September 15, 2019

14th Sunday after Pentecost Year C 2019

Have you ever been lost, but didn’t know you were lost until you were even more lost? Before the ubiquitous smart phone and Google maps, I could get lost without even trying too hard. No Laurie, I’m almost certain it’s this way, if we just keep going I’m sure it’s around the next corner. Of course I was more often wrong than right about my internal directional finder. And in the old days, it was an admission of failure to ask for directions, surely I can figure out where we are, but truth be told, that was more about ego, than navigational ability.

The people of Israel had been delivered from their bonds of slavery in Egypt, only to find them-selves lost in the wilderness, waiting for their leader Moses to come back from the mountain top to give them directions straight from the mouth of God. Who needs Google when you’ve got the creator of the universe to guide you?! But for some reason, Moses is delayed. Maybe he has abandoned his people and gone his own way; maybe he and God have played a big trick on the people of Israel and have brought them out into the wilderness to die; maybe Moses doesn’t really know what he’s doing?

In any case, the people have become discontent in their waiting and the second in command has decided to appease them. The people ask Aaron, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

Aaron collects all of the gold that they had plundered from the Egyptians on their way out of Egypt, and melts it down to form a golden calf. You might wonder why a calf and not something else? Maybe they were missing red meat in their diet or something? Most scholars see the golden calf as representing the Egyptian bull god Apis or the Canaanite fertility god Baal.

After this golden calf was formed the people said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Here in the space of a few verses the people have made at least two major mistakes. First, they identify Moses as the one who has “brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” and then this golden calf, when in reality, it was God who brought the people out of bondage in Egypt and Moses was simply God’s messenger.

The people are lost, not just geographically, but spiritually. They have lost their way externally and internally and have placed their trust in someone other than God, first Moses and then this idol that reminds them of their bondage in Egypt.

How often does the familiarity of our past prevent us from venturing into the unknown territory of our future. It feels safer and more comfortable to us, because we know what to expect. Psychologists tell us that is why people in abusive relationships stay where they are rather than leave and seek help. The people of Israel were willing to go back to slavery rather than embark on a new relationship with their “dangerous” God in an unknown land.

God sees what is happening and becomes angry. This is one of the most interesting and revealing passages in the Bible. God acts like a jilted lover who is going to wipe out these two-timing Israelites. But the human Moses acts like God’s therapist or maybe even a wise parent, calming God down and reminding God of the promises and the covenants God has made with God’s people. So God relents, and the scripture even goes so far as to say God changes God’s mind. Thank God for Moses!

For me this story goes a long way in humanizing God. But it also tells us that the biblical writers saw God as one who could be reasoned with and even change. There is much more that could be said about this, but suffice it to say that the notion of God’s changelessness in favor of a God who could have a change of mind is much more indicative of a God who desires relationship with us.

As I said a few weeks ago, the lectionary readings we are following this year pair the Hebrew scripture reading with the theme of the Gospel. And our Gospel today tells the first two of the three parables about things that have been lost. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Thus the connection with the lost-ness of the Israelites in the wilderness, but more importantly that God reaffirmed them as God’s covenant people. God reclaimed them as God’s own.

Remember also that when people of Jesus day heard him tell these parables their reaction would have been one of surprise or even outrage. No Jesus, that’s not how we do things. The man who left the 99 to find the one lost sheep would have been ridiculed and scoffed at. “You idiot,” someone might have said, “how stupid to leave the 99 for one measly sheep.” What if the 99 had been stolen or attacked by wolves? But Jesus is trying to teach people about the radical love that God has for them. Jesus was being criticized for hanging out with the lost sheep of Israel: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

In the second parable about the woman who loses the coin, you find Jesus saying again, God is willing to turn the world upside down to find the lost person – God desires everyone to be found, even those who don’t think they are worthy of God’s love, like the people Jesus was hanging out with whom the Pharisees were criticizing him about.

Melissa Early says: Jesus is comparing himself to the shepherd and the woman. Instead of grumbling about the people he hangs out with, he suggests, the Pharisees should come to the party to celebrate their return. When I put myself in the same role that Jesus does, that of searching shepherd and seeking woman, I feel bad that I lost something in the first place. I get unstuck when I remember that I am also the lost sheep and the misplaced coin. I have been sought and found.

Sometimes we don’t know we’re lost until we’ve been found. And each of us has been found, whether we know it yet or not. God will not give up until we do.