Below is an audio link to the sermon by The Rev. Posey Krakowsky on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Exodus 32: 7-14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
It’s September, school is starting, and, for more reasons than I could name, I’ve been thinking a lot about counting and numbers. My son just began a new semester, and one of his classes is at SIPA – the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. The one he is taking there is titled: War, Peace, and Strategy. As he tells it, so far, each day they’ve met, the professor has started lectures by offering propositions and asking students to vote on them immediately — trying to get their gut responses, before they have time to actually think things through.
Here’s a recent one:
Proposition: The USA and other members of the international community should intervene to enforce peace in a) Sudan and b) between Serbia and Albanian Kosovars.
Yes or No.
Once the question has been answered by a showing of raised hands — the professor then passes them a paper for them to consider one of two additional questions:
1) For those who voted IN FAVOR of intervention in Sudan or Kosovo:
Please estimate the highest acceptable level of US and Allied Fatalities in Combat before you would change your vote to non-intervention
The available choices include:
Less than 100
Less than 1000
Less than 5000 (which is the Iraq US level)
Less than 10,000
Less than 60,000 (the Vietnam US level)
Less than 400,000 (WW2 US level)
Greater than 400,000
2) For those who voted AGAINST Intervention in Kosovo or Sudan:
Highest acceptable level of Local Genocide before you would change your vote to FAVOR intervention
More than 100,000 fatalities
More than 500,000 (Rwanda level)
More than 1,000,000 (Cambodia level)
More than 6,000,000 (WW2 Germans vs Jews)
More than 20,000,000 (Germans vs. Soviet citizens)
And the final option: The whole country could be wiped out, and I still would not intervene.
For me, it’s that last one that really hits home. How could that possibly be an option? But for some folks, it clearly is. And it’s sobering to realize that there are fellow humans who think that way, isn’t it? But really, it doesn’t quite matter which side of the initial proposition you are considering, all of the options are sobering. Every one.
I’ve often heard it said that once we get into numbers and statistics, it’s too easy to forget that these are people we are discussing — people with real lives: ones with families and friends and jobs and individual and beloved faces. Real human beings.
But oddly, listening to my son talk about this exercise — none of them felt like statistics to me — nor to him, I might add. He said he also found it incredibly sobering and heart-breaking to ponder.
It was rendered even more so when our president fired his third national security advisor on Tuesday. This president has a pattern of firing people when they don’t agree with him. It’s a worrisome pattern. Not that I have great things to say about John Bolton. But I worry because the value of conversations with those who disagree with us is that when we have them, we exchange ideas and we get different perspectives.
When a president dismisses others from the room because he does not like what he is hearing, those kinds of conversations are not happening.
I was also thinking about counting because it figures largely in our two gospel parables today— and, speaking of counting, let’s start by reminding ourselves that these two parables are the first two in a series of three stories that Luke connects. In the ancient near east, it was common to tell stories in groups of three, setting up a paradigm in the first two that would then be either repeated OR, especially in Jesus’s case, deliberately shifted in the third. That shifting — that sense of surprise — was what made the 3rd one stand out. In Luke’s gospel, all three of these parables are about people who miscounted things that are precious to them. In the first, the person has lost one sheep out of 100 — he learns this because he has counted them and come up short. By the way, sheep are blameless for “losing” themselves; it is in the nature of sheep to wander. The reason the sheep is lost is because their guardian did not pay sufficient attention. Similarly, the woman in the next story is counting her drachmas — and realizes she only has 9 when she should have 10. Again, coins don’t have agency, they don’t wander at will. She has not paid attention, and so she has lost one. In both cases, the protagonists of the parables take responsibility for losing something and working to make it right.
