Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14 | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 | Luke 15:1-32
Look upon us, oh Lord, creator and ruler of all things, and that we may feel the working of your mercy, grant that we may serve you with all of our hearts. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
This may seem like a strange question to start my homily with today, but I’m just wondering, and I’m asking you this question: how do you think God is doing in terms of the job that he has taken on? How’s he doing? That sounds strange. I know, when I grew up, I had this image of a God who was very demanding in terms of perfection and sinlessness, and I worked hard to be a good little boy and tried to make sure I didn’t offend him or disappoint him. Part of that was because I knew that was the right thing to do. I was told that was the thing that children do. They obey, but it also left me with a kind of feeling that there was this promise God would make to those who did the right thing, and that was he would take care of them when they died. And even though I wasn’t thinking at all in my early years about my death, the idea of punishment, I knew that. I knew what it was like to be punished. So I had this image of a God who asked me to do what was right in order that I would not be punished is the way I read it, and those things that are branded in our brains, when we’re very young, are hard to shake. And I think I’ve carried some part of that with me my whole life, but the interesting thing I’m thinking about, especially in light of the readings today, is what is God’s job. What’s he here for? What are we here for? What’s our relationship with him about? Is it really about a God who comes into our life and tells us, “These are the things I demand of you, and if you do them, I reward you. If you don’t, I dump you”? That’s pretty simple, pretty direct, but nothing could be further from the truth.
So I want to focus on God, who he is, what he does, who he is to us, what we should expect from him and what kind of relationship should we have with him, and that’s what I want to talk about. The first reading is very — a beautiful reading about the way the story of God began. You know that the first time we hear about his relationship with human beings is in the garden with Adam and Eve. That story can be read in such different ways, and the way I used to hear it was God got really mad at them, because they disobeyed, and he kicked them out. But when you listen to it more carefully, you realize it’s not a story about God rejecting human beings. It’s about God revealing to human beings who they are and establishing a relationship with them wherein he’s saying, “All right, where you are now is not where you should be, where you will be, so I want you to work on yourselves. I want you to do what you feel like you need to do, which is to be autonomous. You want to do everything on your own. That’s pretty natural for human beings. All right, you go ahead, and you go try that. So you go down there, and it’s going to be tough, but I’m there for you.” So Adam and Eve are not kicked out but simply given permission to go and to leave the garden and to grow up. And then we know they get into trouble, and the biggest thing they get into is a kind of way of life that isn’t really what it is intended to be by God. Instead of being this rich, full, abundant life, it’s a life of slavery, giving yourself over to some other power other than God, other than yourself, and we all have that struggle. Slavery is a major theme in the Old Testament and New Testament, how to be free to be who God calls us to be.
So in this first reading, we see that God is now working with his people. He’s taken them from a place of slavery, and he’s inviting them to go on a journey with him. And the thing that’s so interesting about that journey is it’s a place of freedom and abundance and goodness, a good image of what it means to be alive here, growing, developing, maturing, becoming more authentic. In the process, what he was asking from his people then was just simply to trust him. “Trust me.” But the journey was hard. It was difficult, and they lost — they lost confidence in him over and over again, and so he was gone for a long time with Moses, giving the Ten Commandments. And when Moses comes back, they’ve pretty much turned away from him, and what’s interesting about this description of God is it sounds like he’s pretty irritated because they’re not obeying. They’re not being good little children, and it really angers him, and he wants to destroy them. Now, that is such an interesting image, for a God to reveal himself in the beginning as a God who wishes to destroy. Now, is the story about revealing a God who wishes to be destructive, or is the story about a surprising dimension of a God that he would listen to a human being who would intercede for people in their humanness and their brokenness and ask God to be more patient and more loving? That’s the story. The story is, “Oh, my gosh. This God of Israel is different from the other gods.” You couldn’t negotiate with a god, a pagan god. That would be unheard of, and I love the line that God uses toward Moses, when Moses is saying, “Oh, wait, wait, wait. Don’t do anything rash.” And God says, “Let me alone.” I love that. “Leave me alone. I’m making my own mind up here, and I’m going to destroy them.” And then a human being said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You made a promise. You made a promise, God. Aren’t you the God that keeps your promises?” He actually calls God out on his own seeming human weakness, if I can call revenge a human weakness. And so it’s really a story about a God who listens to the heart, the longing of his struggling human beings who are so far from what they’re intended to be ultimately as we grow into who God invites us to be, which is someone like him. All right, so we have this wonderful image of a God in the Old Testament, the very beginning of the story, that he is different than the other gods, and he is compassionate and capable of adjusting what he asks of human beings, because I guarantee you, the image of what people thought gods asked of them was not something that came from God but had come from centuries of living with an image of pagan gods. So God is changing their mind as to who he is. It’s a really, really beautiful image.
