September 15, 2019, Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
A friend of mine, when he defended his doctoral dissertation started by sharing an old joke: “Two lawyers are camping out on the savanna on their first trip to Africa. One lawyer wakes up in the tent to see his lawyer buddy frantically lacing up his running shoes.
“What are you doing?” he asks his friend.
“There’s a lion outside the tent.”
“Are you crazy? You can’t outrun a lion.”
“I don’t need to outrun the lion. I just need to outrun you,” says the lawyer to his friend.” Once I outran you, I will be good!”
His point was that his dissertation was not the final word on the topic. There are many unanswered questions that others still have to wrestle with. But there was also a cynical side: “Here is my proposal or answer. I know more about the topic than you, I have answers, you don’t. I can outrun you. You are on your own!”
I can outrun you. You are on your own!
There is another example of this kind of cynicism. Gold was discovered in South Africa in 1886 and it turned out to be the world’s richest deposits. The Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899 and carried on until 1902. It was a devastating war between the British Empire and the Boers, white Afrikaans speaking people in South Africa. The main reason for the war was who would control and benefit from the very lucrative Witwatersrand gold mines.
The defeat of the Boers dramatically changed their political, social and economic situation. The English intended to Anglicize Boer children after the defeat in 1902. The Boers were relegated to second class citizens and it was incredibly hard for them to fully participate in the mainly English speaking economy. They were outrun by the British and the proverbial Lion caught them.
Less than 50 years later, the wheels turned. The Boers came into power and implemented the Apartheid policy. They had conveniently forgotten what it was to be second class citizens, not being able to participate in the economy and not to have political power. They even forced the Afrikaans language onto African children in schools. They it turned out, outran the proverbial Lion: they accumulated political, economic, and cultural power and forget about those left behind, the victims that were devoured by their politics.
Today’s readings are about how easily people forget, and how easy they think they do right when in fact they are just outrunning those who are slower. Our readings are about people who think they are in good standing with God and judge others for they eat and welcome others! The readings are about people who think they are fine and righteous because they can outrun those who are not as able or righteous as they are. But our readings are also about a man who, instead of leaving people behind, of outrunning them to be devoured –interceded for them. And it is about a about a man who was able to outrun others but decided not to after a radical transformation.
So, as you can see I want to approach these readings from a different angle today: People who are 100% convinced that that they are right, or in good standing with God, may just be in for a surprise. They, in their own eyes, may be able to outrun, or out-argue or convince themselves that they are better but they ended up being wrong. And then there are examples of another option- not to outrun others, but to stop, turn around and look and help those who are slower or lost.
Moses is on the mountain and he stays there for a long time. The people became impatient. “What is keeping him?” They approach Moses’ associate Aaron with a request: “We want gods that are tangible, gods that we can see and have here with us”. So, Aaron makes them a golden calf. The people were impressed: “These are your gods, who brought you up out of the land Egypt.”
The people in the absence of Moses of course violated the covenant with God, they broke the law when the made an image of a deity, and when they worshiped other gods.
Scholars pointed out that Israel are adopting practices from Egypt and Canaanite religions to form images of their deities in the shape of animals. The result is that the covenant between God and Israel is destroyed. The verses before our reading starts are clear: “These are stiff necked people. My wrath will burn against the people – I will destroy them” but to Moses God says: “…of you I will make a great nation”. They would be devoured and he would be rewarded! Here is a good opportunity for Moses to outrun the people of Israel.
However, in verse 11 Moses, instead of nodding his head in agreement, basking in his opportunity and his potential rewards, “implored the Lord his God.” Moses interceded for his people. He could have chosen to let them be punished for they were after all guilty. He could have used the opportunity to benefit from the situation. He could have metaphorically outrun them and let them pay for their actions. He did not! He felt compassion for them, he interceded for them, he took responsibility for them and the text states “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring to his people.” Moses shows us a different way! He did not outrun his people and let the proverbial lion devour those who failed.
