In one of my previous churches I slipped out just before it was time for the sermon. My assistant took the pulpit and made this announcement to the congregation: “Pastor Carl would like you to know he is out calling on one of our inactive members and would like for you to sit quietly for fifteen minutes. He will be back in time for communion.” Then we let the folks sit and look quizzically at each other for a minute or two before I walked back in an read them Jesus parable which goes like this: “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it.” I told them, “If you really took this parable seriously, you shouldn’t mind if I skipped worship to call on inactive members.”
It at least got them thinking about this parable and about reaching out to those who have left the flock. There was once a sheep rancher who heard this parable and said, right out loud, “Why that’s plum ridiculous. Ah hate to argue with the Lord, but there ain’t no sheep ranger in his right mind would put 99 in danger for the sake of 1.” And he’s got a point. Things don’t work that way in this world …
… in this world. And there’s the key. Jesus isn’t really talking about the earthly kingdom. He’s talking about the kingdom of God. Often, when Jesus talked about the kingdom of God he used what I call “upside down” language to emphasize the otherness of that kingdom. The examples – or parables – he used would turn out to be just the opposite of the way we would expecdt things to be. He would talk about hating life in this world to find it in God’s world. He would talk about the last being first and the first being last. He would talk about the poorest person on earth being the richest person in heaven. And he would talk about leaving 99 sheep to find the lost 1. It was Jesus’ way of proclaiming the lengths God would go to do bring a person into his kingdom.
And why did Jesus tell this parable? Because the pious old Pharisees and scribes were whining again – complaining that Jesus actually had enough gall to eat with sinners – tax collectors and prostitutes and thieves.
We need to look just real hard – real hard – at those Jesus accepted. He accepted sinners. It doesn’t say repentant sinners. It doesn’t say reformed sinners. It doesn’t say sinners who had promised never, ever to do it again. It says sinners. Now, this next part is real important, so please listen so very carefully. What I am about to say is what Lutherans say. I am in the Lutheran ministry because Lutherans believe and confess this. This is different than what many fundamental churches say. And it is a big, big difference. Here it is: Jesus did not demand repentance as a condition for acceptance. Here it comes again so you can listen with the other ear this time. Jesus did not demand repentance as a condition for acceptance.
Jesus did not say if you feel real, real sorry for your sins and promise never ever to do them again, I will forgive them. He put no condition on his forgiveness. Jesus did not say if you worship me I will accept you. He put no condition on his acceptance. Jesus did not say if you confess me as your lord and savior I will grant you eternal life. He put no condition on his promises.
That’s grace. We Lutherans are real big on grace. Because it is so very, very important. There is nothing you must do concerning God’s grace except respond to it. And there is no way to truly respond to it except by understanding that it is free.
If there was something that we could do to “deserve” it (live a good life, get all 10 commandments right, go to church regularly) – if there was something we could do to “deserve” it, then it wouldn’t truly be a gift from God. It would be something we purchased through achievement – like a merit badge. But God gives God’s grace to sinners. It’s amazing!
By the way when pastors actually do leave the flock to go out and call on the lost sheep, one of the most common things they hear from inactive members goes something like this, “Yeah, I went there for a while, but I found out that the place is crawling with hypocrites. Those folks act so pious and good on Sunday morning and go out and sin on Monday morning.” My response is usually, “And your point is…?” That’s what church is! It is a hospital for sinners – not a museum for saints.
And everyone thinks it’s the other guy who needs help. I am reminded of the story of the man who was attending his high school class reunion with his wife. About half way through he said to his wife, “See that fellow over there? Well, he’s gotten so bald and fat he didn’t even recognize me.” (Think about it!)
When we hear the parable of the lost sheep we tend to think of ourselves as the flock and other people as the lost sheep. Fact is, we were all lost, but now are found. Maybe we could hear it with fresher ears if we were to think of ourselves as the lost sheep.
By the way, the parable says nothing about the sheep even wanting to come back to the fold. Maybe that one sheep was not lost, but trying to escape! Sheep do that. But Jesus brought him back anyway. So, where does repentance come in?
Listen again, because it’s the thing that makes Lutherans different: The repentance comes as a response to being found. “I once was lost but now am found” That’s what grace is all bout?!? Amazing! Then when we consider that God has saved a wretch like me, it makes it so we never again want to leave the flock, never again participate in whatever kind of behavior is hurting ourselves, our family, our community.
Repentance means simply stopping the sin. God has given each and every one of us the capability to stop doing whatever it is we’re doing which is hurtful. God has given us the power to decide to stop doing harm and start doing the things that help. We are responsible for the way we are and God has given us the power to simply stop doing the wrong thing and start doing the right thing – not so that God will bring us into her fold, but because she has brought us into her fold.
Eugenie DeGuerin has said, “When the soul has laid down its faults at the feet of God, it feels as though it has wings.” That’s how the soul feels. How does God feel? Here it is in God’s own words: “I tell you there is joy in the presence of angels of God over one who repents.”
It is this sense of joy which I pray we might all be filled with. Too many people think of church as a joyless place. One of my all time favorite movies is “Cool Runnings” – about the Olympic bobsled team from Jamaica, of all places, winning the gold in the 1990 Calgary Olympics. When the Jamaican team first practiced their push off they tried imitating the winning German team who would chant, in a disciplined rhythm, “Eins! Zwie! Drie” – and then push off. Well, try as they might, the Jaacains just couldn’t be Germans and they kept losing. Then, with some help from their leader, they came to find that the best way to be winners was to be just who they were. They won the gold after their mantra became, “Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! C’mon Jamaica, it’s bobsleigh time!”
Too many people think that church is all about sin and guilt when its really about grace and acceptance. Too many people think that church is about knuckle-rapping when they need to understand that it is more like back-patting. Let’s stop being eins, zwei, drei people and start being people who feel the rhythm, who feel the rhyme.
Text: Luke 15:1-10