Luke adds his own gloss to each of the stories — telling us that the sheep and the coin represent repentant sinners. Which means that in that allegory, the sheep owner and the woman both represent God. But commentator Amy Jill-Levine reminds us 1) that sinners have agency. And 2) that God doesn’t lose track of anything. So the gloss Luke puts on these parables is perhaps not how they would have been heard when Jesus told them. And the 3rd story makes this clear by tweaking and dismantling our expectations. The 3rd story is the Prodigal Son parable — remember, we heard it back on Lent 4. Levine argues that the shift comes in that story because it doesn’t end where we think it will — that is, when the prodigal has returned. Up until then, we have a similar story — the man has 2 sons, one goes off and is “lost” (and like the sheep owner and the woman, the father bears some responsibility for that loss, since he gives the son the financial means to wander). When the younger one returns, there is a celebration, just like in the previous two stories. So far, they all three track.
But then — wait — there’s a shift. Because, remember? — the father also forgot to count his older son. Levine argues that this shift — this essential shift — reinforces the notion that the allegorical overlay Luke adds, an overlay that says that God is the sheep owner, God is the woman searching for the coin, and God is the father figure in the Prodigal Son story, does not, if you will excuse the expression, add up. Because the God we experience is not forgetful. The God we know does not lose track of us. The God we praise — the same one who counts the very hairs on our heads — the same one who invites everyone to the dinner table — that God does not take any of us for granted. Nor allow any of us to be lost.
Back in Lent, I argued that God IS still in the story — moving in, through, and between all three family members, informing them, encouraging them, and calling them back towards community instead of division. The same God who implores us to take the risk to trust — and tells us that even when we fall short (as all three men do in the prodigal son story) — all shall be well. The God who IS the conversation — the Trinity — relationship itself. The one who sees each of us, as we are, and still wants to talk to us, no matter what we do or have done. God doesn’t lose count of us — not ever. God is always reaching out to us, always desiring to be in relationship and conversation.
And we hear that same loving interaction in the Hebrew Bible passage today — though it may not seem so at first blush. Hebrew Bible scholars tell us that the events on Mt Sinai — events which included God’s establishing the covenant with the people of Israel, the first giving of the 10 commandments, the Golden Calf incident, and the second giving of the 10 commandments — all of those events are at the center of a literary chiasm that spans from Moses’ birth narratives at the beginning of the book of Exodus to the Israelites entry into the promised land at the end of the book of Numbers. Those events on Sinai also include the giving of the Law, the book of Leviticus at the very center. Our passage today takes place on Mt. Sinai, quite close to the end of the book of Exodus.
What struck me most in this story was the ongoing conversation between God and Moses — and most tellingly, how Moses refused to let God alone until God forgives the people. This is one of many conversations Moses has with God, and it is a telling one. God literally says, “Now let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them.” But in this case, Moses won’t go away. He will not leave God alone. Why? Because Moses knows God won’t actually give up on them. Moses trusts God. Moses stays in relationship with God — He keeps on talking to God, until God changes God’s mind. Because Moses knows there’s not any IF about God’s mind being changed, instead, it’s a matter of WHEN.
At first, it’s as if Moses is being God’s national security advisor, isn’t it? Or God’s PR strategist. Moses first tries to persuade God by saying that God’s own reputation will look bad if God destroys the people of Israel. But then Moses goes one step further — Moses becomes God’s chaplain, reminding God of individuals — Abraham, Isaac, and Israel — people to whom God has made a promise. It’s the invocation of their faces, of their individuality, that precipitates God’s mercy. God knows them. God sees them. God cares about them. They are not just numbers. They are beloved people, made in God’s image. Even if these three individuals are already dead, the promises God made to them will not be abandoned.
God keeps those promises. God will not abandon God’s people. God is not the one who miscounts, it’s humans who do that.
God counts each one of us. God counts each of the three people in the story of the prodigal son. God counts Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. God counts each person in the families seeking asylum at our southern borders. And this part is hard for many of us at Ascension — God even counts the ICE agents who put them in cages, all the while calling out to them to soften their hearts. God also counts the trees, the animals, the rocks, the planets, and the stars.
In doing so God reminds us to count these things too. God speaks us into creation and God creates order from chaos. God knows that we are longing to be seen and to be found. My prayer today is that we never forget to count anyone or anything. These parables remind us that it is all too human and all too easy to forget to do so. May we learn to do otherwise, soon and very soon. May we follow the examples of our ancestors who remember to count us. And may we set the example of those who will come after us by remembering to count them. Amen.