Whenever I’m introducing myself in churchy kinds of settings, I often describe myself as a “lifelong Lutheran” – but in truth, that’s not a completely accurate description. I mean, sure, I was born, baptized, raised, and confirmed in an ELCA church – there are even several Lutheran pastors in my family, going back at least as far as my great-great-grandfather Friederich Hefner. But for me personally, the relationship has been a bit more complex.
When I was quite young, my heart wandered away from the church out of anger at the idea of a God who thought He needed my mom more than nine-year-old me did… But then an experience of the Spirit I had at confirmation camp brought me back.
In college, I wandered away from the church in confusion when it seemed to me like I always heard Christians talk about stuff like condemning gay people or judging others they disagreed with way more than they talked about Jesus or about loving their neighbor… But then I went back to camp as a counselor, and the Spirit helped me see and experience that love really is at the center of faith.
After college, I didn’t mean to leave the Lutheran church. Ironically, it was actually my zealous enthusiasm for reading the bible and for growing in faith that led me away again. It led me down a bizarre two-year path of study during which I nearly became a Jehovah’s Witness. Suffice it to say, it was a very weird period of my life, and I totally understand now why people join cults. That experience left my faith in such a twisted and broken and vulnerable state that it was several years before I could bring myself to go back to church at all.
A few years later, I moved back to Nebraska and settled down in Lincoln. I still felt so lost and confused about my faith – so far from God – but I had at least started to pray again. And what I prayed, basically, was that God would find me. I prayed that God would send me teachers who could help me untangle the mess I had made of my faith. I picked out a church in the city – a nice, progressive-sounding, non-threatening-seeming church – to try out, and I asked a good friend of mine to go with me. But this particular friend turned out to be even less of a morning person than I am (lol) – so Sunday after Sunday went by and I kept not going to church.
By chance (or, in retrospect, by the Spirit’s meddling) the apartment I had ended up moving into was exactly one block away from an ELCA church – specifically, from Grace Lutheran Church. I hadn’t planned to go to Grace, or even back to the ELCA. But, sitting in my apartment at 6:55pm on Ash Wednesday, something in me just seemed to say, “It’s now or never. Just go.” So I gathered up my courage and walked the block to go over and worship at Grace.
Worship there was pretty much just as I remembered Lutheran worship being. But at the end of the service, as everyone was quietly filing out in silence, with their foreheads all ashed up, I suddenly heard someone behind me call out “DAY!!” I turned around to see my friend Brady walking toward me – an old friend of mine I had not seen for years – in fact, an old friend whom I probably had not seen since the days we worked together… at camp! He greeted me with joy and gave me a hug. We stood there and chatted after the service for a long time, and by the end of the conversation, he had already invited me to come back and help out with a youth group lock-in that weekend and to put my guitar-playing skills to good use.
It felt like God had found me, just as I had prayed. And I felt myself welcomed back into God’s church with so much joy – not just by Brady, but by that whole congregation. I went from feeling completely lost in my faith to being joyfully welcomed home into the family of God.
For anyone who has known what it’s like to feel lost or worthless or hopelessly broken or far from God, the message of this gospel reading is a powerful word of hope. Jesus uses these two parables, about the shepherd with the lost sheep and the woman with the lost coin, to tell his hearers about who God is. The shepherd and the woman search diligently for what it is they’ve lost. They don’t give up or call it quits until they find it, because they value what they’ve lost too much to simply let it go. And when they find it, they are so filled with joy that it spills over onto everyone around them.
Likewise God persistently seeks out those who have lost their way and helps them find their way back – and God rejoices over every single one who turns around and comes home. Our reading from 1 Timothy echoes this about Christ. Paul writes, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.” And Paul rejoices that, even though he was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” that he still received mercy; Christ judged him to be faithful and called him into his service, even though he had done nothing to deserve it.
Jesus talks about repentance with these parables that he shares in our gospel reading – but, interestingly, if you look more closely at the stories themselves, there actually isn’t a whole lot of repentance happening. If you’ve ever spent much time with sheep, you know they aren’t the brightest creatures; they don’t exactly have the mental capacity to understand something like repentance – and coins don’t have any mental capacity at all! There is nothing at all that these lost things do to make the shepherd or the woman rejoice, except be found. We don’t even know how they got lost in the first place. The focus of these stories is all on the finder’s persistence and joy in being reunited with what they’ve lost
There’s actually a third story that takes up the rest of this chapter of Luke: the story of the prodigal son. This story is almost always read through the lens of repentance, especially the actions of the two sons. But when you read the prodigal son in the context of these two parables, it becomes clear that it’s basically the same story. It’s not about either of the sons; it’s about their loving father.
The way that the prodigal son and his resentful brother behave just further underlines the meaning of the stories of the sheep and the coin. While the sheep and the coin are both neutral in their actions, passive participants in their finding, the brothers are both actively fairly terrible people. And yet, their father reaches out to both of them with unfailing love. And he greatly rejoices whenever they return. All three of these stories are stories about love that is persistent and searching and rejoicing and absolutely unconditional. They are stories about God’s love.
It’s actually kind of funny if you kind of zoom back out to take in this chapter as a whole, this whole scene of Jesus telling these stories. Go back to the start of the reading – why did Jesus start telling these stories in the first place?
The scribes and the Pharisees were complaining about him eating with tax collectors and sinners. These religious insiders very much fit the mold of the older brother from the prodigal son story. They are critical of Jesus for spending his time and his friendship with people that they considered – like the prodigal son – to be lost, unworthy.
But through these stories, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes God’s care for the lost and God’s joy in their return, whatever the circumstances. It’s an unwelcome teaching for the scribes and Pharisees to swallow. They are accustomed to a righteousness that comes through religious devotion and following the law. Since they have worked so hard to try to earn their own salvation, they feel resentful of others who receive grace without having done the same. (It’s actually kind of reminiscent of the current debate about student loan forgiveness.)
Ironically, we see in their hard-hearted attitudes that the Pharisees and scribes are actually pretty lost themselves, even though they don’t see it that way. And these stories about God rejoicing in what (and whom) was lost are actually really good news for them too. God’s grace is for them too, and God waits just as eagerly to rejoice over them when they finally turn their hearts back to God.
You have to wonder why they would resist something as amazing as God’s grace – but then we inevitably have to turn that question back upon ourselves and wonder why we so often resist the goodness of God’s grace.
Especially in a society that believes you have to earn your due and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it’s hard to let go of the idea that grace and salvation must be earned. As religious insiders ourselves, we can be tempted to think that our good behavior and faithful giving can somehow earn us points with God. But it doesn’t.
It is hard and humbling to admit that we need God’s grace – that we simply can’t keep our feet on the path of discipleship or find the way to eternal life on our own.
And it’s even harder to accept that we are no more deserving – or receiving – of God’s grace and love than anyone else. However devout we may be, we receive the same measure of grace as our neighbor – including the ones we see as lost or sinful or undeserving. It offends our sense of fairness that God’s grace is equally for all.
But despite all this, the good news is still good – for scribes and Pharisees, for sinners and tax collectors, and for all of us. Whether our hearts have hardened a bit against those who are lost, or we are the ones who feel a bit lost ourselves – or all of the above! – Christ doesn’t stop seeking us out until he finds us. He welcomes us and eats with us. He calls us into his service. And he loves us with love that is persistent, joyful, unconditional, and unending