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Welcome, Not Worthiness

A sermon on Luke 15:1-10

[an audio recording of this sermon can be accessed here]

I want to tell you a story about a God moment I had this week.It happened on Tuesday morning. I had stopped into one of my favorite coffee shops to get a latte before heading off to my pastor’s Bible study on this week’s readings.

I had a few minutes before I had to get on the road, so I had brought in a commentary on Luke to read up on today’s gospel text.

My normal routine is to get my coffee, and then find myself a nice, quiet table in a corner to sip and study in introverted peace. But for some reason – looking back I think it was probably the nudging of God’s Spirit – I sat down at the end of the bar instead.

My barrista was a friendly, quirky young woman with a sparkle about her… let’s call her Stella. Stella noticed the way I was carefully taking notes on my book, and she asked what I was reading … actually, she used slightly more colorful language in remarking on the attention I was giving to my book, and I had a moment’s anxiety: Is she going to do that embarrassed, half-step back reaction when I tell her “I’m a pastor, and I’m reading a Bible commentary as part of my sermon preparation,” and she realizes that she just casually swore in front of me?

I took a breath, I told her, and immediately followed it up with “and don’t worry about the language – I know sometimes people feel weird about swearing when they find out I’m a pastor, but I’m not fussed about it.” We both laughed, and she said “no worries,” and then the God thing happened:

She just started telling me her story:

She shared about growing up in a religious cult, and how the trauma of a religious heritage that was all about control, and shame, has made organized religion inaccessible to her, but how she still seeks the presence of the Divine in her life.

And she told me how she wants a fully reconciled relationship with the mother who is still controlled by that judgmental, coercive view of God… but she doesn’t know how to do that, because her identity as a Queer woman is something her mom will not accept.

And then she shared the deep pain of that rejection contrasted with the way her younger brother has been shown forgiveness:

In Stella’s words, her brother has been a total screw-up: trouble with money, unable to hold down a job, jumping from state to state when his life inevitably falls apart, and fathering several children with a woman he abandoned in one of those moves.

But now he’s back, and he’s decided to marry the mother of his children… so all is forgiven by their mother. The last time Stella talked with her mom, her mom was gushing all about the grandbabies, and Stella experienced her mother’s joy like a stab in the gut, because she knew it was a joy that excluded her…

She told me: “I’ve been responsible with my life. I’ve made good decisions. But I know, that if my partner and I decide to have a baby, my Mom wouldn’t accept it, because she can’t accept our relationship.”

I feel deeply privileged to have gotten to sit and listen to Stella’s story… to be trusted with the sacredness of her longings, and her pains, and her honesty about how hard it is to join in another’s rejoicing if we don’t believe that we are welcomed to the party too. As I drove to my Bible study that morning, after telling Stella how glad I was to get to meet her, I felt like I’d been given a gift… two actually.

The first gift was Stella’s vulnerability. It is a priceless thing to be invited into someone else’s soul – with all its messiness and complications and truth. It’s like getting to see a glimpse of the deep image of God we each carry around inside of us, but too often cover up with polite pleasantries, and the fiction of “I’m fine.”

The second gift was a light of revelation on today’s gospel story. Because I couldn’t help but see a parallel between Stella’s brother and the sinners gathering close to Jesus. Jesus was welcoming the screw-ups. The ones who had made mistakes they couldn’t really fix. The people whose lives gave evidence against them about their series of bad decisions. The ones who CLEARLY did not deserve forgiveness.

And, of course, if Stella’s brother is like the sinners, then Stella would be one of the “righteous ones,” the Pharisees and scribes who grumble about Jesus’ open fellowship. She said it herself: “I’m the one who made good decisions…why does the screw-up get the welcome?”

That association between Stella and the grumblers is what opened up this reading for me. Because – in case you couldn’t tell – I really like Stella, and I see the depth of her soul and of her pain… and because of that, I can’t just dismiss her the way that I too often dismiss the Pharisees in gospel stories – as one-dimensional foils for the real message about Jesus’ love and grace.

Stella’s grumbling isn’t shallow, or self-righteous… it’s anguished. It’s a reflection of the broken ways that she has been cut-off from love and affirmation and taught that this deprivation is about worthiness… which makes it shocking and painful when someone else, who is demonstrably unworthy, gets welcomed.

Stella isn’t being petty. She is being honest about the way that a worthiness-based understanding of love makes us all into competitors with each other – anxious to prove ourselves better, more worthy than our neighbor.… And it makes us resentful of welcome offered to others whom we don’t think deserve it, because that doesn’t feel fair.

But, what Jesus understands and is trying to teach us in today’s parables is that the grumbling comes from a misunderstanding about what is going on when he offers welcome… when he offers love and forgiveness.

He’s teaching us that God’s love is NOT a worthiness game.

Think about the thing that is lost in each of the two parables, and especially about how they get found. The sheep and the coin are both utterly passive. They do nothing to facilitate their restoration.

The shepherd goes to find the sheep, and when he finds it, he picks it up and carries it back, rejoicing that HE has found the sheep.

And the woman lights a lamp, and sweeps, and searches carefully, and when she finds the coin, she throws a party because SHE found it.

The language about repentance in the reading can distract us from the details of the parables, but there is no suggestion that the sheep or the coin do anything to EARN the welcome back. It’s NOT a worthiness game.

Jesus is not in the business of worthiness. He’s in the business of restoration…of healing, and welcome, and love. He tells the grumblers that there is more joy in heaven for the one sinner than for the ninety-nine righteous, because he wants to disrupt their desperate desire to see themselves as righteous. He knows that they are operating from the assumption that their worthiness is what will get them welcomed.

But… the reality is, there are no ninety-nine righteous. “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10).

Not even Moses, who dares to argue with God in today's reading from Exodus (32:7-14) – he was a murderer, who made some mistakes even after he was called to lead God’s people to freedom.

And not even Paul, the author of half the New Testament and most important missionary of the early church – but who describes himself in today’s reading as “the foremost of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15)

There is no rejoicing in heaven about the perfection of the “righteous ones” because there are no righteous ones.

But there is still rejoicing. There is still a party. Because God’s ability to welcome – to shower love, and forgiveness on all of us who screw up is NOT about worthiness. It’s about God’s willingness to do whatever it takes to get us back… even if that means dying for us to prove that our sin can't get in the way of God’s love.

Which means, we don’t need to grumble about the welcome shown to others. We don’t need to rank-order worthiness and reassure ourselves of our own goodness. We don’t have to pretend to God, or to others, or even to ourselves that we are always in the right and that we never get lost.

We do get lost, and Jesus is in the business of finding us.

So, wherever we are on our journey of faith, we are most welcome here, to receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love.

Thanks be to God.

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