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16th Sunday after Trinity

08 September 2016

Proper 19: Exodus 32.7-14; Psalm 51.1-11; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10


O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Common Worship Additional Collect:
Lord of creation, whose glory is around and within us: open our eyes to your wonders, that we may serve you with reverence and know your peace at our lives’ end, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


SUNDAY’s readings are unusually insistent in announcing their link­ing theme of mercy. For those who have somehow managed not to notice this, the first petition of the collect and the first verse of Psalm 51 offer strong prompts.

It is easy to despise the obvious, and there are occasions when things that are self-evident need no further comment. Mercy is not one of them. While it is a defining attribute of God, the fact that it can be known only through personal experience makes it always open to new under­standing and new forms of testi­mony. That is what its treatment in three very different passages reveals.

The abrupt termination of Moses’s interview with God on Sinai (Exodus 32.7) shares certain characteristics with the telling of the story of the covenant with Abra­ham, which appeared some weeks ago in the sequence of the lectionary (Genesis 15.1-6; 18.1-15, 22-33). It is direct, human, and, in this case, very angry.

The God who has kept his side of the promise to bring his people to a new land of their own finds that, without proper supervision, they have failed to keep their side of the bargain by being faithful exclusively to him.

Under this provocation, even God can stoop to make a point by ostentatious use of possessive pro­nouns. Moses is told to go down and deal with “your people”, for they are no longer fit to be “my people” (Exodus 32.7).

Moses cannot accept the pro­posed solution and allow God to disown the renegades (Exodus 32.10). Instead, he pleads insistently for “your people” (Exodus 32.11). Like Abraham, he has one trump card to be humbly but determinedly played.

This is the nature of God, who is consistently faithful, does not go back on a solemn covenant, and who swears that covenant by himself because there is no higher power to invoke (Exodus 32.13).

The Letters to Timothy and Titus were probably not written by Paul, but their author has taken the liberty of imagining Paul’s voice and of entering into his experience. The marvel is that God could have extended mercy to someone who persecuted the followers of Jesus (1 Timothy 1.13).

Even more marvellous is the realisation that it was part of God’s mercy to understand that this behaviour came out of ignorance and unbelief, and to use that positively. Only by receiving the mercy of God could Paul come, through grace, to know “the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1.14). Only through per­sonal encounter with such divine generosity could Paul proclaim to others that, if God could show mercy to a great sinner, God could do that for lesser sinners, too (1Timothy 1.16).

Luke’s parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin invite their hearers to make the bolder step of imagin­ing what it is like for God to extend mercy. They sketch scenarios readily accessible to com­munities familiar with livestock farming and with coinage that had more value than contemporary users of money might attach to it.

It is not difficult for Pharisees and scribes (so frequently critical of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel) to enter into stories of ownership and loss, although they might have wondered why these analogies were being offered in answer to a straight­forward criticism of Jesus’s choice of table companions (Luke 15.2).

What they are being asked to do is to put themselves to one side and, instead, to imagine that God is the shepherd who has risked a whole flock to find a single sheep; that God is like a woman who will scour a whole house to find a precious lost coin, and, having found it, share her joy with the neighbours (Luke 15.3-10).

Mercy, in both these parables, is about restoring the life of the whole, by caring for the single part of it that has wandered away and become lost. When it is given and received with wonder and gratitude, it affects the life of heaven as much as the life of humanity (Luke 15.7, 10).

“The morning stars [sing] together and all the heavenly beings [shout] for joy,” as they did when the world sprang into life (Job 38.7). The season of Creation (1 September-4 October) is a good time to remember that joy in the created world, and longing for its redemption, lie at the heart of God’s mercy.

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