“…there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
It is hard work, faith. Serious work, the narrow path of Jesus Christ. He was crucified for His unquenchable love. Tradition has it that St. Peter was, too, only upside down. St. Paul was arrested, tortured, dragged halfway across the civilized world in chains, and tradition tells us was beheaded for his passion. Hard stuff, faith.
You all know me, the Christian hope I hold to often seems in the far, eschatological distance. In the fullness of time all manner of things shall be well, but between now and then it is our soul-nose to the spiritual grindstone. Weeee… Our gospel selection for today, however, offers another view of things.
As in many of the parable cycles in this part of Luke, it starts with the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” That was a big deal in that society, eating with the shunned, those considered impure and thus ritually excluded. But in this moment, Jesus doesn’t call them out as a bunch of hypocrites or a brood of vipers, but rather He tells two of the most lovely, joyous, and hopeful parables He ever told. Well, three of them actually. The Prodigal Son is the third in the lost/found/rejoice cycle of parables. It used to be part of this day in the Lectionary. In any case, in the face of the grumbling, Jesus tells these stories of joy, of being lost and being found, being dead, then being alive and rejoicing over it.
The shepherd leaves the 99 to search for the missing one. The woman lights the lamp and searches because she lost one of her ten coins. The father loses one of his two sons. (The stakes keep getting higher, 1%, 10%, half). And each time, in each instance, when what had been lost was found, the sheep, the coin, the son, the called friends and neighbors together to “rejoice with me, for I have found my xthat I had lost.”
These are parables very clearly about the nature of God. And what is Jesus telling us about that nature? First that God is compassionate and merciful, that God is concerned with our well-being, that God searches and searches for the lost. We are valuable, all of us. And not in spite of our brokenness, in spite of our sinful, outcast nature, but because of it. The more lost, the more broken, the more sick and bent and reviled you are, the more intently God seeks you. “…there will
be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Which brings us to the second nature of God described in these parables: joy, rejoicing. Heaven delights in the lost being found. “…there is joy in the presence of the angles of God over one sinner who repents.” Gathering and celebrating with the friends and neighbors. One commentator points out that the celebrations very well may have cost more than the lost sheep of the lost coin was worth. There is an extravagance to the joy of God when the lost are found, the sinner repents.
The model of God’s action in this parable is being lost, being found, rejoicing. This is a telling of the more familiar pattern of sin, forgiveness and repentance. Sin (being lost), isn’t necessarily about a single case of naughtiness, the breaking of a rule, or even patterns of immoral conduct, it is also a description of our existential condition as alienated from God, not in perfect right relationship with God and everything, out of alignment with the true nature of things. Because that is all true. Original sin, we are out of alignment and the bad things we do are a sign of that misalignment and worse, the bad things we do further distort our ability to relate to God and neighbor as God would have us. We are all sinners.
And just as importantly, we are all forgiven. There is the doctrine of predestination, I’m not so sure about that, but I am pretty confident that we are pre-forgiven. There is nothing that we can do to make God withhold forgiveness. From God’s end, it is an ever flowing stream of love, mercy, and compassion in the form of divine forgiveness.
Remember, being forgiven by God doesn’t require repentance! Grace is not conditional. You can keep on as an unrepentant sinner for ever and ever and God’s mercy and forgiveness will not run out. Now there are plenty things we can do to deny that forgivness, to ignore it, to not accept it, and the more you behave as if we are separate from God the harder it is to accept God’s mercy, but that forgiveness, the welcome invitation back into the heart of God is wide, wide open.
The parallel of sinning to being lost is clear. As is being forgiven to being found. They are clearly similar, but rejoice to repent? Yes! The joy of repentance. The halleluiah of change. The ecstasy of the turn away from, the turn towards something new. Change can be a joyful thing. The kind of change implied by repentance certainly is. You are mired in darkness, stuck in the way you have always been, the patterns of relationships you always find yourself in: the same drink after
work, the first cigarette of the morning, the jealousy over another’s lot, the ill will to whomever gets it this week… leaving the morass of our unwelcomed habits is as joyful an undertaking as we can take upon ourselves.
