In today’s gospel reading we hear two of the three parables of joy, so called because of the rejoicing that occurs when what was lost is found, be it a sheep, a coin, or the prodigal son, who appears in the third parable (which immediately follows in Luke’s gospel from the two we just heard). Although we may be inured to their shock value, these stories tell us something truly remarkable about how Jesus understands God, and they are designed to startle and even offend the religious authorities of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees and scribes grumble because Jesus associates with the riff raff by eating with sinners. And in response Jesus makes clear how God operates.
He tells his listeners that God does not sit back in the heavens, removed from humanity, waiting for us to earn enough favor to be admitted to a highly exclusive club. Instead, according to these parables, remarkably, it is God who seeks us out. The almighty creator of the universe actually pursues us. Just as a shepherd would search, desperately perhaps, for a lost sheep, so too, God urgently chases after those who have sinned. And, when the sinner is finally found, when he or she turns back to the God who has been yearning for reunion, the heavens will rejoice.
I sometimes worry that we are blunted to the edginess of this parable by the culture in which we live. In a society that is built around serving the consumer, regardless of how unusual his or her requests might be, I worry that we think that God should also come made-to-order. The initial surprise at the idea that the author of all creation would take the trouble to seek us out has, to some, become an expectation that God will be whatever we need God to be. The profound, undeserved mercy God shows in these stories becomes a “pass” to which we feel entitled. I don’t need to worry about being judged, because my butler God will clean up all the messiness of my life for me. What was meant to elicit overwhelming gratitude has instead become a cheap grace that we think we deserve.
Of course, others, in hearing these parables, think that they have been holding up their end of the bargain quite well. They have been meticulous, even, in fulfilling the various obligations God has set before them. I have done all that you asked of me, God, now, have I earned your grace? Some of these people, when it comes to those who don’t meet the standards to which they adhere, want consequences for bad behavior. They want those who turn away from God to receive their reward. They want grace to be something that is deserved. To allow God to give God’s grace freely, without cause, as God sees fit, makes grace unfair.
As many of you know, I teach theology at the University of St. Thomas, and when I discuss this material with my students I try to convey the implications of these parables in the following way: I ask my students to imagine me telling them that everyone in the class will receive an A, regardless of their actual performance in the course. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I sometimes think I see the top students in the room looking begrudgingly out of the corner of their eye at their classmates. And I once had a student openly admit, right then and there, to me and everyone else, if that were so he would never come to class.
Indeed, some may wonder, if this is how God operates, if God pursues us regardless of how badly we have strayed, then what should we do in our lives of faith? If relationship with God is not about exerting effort to seek God out, but instead simply about being found by God who yearns for us, then what do we do? It would seem that there are no requirements for the life of faith. If God seeks out those who are lost, why be a good, obedient sheep?
I have a thought. It has been shown to me by many of you, especially our youth. You see, on Wednesday evening we had our first meeting of the year as a Rite-13 group. The other adult volunteers and I spoke with our junior highers about their hopes for the year to come. They said then, as they have said many times in the past, that they want to seek out those who are lost. Mind you, they did not use those exact words, but they spoke of their desire to volunteer at project home, and they spoke of wanting to feed those who are hungry. Completely unprompted, they demonstrated a desire to search out and serve those who need to know God’s presence. Even within our group, I have seen them welcome those who were, if not lost, at least hoping to be found. I have seen newcomers embraced with extraordinary genuineness and warmth.
Now, I don’t want to give you too rosy a picture here. Our gatherings are chaotic, to put it mildly. And I think we could power a small city if we could figure out a way to harness the energy given off by these young people. But what comes through to me again and again is how genuine they are. You know where you stand, and they mean what they say. And if you are welcomed, you can rest assured that it is real.
We have servant’s hearts among us, right here in our church. I have spoken about the junior high youth because I am most familiar with them, but there are many others among us who search for those who are lost. A number of members of our congregation seem to know that the thing to do in response to a God who seeks out the lost is to imitate that God by doing the same thing ourselves.
Who do we know who is lost, both here in our congregation and beyond these walls? What stops us from seeking those people out? Serving God in this way is not one more item on the long to-do list that many of us carry through our days. It comes from a place, not of fulfilling obligations, but of grateful response to God. God has given us reward far beyond what we deserve. We should rejoice, as God rejoices when we are found. And it is out of that joy, not a grim doing one’s duty, that we should seek out the lost.
You see, it’s dangerous to hang out with junior highers, and others who want to seek out the lost. Their generosity can be contagious. Next thing you know, you just might find yourself, humbled by their example, wanting to do God’s work in the world. May it be so for all of us.