SURRENDERING TO MERCY
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
September 11, 2016 The Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity
Lections: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51: 1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
One odd bit of memory lodged in my mind from childhood is associated with the word “smorgasbord.” I was about five years old at the time my parents, sister, and me moved into the newly built Putnam Hill Apartments, in Greenwich, Ct. Our family very seldom ate out, but for some reason, we all got in the car one Sunday morning and drove to this restaurant in nearby Cos Cob, where there was a restaurant which served a Sunday smorgasbord. I had never been to a smorgasbord, and everything was new, including the buffet line, where Swedish meatballs found their way onto my plate. They immediately became one of my favorite foods, even as I tried for the first time several other foods: herring and beets and cake, and the Swedish pancakes servers colorfully attired brought to our table. I always wanted to go back to that restaurant, but we never did.
All of which is a rather indirect approach to the ‘smorgasbord’ of five stories in today’s readings. The stories, like ham and Swedish meatballs, are at once familiar and new. First, from Exodus, we have ‘An Idol Cast In the Shape of a Calf,’ one of the stories that made an impression on me early on in Sunday school class. Next, The Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after David had gone in to Bathsheba. This was a story I wouldn’t understood until I was old enough to put myself in David’s place. Then there is Paul’s 1st Letter to Timothy, where Paul calls himself “the worst of sinners.” What am I to understand from this? Last, in the ten verses we heard from Luke, Jesus tells two parables: ‘the Parable of the Lost Sheep,’ and ‘the Parable of the Lost Coin.’ And this is where, I think, I run aground; even as we prayed, “As a shepherd seeks a lost sheep, so God rejoices over one soul restored to wholeness,”
it seems unfathomable that God would come calling for me in particular; quite honestly, I don’t think I am worth the effort. Will L Thompson was surely thinking of you and you and you, not of me, when he wrote, in 1880:
“Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling
Calling for you and for me;
Oh, for the wonderful love He has promised—
Promised for you and for me!
Though we have sinned, He has mercy and pardon—
Pardon for you and for me!
I know these few words express the essence of the Gospel; I know the Gospel is trustworthy, and I have actually heard Jesus calling me. So I do not doubt God; I doubt myself.
This raises a fundamental question: if my sense of unworthiness is stronger than any other sense I have about myself, can my wholeness be restored? Can the descriptions we hear today of the people of God, people such as myself who are corrupt (Exo 32:7), stiff-necked (Exo 32:79), and sinners (Ps 51, 1 Timothy 1, Luke 15), really be reconciled with the promise of judgment, forgiveness, and transformation?
‘An Idol Cast In the Shape of a Calf’ represents an invisible power that the people working with metal desire to have an alliance with. The invisible world is an especially tricky place for establishing relationships; the God of righteousness is invisible, yet real, while the vain imaginings of the mind, which we call false gods, are also invisible, but non-existent. The Israelites – collectively, as a nation, not as individuals – forsake that which is real for that which is not; consequently, “God’s anger burns against them.”
Talking with God, Moses does not question the judgment; instead, he reminds God of his responsibility, not for the actions of his people, but for their well-being; Moses quotes the promise God made to Abraham, when he said, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.”[i] God then shows mercy, because God is a God of righteousness. As the Psalmist sings, “Your righteousness, God, reaches to the heavens, you who have done great things. … Your righteousness, O God, reaches to the highest heavens. …”[ii]
Our response to God’s righteousness is hope and praise, but even more; Paul writes to the Ephesians, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children” (Eph 5:1). And Jesus tells us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[iii] In the context of our story, we are both parent and child; children sees their parents as blameless and takes refuge in their example, as parents pardon wayward children, welcome their return, “and let the past be the past.”
Psalm 51 is the 1st person singular voice of a particular human being, King David, the father of a nation, who pleads as a child with God, in the presence of the prophet Nathan, to be forgiven his sins. At root, sin is rebellion; people are called “stiff-necked” who resist following the way of righteousness. The expression comes from the behavior of a farm animal, the ox, who will not be led while plowing. As one writer describes,
“The plow was usually drawn by two oxen. As the plowman required but one hand to guide the plow, he carried in the other an “ox-goad.” This was a light pole, shod with an iron spike. With this he would prick the oxen upon the hind legs to increase their speed, and upon the neck to turn, or to keep a straight course when deviating. If an ox was hard to control or stubborn, it was “hard of neck,” or stiff-necked. Hence, the figure was used in the Scriptures to express the stubborn, untractable spirit of a people not responsive to the guiding of their God.”[iv]
David struggles with the memory of his sins. Like Moses, he does not contest the inevitable penalty: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” Reflecting on the particular sins that have corrupted him, David also discerns the extent of his rebellion, which is “from the time my mother conceived me.” This, I would say, is the shock that engages David’s transformation, for in my experience, there is no such thing as a gentle inducement to change. Conscience was sealed in us in the womb, that secret place where God “desired faithfulness” and “taught us wisdom.” David seeks to reject wrong-doing, and to build a new relationship of hope and trust, so that he might again know goodness. Pleading in his brokenness for mercy, David longs to be renewed in his inner being, to have his motives and character restored, to cleanse himself “from everything that defiles body and spirit, perfecting holiness.”[v] This longing, I think, can be found in each of us. When we see the icon of Jesus returning to the ninety-nine of his flock with the one wayward sheep on his shoulders, gratefulness stirs within our hearts.