Repentance is the expectation. Repentance is the cost of accepting God’s mercy, of being able to accept it. Repentance, remember, is simply changing the direction of your life. You’ve been an untrustworthy boss, a distant and inattentive spouse, a fair-weather friend. You are forgiven. But you are not going to get it, feel the consolation of God’s ever-burning love until you shape up. Be trustworthy. Pay attention. Show up. Thankfully, you have the power to do that.
That doesn’t mean that it is fun, or pleasant. Does anyone treasure potty training a child? Does anyone delight in beginning to detangle yourself from a co-dependent relationship? Quitting any bad habit? No. There is sometimes monumental effort required. Anxiety lurks if not abounds. Depending on the type of change needed, whole patterns of life need to be reformed. And yet the joy of a dry-bummed child, the freedom from a suffocating relationship, liberation from the shackles of nicotine, ethanol, THC, pornography, whatever, “…there is joy in the presence of the angles of God over one sinner who repents.”
Here, though, is where the mystical twist of God’s loving-kindness comes in: God comes for us. It takes effort, sometimes monumental human effort to repent, to change our ways and truly accept the forgiveness poured upon us from Jesus Christ crucified on the Cross. It takes hard work, sacrifice, discomfort, practice to repent. And there is the factor of faith. Because sometimes, we don’t have it in us. You’ve been beaten down so long that the thought of leaving is just beyond what you can do. The monkey of addiction has been on your back for so long, or is so ingrained into your life that you can’t imagine being any different. Or your commitments, your investments, your debts, your identity, your life and livelihood is tied up in being ways that maybe now you know isn’t for you, or isn’t right, even, but a lot of water has gone under that bridge. What am I suppose to do, change everything?
What these parables today tell us is that it is not just up to us, or not only up to us. God is searching the wilderness, is peeking into every corner, under every piece of furniture for you. God is just waiting to run out to meet you just like that father who saw his lost son approaching on the horizon. Saying yes to that, jumping up waving “God here I am!” sometimes we are too buried to do that. Too lost to even dream that our voice would carry far enough. The mystical twist is that we don’t even have to say yes to God, we just have to stop saying no.
Do you remember learning to swim? I have such vivid memories of the first times floating on my back. The swim teacher holding you lightly from underneath, and pulling their hands away, “Just relax…” “Relax?!? I’m about to drown here!” Or have you ever rappelled? Bouncing down the rock is awesome, but at the top of the cliff, you need to lean back on the rope and keep yourself perpendicular to the rock face as your relationship to the ground changes by 90 degrees. Or in a relationship, when you first start trusting someone. Feeling out where you can share and how. Your feelings, your fears, vulnerabilities and weaknesses, your body. Each new share is a risk, and… when you find someone who is trustworthy, when the knot holds and you are launching yourself off a rock, when you find yourself floating in the quiet embrace of the sea or even the pool at the Y… God is the trusted love interest. God is the rope that holds. God is the water in which we float.
Sometimes that mercy, the strength to repent, the will to change comes from within. We do have free will. Sometimes it comes from God, but from God within, it wells up from within. God strengthens us in feelings of consolation, in epiphanies, revelations, even visions of truth and wisdom. I’ve had glimpses of this, whiffs of it on the spiritual air within myself. And God also reaches us through unexpectedly gorgeous days, just the right quality of the sun light and breeze that sets the birch leaves shimmering, a fawn browsing outside your window, children playing sweetly. And God works though those with whom we share this life. “Are you alright?” can be as much from the mouth of God as it is from your sister. A moment’s connection at the Peace, or in line at Market of Choice. The sympathetic arms and ears of your spouse, or being someone’s sympathetic arms and ears… how much I learn, how much closer to God I grow in hearing and bearing others’ suffering. The mercy of God definitively reaches us here, in the gathering of Christ’s people around His Body and Blood. Take it today into you, body, mind and spirit. God is with you.
You are broken. You are forgiven. You can repent. Rejoice for you were lost and now ae found, you were dead an now you are alive! AMEN