For Sept. 15, 2013: Proper 19, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

In the late sixth century before Christ, the reformer king Josiah, who had begun to lead Israel back to a right relationship with God, died in battle. He was succeeded by sons who failed to follow his example, under whom God’s chosen people continued breaking God’s law in letter and spirit. Today’s prophecy from Jeremiah is vivid and, for those of us who know drought, earthquake, and wildfire, horrifyingly familiar in our own time.

The Response            Psalm 14

“Every one has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.”

The Epistle            1 Timothy 1:12-17

The author of the letters to Timothy may or may not be the man we know as Saint Paul or the Apostle Paul—the letters were probably written a generation later—but this towering hero of early Christianity paints himself as having been the worst offender against God, to whom nevertheless God saw fit to extend mercy. There might just be hope for the rest of us.

The Gospel            Luke 15:1-10

“‘I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’”

 

Further thoughts

Among the themes of the epistle and gospel readings for Proper 19 is surely seeking and finding.

The gospel gives us God’s determination to mount a search-and-rescue operation for the lost: sheep by sheep, coin by coin, sinner by sinner. Jesus’ choice of exemplars is as striking as his choice of dinner companions: shepherds were stereotypically grimy, uncivilized losers, and ordinary women were outside the terms of the covenants. But shepherds and women are Jesus’ chosen stand-ins for the seeking, finding, , rejoicing-in-the-lost God, and we the lost (or at least self-misplaced) can properly take comfort in the prospect of being both God’s found and God’s finders. Similarly, whether or not 1 Timothy was composed by the saint himself or (more probably) by a second-generation wannabe, this lesson is clear: if the likes of sinful Saul can be sought and found and straightened out by God, so can anyone else, including even me.

In the psalm and the Old Testament, however, the LORD is seeking but not finding the righteous—and in Jeremiah’s prophecy, disaster is promised as a consequence. It will begin with the hot wind: farm folk in that part of the world would toss threshed grain in the air so the wind could blow away the chaff—but this wind will blow as though from the very mouth of Hell, and the quaking fields and black, birdless skies both cause and result from the absence of worthy grain. Hope is not altogether gone: in the psalm God will shield the afflicted, and even Jeremiah’s exasperated Adonai adds, “yet I will not make a full end.” But the people who ought to be leaders in righteousness are instead the source of affliction and wickedness.

This brings us back to Saint Paul, self-proclaimed foremost of sinners. Consider his sins, however: sins not of the body or of unclean hands, but sins of hardness of heart. In God’s eyes, clearly, there are worse things than being a nobody; failing to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” as Micah 6:8 resonantly puts it, is at the top of the list of those things.

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