Our readings for this coming Sunday in the Episcopal Church are:
And I have to say, after reading through these: ugh. Yuck. Blecch. I’d like to say that the folks who put together our lectionary were on crack. I mean – all these awful readings during Ordinary Time – and just in the last couple weeks since I’ve been reflecting on them here, we got Humility, followed by Choice, and this week, we have…
So we start out at Mount Sinai, and Moses is up at the summit having his conference call with The Lord, and the Israelites are milling about at the foot of the mountain, totally lacking a clue what to do with themselves. They’ve been delivered from slavery, so they don’t have to work for anyone else, but they’re not exactly in an environment where they can work to take care of themselves, either. Somewhere is this land of milk and honey they’ve been promised, where their descendants can outnumber the stars, but right now they’re huddled together in the desert, beneath a mountain. Their leader appears to have deserted them, and I’m sure they feel frightened, angry, betrayed, alone. So somebody says, Hey! We need gods! The Lord only talks to Moses, and we’re all alone down here and don’t know what to do with ourselves. Only problem is, The Lord may be on a conference call, but The Lord has eyes in the back of God’s head. And The Lord knows – because The Lord created us – that we are stiff-necked and perverse and prone to making bad decisions when our emotions get the better of us. Moses begs God not to destroy the Israelites right then and there. And I’ll admit that I have to wonder whether God is really planning to destroy them, or whether God is trying to get the measure of the man God has chosen to lead them. If Moses is the right leader, then Moses will do anything to keep his people from being incinerated. And Moses rises to the challenge, so God appears to change God’s mind. Or maybe Moses has just misunderstood. Maybe God said the ancient Hebrew equivalent of Homer Simpson’s Why, I oughtta…! I don’t know. I can’t know. But I wonder sometimes.
The psalm here is the one included in the rite of reconciliation that is in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It is a good psalm, and just right for that context. And I recognized it right off the bat when I looked at the scripture references: uh oh, Psalm 51. This doesn’t bode well for this week’s readings… This psalm has some really tough words in it: wickedness, evil, sin, transgression, offense, iniquity, judgment, purge, cast, death, sacrifice, broken, despise. It also has some good words: contrite, deliver, loving-kindness, create, praise, teach, favorable, gracious, clean, right, joy, gladness. It is very much a psalm of contrast – as the Exodus reading is. This psalm is a before-and-after picture of a sinner. Before: broken, wicked, evil. After: clean, joyful, glad, praising. The question is, what comes in the middle there? The short, one-word answer: God. The longer, one-word answer: forgiveness. Deliverance. Absolution. So how do we find these? The psalmist says we must have a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart. Is that enough? Do we need a Moses to plead for us, in his weekly telecon with The Lord?
The answer begins in the letter to Timothy. Jesus pleads for us. Jesus offers us grace and mercy and deliverance. Jesus fills us – overflows us – with grace and forgiveness and love. And the conclusion of the answer is in this week’s gospel lesson. Every last one of us is the lost sheep, the lost paycheck. You are, I am, all of us. And God knows this. God knows what stiff-necked, stubborn, foolish people we are, even when we don’t want to admit this to ourselves. We lose ourselves, by making choices that run counter to what God wants for us. But then we turn up again. And maybe we wander back to the flock on our own, and we wonder why nobody seemed to notice we were gone. Or maybe we were pursued and sought out and carried back to the sheepfold by a friend or family member. Or maybe we’re still wandering, not sure yet whether we want to rejoin the 99 righteous sheep just yet. Maybe we think those 99 sheep are stiff-necked (and they are) while we are not (but we are), and we are waiting for the 99 to change. And that’s okay. It really doesn’t matter. Because choosing to engage with God, to engage in the narrative of the bible, to engage in the story of Jesus – all of these things will change us, will change anyone who chooses them. The overflowing love and forgiveness and grace of Jesus pour over us. And just as a mountain is shaped by the pouring of the rains and winds and snows, we are shaped by the things Jesus pours out so scandalously over us.
So, yes. I’m a sinner, broken from my mother’s womb. But I am learning to choose to stand before God in humility and to ask for forgiveness. The wonderful thing is, God just can’t wait to shower me with forgiveness and love. I can see God sitting on a golden throne like a child wearing his father’s clothes. God’s crown is too large, and slips down over God’s forehead and ear. God is practically swimming in God’s grand robes, as they fall all around God. The scepter is too heavy for God to hold still, but that doesn’t stop God from twirling it and swooping it and laughing as God plays games with it. God is smiling and laughing and singing to Godself. And then I approach. Um, God? I hate to interrupt you there, but I had to say I’m really sorry. God looks up at me and grins at me. God jumps up, crown toppling from God’s head, robes under God’s feet almost making God trip as God runs to me, arms extended to wrap me in a hug, brilliant smile lighting up God’s entire being. It’s okay! I forgive you, see? I love you SO MUCH! Thank you for choosing me. Welcome back!
Welcome back, my beloved friends. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Every last one of us. Christ Jesus came into the world to save Hitler and Mussolini and Genghis Khan and Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and Charles Manson. Christ Jesus came into the world to save Archbishop Akinola and Archbishop Williams and Bishop Jefferts-Schori. Christ Jesus came into the world to save Bishop Robinson and Bishop Iker. Christ Jesus came into the world to save that cranky guy who works at the 7-11 where you get your morning coffee, and Christ Jesus came into the world to save the lady who flipped you the bird in traffic yesterday, and Christ Jesus even came into the world to save the man who ticks me off so badly by parking his white Lexus on the sidewalk in front of the grocery store every day. Christ Jesus came into the world to save ex-husbands and mothers-in-law and ungrateful children. To save child abusers and CEOs of companies that exploit workers. To save everybody. To call us back to the sheepfold, where God sits on God’s too-big throne. To laugh in delight as we approach, and to jump down from the throne and run to us and say, I love you SO MUCH! Welcome back!