The Pharisees and scribes are not happy. They are grumbling! Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. Sinners, in the eyes of the Pharisees and Scribes at the time, were those people who were immoral, those who were in the wrong profession like toll collectors, and those who broke the Biblical laws! In chapter 14 of Luke we find another category of people that the society back then left behind: the poor, cripple, blind and lame. They are poor, blind, cripple and lame for they sinned and God punished them! Yes, sinners had to be avoided! Welcoming them and eating with them? Unacceptable, wrong! You may be contaminated! Leave them behind! Outrun them!
Then Jesus tells them a story, a parable: “Which of you having 100 sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” The shepherd, apparently does what the Pharisees and Scribes are not willing to do. The shepherd, instead of leaving the one behind and make sure the 99 are safe, focuses on the one who fell behind. Instead of outrunning the weaker one, the shepherd turns around, leaves the 99 and looks for the one until he finds it. And when he finds it he puts it on his shoulders and rejoices. He calls his neighbors and friends and saying to them: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
Sheep that is separated from the flock, wanders for a while, and after a while it will become tired, weak and discouraged. It would then lie down, unable to walk. A shepherd after finding has to pick it up and carry it back to the flock. Back with the flock something extraordinary happens: It does not take long for the sheep to get up, full of life, able to walk and do what happy sheep do, bouncing and running.
Isn’t this a meaningful metaphor? In our society we outrun many people who are not able to keep up. They become despondent, angry, anxious and lonely. Our society does not really care because deep down it believes that this is how are system works. In order for some to win others have to lose. In order for us to survive we have to outrun others. Some have to be sacrificed. The outcome is that all of us are, by way of speaking, constantly in a race to outrun others. We are so used to frantically running that we don’t realize how much stress and anxiety we carry within us because deep down we know that if I slow down, they will outrun me and I will be left to be devoured by the proverbial lion.
Jesus is presenting us with an alternative. He shows us that God is interested and committed to stop and look for us. The image of God being a shepherd who cares for us is common in the Bible. And God, as we learn from the Bible, for some reason has a soft spot for those who are not fast runners and for those who are not strong. On the contrary, God is not impressed by those who consider themselves righteous or better than others. In Jesus God assures us that we will not be left behind. You see God does not consider the weak, the sinners, the slow, as a burden. On the contrary, there is tremendous joy when the lost is found.
And if this is God’s view and approach to those who are struggling to make it, those who are frowned upon in our society, those who are not “us”, then we are called to imitate Jesus’ approach. Then we too need to, instead of outrunning the weaker, the slower, the burdened ones, we need to turn around and do what the shepherd does: pick them up and by way of speaking laying them on our shoulders and bringing them back to the flock. This is what brings God joy!
Our last reading shows the effect of the ministry of Jesus on someone who once was convinced that God was impressed when he outran sinners and broken human beings. He is a perfect case study of what happens when the love of God transforms someone who used to be self-righteous. The Apostle Paul has a very honest view on who he was previously: blasphemer, persecutor, man of violence, a sinner. This man’s transformation was so radically that even his name was changed from Saul to Paul. Remember that he once considered himself righteous and better than others. He had all the credentials: circumcised on the 8th day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee. He was fast and could outrun anyone. But then he encounter the risen Christ on his way to Damascus and he discovered that Christ is more interested in the ones in the back of the pack, the ones who know that they need redemption, the ones who know they are broken and weak. So, Paul travelled all over the known world at the time to tell people that God loves and cares for sinners, and women, and children and gentiles. His message was simple: God gives broken and sinful people a new chance. God brings them back into the flock!
It is hard to really and truly understand this message if we are constantly trying to outrun others. It is hard to embrace this message when we are so anxious that we may drop out or run too slow and fear that the proverbial lion catches us. It is hard to convince others that the message of God’s love is real and transformative if we say we believe it but we keep on running as hard as we can without turning around to see if anyone has dropped out. The Good Shepherd stopped, went back to look for those who dropped out, he looked for those who were lost and when he found them, he lifted them on his shoulders and brought them back to the flock where they found live and joy! We were those sheep. He found us. He brought us back and we found life and joy! We in turn have to do the same! Amen.