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Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
September 15, 2019 –Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Where do we stand with the Lord? There has been a lot of water under the bridge for most of us…and for our peers. Is our fate set? Are our lives now on autopilot?
Jeremiah opens with a harsh judgment against Israel’s Southern Kingdom of Judah. It did not come out of the blue.
We have read the way Amos came out of Judah and criticized the faithlessness of the North. We have also read about the way Hosea arose later in the Northern Kingdom and criticized his own people.
The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. We are now reading prophecies somewhere between 597 B.C. when the Babylonians roll into Judah, and 587 B.C. when Jerusalem falls.
Isaiah has been critical of his people, and we have read his condemnations. Now it is Jeremiah’s turn.
Again and again, the people of Judah and Jerusalem have received warnings… with one more chance and one more chance to correct their ways. But now, here we are, with the enemy at the gates, and God sends an oracle through Jeremiah.
“My people ignore me […and Isaiah, Amos and Hosea]. They are foolish children who do not understand that they will be punished. All they know is how to sin.”
Every great nation…every nation, large and small…needs to turn humbly to the Lord…with open minds and open hearts…for “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Without wisdom we become little more than wild beasts, looking for a chance to live another day…or hour …thinking we can make our way to the Promised Land with nothing more than sheer force.
Do we hear warnings for our nation and our world these days? Are we …those who have inherited the New World humble…or proud? Are we seeking to be wise…true to God’s ways…or right…in our own eyes?
Are we looking as deeply into history as those who founded this nation? Thomas Jefferson warned his contemporaries long ago: “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
We, too, have been hearing warnings from America’s prophets for as long as Jerusalem had been hearing them. They discounted what they didn’t want to hear and punished their prophets for speaking God’s own truth.
Maybe haven’t done much better. I think of Lincoln…Gandhi…Yitzhak Rabin…and others we have been shot just as they were about to establish a new peace on earth.
So what do we do? How do we humble ourselves? I think it begins with open minds and open hearts… like those we all had 18 years ago when the World Trade Towers collapsed in New York City and the Pentagon was pierced.
We all sat in disbelief as our presumption that we were invulnerable fell before our eyes. We came back to church then, seeking answers. But then we responded with force far more destructive and…and less focused … than the force we had received.
What have we learned from our time of trial? Last Wednesday, the sign in the convenience stores told us that we could not purchase tobacco products unless we were born before September 11, 2001.
I went to Course of Study in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2002. By then we were hardening all the targets. We were meeting force with force…not anger with wisdom.
House and Senate staffers used to have lunch on the lawn on the East Front of the Capitol when I went to law school there in the early 1970s. You could park your car ten feet from the Capitol steps and walk into the building any time of day.
At 10:00 every Saturday morning there was a line of random people standing outside the White House gates. The gates were opened and all those gathered could walk through the public rooms at the Executive Mansion.
Today, the east lawn is gone and you have to go through a security line in the National Visitors Center to get into the building…with a tour guide escorting you. The guard at the White House checkpoint has to have your name, address and social security number before you can get through the gates today.
We are quarreling among ourselves, polarized like no American generation anyone now living can remember. It can feel like we are lost. How do we find our way back?
Paul gives us some encouraging testimony. He fully confesses his error. He did terrible things and he did them with cruelty. He held the cloaks for the mob that stoned Stephen…the first martyr of the church…to death.
But he tells us that mercy was shown him by Christ himself because he didn’t know what he was doing. Because he listened humbly at his moment of trial…and he repented with good works.
Because of the mercy shown Paul …we should also note…Christ did not just destroy an enemy…he gained a friend…a champion…the one who would be the first to articulate the importance of Jesus to all humanity.
Paul’s letters were written before the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. It was Paul who searched the scriptures closely for years before he was permitted to become an Apostle and plant churches across Asia and into Europe.
Those who think they are our enemies may one day reconsider their actions and become our friends…if we give them a chance, and maybe a little encouragement… with a good example.
