Last revised: September 9, 2022
Click Reload or Refresh for latest version
PROPER 19 (September 11-17) — YEAR C / Ordinary Time 24
RCL: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
RoCa: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10 (11-32)
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
This week in lectionary begins on one of the most significant days in history, one which we most often refer to simply by its date, 9-11. On Tuesday September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda terrorists flew airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in what is still today the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. These passages were what we read on the first Sunday following the attack (Sept 16).
My sermon in 2001 — entitled “Holy Communion” — was greatly shaped by those events. I brought more of the general Girardian idea of righteous or sacred violence into play than just a focus on this day’s texts, though I did use both the Second Reading and the Gospel, especially the Pauline confession of righteous violence in the former. Here’s several segments of my response to 9/11 that week:
I was glad to see Sen. McCain so brutally honest about that this week, when he said, “God have mercy on the souls of the men who did this, because we won’t.” I find Sen. McCain’s statement not only refreshingly honest but also to be making a very important theological point: namely, the difference between the choices we human beings often make to acts of violence against us, and the choice God made in responding to our violence in Jesus Christ. God made a very different choice: forgiveness rather than revenge. The God we come to know in Jesus Christ is a God of mercy and love.
Yet throughout history humankind has made the choice of seeking revenge, of responding to violence with our own “righteous” violence. And all too often we have gotten God mixed up in our deeds of revenge, in our responses of righteous violence. God is an idol who justifies our violence. The terrorists who performed this act of violence no doubt felt it to be righteous violence, the kind of violence that St. Paul confesses to this morning. The terrorists felt themselves justified to strike out, even against civilians, because they see our nation as evil and themselves to be carrying out God’s punishment. That’s why they could even do what they did as a suicide. They were confident in God’s approval of what they were doing. To be honest, it was the same kind of righteous violence that we Christians carried out against Muslims — men, women, and children — during our crusades to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. If the U.S. carries out its own righteous violence against Muslim people in the weeks ahead, I hope we are at least clear about our responsibility as Sen. McCain when he says, “God have mercy on the souls of those men who did this, because we won’t.” It is we human beings who do such things to each other. The God we meet in Jesus Christ is a God of mercy, a God who responds to our human violence with forgiveness instead of revenge….
So I go into these next weeks expecting a personal struggle. I’m thankful to Sen. McCain for putting the choice so clearly: God’s mercy or our righteous violence. But as a disciple of Jesus I can’t be quite so glib about it. As a follower of Jesus I need to be repenting of my righteous violence, not wallowing in it. In the second lesson this morning, we’ve already noted that St. Paul confesses his past life as a man of righteous violence, but he’s not wallowing in it. His confession comes in the context of giving thanks for a changed life. “But I received mercy,” he says, “because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” He had acted out of ignorance, and Jesus forgave him, just as he did those who hung him on the cross “for they didn’t know what they were doing.” St. Paul, however, does know what he is doing by the time he wrote this letter, and so he no longer has that excuse.
You and I no longer have that excuse, either. We, too, have experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, so we can’t go on doing the same things. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” we pray. We can’t go on getting caught up in righteous violence when we have so clearly known the God of mercy in Christ Jesus. So I will struggle in the weeks ahead as our political leaders talk to us about such righteous violence against our enemies. [By the way, even if we call it “justice” instead of “vengeance,” as I’ve already heard from some religious leaders this week, it still amounts to the same thing if it involves violence. Righteous violence is still righteous violence despite our attempts at naming it as just or righteous.] …
Let me close by putting this more positively. We gather here today for God’s gift of Holy Communion. There are our human ways of coming together, our communions, and there’s God’s way of Holy Communion. What we remember once again in the sharing of Christ’s body and blood is our unholy ways of communion based on making sacrificial victims of our righteous violence, like our Lord himself. But God graciously transforms these unholy means of gathering ourselves together into the Holy Communion, a gathering together in remembrance of the Risen sacrificial victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes away our sin, by exposing our righteous violence, robbing it of its power, and replacing it with the life-giving power of God’s forgiveness and mercy.
This is more the kind of Holy Communion that I think we’ve been experiencing this week in our nation. In the days ahead we will talk increasingly of striking back, which is just more of our old unholy communion — that is, coming together on the basis of striking out at a common enemy. But this week we’ve experienced the Holy Communion of coming together around those sacrificed by the terrorist’s act of righteous violence. We’ve come together with incredible acts of loving service in response to the terrible, tragic loss of our fellow citizens. Let’s cherish these acts of mercy as we all pitch in at a time of crisis and loss. Let us cherish them as the real means of Holy Communion, the way of living which is truly and ultimately binding.
Preaching God’s celebration of repentance is a timely message for this week, since what we human beings most need to repent of over the centuries is our deadly sacred violence.
