Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
September 15, 2019
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 19C
Because all three of our readings this morning so strongly emphasize the theme of God’s infinite concern for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of sinners, it’s possible to overlook the truly astonishing statement about God embedded in these same readings. The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Exodus states this morning: “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people”! That’s right—that’s what it says—“The Lord changed his mind”! In other words, God “repented”!!! Now, if this is really true, then we need a big re-think about a whole lot of modern assumptions about the way things are. Perhaps we are not living in a purposeless, clockwork universe after all, in which the cosmos mysteriously came into existence with the “big bang” billions of years ago; is still expanding and unfolding according to the immutable laws of nature; and will burn itself out in the distant future when all of the energy of that initial explosion of energy is finally spent. In this schema, our “accidental cosmos” is nothing more than blind and meaningless exploding and imploding energy and matter, and we are merely an improvised variation of the “stuff of stars.”
The biblical vision, on the other hand, is quite different. All three of our readings this morning assert that we are living in a purposeful, meaningful, and unfinished universe created by a sovereign God of justice and mercy “through whose word everything came into being.” This God is both personal and deeply involved with human history. And—perhaps most astonishingly—it is possible and desirable for human persons to know, love, and serve this God in a person-to-person relationship nurtured and enlarged through the life of prayer. The God of the Bible is a committed, faithful, and responsive person who engages creation and God’s creatures in a true dialogue of persons. There is real give and take in this relationship between an “I” and a “Thou.” And while this God is certainly no less than what we know about personhood through our own experience and relationships, God is certainly much more—so much more that human language is incapable of fully expressing the reality of God. In other words, someone is there; someone is listening; and this someone not only responds, but also changes. God is not a static, philosophical hypothesis sitting on the edge of the cosmos somewhere, at best just watching it all unfold in splendid isolation. The God of the Bible, the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” is intimately and painfully involved with creation and history, and this God has a personal concern for every single human being. We are not just one of a mass; a member of a rather recent and possibly doomed species. We are persons with all of the equal value and unconditional dignity of every human person made in the “bet’selem,” “in the image and likeness of God.” And while we creatures will never entirely know who God is as just another external object of contemplation, we can and must come to know that God is as an impassioned subject who loves and cares for us and for the creation, and who hears and responds to our prayers.
My first assignment to my students at the outset of my “Heirs of Abraham” course at Saint Mark’s School was always to articulate their “image” of God. I asked them to close their eyes and, then, to write a description of whatever or whoever they saw when they quietly repeated the word “God.” These short reflection papers were fascinating in both their simplicity and variety. One day, near the end of the course—and after studying in some depth the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—I asked the students if their “image” of God had changed at all over the course of the semester. In most cases it had, and in almost no case was God still an old man with a white beard sitting enthroned on a cloud up there and out there. Instead, God was a felt and a real presence with whom most said they could have a conversation.
My turn came round when one student unexpectedly, and rightly, asked me to describe my “image” of God. Without missing a beat, I responded, “Oh, that’s easy. For me, God is a cross between King Lear and Woody Allen.” Then, I explained: God is “King Lear” because I see God as a great, tragic figure driven to near madness by the free creatures whom he has created in love and with complete freedom; God is Woody Allen because only a someone with a truly ironic sense of humor could survive the foolishness, blindness, and stupidity of humankind. I think, by that point in the semester, the students entirely understood my, admittedly, somewhat eccentric portrait of God.
This sense of a deeply involved, engaged, and impassioned personal God of both justice and mercy, who is capable of dialogue and change, comes together in the person of Jesus Christ—fully human, yet completely and uniquely at one with God. In this morning’s Gospel, we see this embodied, incarnate God forsaking all social conventions and expectations in order to search for God’s lost creatures, with infinite concern for every single one of them. Jesus’ parables of the shepherd searching the wilderness and the woman with the lost coin are even more poignant when we consider that in Jesus’ time and place shepherds were often regarded as the dregs of society; and women were regarded as mere property with no social standing. So, when Jesus compares the God of mercy to a shepherd and a woman, this would have only further outraged his already vocal opponents and critics. How dare he consort with sinners and tax collectors, the minions of the hated Romans! What does Jesus mean by implying that God is a disreputable shepherd or a woman of no consequence in search of a single lost, but precious possession? Before you know it, God will be changing God’s mind about smiting them and casting them into outer darkness!
Well, according to Jesus, the God of “steadfast love and mercy” is his authoritative “image” of God, of the One he called “Abba,” “Father.” And it’s the consistent biblical image of God as well. “Justice and mercy are the foundations of God’s throne,” according to the psalms, and “God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” And that is really the “good news,” the “gospel” for you and me today because we are all of us sinners capable of prayer. According to the first letter to Timothy this morning, “The saying is sure and worthy of acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”
Our readings this morning from the Holy Scriptures are a reminder that God never leaves the “people of God” without an advocate and an intercessor. In the desert wilderness, Moses pleads with God on their behalf, even appealing to God’s vanity. The plaintive Moses asks: “Why should the Egyptians say ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind, and do not bring disaster on your people.” And so God does indeed “change” God’s mind. Much later, from the Roman cross of Golgotha, Jesus pleads with God on behalf of all humankind, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And the risen Christ, the “Good Shepherd,” still lives in glory to make constant intercession for us sinners at the “right hand of the Father.”
My friends and fellow sinners, we do live in a meaningful world created by a personal God with a big stake in both history and our individual lives. We can speak with this God in our life of prayer, and we have intimate communion with God—and with each other—through the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. God is always there to speak with us as well in Holy Scripture if we have the humility and the “hearts of flesh” to listen and to obey. And yes, God changes God’s mind, and God’s mercy is an essential aspect of God’s justice.
So bring your hopes and your disappointments, your joys and your sorrows, your fears and your longings to God in your life of prayer. And never fear to pour out your confusion and doubts and grief before God as well for, as that great Hasidic master of prayer, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, wrote, “Nothing is so whole as a broken heart before God.”
My friends, God is there, and God is listening. In the words of the psalmist, “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, O Lord, shall I seek.” And we do this with confidence because, according to Saint Paul, “we have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” AMEN.