1 Timothy 1:12-17 & Luke 15:1-10
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Who here sees themselves as being one of “the lost?” Who sees themselves as being one of the found? Who sees themselves as the one who goes looking for what is lost, the good shepherd or the woman with the lamp and the broom, searching for the lost sheep and the lost coin? And who sees themselves as among those who stay where they are supposed to, who never go wandering and never look to greener pastures for excitement?
It is not unusual, when hearing these parables of Jesus, to try to place ourselves somewhere in them, to find our own fit, our role in those stories. But perhaps the question that really needs to be asked is this: who sees themselves as being the one who repents, in fact whose repentance is so great that the angels themselves rejoice wildly over us and our repentance?
Hmmmm.. . .not sure we want to claim that honor. For to be one that the angels rejoice over, means claiming the name of “sinner.” To repent usually means having done something wrong, something one needs to repent of. Straying sheep and coins that roll under the furniture aren’t usually thought of as having done something wrong. Repentance, however, more than implies that: it actually requires it.
Do I want the angels in heaven to rejoice over me? Yes, of course -- but as long as my repentance is on my terms. Can’t it be something I control, something I measure out in reasonable doses? Under those kind of terms, repentance needn’t be such a big deal. It sounds more like the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that has as its first stanza these lines:
I had a little sorrow born of a little sin.
I found a room all dark with gloom and locked us all within.
And “little sorrow, weep!” said I.
“And little sin, lay down to die,
and I upon the floor will lie
and think how bad I’ve been!”
If all repentance has to be is my dredging up some nice guilty feelings, perhaps some remorse, for my little, manageable sins, well, I can do that every once in a while. After all, isn’t that enough? Why would God need more than that?
But what if I am lost? What if all of us nice people sitting here on a Sunday morning, what if our real condition is that, each of us, is really, truly, hopelessly lost?
Paul was lost. Listen again to the words he uses to describe himself to Timothy: “even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Paul doesn’t know he is lost, of course. He is certain that he is about the Lord’s work, as he terrorizes his way from Jerusalem to Damascus. A man of violence: followers of Jesus fear him, with good reason; he has authority to haul them away in chains; he is shown at the scene of the murder of Stephen, and consenting to his death by mob violence. That is what is really happening in the 7th chapter of Acts. Paul is a perfect example of what the author Christopher Hitchens describes in his book, “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”, where Hitchens insists that religions are dangerous as the prime instigator of horrible and deadly violence all in the name of God. Paul thinks he is doing good.
Paul doesn’t know he is lost until Jesus shows up in front of him. Jesus comes and seeks him, and carries him home again, which is a place Paul doesn’t even realize he has left until he is brought to the realization of how far away he had wandered. Paul couldn’t have gotten back by himself; if Jesus hadn’t shown up, looking for him, Paul never would have repented of his blasphemy and violence because he never would have realized that he was committing blasphemy and violence! Repentance isn’t something Paul decides to do; it is something Jesus confronts him with, as he opens Paul’s eyes to see how far away from God Paul had actually gone.
How frightening it is to realize how far we can get away from God without even knowing it! In fact, even as we make our plans for how to reach others who we identify as lost, we ourselves might be going farther and farther away from God. How can we know? What can possibly come along to help us?
It is only that Jesus, the good shepherd, comes out looking for us, to find us in our ignorance and well-meaning destructive ways and bring us to a sense of reality, and bring us back home. In doing so, Jesus brings us to the knowledge that we must repent; our lives depend on it, to keep going in our own way is to go in the way of certain death. But that repentance comes from God, as the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of life in Jesus’ name and “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies us” so that repenting comes as joy and relief, not shame.
And having received the gift of being found, and knowing the welcome of God in being carried into repentance and new life, like Paul we then are eager to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to find others who are lost, just like us, that they might be brought home, and know the joy of welcome, just as we have known it for ourselves.
Is that what church is supposed to be like: seeking and being sought, being welcomed in joy and in turn welcoming others in joy? Knowing that we are what God has been looking for, and that his face lights up when he finds us? And that God’s joy is reflected in our faces, whenever we see his other children, and turn the light on to guide them home? Can’t you hear the cries of the angels now, as they rejoice for you, and me, and for the world we are sent into?