I offer a pointed piece (with some reservation, because it uses some crude language to make the point) from Bill Maher‘s TV show, shortly after the U.S. assassinated Osama bin Laden in 2011. It is dead-on-point in challenging any justifications by Christians for seeking vengeance under the guise of “sacred violence.” It is a
YouTube video, “Bill Maher nails it!“
It was a segment of his “New Rules” closing monologues, and begins, “New rule: if you’re a Christian who supports killing your enemies and torture, you have to come up with a new name for yourself.” He says, for example, “Nonviolence was kind of Jesus’s trademark, kind of his big thing. To not follow that part of it is like joining Green Peace and hating whales. There’s interpreting, and then there’s just ignoring. It’s just ignoring if you’re for torture and call yourself a Christian.” And, “Logically, if you ignore every single thing Jesus commanded you to do, you’re not a Christian. You’re just auditing. You’re not Christ’s followers; you’re just fans.”
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
1. James Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, pp. 121-127. Williams has two excellent chapters on Moses and the people of Israel.
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 143-152, especially p.147, in a section having to do with “Moses and the Commandments,” and then also on p. 157 in the context of commenting on what comes after the wandering in the wilderness, the genocidal conquest of the Promised Land.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
1. September 11, 2001, the first day in this lectionary week (Proper 19 is Sept. 11-17), is a day that will forever live in infamy in U.S. history. My sermon in 2001 — falling five days after the terrorist attack, entitled “Holy Communion,” and emphasizing Paul’s awareness of his own sacred violence in this Second Reading — is featured above in the opening comments. But 9-11 naturally continued to be focus in subsequent years during this week.
In 2004 we are fairly fresh from the Republican National Convention held August 30 – September 2, nominating George W. Bush to run for re-election. The rhetoric was heavy on its remembrance of 9/11/2001 and the theme of national security. Was this rhetoric “Christian” in terms of being heavy on the side of mercy, or was it conventionally human, heavy on the side of vengeance (and its euphemisms “justice” and “security”)?
I shouldn’t be so coy with where I stand. When President Bush arrived in New York on Wednesday night (Sept. 1) for the RNC, the first place he went was a community center in Queens to visit with 100 NYC firefighters. NPR’s “Morning Edition” the next morning (Sept. 2) carried the story to lead off the show (“Sept. 11 Looms as Bush Meets with NYC Firefighters”). There’s a clip from 10-year veteran John Gleason, in which he says,
There’s a lot us firemen who saw it first-hand. . . . So we know that Bush is doing the right thing, because there’s people out there who want to kill us. Kerry, I don’t think, understands that. I lost all my guys in my firehouse that day. I lost ten guys. And he’s out there revenging their loss.
I appreciated the absence of the euphemisms in his words. He calls it for what it is, revenge. It seems to me that the tone of the rhetoric has been too much in that vein, appealing to these kinds of raw emotions.
This is not to say that revenge is never a part of national policies and war doctrines. Of course it is, and perhaps there are times in which it is appropriate — as a human response. But I shudder when I hear such sentiments called “Christian,” or the leader who espouses them “Christian.” Isn’t Christian rhetoric decidedly on the side of mercy? How might Christians inject mercy into conversations about even our enemies?
1. Michel Serres, “One God or a Trinity?” Contagion, Vol. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 1-17. (Translated by Cesareo Bandera and Judith Arias.) It is an amazing piece of writing that lays out, in prose as dense in allusions as an Eliot poem, the sacrificial nature of all human culture, or what he calls “sacrificial economy.” Then, he turns it all around in the concluding section with the parable of the Lost Sheep. Here is that final section, “The Corresponding Positive Word”:
*****Michel Serres excerpt*****
By similar parables, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew express the principal of the non-sacrificial economy, the economy that refuses even the smallest expense, one percent, which is no other than the scapegoat itself: if one of you has one hundred sheep and loses one, would he not leave the other ninety-nine in the desert and go searching for the one that was lost until he finds it? (Matt 18:12; Luke 15:6).The one who brings back the lost animal turns the entire economic logic upside down in a symmetrical manner, because the other ninety-nine were left in the desert, the place, normally, of the expelled scapegoat, which now constitutes an inclusion. Thus the reversal of the logic of the exclusion. And as friends celebrate the return of the stray one, sacrifice is transformed into a positive feast: we will all rejoice together, without execution or expulsion, that the victim has returned to the fold.
Not only does this gesture refuse all the economy founded on calculation, even though minimum, of the one percent loss. It demonstrates positively that what has to be done is precisely to save that which by custom and reason we allow to be lost.
Lost soul, lost woman … do we realize that this word “loss” has both a moral and an economic meaning?
This lost man, who wanted to lose him?
Economist, turn your science upside down in order to go searching purposefully for the miserable, the sacrificed. Scientist, change your logic to save the victims of progress.
No! Not progress at any cost! Give back in full price the price offered up in sacrifice for progress.
*****End of Michel Serres excerpt*****
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 34-35. As he begins his chapter on the “Living God,” Alison states:
The image of God which Jesus proposes to us in the parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk 15:3-7) is exactly the inverse of the god we’ve seen. According to this parable the mercy of God is shown not to the group, but to the lost member, to the outsider. I ask you to consider quite how extraordinary this change of perception with respect to who God is turns out to be: mercy has been changed from something which covers up violence to something which unmasks it completely. For God there are no “outsiders,” which means to say that any mechanism for the creation of “outsiders” is automatically and simply a mechanism of human violence, and that’s that.