In the second reading, we have St. Paul talking about his own life, and he’s saying, “Now, this is weird.” He said, “I am one of the most unlikely people to be working for God. God has entered into my life, and he has told me that he wants me to be working for him, and I’m about as worthy as dirt. I did everything against him. I was completely opposed to everything he stood for, and now he uses me and shows me and opens my eyes, and I begin to see how wrong I was.” And what I’m blown away by is he chose someone who was such a mess in order to become someone who is so much more wise and intelligent because of his background to be a minister. So he said, “I can’t believe that this God is that caring, that merciful, that loving that he would ask me, his arch enemy, in a sense, to work for him because —” And Paul wasn’t shy about his gifts. He said, “I’m gifted. I can do this, but the fact that he chose me,” is just blowing him away. So here’s a God, again, that reveals himself as someone who has little in him that might — you would imagine that he can’t stand people that make mistakes, that he’s against them, that he wants to criticize them or judge them or punish them. He’s a God of compassion, but more than that, it seems, he’s revealing himself as a God who’s inviting you into a relationship with him where there’s something going on between the two of you that demands mercy as well as justice but demands mercy, because what he’s asking you and me to be in a relationship with him is a way to expose — we need to be owned, be exposed for what we’re doing that is wrong, destructive, all that. We have to go into that. We have to know what we’re losing in order to be drawn into a way of life that then gains for us what we realize we’re missing.
So that’s why this gospel is so interesting. It’s about losing things that are valuable and realizing that they’re lost, and that’s when we’re drawn, more importantly, to finding them and to using them. And the thing that’s interesting about these two images of what is lost, there’s a shepherd who loses a sheep, and it’s clear that, when you lose something that’s valuable, you go looking for it all the time, whether it’s your keys or whether it’s something — but you’re going to be consumed by, “Where? Where? Where is that? I know it’s around here somewhere,” that natural drive to find what is lost. Similar with a coin, the woman who searches her whole house to find the coin, and when she finds it, she’s so happy. And this is followed immediately by the story of the prodigal son who loses his inheritance, and he realizes he’s lost his inheritance, and he wants to get it back, and he goes back to the Father. Look at those three things. What is the sheep to a shepherd? It’s his livelihood. It’s the thing that he — that’s how he makes his living is caring for sheep, but if he loses one, he’s losing something about the way in which he needs to be effective in the work that he has. He can’t lose all his sheep. He has to keep track of them, and the woman who’s caring for her household, she needs her coin. She needs to go to market. She needs to get that, so here’s, again, something that she lost that is not just money, but there’s something in it that it’s what she needs to accomplish the task that she has. And there’s the prodigal son who gives away all his money and his connection with his father because of his own selfishness. Then he realizes he’s lost it, and he goes back and just, in a way, longs for a relationship that he’s lost. Everyone in those stories, the thing they’re losing is something symbolically represented as something essential to why and what you do why you’re here.
It seems like the relationship God sets up with us is he wants us to be in a relationship with him where we’re constantly being shown, exposed, awakened to a way of life that we’re living where we are losing the core thing that we’re here to accomplish. That’s what I want to try to get across. God has a plan for you and for me. I really believe that, something we’re here to deal with, and it’s mostly our wounds, the things that have happened to us that we need to heal. And when he helps us to look at the wound, which is because, well, the way we look at the wound is to see it for what it’s doing to us, and then you begin to see what you’ve lost, and you see that there’s something that, “I need to regain. It’s gone.” And then you go to the Father, and he said, “Absolutely. I’m here. I’ll give it to you.” “Well, but I’ve been so destructive in my own behavior. I’ve been so hard on other people. I’ve taken advantage,” all of these things we would say. “God isn’t interested in me.” It’s just the opposite. It’s why he has to be the God of mercy.
The word Jesus means God saves. A lot of us are attracted to Jesus or attracted to the Holy Spirit. That’s who we pray to, but really all spiritual growth and development ends up with you having a deep, intimate, close relationship to the God who’s there to work for you — to work for you, and he does it by slowly revealing to you the wound and the pattern of behavior that’s destructive. And he said, “Look, you’re forgiven. I don’t hold this against you, but let’s work together to regain it, to get back what was taken from you,” because of the abuse or whatever happened to you in the past or whatever things that you didn’t get as a child or as a — I don't know. It makes so much sense to me that the thing that is so beautiful about the relationship with God is his immediate response to awakening in us our faults and demanding and inviting and requiring that we believe that he’s there not to judge, not to condemn but to heal, to convert, to restore what was lost. That’s the God that I want you to believe in. That’s the God that he is, and it’s the God who’s working so hard for every single one of us. And mercy is the thing that he has brought to the table in our relationship with him that is so beautiful and so life-giving and absolutely essential.
Father, you are our father. You are the God of everything, so powerful, all-knowing, all-present, all-caring, and it’s hard for us to grasp who you are, because it’s so easy to turn you into like any other authority figure in our life. So bless us with an awareness of your intense love, which you have named mercy, which became incarnate in Jesus, God saves. Bless us with an awareness of who you are so that we can benefit from this incredible, life-giving relationship, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.