lenten tune “Gethsemane,” it might be worth dragging out in congregations that like traditional hymnody. Here is the older wording by William McComb, an Irish poet.
Chief of Sinners Though I Be”
by William McComb, 1793-c. 1870
1. Chief of sinners though I be,
Jesus shed His blood for me;
Died that I might live on high,
Lived that I might never die,
As the branch is to the vine,
I am His, and He is mine.
2. Oh, the height of Jesus’ love!
Higher than the heavens above,
Deeper than the depths of sea,
Lasting as eternity.
Love that found me–wondrous thought!–
Found me when I sought Him not.
3. Jesus only can impart
Balm to heal the smitten heart;
Peace that flows from sin forgiven,
Joy that lifts the soul to heaven;
Faith and hope to walk with God
In the way that Enoch trod.
4. Chief of sinner though I be,
Christ is All in all to me;
All my wants to Him are known,
All my sorrows are His own.
Safe with Him from earthly strife,
He sustains the hidden life.
5. O my Savior, help afford
By Thy Spirit and Thy Word!
When my wayward heart would stray,
Keep me in the narrow way;
Grace in time of need supply
While I live and when I die.
Both the hymn and the passage from 1 Timothy focus on the grace of God poured into our lives in spite of our unworthiness. This is a message that needs to be heard often. Too many people shy away from the church because they feel they are not worthy. “If you knew what I’ve done pastor, you would not ask me to be involved…” This sounds too much like what they said to Jesus, when the woman anointed him in Simon the Pharisee’s house, “If he knew what sort of woman this was…”
God’s mission is fulfilled with such as these. If God can use Moses and Paul, who were murderers, then God can probably use you. And when it comes to serving the world in Jesus name, well, no matter what you’ve done, you can feed the hungry. Come along with us. The church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.
This week we begin four weeks of parables from the Gospel of Luke, most of which are incredible stewardship texts:
- Parable of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin
- Parable of the Shrewd Manager
- Parable of Rich Man and Lazarus
- Parable of the Mustard Seed (undeserving slaves)
Then we are in Luke 17-18: Healing of the Ten Lepers, Parable of the Judge and the Widow (pray and don’t lose heart), and Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (warning against hypocrisy).
The parable of the shrewd manager, also known as the dishonest steward is one of my favorite stewardship texts. Use your filthy stinking money to do some good in this world. Make friends for yourself in this world by means of unrighteous mammon. Yikes. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus turns up the heat. If you think of the story of the 10 lepers as a kind of parable, it’s all parables through September and October.
I would consider a 6-week series on the parables: “Stories that Teach and Challenge,” or “Jesus the Storyteller,” “Stories for Life,” or something. Everybody loves a good story.
9/11 – Finding What is Lost
9/18 – Heavenly Investing
9/25 – Rich Man/Poor Man
10/2 – Mustard Seed Faith
10/9 – Giving Thanks
10/16 – Persistent Prayer
So let’s jump into the first parable from Luke 15, the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.
I spent a lot of time in Lent pulling apart the story of the prodigal son (or preferably, “The Two Lost Sons”) in Luke 15, with the help of Timothy Keller and his book Prodigal God.
Keller points out that Luke 15 begins by describing two groups of people, who have two very different reactions to Jesus.
“Now there were tax collectors and sinners gathering around to hear him, but the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Notice that these two groups respond to Jesus’ ministry quite differently. The first group gathers. The second group grumbles.
Today, people respond to the gospel in the same way. Try showing grace to someone who the community deems unworthy and watch what happens. But the fact remains: God cares about people who are lost. Jesus is willing to overlook their brokenness in order to welcome them home, like a prodigal father. In Luke, Jesus shows us that God cares for the least, the last and the lost.
What follows in Luke chapter 15 are three stories about lost things. There’s a story of the lost sheep, then the story of the lost coin, and finally the story of two lost sons. These stories serve to explain why Jesus is spending so much time with sinners.
It’s very hard to pull any of these parables out and deal with them separately in my opinion. These three stories about lost stuff build to a climax in the story of the prodigal son. The shepherd goes to look for the lost sheep. The woman goes to look for the lost coin. Who goes to look for the lost son? No one.
All three stories have rejoicing when the lost is found. Only the last story – the lost son – shows us, using a family systems story before its time, why some might not actually want the lost to return. It is a critique of the Pharisees. It might be a critique of us as well. Chapter 15 is one piece.