Link to a 1995 sermon that highlights such a changing perception of God, “Changing Our Minds about God.” It may be the first time I used one of my favorite, most-oft-used stories for sermons, the story of Hilda and her son, from Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993, pages 8-11].
3. Diana Butler Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World — A Spiritual Revolution. In this immensely important book for our time, reflections on the events of September 11, 2001 play a key role in the concluding chapters. I believe that today’s lessons can be read in terms of the conversion away from righteous violence and sacrificial violence. Butler Bass’s book doesn’t ring out these themes as explicitly as here in the context of Mimetic Theory, but she offers rich reflections on conversion to a new spirituality that gripped her in the aftermath of 9/11, a spirituality that more faithfully follows Jesus in answering the question, “Where is God?” Where? God is with us. God is with those who suffer, perhaps especially those who suffer human violence. Read this book!
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 16, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto), and sermon from September 12, 2010 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
5. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote two brief essays on this passage in 2013, “The Communal Good Shepherd,” and “The Good Shepherd in the Desert.”
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2013, titled “Calling All Friends and Neighbors; and a sermon in 2016, “Joy Breaks Out“; Russell Hewett, a blog in 2016, “Who Are the Lost Sheep?“; David Froemming, a sermon in 2016.
7. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” audio series, tape 8 (side B). This is a short piece on the way to his substantial treatment of the Prodigal, but with some good nuggets. These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion is covered by “The Poetry of Truth,” Part 102, Part 103. Here are my notes:
*****Notes on Gil Bailie Lecture*****
Luke 15:1-7 — Lost sheep and Lost coin, a two-part overture to the Prodigal Son.
- Luke 15:1 — “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” We had skipped the story of the great banquet (14:15-24): the privileged guests don’t come, so you come out and get the poor and the lame, the blind, the sinners. Everybody gets brought in. There is this idea that we especially want to bring in those whose heads are bent by the spirit of Satan, to bring them in for healing and forgiveness. Here it says the tax collectors and sinners were coming to him. In other words they suddenly realize, “Hey, this is about us. This is about us being able to hold our heads up straight.”
- Luke 15:2-3 — The Pharisees and scribes were predictably grumbling at this, this fellow who welcomes sinners to dinner and eats with them, and so Jesus tells two parables.
- Luke 15:4-7 — “‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.'” In other words, repentance (the word is metanoia) is better than righteousness. As Paul understood so well, that is a gospel truth, but how are you going to preach it and to whom. ‘Should I sin so that grace may abound?’ Why is repentance better than righteousness. Because, to use the metaphor of this story, when you find the lost sheep, you find more than what was lost. If someone comes up to this shepherd and gives an extra sheep, is there rejoicing? No, just one more sheep. It’s the lostness and the being found that is the source for joy. The process of conversion. Robert Frost says in his poem “Directive,” “Are lost enough to find yourself?” This is not finding yourself as much as being found. A life of righteousness — as some of us know who have occasionally given it a shot — is filled with sinfulness. All Jesus is saying, as Paul recognized, is that ‘You can’t get there from here.’ (Luke is influenced by Paul.) You can’t get to righteousness by trying to be righteous. Paul’s whole understanding of justification has to do with precisely this same conundrum.
- Second parable — again, first a man and now a woman — (Luke 15:8-10) “‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.'” Some biblical scholars have conjectured that this woman spent more money on the party than what the coin was worth. What does that mean? It means it’s not about economics. It’s not about simply regaining what you lost. It’s about something much more important happening.
- The word “righteousness” has undergone a shift like so many other key words because of the Christian revelation. So when you hear “righteousness,” you automatically think “self-righteousness.” In the same way, when your hear “sacrifice,” you automatically think “self-sacrifice.” In today’s world, “righteousness” has become a negative word. We should all strive to live morally rectified lives. But we do better at that when we realize that we’re sinners to the core. It’s like the A.A. program: They never say, “I used to be a drunk.” They say, “I still am, but I’m not drinking.” So there’s something about the righteousness of Christian moral effort which is always aware of our sinfulness.
*****Ends of notes on Bailie Lecture*****
Reflections and Questions
1. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one that looms on the horizon. A strong element of the action in the parables of Luke 15 is that of throwing a party. Parties, or dinner gatherings, is also a strong element of the action in Luke 14. See the comments for the passages in Luke 14 in Proper 18C and on the Prodigal Son in Lent 4C.
2. According to the focus of ministry in the average congregation, do our actions belie that of going after the one lost sheep or the ninety-nine in the fold? In our church (ELCA) we have tried to put a strong emphasis on “outreach.” But the habits of focusing on ourselves are hard to break.
3. Out of the mouths of babes: it was asked of the children during the Children’s Sermon, “Would you go after the one lost sheep or stay with the ninety-nine?” To which one boy quickly responded, “I’d go after the one lost sheep, but I’d take the other ninety-nine with me.”