Based on Luke 15: 1-10
Both my mother and my father have a horrible sense of direction. So it isn’t shocking that I inherited this trait. A few weeks ago, I conceded that my best bet at going in the right direction was to go in the opposite direction that I thought I should go. For whatever reason, my brain predictably encourages me to turn in the wrong direction only to have my GPS turn me back around.
In seminary, I remember feeling absolutely thrilled to learn that the repentance could be interpreted as the act of turning around. This paired with an interpretation of sin as “missing the mark” seemed to draw a flexible and applicable structure to a faith that oftentimes felt unattainable at best and irrelevant at worst.
Prior to and during seminary, Biblical study seemed centered on the determination of a right reading which would dictate God’s desirable behavior for our lives. Sure, loving God and our neighbors was a theme, but connecting those lines into the context of a complex world seemed to be a road I was never able to turn down.
I know that I am not alone in my desire to “get it right for God.” Falling in love, being in relationship naturally leads to a desire to understand and respond in a way that positively affirms this understanding. As people of faith committed to being in relationship with God, how we understand God at any given moment in our lives can, for better or worse, define our engagement with the world around us. As created beings of an omnipotent creator, we wrestle to mold some sensical and tangible image of a God we might mirror in the actions making up our lives.
If we believe that God only permits entry into heaven for those who have checked the boxes of an admissions recipe, then it would be a loving act to relentlessly work to persuade others to commit themselves to God in a similar way. If we, on the other hand, believe God expands beyond the boundaries of religion and extends mercy equally upon all, the urgency of arriving to mutual understanding is loosened. There are various versions of love depending on the God you seek to mirror.
I am pretty sure this is where Jesus came into play. A show and tell lesson to those of us who were so turned around we weren’t sure which way to go. The parables like PhD level puppet shows for the morally inept. A similar lesson in a different scene told over and over and then repeated in four different ways. Each story in each scene in every version offering a concrete glimpse into what it might look like to love God and your neighbor.
What intrigues me about our bible story this morning is the expansive net cast to catch people designated as sinners. For the Pharisees, the designation of sinners included those who broke moral laws as well as those who rejected the ritual purity practiced by the Pharisees. Sinners weren’t only those who embezzled money or stole the lands of indigenous tribes, but they were the people serving communion to dogs and worshipping God our under a tent. And while my own Pharisaic self would like to rest assured that Jesus would prefer one version of sin over the other, the message is clear that to him we are all the same. Whether we are talking about the righteousness of the religious or the criminality of the crook, Jesus comes to demonstrate that we have all lost our way.
“Typically,” the commentary states, “we want mercy for ourselves and justice for others. But the Lukan parables call for us to celebrate with God because God has been merciful not only to us but to others also, even to those we would not otherwise have accepted into our fellowship.”
I think losing our way today looks the same as it did these many centuries ago. Our desire to end God’s love leads us down a dead-end road in our ability to love the all of creation in the world around us. These limitations in our ability to love, in our ability to include, are signals that we have missed the mark and that it is time to turn around. To back ourselves out of the corners of our behaviors and relearn how the ways in which we love may have been closing us off to the people Jesus just invited to the table.
As a self-defined “liberal” Christian I tend to overestimate my willingness and ability to love all people. It is wishful thinking, ignorant of the limits of my own embodiment. For just as loving God requires the presence of an evolving relationship, so too do our relationships with the other creatures God has birthed into this world. The invitation of this story is an inventory of the name cards on our communal table. An invitation to notice that when the seats run out, when the dead-end arrives, it may be time to turn around and create space in the form of a new direction.