If we can maintain our composure in the face of great difficulty…others might see that courage as a sign of great stature… like Jesus on the cross asking God to forgive us because we did not know what we were doing…to him…and to God.
Paul was sincere in his error and he was determined to use every resource available to him…and every ability he had…to reach his goal. After his conversion, he was just as determined…and he had truth and love…not just raw physical power…on his side, too.
He was able to do more as an Apostle than he had ever dreamed of doing as a Pharisee. The best apology is not one expressed in words…but in every action we take.
Our step is lighter, our vision is clearer, and opportunities…not enemies…multiply. People see hope in our hearts…instead of problems in our actions.
When we surround ourselves with good people and act with good intentions based on clear, humble thinking…borne of the fear of Lord…the world seems better because we have become better.
We begin to see what is there instead of what is not there…just as God and Christ see what is in us… what we could do for good…not what we might do in error.
This inclination to save the lost…us…is seen in Jesus’ words to us today. He is keeping company with tax collectors and sinners and the ‘righteous’ people begin to grumble about it.
So he tells a story about a sheep that is lost and how the shepherd leaves the saved to look for the lost…and is to overjoyed to find it. Then he tells a story about a woman who loses a coin and rejoices when she finds it.
I can identify with these stories. I just found my extra set of car keys after they had been missing for weeks. I feel better about finding them than I felt bad about them being missing.
So lost sinners…like Paul…and you and me…give the Lord great joy when they find themselves in Christ and through Christ. Indeed, what would God or Jesus gain by an unrepentant sinner…a sheep that is lost and never found…a repentant soul that is beyond forgiveness?
Alfred Nobel became one of the richest men in the world by inventing dynamite. It had many industrial uses…and many military ones, too. He was rich beyond any man’s dreams because of it.
His brother Ludwig died in 1888 and a French newspaper made the mistake of thinking Alfred had died. They wrote his obituary and the banner first line read, “The merchant of death is dead.”
Alfred was appalled. He had never killed anyone with it and he had not had that in mind when he patented it, but it was an unintended consequence of his ingenuity.
The paper’s conclusion was hard to deny. “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday,” they wrote.
He was like Paul on the road to Damascus, suddenly realizing that all the good he thought he was doing did not equal the harm he had loosed in the world.
He had to live with that until the day he died. But he did not have to give up and settle for that legacy. In his will he endowed a series of prizes for those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind” in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.”
The world was astonished to learn, after his death seven years later …when they could no longer praise him for it… Nobel had bequeathed 94% of his total assets …equal to about $212 million today…to establish the five Nobel Prizes.
You and I may not have $200 million…at least, I don’t…but neither did Paul, or Luke, or Jeremiah. Maybe you have not lived a blameless life…neither had they… or we.
It’s like the preacher who asked one Sunday morning if anyone knew a person who had lived a perfect life. One lady raised her hand and the preacher asked who it was. She said, “My husband’s first wife!”
But we have a chance to do a little good here and there…and it might grow into something better than we had ever dreamed of or thought could happen to anyone…much less to us. A little good might spread to…everywhere.
What would Paul say if he were to know that his words are among those known by more people 2,000 years after his death than any words written by any person who ever lived…more people than knew the scriptures that he thought he was defending when he was persecuting Christ’s followers?
What would Abraham Lincoln… perhaps the most reviled President the United States ever had…think if he knew that his death was the source of a greater grieving than any other…and that more people now name him as our greatest President than anyone else?
What would Alfred Nobel think if he were to find out that almost everyone knows his name…but almost no one knows he was ever regarded as ‘the merchant of death’ …that most people who know his name think it has something to do with being noble?
And what will the world say one day about how we live the rest of our days as individuals…or what America has been able to accomplish in the world in the years after September 11, 2001?
Your life is in your hands…whether you ever get credit for it or not. Our national destiny is in our hands …whether we believe it or not.
Because at last…by the grace of God…only we can write the story that will one day be our life.
And God in Jesus Christ is praying for you and me…watching over you and me…and rooting for us all. Because he knows he can trust us.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us…through me…this day? Amen.