Posts Tagged 'mercy'

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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For Feb. 5, 2012: Presentation in the Temple, Year B

The Reading            Malachi 3:1-4

The book of Malachi is addressed to Jews in post-exile Jerusalem who believe God has abandoned them. The Lord is sending his malaki—his messenger—and the judgment to follow will be like being melted in the flames of a blast furnace or like being scoured clean with strong lye soap, though at the end judgment will lead to vindication.

 

The Epistle            Hebrews 2:14-18

Where the reading from the book of Malachi depicted God’s messenger as judge and purifier, the version in the letter to the Hebrews sounds different: Jesus comes to take on our humanity so he can pay the price of our sins.

 

Further thoughts

During Advent we look forward to the Nativity: we know on some level that Jesus is God come among us, but what we see and reach out to is a sweet little baby born in difficult circumstances.

In Epiphany, the focus shifts: we begin to look into this baby’s future, and ours.

Malachi gives us part of that: the Lord who is to come will bring judgment, and it will be not be pretty. Even the people who were born to serve in the Temple—the offspring of the tribe of Levi—have fallen short of God’s standards and must be purified. The process will be searing and caustic, and we will be ashamed.

The book of Hebrews gives us another parts: the Lord who is and is to come brings judgment, but with it mercy and absolution—though at the cost of his own death by torture, and at the cost of our own recognition of our need for his death.

The Gospel gives us further pieces. Grief is one of them. The grief will be public and personal, abstract and concrete. Simeon foresees the falling of many and a sword piercing Mary’s own heart: what mother is supposed to have to witness the death of her son, and who among us would wish our inner thoughts all to be revealed?

But there is also anticipation. The helpless baby—a child presented at the Temple would be forty days old, of an age to hold his head up and possibly to begin to find his own tiny thumb with his mouth on purpose—will not remain a baby for long. The parents will teach him to walk and to function in this world, and their secret parental hope that their boy is something special will be fulfilled in spectacular fashion. And, once grown, the Man of Sorrows who dies for our sins will still and always also be the laughing Jesus who takes irrepressible delight in all the created order and in each of us, his billions of brothers and sisters, who shows us the way from judgment and grief through mercy to joy we cannot even imagine.

For Jan. 22, 2012: 3 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading    Jonah 3:1-5, 10
When God first sent Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh, Jonah tried to run away from God. This attempt makes more sense when we realize that Nineveh was not only un-Jewish, it was the capital city of Israel’s biggest enemy, the repressive Assyrian empire. In today’s reading, Jonah obeys. How do you think the Assyrians will respond?

The Epistle    1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Whether or not we believe that the end times will occur within our lifetimes, the message of Paul’s first letter to Corinth is timeless and timely: for living the faith and doing the work of God, the right time is always right now.

Further thoughts
Two of today’s scriptures pose challenges for us that are familiar—and familiarly difficult to contemplate. The letter to the Corinthians explains that business as usual is over, because the end of the world is imminent; Paul believed this and lived this, leaving the privileges of a Pharisee to serve as God’s errand boy to the Gentiles. At the other end of the social scale, the gospel shows the humble fisherfolk Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropping everything to follow Jesus. This is clearly serious business: if our worth as Christians hangs on our willingness to forsake all our other responsibilities at a word, most of us today just don’t measure up.

For the rest of us, there’s Jonah. The book of Jonah is full of ironies and surprises and some of the Bible’s funniest material. Though it’s easy to sneer at Jonah, it’s wise to sympathize: what will a Jewish boy accomplish preaching repentance to this Mesopotamian empire of Jew-oppressing pagans? So Jonah sails for Tarshish, which could be in southern Turkey or northern Africa or even southern Spain—in short, Anywhere Else. When his ship nearly sinks, Jonah begs the terrified sailors to throw him overboard; God will save them, and drowning still gets him out of going to Nineveh. A huge fish sent by God swallows Jonah and pukes him up near home. Once Jonah’s decent again, God orders him back to Nineveh. Jonah goes this time, and succeeds wildly beyond expectation: Jonah 3:6-9 shows even the animals in sackcloth. God then elects to spare all the Ninevites— whereupon Jonah stomps off and pouts: how dare God change God’s mind and let these bad boys off the hook? God’s response is not to blast Jonah into next week for insubordination, but rather to give him shade.

The book of Jonah is read by Jews in its entirety on Yom Kippur, the very solemn Jewish Day of Atonement. Whether we choose God’s standard for behavior or Paul’s or the early disciples, we fall short, and it is appropriate to remember that and be sorry. But it is also vital not to get stuck there, nor to confine others there. Jonah helps us recall that God’s way is to bring mercies beyond expectation through improbable means and unlikely messengers—like you and me.