God Has Remembered

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
September 12, 2001 – Ordinary 24C
Exodus 32:7-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

I have a card in my wallet with my name on it. It is not so that I can remember my name. It is so I can remember my grandfather, Samuel Arthur Hutchins - Daddy Bill, who gave it to me years ago. I never asked him why he had it, but it effected me deeply to know that he came across it sometime, somewhere and was moved to keep it in his wallet.

The card tells me the meaning of my name, “God Hath Remembered.” I can tell you there were times I wish God would not remember, but that card helped get me through them anyway. It was the only thing remotely Hebrew that I knew the translation of before seminary. So, you can imagine how deflated I was in my late 20’s to learn that although the literal root verb was long memory, the associated noun was simply, “old man.”

Hebrew is, of course, a more poetic than literal language, and there is some poetry in the knowledge that as Daddy Bill aged he lost his memory, but never his faith. During those same years he gave me more encouragement than I ever acknowledged, by the act of a simple post card. About once a month I received a post card signed by 10-12 men I never knew with a note stating simply, “You were lifted up in prayer today by the men’s Sunday School Class of Highland Presbyterian Church.”

Though he is gone, he is not forgotten. We have snapshots and photo albums to help us remember. Our memories are important. This weekend is a time of memory. For the last nine years we have heard, read, and spoke the words, “Never forget.” Yet, I am afraid we have. I am afraid we have forgotten that on September 11, 2001 there were citizens of 76 nations that died in terrorist attacks on our soils. No one is truly certain of the religious and ethnic composition of the 2,987 victims in the planes, towers, and the pentagon or the 411 rescue workers that ran into the flames in hopes of saving someone. We don’t like to think about the men and women risking their lives right now, the 4,418 who have lost their lives in Iraq, or the 1,279 service personnel who have died in Afghanistan. And we especially don’t like to think of the estimates that more than 10,000 civilians including women and children have died in both countries since these wars began.

From the very beginning of the “post 9/11 era,” there have been those who have become impatient while waiting for God to send someone down from the mountain. All of us, in our own way, experience that feeling of abandonment where we feel like saying to God, “If you care, why don’t you do something.” This is about the moment where most people do one of two things. Either we find ourselves opening up to realize what God is actually doing, or we turn inward to find ways to protect ourselves.

In the story of the Exodus the people have done the later. They aren’t actually doing anything they wouldn’t normally do. They are just using a statue because they are missing the point of who and what God is. God is wounded and angry over it. God disowns them, telling Moses they are “the people you led out of Egypt.” Moses in boldness and stupidity reminds God of the promises made to his ancestors. For the people are not a people without a relationship with the one true God. Moses asks God to remember the good of the past and hold it as a marker to move them forward into the future.

That is the idea expressed in Paul’s letter to Timothy as well. Timothy is reminded of Paul’s conversion experience. Notice, nothing of Paul’s theological training, skill as an orator, or anything about his particular skill set makes it into this argument. But grace and mercy, unmerited favor and undeserved forgiveness, are all that matter. In fact, he is more concerned about being honest about his sin. His calling card, the thing he claims to remember, is not the number of churches he has planted or lives he has touched. Instead it is the simple reality that he is a sinner and God has made an example of him. That is the snapshot in the memory book Paul wants preserved. “I am a sinner.”

Few of us want to make a claim on our weaknesses. But if we understand them as an opening for grace and mercy they can become our greatest strengths. The session will be considering what this means for us as a congregation over the coming months. We are reading a book called “Small, Strong Congregations,” by Kennon Callahan. The basic idea is to accept what others see as a weakness and understand it as a strength. We cannot do and be everything we once were. We cannot compete with larger congregations by trying to offer the same level of programming. What we can and must do is to highlight our strengths and build upon them.

That may seem a little too obvious, but the reality is that is our nature as individuals and organizations to fall into the familiar and forget who, what, why, and whose we are.

That is why the Pharisees have come to hear Jesus. Earlier in Luke Jesus has asked for, “all who have ears to listen.” Now they have come. They are traveling with him to Jerusalem, and they are still holding a grudge from the last time anyone complained about who Jesus ate with from chapter 7. Perhaps he was eating with shepherds and women when the comment was made. Perhaps it was his custom.

One commentary suggests that Jesus is not simply dismissing the Pharisees, but rather acting compassionately toward them. These were the keepers of the law. They were the ones who wanted redemption for Israel so badly that they were blind to it. So, Jesus, after a manor of speaking, is taking them by the hand and setting them next to the shepherd and the woman, calling them to join at the table of experience between God and humanity.

Now these sinners, as they were called, were not simply bad people. They were people with professions or life situations that made them “unclean.” Their sin was not a moral failing. It had to do with their connection to the community, and the need for the community to be separated from them in a pre-scientific time where medicine and health were based on experiences and assumptions.

Jesus turns to lift up a “Joe the Shepherd” type of person, and says, “Even this guy gets it!” The “it” is the reality that every sheep matters to the shepherd. The relationship with the sheep is what makes him a shepherd. Not only that, the flock seems to have little value apart from its connection to the shepherd and the one who is not there.

I’ve often struggled with what that means for us as the flock of the Good Shepherd. Lately I’ve decided that it is not something to think too much about. It could mean all kinds of things. What I believe it does mean is that we have a part to play in the acceptance and rejoicing over the finding of a single lost sheep. I also believe that it means that any of us have the opportunity to be on those shoulders, for all of us are at times weak. Even more so, I believe it means that my salvation is connected to that of others. I cannot simply sit in my office and be glad that Jesus loves me. My salvation is not complete without the relationship I share with those who are also in need of God’s care.

That’s where memory can trip us up. We remember that God has called us and claimed us. We remember that we are blessed beyond measure, and that is where we often stop. In our memories of the sacrifices others have made on our behalf, we are willing to celebrate resiliency and self-determination. But how often do we find ourselves, saying like Paul, that our greatest strength is found in the knowledge that we are totally powerless and completely dependant on God’s grace? What kind of world would this be if each follower of Jesus viewed everyone they met as valuable as the woman did her lost coin? What would the church be like if we took this idea of eating with sinners, meaning those who are separated from the church, to be our calling? In the Lectionary Commentary series, Roger Van Harn suggests that it would look like this:

That sounds like the kind of small, strong church we can be, but I do want to warn you. Seeking and saving can be dangerous work. Unless we are certain to remember who is doing the saving and who is truly in need, we are at risk of getting lost on our way to the table. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. May my actions depend upon this truth. May it be the same for you, and to God be the glory, both now and always. Alleluia! Amen.

References and Inspirational Reading

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Old Testament and Acts: The First Readings; Eerdmans, 2001.

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Second Readings, Acts And the Epistles; Eerdmans, 2001.

Roger E. Van Harn, ed. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Third Readings, The Gospels; Eerdmans, 2001.

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