Today’s OT and NT readings offer stark and transparent examples of how selected passa-ges of scripture can convey competing images of the most high God – and I simply could not ig-nore their juxtaposition. The OT image is of a vengeful and punitive god who punishes his diso-bedient people by devastating both them and the land around them, while the NT image is of a loving and caring god who pities his people when they go astray and searches far and wide in or-der to recover them. In fact, both of these images are stereotypes of God in the OT and NT by people who read the Bible selectively. But if today’s OT and Gospel readings present us with two different characterizations of God – and if they appear to be at odds – we should remember that they belong together and that both God’s searing justice and his indefatigable love are essen-tial features of Gof in both the Bible and orthodox theologies. The decalogue and counsels of perfection are perpetual reminders that we are accountable to high standards. So in a time when our church is not much given to serious theology – when superficial self-definitions of ‘love’ tend to override all other descriptors of God – and when other specific attributes like authority and jus-tice are rendered virtually obsolete – I think it’s good that Jeremiah reminds us that God’s love for us includes accountability and discipline for our behavior and that Luke reminds of God’s endless quest for our company.
So instead of supposing that different views of God are mutually exclusive the church’s teaching presents them as complementary. And if God is best known as the God who acts, this is the simple acknowledgment of different ways in our understanding of how he acts. Think about how the common thread that connects Jeremiah and Luke is something similar to a fugue in clas-sical music – counterpoint (point against point) when two melodic lines are played at the same time with voices that are harmonically interdependent but rhythmically dependent – or maybe the interactive call-and-response traditional blues and African American spirituals. Several Sundays ago Donna taught us how to sing an echo version of the Lord’s Prayer that she teaches to our children in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. You may remember the call-and-response re-frain in “Minnie the Moocher” between Cab Calloway and his audience. It’s among my favo-rites. This is the best I can do to imitate him:
Hi‑dee hi‑dee hi‑dee hi (hi‑dee hi‑dee hi‑dee hi)
Now here is another call-and-response sequence that reflects today’s readings from Jere-miah and Luke, and it goes like this:
God is angry God’s mercy is everlasting
we fear his anger we trust his abiding love
Reading the Bible this way shows why God’s people ground their hope in his resolute love and mercy amid the most terrible threats for their ungodly living. Our reading from Jeremiah re-minds us of one of those times when the Israelites turned away from the Lord and began to wor-ship a false god. Everything had gone so well for them. They had gained their freedom from Egyptian captivity, they had successfully negotiated 40 years in a desert wilderness, and now they were poised to enter the Promised Land. But Jeremiah paints a terrifying picture of utter desola-tion when the Lord has had enough of Israel’s idol-worship and its empty promises – and he por-trays God’s vengeance as a burning wind from the desert. Not little gusts but a roaring wind, hot and terrible that comes sweeping down from the naked heights in the desert. From that vantage point nothing will intercept or impede it – nothing will spare its target – and it crashes into this foolish people as judgment against ‘their skill in doing evil and their ignorance about how to do good’. [22b] And when this desolation has passed, God looks upon the land and as far as he can see in all directions, everything is in ruins. We’ve seen that kind of desolation in pictures taken after hurricanes and tornados;’ but human beings can cause disasters as well. All of us should re-member the destruction of the wars we have seen – some of us firsthand.
Several years ago Donna and I visited a place of desolation when we visited the battle-field at Culloden in the Scottish Highlands near Inverness. You may have been there, too, or read about how on 16 April 1746 the armies of Bonnie Prince Charlie and King George II met on this boggy field. As we walked over it we rembered how Charlie was desperately trying to retake the English throne for the Stuart dynasty. But like the careless king in last Sundays gospel, he made too many miscalculations and the British took full advantage of them. In less than an hour, the battle was over – but that didn’t end the desolation. While the British wounded were taken to a nearby farmhouse and treated as well as they could be, the opposing Scots wounded were taken to a barn adjacent to Culloden field and the barn was set afire. But even that did not slake the British bloodthirst. Since the British cavalry had not engaged in the brief battle, their command-ing officer gave them freedom to raid the country-side and slaughter every man, woman, child, and animal and no one within miles of Culloden survived their carnage. After that, the Scottish tartan was outlawed, their bagpipes were banned as an instrument of rebellion, and the English did everything in their power to rid the island of its centuries-old Scottish culture. Over the years the British have become so ashamed of their behavior at Culloden that to this day the British military refuses to wear the colors of Culloden on their uniforms. After almost 300 years that field remains barren, and it is said that even now no bird flies in the skies over Culloden. That was also the land of Judah as Jeremiah described it: “I looked on the earth, and lo it was waste and void – I looked and lo there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled”.
