But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
It’s with this criticism against Jesus, that our Gospel reading for today is set into motion. For the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, under their interpretation of Torah, those who live in accordance with faithful Torah observance should avoid contact with those who do not… sinners and tax collectors in today’s text.
You see, much of Torah Law, found within our Old Testament, comes down to the question of what is considered to be “clean” and what is considered to be “unclean”. While the interpretation of these laws differs today from when the temple still stood in Jerusalem, it’s with these laws, that the Jewish faithful wrestle with things like what is ok to eat and what is not, how food that is ok to eat must be prepared, how rituals for burial are established, and as we see in today’s gospel, how the faithful, especially those in a position of religious authority, teachers, rabbis, etc., are to interact with those who live outside of the law, outside of the faith. Under this, by Jesus interacting with those who live in sin, according to the law, he becomes unclean himself.
With council’s recent approval of the formation of an addictions ministry taskforce, my wife Olivia and I, travelled to Wyomissing yet again this past Wednesday evening, to take part in a 12 step based worship service. As we made our way back to Littlestown in the dark and the pouring rain, we talked about what struck us most about the service. For me, more so than the diversity of people present, the openness and trust of those who shared their story, the grace of the pastor that poured out of his very being, or the beauty of the service itself, was the depth of how much I myself, a non-addict, a non-alcoholic, was impacted by what I experienced in a service directed towards those who are.
Here at St. James, and in just about every Lutheran church across the country, we begin worship with an order of confession and forgiveness. For me, and I know Pastor Mike feels the same, this short, minute or two segment of worship, is my favorite part of our time here together each week. I suspect that part of this is because it’s one of the few places in our liturgy where it feels like, more so than anywhere else, that we as the pastors, are welcomed to participate alongside of you, as opposed to leading… but primarily it’s because it is the one time each week, where we stand together as a community acknowledging our brokenness, admitting our faults and failures before God, and because we stand side by side, are given the physical assurance that we aren’t alone in the sins we commit. That unlike the other 99% of our lives, living in a culture that guides us to stand apart and separates us by the level of our achievements and leads us to cover up our faults and failures; we stand together, in our brokenness, and publically confess our sins to God.
In our Old Testament reading for the week, from the book of Exodus, we hear about Moses standing before God, begging for the forgiveness of the Israelites after their worshiping of the Golden Calf. In response to Moses plea, we read that God is persuaded not to respond in fiery anger and destroy the Israelites, but instead, to relent. It is a story, like many from our biblical text that brings up more questions about God than presents answers, but it is one that gives us great insight into God’s character.
As we look to the text, we find that the narrator doesn’t record a single word from God in response to Mosses’ plea for forgiveness, only God’s action. In the Hebrew, this action, God’s action, is described by the word, “niham”, translated into English in our version of the text as “changed his mind”.
If you’re anything like me, you may be intrigued by the idea that God would have a change of heart in response to Moses plea. So I did some research, and like a good seminarian, I went to my Old Testament and Hebrew professor, who just happens to be one of our members. There are some perks to being a pastor just a few blocks from the seminary!
To paraphrase my highly respected professor, “niham”, doesn’t really mean “change the mind”, but rather “to be sorry”… “to be sorry”. That in response to Moses’ plea to God for forgiveness, in his prayer of confession, we could say, God responded through the action of being sorry… to show compassion… to comfort. Adds an entirely different spin on the text. That God wasn’t simply persuaded by Moses’ plea for forgiveness, but was moved emotionally by it. And to quote my professor directly; “One thing this shows us is that what we think of as God as “unchangeable” is incorrect. God does change in the course of relationship with God’s people. What is “unchangeable” about God is God’s essential character… gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
In order to exhibit this core facet of God’s character, and to counter the Pharisees unwavering commitment to the law, Jesus gives us the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin in today’s Gospel. Two stories defending his belief about how the faithful should interact with sinners, rooted in God’s “niham”, we could say. That not only are the faithful to interact with those outside the fold, they are expected to, just as Christ ate with sinners and tax collectors, so to are we to exhibit God’s forgiveness and steadfast love as a core facet of who we are.
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the day the twin towers fell, and a day our world dramatically changed. A day labeled as the day we will “never forget”, similar to the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, coined by President Roosevelt, as “a date which will live in infamy”. Like many of you here today, I’ll never forget the attack of September 11th, where I was, what I was doing, who I was with… and I’ll never forget the emotions that I had and the questions that consumed me, things enhanced greatly in those more personally affected.
The unnecessary acts of violence that took place fifteen years ago are events we will never fully understand. Like those of the Crusades, the Holocaust, or the violence that consumes our world today. But what if, as seen in God’s forgiveness of the Israelites in response Moses’ plea, we responded through action when words cannot be found? What if, just as we stand together before God and each other in our brokenness during our order of confession, we found a way to do so in our daily lives as a broken world as well?
Jesus makes his point to the scribes and Pharisees by asking the rhetorical question, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.”
Like Jesus, as Lutheran’s, we have a far different understanding of sin than the “keepers of the law” in today’s gospel text. At our core, we believe that we are all, each and every one of us, at the same time, both saint and sinner. That the two cannot be separated. That while we can never escape our sinful nature, we are made saints through God’s grace and forgiveness, made true through the life and death Jesus Christ.
With this belief, as we approach Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep, we do so from one of two perspectives. The first, and maybe the most traditional of the two, with God as the shepherd, constantly seeking out those who are lost, those who are broken and alone, those who have sinned and have not yet come to know God’s love and forgiveness. But too, we could approach the parable placing ourselves in the place of the shepherd, where the challenge to seek out and restore those who are lost becomes ours.
Regardless of where you stand politically, how you felt we should have responded as a country fifteen years ago, or how you feel we should respond to assortment of brokenness that consumes our world today, if you’re sitting in the pews today, you’re called by Christ to be criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors… to recognize your own brokenness, and to stand by others in theirs. A task, which, should we be able to do, provides a glimpse of God’s unchangeable character of steadfast love. A task, as proclaimed in the 12 step worship service Olivia and I attended this past week, that should we be able to do, “will allow us to realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” Or as we proclaim each week in our own worship, our Good News this day and every day, will all us to realize that God has already done for us, what we cannot do for ourselves…
God’s unchangeable character of steadfast love, made most evident in the cross of Christ. It’s with this that we are given forgiveness of sin even when we cannot forgive ourselves, our brokenness is mended, and we’re given the promise of life even in death. For this we give thanks. That when we fall short, Christ raises us up. When we have no hope, Christ instills it. When we find ourselves unable to forget, unable to forgive, we trust in the promise that Christ already has. That in moments when you realize that you can do nothing at all, you can rest assured that Christ has done everything.