Whether we are six or sixty, September brings with it that bittersweet (or maybe it’s sweetbitter) 'back to school' feeling. We put aside our beach toys, tuck away our tents, swap out shorts for trousers, and we recommit to the activities and routines that give our lives more structure.
At schools across the country, teachers have posted welcome signs and put out cheerful books and toys. Everyone works hard to make sure any nervous new students feel comforted and comfortable. And although "Welcome Sunday" is not an event on the academic or liturgical calendar, it feels like this would be a good time for our lectionary to offer up some readings that would make all of us here, newcomers or not, feel glad to be regathered after a summer of on-and-off holiday absences. But instead of comfort, it seems, we are fast-forwarded to an end-of-term report card, and not a very good one at that.
Today’s readings are peppered with the kind of words we certainly wouldn’t want to read amidst the teacher’s comments.
From the prophet Jeremiah: ""For my people are foolish," [says the Lord, ]"they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good."
From the psalm: "The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one."
And in the gospel, we listen in as the Pharisees judge those they consider sinners unfit to eat with Jesus. Paul, at least, gets to mark his own paper, but in his letter to Timothy he too is a harsh task master, describing his former self as a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence, the chief among sinners.
In today’s lessons, it seems, almost everyone gets a failing grade in one way or another. So, this morning as we restart Sunday School, celebrate the progress in our North Garden, bless our backpacks, and share food after the service, do these somewhat judgy-sounding readings put a damper on our message of welcome?
Indeed they don’t. Because running throughout all of today’s scriptures is God’s deep and loving call to restoration. It’s a restoration we all long for, consciously or not; a restoration of the relationship that lies at the very core of our being. St. Augustine summed it up best, perhaps, when he said "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
In the 17th century Blaise Pascal famously penned another quote that speaks to this truth. "There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ."
It appears that planted inside us an unquenchable desire for communion with a place or a presence we can’t even describe. The Welsh have a wonderful word, hiraeth, which refers to a deep yearning for something, someone or somewhere that may or may not have ever existed. It sometimes refers to an idealized or mythical Welsh culture of long ago, but taken more broadly it can help us describe the restless yearnings for our soul’s very hearth and home. We sense that hearth is there, waiting for us; occasionally we get brief flashes of it when we feel a deep joyful connection that encompasses and yet overshadows all our earthly pleasures and sorrows. It’s a home we cannot define or grasp, but to which we long to return.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."
He was right, I think, but still we keep trying to scratch that itch by chasing material experiences and distractions; we can shop til our shelves are stuffed but undoubtedly our souls will still feel empty. It is in this frantic chase that we can rack up some of those sins being called out in the readings today. We can take God’s creation for granted and get greedy with the earth’s resources; we can prioritize our idle pleasures at the expense of others’ wellbeing; we can spend the day oblivious to God’s gifts because we have chosen to focus on envy or complaint.
It is, perhaps, not surprising we give in to these regrettable impulses. In a book called Recapturing the Wonder, Mike Cosper writes:
We are discipled by nearly every impulse of our culture to believe that the here-and-now is all there is; that the only hope offered for us is found in what we can taste, smell, feel, and see. To believe in something beyond the material world we have to take up practices that form our imaginations - and hearts and minds - in light of the resurrection, in light of the possibility that, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminds us, "Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God."
Our busy workaday lives usually distract us from seeing God afire in this bush and that. This week, however, our wider culture did offer us a rare opportunity to stop and experience what the The Guardian newspaper called a "shared moment of reflection." When the death of the queen was announced, people stopped what they were doing, for moments or for hours. As the bells tolled, some people cried, some shrugged, but most said to the person next to them: "Did you hear the news?" At such times, it is human impulse to down tools and gather; crowds formed and remained outside Buckingham Palace into the small hours. Memories and musings were freely shared.
Whether one was a royalist or not, the passing of Queen Elizabeth called people the world over to remember a monarch who had served with dedication for longer than many of us have walked the earth, a person who spoke movingly of the Christian faith that was so vital in her, and a person who respected the faith of others. Many editorial cartoons and other artistic images published and being shared widely show her reunited with her husband Philip and her corgis of decades past; there is, it seems, a collective agreement that at this solemn time it is acceptable to put cynicism and worldliness aside and publicly express a shared hope for a life beyond this one.
But aren’t you and I the lucky ones. Because we don’t have to wait for the death of a monarch to stop and reflect on the joy that comes from a life of service; or to express our faith in a life that continues beyond the one we know now. We get to do that every Sunday morning. Knowing God is calling to us, we call back to God. It is here that we stop, set aside the distractions of the world, tell the stories and sing the songs that remind us of home. We walk out of these doors having pledged to make real God’s love and mercy in this world, and with trust that we will be fully restored and reconciled in the world to come.
Sometimes we stumble in our walk with God. We can become indifferent or tired or overcome by other demands and sorrows. We are, after all, imperfect people living in a world that is too often visited by inexplicable tragedies, wars, natural disasters, and staggering personal losses. That’s why, I think, that being part of a faith community is so important. We keep each other tethered to God’s goodness when our own spirits are faltering; when someone is lost in despair we keep hope alive on their behalf.
Wherever we are in our journey, we can trust that God calls each of us into a loving embrace. In today’s gospel Jesus tells us about the shepherd who put the rest of his flock aside to find the one sheep who was lost. "And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. Just so," says Jesus, "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance."
Friends, we are all welcome here, as together we seek God’s wholeness and healing. And, thanks to the loving kindness of the One who Created Us, no one gets a failing grade.