But Luke’s account is remarkably different. His first story is about a shepherd who had a hundred sheep and was distressed that one of them had wandered away because it was in danger of being killed. So he left the rest of the herd and went searching high-and-low for the one that was lost. When he found that lost sheep, he didn’t punish it, as Jeremiah says God punished the Israelites, but lifted it high in the air, put it on his shoulder, and carried it back to safety. And then he called his friends and neighbors and invited them to join him in rejoicing that he had found his sheep that was lost. And Jesus says, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in hea-ven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance”.
Then there’s Luke’s story about a woman who had 10 coins. As in the first story, she has losdt one of them and goes searching for it high-and-low. She lights a lamp and sweeps the en-tire house until she finds that coin – and then, having found it, she calls her friends and neighbors and invites them to “rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost”. Again, Jesus says “Just so, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”.
A sheep is lost and then found – a coin is lost, and then found – and immediately follow-ing these little stories, but not part of today’s gospel, is another lost-and-found story – this one of a son who was lost and then found. The common storyline in Luke’s stories reaffirms the terms of the covenant that God established with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel – and it is the needed com-plement to Jeremiah’s account of God’s anger. These are narratives of God’s unrelenting and persevering singlemindedness to find and reclaim his lost and erring children. When Jim Valva-no was fighting cancer you may remember that he paraphrased this very maxim: “Don’t give up – don’t ever give up”. Both Jeremiah and Luke tell us that God’s pursuit of his lost and erring children never gives up. It is boundless and unrestrained; and together they say that this is God’s nature – God’s character – God’s mercy – that even when we worship idols and anger God, his grace never abandons us – never gives up on us – and is always there for us.
If we ask “who are these who are ‘lost’ to whom Jesus is sent”, the short answer is Walt Kelly’s reference in the 1960’s to the turmoil of the Vietnam War when he said the enemy is us. We are the folks who go the wrong way while blithely denying that we are going the wrong way. One of my students once asked me seriously, “What should I say to parishioners who ask wheth-er God hears the prayers of sinners?” Duh! If God doesn’t hear the prayers of sinners, whose prayers does he hear? Happily for us, God not only hears our prayers but searches for us when we get lost and forget how to pray. So we ought to take great comfort in the knowledge that Jesus is like the shepherd who rejoices when just one lost sheep is found – that Jesus is like the woman who searches diligently for one lost coin until it’s found – that Jesus is like the father who welcomes home his prodigal children – that God’s pursuit of us in our lostness is his infinite mer-cy. As I pointed out last Sunday when ‘hate’ was a problematic word, it’s useful always to look for a dialectical interpretation of scripture – for God’s ‘yes’ to accompany God’s ‘no’ and vice-versa. That happens here in the final 2 verses from Jeremiah. There is grace and mercy and hope amid utter devastation and death when he concludes by saying that even though “the Lord’s de-cree of desolation covers all the land, yet there will be a little remnant of my people left”.
St. Augustine gave us many aphorisms worth remembering – little sayings that go right to the heart of the matter – and one of them bears directly on today’s lessons: “Before God can deli-ver us from ourselves,” he said, “we must undeceive ourselves”. Today’s Bible lessons are clear that the beginning of wisdom, and a right relation with God, comes with recognition of our own lostness. Sometimes it takes a lifetime for us to admit to ourselves that we are lost and incom-plete – lacking the peace and satisfaction with ourselves that we most desire. But however long it might take, today’s readings make it clear that the precondition to claiming God’s blessing en-tails stripping away the deceptions and seeing ourselves as we truly are – as lost and needing to be found.
When I was a teenager and leading the singing at brush-arbor revivals, we sang a hymn by Fanny J. Crosby that I don’t hear any more. It was called Rescue the Perishing and these are its lyrics: “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying; Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave. Weep over the erring ones, lift up the fallen; Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save”. The chorus went like this: “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying; Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save”.
Despite all that St. Titus is doing to embrace the community around it, Episcopalians are less likely than some to talk like this – but we shouldn’t be. Jesus came to save the lost – lost sheep, lost coins, lost sisters and brothers, lost weaklings – the entire lot of us. He has come to North Carolina and even to Durham looking for us. The ones we’ve given up on – or forgotten about – or just dismissed – are the very ones for whom Jesus is looking – and I suspect that, now and then, he looks over his shoulder to see whether we’re following him – whether we are doing our part to rescue the perishing in all their sorts and conditions.
Of course, salvation is God’s work, not ours. I have mentioned the immodesty of the Bi-ble Broadcasting Company’s motto: “All Christian all the time” – and the vanity of our diocesan motto: “Making disciples – making a difference”. None of us make disciples, nor are we ‘all Christian all the time’. If either of these happen, it’s because God does them through us as his followers and servants. That’s the message of Fanny Crosby’s hymn. And if we acknowledge who actually does what to whom, that describes our vocation. And that’s why I can confidently remind you that we have to do our part to rescue the perishing, care for the dying, weep over the erring ones, lift up the fallen, and tell them of Jesus, who is mighty to save – all the while reliably knowing that God will take care of the rest. I think that’s a happy thought! Deo gratias. Thanks be to God. So be it. Amen.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.