Silent Spring

Principle Scripture: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Luke 15:1-10

Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson (published, 1962) was a “fable for tomorrow” and well-known as the inspiration for the modern environmental movement, which began in earnest about a decade later. It is recognized as the environmental text that changed the world. My first encounter with the book was inadvertently through my mother, who had brought me to our local library. Upon seeing the book, I read the title aloud and my mother recalled imagining a beautiful spring, bubbling in a lovely mountain valley where she could sit in the silence and quietude of God. She imagined herself by that silent spring and enjoying sips of Chardonnay. It sounded so peaceful which she needed with her two boys running her ragged!

Oh, how wrong her impression was! Carson, of course, wrote about what she feared. The book was a warning of a coming Spring season that would be silent because no birds would be alive to warble their beautiful tunes and no loons would cruise atop lakes to issue their hauntingly lovely cry. Spring would be silent, without nature’s beautiful harmonies, because we had wreaked havoc upon the natural world.

Silent Spring could be an apt title for the book of Jeremiah, particularly this part of the fourth chapter that we heard this morning. It’s difficult to discern if the destruction of the earth in Jeremiah’s oracles is a reaction of creation to the evil wrought by the Israelites or whether God is actively destroying the land. Maybe it’s both. Either way, the point is instructive and true elsewhere in the prophets (see HOS 4:3) that there is a link between human sin and the ruination and suffering of creation. Whether it is the natural fallout of human abuse or a direct result of God’s anger at our evil ways, the result is that all of creation suffers when God’s people repeatedly fail to follow God’s ways.

In fact, in Jeremiah 4:23 we get a picture of un-creation and a return to chaos as Jeremiah uses words that echo directly the “formless and empty” nature of the universe that was in Genesis 1:1 before God ordered creation. Jeremiah proclaimed, 

“I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.”

Jeremiah 4:23

Sin, in other words, unmakes God’s works. It shakes what should be rock-solid (mountains and hills) and makes the earth uninhabitable for people and birds and flocks and herds alike.

In Jeremiah 4, God’s own people are depicted as clueless, as having willfully and completely cut themselves off from the knowledge of who God is and what God expects. That is a dire spiritual situation for the Israelites themselves; but the effects of human sin and rebellion never get limited to just local concerns. Like ripples on a pond, the effect of sin goes out in ever-widening arcs, eventually affecting the entire created order. Everything gets ruined! 

BUT (and this is important), the evil and the sullying of creation do not get the last word. Un-creation is never the end! Indeed, the Lord God has the last word – Yahweh, El Shaddai, Creator, and Redeemer! And God’s last word is always creation — re-creation – redemption. God’s last word is a return to flourishing, abundant, and hope-filled life. Even if in the meantime, as St. Paul wrote, 

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Romans 8:22-23

Yes, even if, in the meantime, all creation groans, God’s last word is re-creation. 

So, now, imagine our gospel lesson! It starts with the grumbling Pharisees, not an unusual occurrence. What are they grumbling about? Jesus is welcoming tax collectors and sinners, opening the door for them to become part of the community. But these people are not the kind that should be “in” – they are sinners and maybe even Gentiles. The Pharisees grumble because their presence makes the meal unclean, and for people concerned with ritual cleanliness, this is annoying!

But for their part, the tax collectors and sinners are said to have come to listen to Jesus. The “sinners” are on the road to repentance – a point completely lost on the grumbling Pharisees. Jesus tells them some parables (five in all covering LUKE 15-16) about the character of God. The parables that Jesus tells are not really for the lost, even as they are about the lost; rather, the parables are for those who foolishly think they have no need for restoration and redemption themselves (ie. the Pharisees).

Today we hear two of those parables – the lost sheep and the lost coin. First off, notice the way the stories are paired – Jesus interacts with both a rich man and a poor woman. This is no accident – it is Luke the storyteller expressing the values of God towards God’s people: inclusion, accessibility, no hierarchy. Here, then, are two opposing characters: a rich male shepherd (100 sheep is a big flock) and a poor woman (ten coins is about ten days pay). Jesus identifies himself with both and uses their actions to show what God is like.

The lost sheep and lost coin stories shape a picture of what God is like. Jesus is telling a story about re-creation, about restoration, about redemption! So, first of all, let us notice that the shepherd and the old woman both represent God. Notice the outline of what happens:

  1. God bears responsibility for the loss.
  2. God searches without counting the cost.
  3. God bears the burden of restoration.
  4. God rejoices with the community at the success of restoration.

God bears responsibility for the loss. The shepherd has lost one of his flock describing it (in the Greek) as “lost to me” (LUKE 15:6b). The shepherd knows that he is the one responsible and is bearing responsibility for it being lost. Moreover, Jesus describes the sheep as “lost” using the perfect tense which implies an action that has happened but still has effect in the present. In other words, the sheep got lost and that “lostness” still impacts the present. The lost sheep cannot “unlost” itself, just as the lost coin cannot find itself. For both to be found, effort must be exerted by another. God, out of love for the sheep and desire for the coin, commits to the restoration of the lost.

God searches without counting the cost. Having committed to the search and rescue, Jesus shows us that God does so at great cost. Though it is likely that the 99 sheep are in relative safety when they are left by the shepherd who is searching for the one that was lost, the shepherd still leaves the bulk of his wealth in order to get back a measly 1% of what belongs to him. The woman, likewise, spends resources, time, and energy, lighting lamps and sweeping floors to search diligently for the lost coin. Jesus does not count the cost to himself as he willingly endures suffering and death.

God bears the burden of restoration. Just as Jesus was glad to welcome and eat with tax collectors and sinners because they had come seeking him and were on the road that might lead them to repentance, the shepherd and the woman both celebrated at achieving the ends of their search. Notice carefully that the burden of our restoration lies in God finding us. Kenneth Bailey provides a beautiful nuance to the work of repentance when he insists that repentance is our “acceptance of being found” in the state of our lostness.

God rejoices with the community at the success of restoration. The party that God wants to throw could be our party if we accept that Jesus has found us! Jesus has found us who are lost – lost in our own priorities, opinions, and views; lost in the boundaries of who we let in and who we leave or force out. Throughout the gospel of Luke, we encounter Jesus repeatedly attempting to dispel people from the boundaries of their own creation that create religious acceptability and cleanliness. Who should be invited to the banquets? Who and how should be healed on the Sabbath? Indeed, it is those very people we are trying to keep out! What do the church leaders do? They try to stop the joy from spreading… they do not want a party and they do not want to celebrate what was lost being found again! 

But God wants to rejoice!! We who are unable to accept the work of God in someone’s life because it does not match what we would have orchestrated for them, we become lost when we refuse the Spirit’s invitation to the restoration party. When we refuse to celebrate what God has done, what God the Spirit is doing, we are estranged and “lost” when we could be at home, resting with the other sheep who know that the goodness and extravagant – perhaps reckless – care shown to one will be shown to all.

But here’s the good news: Like the lost coin, we may get ourselves lodged very deep into the cracks or crevices of the floor, but God, who is like the woman who searches, will not stop until we are found and restored. Eventually, Lord willing, our repentance from our attitudes and exclusions, will become the reason for the celebration.

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