David is at the beginning of the process of transformation. In contrast, Paul’s account in 1st Timothy is a brief look back from the vantage of a person having undergone a thorough transformation. Paul is now strong, trustworthy, and following the way of Jesus; God has put behind him the past when he had been abusive, hurtful, cruel and violent and yet prosecuted others for unrighteousness. In today’s account, Paul does not describe the shock that brought about his repentance – he does that elsewhere; his point is rather that God showed him mercy because of his “ignorance and unbelief.” Paul is an example for us of a person who transgresses by confusing right and wrong; we might say, he misread the wisdom given him in the womb. Christ Jesus, he says, intervened in his life because “he came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” Paul was made an example of: he was shown mercy so that God’s ‘patience’ would be believable. Here Paul touches on an important point: even when everyone else gives up on us, we always have a source of hope. The difficult part of hope, however, is accepting it for what it is: a ladder waiting for us to step onto the bottom rung.
Before turning to the Gospel, let us briefly recap. Each story addresses sin: the sin of a nation, Israel, and the sin of individuals, such as David and Paul. We have heard described how righteousness and unrighteousness contest within and among people, despite our access to wisdom as early on as our days in the womb, when conscience begins to be formed. We have heard that judgment, which is the consequence of unrighteousness, is pardoned, because God acts righteously, as a parent, caring for his children. And we have begun to understand the abundance of God’s righteousness, which is inseparable from his mercy. Finally, we have seen, in the contrasting experiences of David and Paul, the beginning and the end of the transformative process, that God in his mercy initiates, and we cling to with hope.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep, of course, reminds us that Christ Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who saves us from certain death, when we will not be led. For us, the flock of ninety-nine represents the church, which Jesus leads, and the lost sheep is the sinner who repents. This much is straightforward. What is hard to fathom is the time of lostness, when a person’s entire being can be utterly degraded. How can a soul be cleansed from the corruption of wrong-doing?
We have said before that sin is of two kinds: outward and inner. When I drink too much and lose self-control, anyone can see that my behavior is wrong. My sin is outward. When I stop drinking and become self-reflective, I observe the dispositions that arise as drunkenness; these are inward sins. It is relatively easy to correct outward behavior, more difficult to change one’s disposition. And the cart can’t go in front of the ox; outward behavior must be goaded before body and mind can be changed. Simply put, this seldom happens. Most of us do not live long enough to be fundamentally transformed. The time of lostness lasts as long as our life. The Gospel teaching of Christ Jesus is that still we will be found; we will repent and the heavens will rejoice over our salvation, because God will, rather, God in fact has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God calls to us from the heart center of his love displayed.
The Parable of the Lost Coin emphasizes a further dimension to ‘being found.’ It is not only for heavens’ angels to rejoice; the earth too, must rejoice. The parent of the wayward child and their neighbors are called to welcome the sinner who returns into their midst. This, too, seems problematic: the child who is a drug addict will steal the parent blind; the parent who is drunk will beat the child. Neither of today’s parables offers us a picture of the process of transformation; we see only the first rung of the ladder, the necessary step, and the final outcome.
In a sense, our ‘lostness’ is ‘lost’ in the ‘finding.’ We recognize sin; we disbelieve mercy; we search in vain for the strength and power to change. This is why Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life.” To repent of sin, to experience pardon, to be changed, so that even our sense of unworthiness is rooted out, we have only to come to Jesus – to his church – and to follow in his way.
The world offers no help. The means of grace and works of piety that change a person into someone he and she can live with – outside of time – are only available here, where we are now, allied with Christ Jesus and the flock – the fellowship – he shepherds. Let us, then, ask God for the mercies of repentance and pardon, and for the strength and perseverance to change. Amen.
[i] See Gen 12:7; 15:5
[ii] Psalm 71:19
[iii] Matt 5:48
[v] 2 Cor 7:1