All three lost stories in Luke 15 are unique to Luke. If we did not have the Gospel of Luke, we would not know these stories today.
David Jeffrey (“Luke”) reminds us that showing hospitality to Gentiles was an offense for observant Jews. Table fellowship was out of the question. These stories go to the heart of Jesus’ critique of his own religious system. Nothing is quite so central to Jesus’ ministry as commensality: table fellowship with all, especially with those ostracized from the religious community. Jesus’ ministry is not only to the religiously observant. “I have not come to call righteous, but sinners.”
So let’s hear the story as it is written in Luke. Five verses (Luke 15:3-7):
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
The shepherd seeks the lost sheep. When found, the lost sheep is not scolded, whipped, or punished. Jeffrey quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa:
But when the shepherd has found the sheep, he did not punish it, nor did he get it back to the flock by driving it, but rather by placing it upon his shoulder and carrying it gently he united it to his flock. (Aquinas Catena Aurea, 3:2:525)
The shepherd gently shoulders the sheep and rejoices. Rejoicing is the proper response. Then comes the party. The shepherd calls together friends and neighbors and celebrates. All heaven rejoices. As in so many stories, things end with a heavenly party.
Hear now the second parable. Three verses (Luke 15:8-10):
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
It would be a shame to not have a small group study on these texts. Let people dwell on the passages and reflect. This will bear much fruit.
It’s hard for people today to imagine turning the house upside down for one coin. These stories make sense in developing countries where the situation is much closer to the life of poverty people lived in Jesus’ day. You might tell a story closer to the cultural and economic milieu of your folks.
Once I got an email from my brother asking if we had gotten the Amazon gift card he sent in the mail for our anniversary. We had not, though the website told him it had arrived at 2:57 pm on Monday. So we turned the house upside down. (Never found it). This was a very real lost experience we had, but it still doesn’t rise to the level of a first century Palestinian widow desperately searching for a drachma that might represent several days with no meals.
I once was in a snowball fight in my first call in Iowa. I threw a snowball and my wedding ring came off with it. The church youth group spent some time sifting through snow, because this ring was important to me. And, believe it or not, they found it. Perhaps you have a story of misplacing a wedding ring with both monetary and emotional value. How did you feel when it was found? This is how heaven rejoices when one wayward wanderer returns.
I would be tempted to approach these texts as evangelism texts and my message as an evangelism message. The preacher may want to invite listeners to consider how they relate to outsiders, those who are not observant. How does your congregation as a whole interface with those who are not actively part of any church? Is your orientation angry critique or compassionate welcome with subsequent rejoicing? In Bible study, some questions might be:
- When have you lost something of value and searched diligently for it? Did you find it?
- When have you felt the most lost in your life?
- How did you come to the Christian faith?
- Were there times you walked away from God? The church? What brought you back?
- What might this story suggest about how we might relate to the “nones” in the most Christlike way?
- What do unchurched folks need most from the church?
- What’s our strategy for welcoming those outside our community of faith?
Keller goes on to critique today’s church under the sub-heading, “Why People Like Jesus but not the Church.” You don’t have to be in ministry long to discover and be amazed that Jesus is riveting, even 2,000 years later. At the same time, however, the community that bears his name, not so much. Outsiders are often put off by our church culture. Think Dana Carvey and church lady from the old Saturday Night Live sketches. This is the world’s impression of church. That’s why the sketch was funny. It was a caricature, but it hit a nerve. (You younger folk can YouTube it).
“Jesus’ teaching consistently attracted the irreligious,” Keller points out, “while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day.” Then he suggests that our churches today do the opposite. The broken and marginalized avoid the church. We tend to attract the found, not the lost.
Although Psalm 23 is not appointed for this day, Psalm 23 hymns like “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” and “Shepherd Me O God” would make fitting sermon hymns. “Amazing Grace” has lost/found themes. There are many versions of this hymn, as well as the most favorite hymn in the U.S. “O Zion Haste” also embodies a message of evangelism. I love that old schmaltzy hymn:
Proclaim to every people, tongue and nation
That God, in Whom they live and move, is love:
Tell how God stooped to save His lost creation,
And died on earth that we might live above.
Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace
Tidings of Jesus, redemption and release.