I had quite a vacation trip. My first stop on my 2100 mile car trip odyssey was Toledo, Ohio. I didn’t have a problem finding my hotel. But the next morning I got lost leaving town. Maps are great; even digital ones. But they aren’t any good if the path isn’t clear. Finding our way in this wonderland of life can be hard with or without a well-marked trail. But before we can be found, we first must accept being lost. It didn’t take me long to admit I couldn’t find my way alone, so I turned on my GPS and soon I found my path.
“Sin” and “sinners;” we cringe when those words come up as if they’re reserved for Bible thumpers or for anybody else other than you and me. I’ve had conversations with church members where I paraphrase the words of Martin Luther, “We’re all sinners saved by God’s overwhelming love.” Too often the other person walks away in a huff. “I’m not a sinner,” they say. “Yes, you are…and so am I.” The sooner we admit that we stray, the sooner we can be found. But to embrace our sin we’ve first got to understand what the word means. The ancient Hebrew notion of sin was like a permanent black mark from God for bad behavior. Back then, if someone was disabled or diseased and was begging on the street the ancients would ask, “Who sinned this man or his parents.” Sin was something unforgivable and God’s punishment was swift and permanent; neat and tidy.
Today, “sin” is a word that’s either tossed around like a life sentence or quickly dismissed as an outdated idea. Both are wrong. Jesus helps us unpack it. Sin, rather than a permanent condition imposed by a vindictive God, is instead a fluid state created by us and can be undone by us. God seeks out the lost in relationship and welcomes anyone wanting to come home.
The criticism of Jesus for welcoming the “permanently outcast and punished” around his dinner table is predictable. The Pharisees and religion scholars scoff, “This Jesus takes in sinners and eats with them, treating them like old friends.” Jesus does what he’ll do time and again. When we point the finger at a behavior or a person or a situation and cry, “Unacceptable” Jesus takes his finger and quietly writes in the sand all our own mistakes, social flaws, and errors in judgment right in front of our faces. (Point to communion table) Jesus uses the table as the ultimate symbol for God’s new relationship. Of all the Gospels, Luke’s has most stories of Jesus teaching around a meal. To invite someone around the table for dinner was the ultimate act of hospitality. In the ancient world sharing food is sharing life, because one meal each day meant survival and sharing such a limited resource was a true act of acceptance and generosity. No wonder we remember Jesus with a meal. And no wonder feeding ministries are so popular for churches today.
Paul in his Letter to Timothy openly admits his shortcomings without shame explaining how God’s generosity helped him forgive himself and get a fresh start. In Jesus all our fits and starts in life are acceptable if we own them. None of us are above this teaching. We’re all sinners…and that’s the Good News. We all lose our focus at one time or another in big and little ways, and in admitting it that’s when we’re found.
Jesus makes this point with a story. “Suppose one of you had 100 sheep and one got lost. Wouldn’t you leave 99 wandering in the wilderness unattended and go after the one that was lost?” Alright, does anyone else see how illogical this question is? Would anyone then or now leave 99 percent of their herd to wander around unattended in wild country while they go off in search of one sheep? No way! But this absurd logic is exactly how valuable we are to God and how valuable we need to be to each other. It’s not whether we have perfect skin, say the right things, or hang out with the right people. In fact, Jesus complains bitterly about people who look and act acceptable, but inside are a neglected mess. The Holy One cares so much about every person, every believer who seeks out God our Creator will walk away from the rest of the flock and put every resource into a “search and rescue operation” to get us safely back into the fold. God’s graceful love defies human logic…and so must ours if we want to share in the Holy Ones joy. Like a woman who loses a coin and turns her house upside down; God will never tire of searching for us, never. But we excel at playing hide and seek.
This summer God has come seeking Lake Edge. We’ve been wandering for some time; trying to find our way back to God’s sheepfold. Our Shepherd’s ever ready to scoop us up and rejoice. Together with our Leadership Council and I have heard the call and we believe the path leads us across the street to establish a new weekend nutrition program with Frank Allis Elementary School; its principal, staff, parents, and this neighborhood along with ecumenical church partners. It’s an exciting opportunity and a return to the historic relationship with our neighborhood elementary school. (Point to communion table) This ministry at Frank Allis is an extension of this meal; a connection to a generous God who invites us to table so we remember what sharing a meal truly means. It’s experiencing God’s joy found here, and taking it outside the safety of our property line in generosity to others.
Sin isn’t a death sentence or a black mark on our good name or something we should deny. It’s an invitation; an invitation to spiritual discovery and renewal in the faith. Each and every one of us is intensely valuable to our Still Speaking God, and it’s time we were found.