Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The Kingdom of God is about mercy, and forgiveness, and repentance, and reconciliation. The task of the Church is to call people to repentance, and to bring God’s mercy, and forgiveness, and reconciliation to the world. The task of Christian disciples is to repent, and to receive God’s mercy, and forgiveness and reconciliation, and also to extend the mercy they have been given, to forgive as they have been forgiven, and to reconcile with everyone in their path. If we want to know the meaning for our lives and the purpose of our worship, we have heard it today.

The problem is, as we well know, that we are a sinful people. That sinfulness goes all the way back to just after the creation, but we see it well in today’s first reading. The people Israel, having been led safely out of Egypt and having their enemies destroyed in the Red Sea, have soon enough forgotten the God who loved them into the desert and who longed to purify them in that desert for refuge in the promised land. When they lost sight of Moses and couldn’t figure out God’s plan, they fashioned a calf out of molten jewelry and began to worship its image. They had truly become stiff-necked.

And would that it had ended in the desert, but it didn’t. We have inherited the stiff-neckedness that plagued the ancient Israelites. Whenever we lose sight of God, we are constantly prone to worship other gods. Think about 9/11, whose horrible sixth anniversary we observed this past week. In the days following that tragedy, you would have been hard pressed to find a seat in any church. Not so any more. Do we need God less now? What gods have we embraced in the days since then?

And if we were pressed to admit it, I have to think we could understand God’s reaction to the Israelites and would have to admit it applied to us as well. We, just as well as they, have often been guilty enough to deserve being consumed by God’s blazing wrath. But that’s not the picture of God we get today, is it?

No, we get a picture of God who relents in punishment, and who not only offers mercy and forgiveness, but actually also relentlessly pursues his fallen people so that they will accept it. God is the shepherd who will leave behind ninety-nine sheep-crazy as that may be-to pursue just one of us who has wandered astray. God is the woman who having lost just one of ten coins stays up all night, having lit a lamp, and sweeps the house carefully until the coin has been found. God is that prodigal father who sees the sinner returning at a distance and runs out to meet him or her. God doesn’t relent in his pursuit of us until all the wandering have been restored to the fold, all the lost are found, and all the rebellious have returned to the table.

And God is not the one who stands there upon our return, arms folded, with a stern look on his face and says, “finally – what took you so long?” No, instead God calls together the neighbors and friends and begs them to help him rejoice and celebrate the lost lamb who has been restored to the fold and the coin that has been found. God is the father who kills the fatted calf, throws a fine robe around us, puts a ring on our finger and sandals on our feet, embraces us, and leads us to rejoice in our return. God is not content to simply treat us as one of his hired workers: he will not be satisfied until we are seated at his banquet table. God’s pursuit of us isn’t some kind of micromanaging megalomania, but instead a real longing expressed in action so that we can all join in the rejoicing that God always intended for us.

So do not leave this holy place without hearing this message. Yes, you have sinned: we are all that stiff-necked people. Yes, you have embraced gods that were not genuine: we are all tempted daily. But yes, God is pursuing you relentlessly, waiting in eager expectation, and exercising incredible patience until that day you return to him, heart and soul. What is on your heart right now? Where have you turned from God and embraced the worship of something or someone that is not God? How long has it been? When will you repent, confessing your sin and receiving God’s gift of mercy? How long will you keep yourself from feasting at God’s banquet table?

It’s as simple as approaching the Sacrament of Penance. In that beautiful Sacramental encounter, God waits for you, eagerly longing for your return. If you hear nothing else today, know that God has searched for you, lighting the lamp and burning the midnight oil, leaving the ninety-nine behind to reach out to you, peering out the window to see you on the road to your return. Those few Sacramental moments can be the beginning of new life and rejoicing in the way God always intended it.

If you haven’t been to the Sacrament in years, just say that. The priest is there to help you, not to judge you. Ask for help if you need it to make a good confession. But never stay away simply because you feel like you’re not worthy, or it’s been too long, or you haven’t done anything that bad, or you don’t want the priest to think badly of you (we do forget what you’ve said when you leave, you know!). Whatever the reason, don’t let that get in the way of God’s pursuing mercy. You deserve so much better than that, and God won’t rest until you’ve received it.

The Kingdom of God is about mercy, and forgiveness, and repentance, and reconciliation. The task of the Church is to call people to repentance, and to bring God’s mercy, and forgiveness, and reconciliation to the world. The task of Christian disciples is to repent, and to receive God’s mercy, and forgiveness and reconciliation, and also to extend the mercy they have been given, to forgive as they have been forgiven, and to reconcile with everyone in their path. If we want to know the meaning for our lives and the purpose of our worship, we have heard it today.

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