12 September 2010

Pentecost XVI

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19

The Lectionary

Collect of the Day: Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen..

Throughout Pentecost we have been hearing readings that tell us about the nature of God. Today’s readings follow that theme with an in-depth look at God’s merciful nature. A closer reading reveals to us how God works in a covenant relationship with His people.

In the Exodus passage we find God’s initial anger with the people whom he has led to deliverance from slavery in Egypt. They have become bored and disillusioned and have returned to the worship of other gods and have built a golden calf as an image. Like anyone who has done something good only to be rebuffed, God is angered by this repudiation and threatens violent wrath until Moses intervenes.

A teenage boy recently was caught joy riding, having stolen a car from family friends. His father confronted him and told him how ashamed he was, how their friends had done so much for them, "And this is how you repay them?" But later the friends sat down with the enraged father and reminded him how they had all once been young and done foolish things. They then told him they were not going to press charges.

God is persuaded by Moses in the Exodus story to remember, to remember the covenant and promise to Abraham, and how that promise needs to be fulfilled. The family friends reminded the wrathful father that all of us do stupid things, and that while there are consequences, there is also mercy and forgiveness. It is in God’s nature to be merciful. We worship a merciful God.

Paul, writing to Timothy underscores the mercy of God as he recounts his own conversion from being a persecutor of the gospel to its promoter. He knows from experience that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  Paul makes this powerful witness out of experience as well as a faithful conviction that God is merciful and prefers that all be drawn to the message of salvation and eternal life.

The most powerful witnesses of God’s mercy and renewal come from people who are recovering addicts. They can tell with absolute conviction of their redemption through God’s mercy. They know their depravity and the depths of despair, and as they begin to move to a life of sobriety, they witness to how much God has done for them. Their stories continue to move others and save many who are lost and who only imagine God is punishing them or determined to destroy them. For many it has been a long road, but they have learned to find God mighty to save.

The gospel lesson summarizes the basic teaching of Jesus about the nature of God. We are not dealing with a God of whimsy or one subject to influence by expensive gifts or sacrifices. Rather, we are in relationship with God who is most concerned about each of us, wanting to find us when we are lost, and yearning to bring us home.

An older couple despaired for their son who was an alcoholic. They had tried tough love, and they prayed for his deliverance. The addiction had been a problem since high school, when he wasn’t able to receive his diploma because he was in jail for underage drinking. Now in his thirties he was in the hospital; this time the doctor told them he wasn’t sure he could save their son.

Now, a year later he is at work, attending daily AA meetings, and dating a woman who is also a recovering person. He has a job and is becoming very involved in his church. God sought him, when he was most lost, and found him through friends and AA, who led him back to sobriety. And God does this over and over, sending people to us when we need them, putting us in the places where we can get help even when we would rather reject it.

The Good News is not that God is going to make us successful or rich. The Good News is that God is loving, merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. If you ask anyone who has been through the pain of addiction or felt lost and alone and then been found, they will tell you without any doubt there is a God who is mighty to save, and that God is found at work in the world today.

-- The Rev. Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives in nearby Holiday Island.