Sermon for 15th September 2013 Proper 19 Trinity 16 Year C
Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen
In all of our readings this morning there is a common theme, and that theme is sin. (In case you have ever wondered, the Greek and Hebrew words for sin both come from archery – it used to mean when an arrow missed its mark.) ((Thanks to @Michael_F_Page for correction)
You might think of different things when you are invited to call to mind your sins, when we make our confession and receive forgiveness, Sunday by Sunday. You might have done one thing wrong, perhaps a long time ago, which still weighs heavily upon you, or for which the consequences and hurts are still being worked through and put right. You might think of a habit or pattern of behaviour which you repeat time and time again, even though you know it to be wrong. You might think of the things you have said and done during the last week, which have been hurtful. You may consider all of these things deeply on a Saturday evening or early on a Sunday morning, so that you arrive at church ready to bring these things before God in unison with others, having done the work of bringing them before God prayerfully individually yourself. Because of course the problem with committing a sin isn’t always with the act itself, however minor or dreadful it may be. The problem with sin is the long term consequence – and there are always consequences.
If I “just make it through” the traffic lights by the Co-op, I run the risk of colliding with another vehicle, or a cyclist, or a pedestrian. Careful driving is a matter of good order and safety. If I snap at someone or shout at them, then there are consequences – to the way they feel, to their self esteem, a consequence that should not be underestimated. Some of the voices in our heads are triggered by such simple things “I’m so clumsy” I’m stupid”, “I’m not worth worrying about”. And if I continually get away with being unkind to others, then gradually I learn to bully, to put people down, to intimidate. I become someone feared, and avoided. And if I get used to being the one who always gets her way, then the path is open to other patterns of behaviour – who is stopping me, who is in my way? Who “shouldn’t be allowed” to stop me? Taken to its extreme, we have murder.
Sin always has consequences. The other consequence I haven’t yet mentioned is what sin does to our relationship with God.
In the OT reading set for today, the Israelites thought that Moses was lost up the mountain, so they asked Aaron to make them a god to lead them. After all, Moses was their main means of direct communication with God, and they had been led by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night as they wandered. They needed a new leader, a new shepherd, if you will. They had, as far as they knew, “lost” their God. They knew they needed God and so they asked Aaron to make one for them. God was angry, and resolved to punish them, but because Moses spoke out “The Lord changed his mind”.
The Israelites turned away from God because they didn’t know how to make contact with God without having someone to do it for them. They broke their relationship with God because they thought God had abandoned them. Suddenly this begins to sound like a very modern sin. “Where is God?” people ask at times of tragedy, without realizing God is there in the midst of life with them. And it’s a short step from “Where is God?” to “God isn’t here” to “God doesn’t exist, and “there is no God”. But humans are spiritual creatures, formed for relationship with God, and so where that relationship is fractured, we seek to reestablish it in other ways – sometimes by replacing it with a Materialistic Shopping God”, sometimes by looking in particular places or using particular things to connect with the something beyond which we don’t even know how to describe. Meditation, tree hugging, crystals, dream catchers, whatever floats your boat.
Our neighbours have, by and large, lost their connection with a Christian God, and so they seek a replacement. It is worth pointing out that they mostly don’t know the stories. Children of my generation mostly didn’t go to church, or to Sunday School, and their parents mostly didn’t either. SO when I do a baptism now, I count myself lucky if the parents can tell me the Saint to which a church is dedicated. Up at St Johns, it’s even rarer that they know it is St John the Baptist, and if I ask who St John the Baptist was, or why he has that name, they don’t know. Our neighbours have lost their connection with the stories of humans and their relationship with God. They are in the position of those Isrealites, but even worse – they have little understanding of what they have lost.
Paul on the other hand had fallen into a different kind of sin. He was a rabbi, trained to share the stories, trained to keep other people in line. He was so busy protecting his faith from change, keeping it orthodox that he missed the change that God actually wanted to happen. We don’t have to look far to see the modern equivalent. We might think about the big issue the Church of England is currently grappling with – does it matter about the gender or sexual identity of ordained people? But we might also think about the small changes – where do the flowers go? What kind of music do we sing? Where do we sit – and is there someone in “our” seat? Here in All Saints, we are undergoing some huge changes, and so lots of us are working to minimize the impact of them. Many of us are doing their best to keep things familiar, and not many of you have swapped the relative positions where they sit. We like to keep things the same….so do we miss the changes where God might work? Do we commit the sin of elevating our traditions above God, of trying to limit God to what we can cope with?
Which brings us to the Gospel, to those sinners and rabbis with whom Jesus consorted, the one lot outcast, the others representing the establishment. There is a sense of worlds colliding wherever Jesus went – not just heaven touching earth in the form of a wholly human wholly divine person, but of the outcasts and the hated instruments of Roman rule and the pillars of society all rubbing shoulders. Jesus didn’t shun any of them, but he didn’t pull any punches either. He is clear – there is joy when a sinner repents. When we repent, we are turning away from what we have done wrong. We are not only saying sorry, but we are promising to try to better next time.
A reminder about sheep and shepherds in 1st century Palestine. Sheep learned the voice and call of their shepherd, and would flock to him. A sheep would only get lost and isolated if it wandered away from the rest of the flock,, and if it also wandered beyond the call of its shepherd. So a lost sheep has managed not to behave like a sheep, and has strayed far. The dangers at that time of wolves and wild dogs meant that a lone sheep was unlikely to survive. It was a brave shepherd – or even a foolhardy one, who would abandon the rest of the flock to seek the lost sheep.
The dangers for people who stray far from God are very real. Humans quickly become “inhumane” – not very human, in what they do and how they treat others. We become, not the people God wants to be, but those who block God’s work, in ourselves and in others. We become separated from God. Ah, separation from God. The way that has been used to define Hell. Hell isn’t necessarily a place of fire and devils. But it is a state in which we are separated from God. God became human to bring us back into relationship with God. Christ died, rose and ascended to teach us more and more about God, and to show us how much God loves us. Jesus is our shepherd, the one who calls us, and there is no-one beyond earshot.
So this week, let’s think on our sins. Let’s think on that which separates us from God. And let’s think on the ways we try to separate other people from God. And as we repent, let’s put aside those sins for some more positive targets – how do we bring other people closer to God? How do we listen for the call of the living Christ? How do we share that call with others?
May we all hear and share the call of Christ the Good Shepherd, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.