Appropriately, our gospel reading for this morning is also about new beginnings. But as is often the case, it takes a running start to get there.
The first thing we can see in our gospel reading is that Jesus was not very discriminating in the company he kept. Tax collectors and sinners went to hear Jesus preach. That would have been OK if Jesus had been a little more like John the Baptizer, if Jesus had condemned the sinners for their sin and demanded that they repent. But Jesus does not do that. Jesus actually welcomed the sinners. Worse yet, Jesus accepted their hospitality in return. Jesus even ate with them, as if they were fit company for a righteous man to keep. Jesus’ contemporaries were outraged.
Here at Saint David’s, I am happy to say, we are with Jesus. We aim to welcome everybody. We welcome the saints, of course. We also welcome the sinners. Most people, including most of us, are a mixture, a little bit saint and a little bit sinner. At Church, we all come together—saints, sinners, and mixed—to worship the God who welcomes us all.
Back to our gospel.
In our passage, Jesus welcomes sinners without qualification. Jesus does not lead with the demand that sinners repent. That was the Baptizer’s way. But Jesus leads with love. Jesus accepts people as they are, warts and all. That was what so outraged the scribes and Pharisees.
But Jesus does not back down. Jesus’ parables make it worse. Jesus’ parables tell us that God actively seeks out sinners wherever they are.
Sinners, Jesus says, are like lost sheep. As a friend of mine, who knows sheep better than I do, once pointed out to me, this is not a flattering comparison. My friend tells me that sheep are stupid, dirty animals who tend to wander and whose grazing is destructive. That is the sinner. That is us.
And yet the shepherd goes to a great deal of trouble to bring back a lost sheep.
It does not matter to a shepherd why the sheep wandered off. The shepherd does not blame the sheep for getting lost. The shepherd just goes looking for the poor, dumb, lost sheep.
The second parable is the same, except that it may be even less flattering to our egos. In this one, Jesus compares sinners to a lost coin. That is worse than being a sheep! A coin cannot do anything except lie there until someone comes along to pick it up.
The woman in the parable cares about all of her coins. So when one is lost, she searches her whole house until she finds the coin, and then she throws a party.
These are parables about God’s love. We are the lost sheep, and Christ is the good shepherd. We are the lost coin, and Christ is the determined woman. Christ will find us, wherever we are. Christ will restore us, no matter what we have done. And heaven rejoices every time.
We see the same pattern in our epistle, which rehearses the story of the Apostle Paul. He was a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence, a foremost sinner. He was lost in his sin and his ignorance.
But Christ went after the great sinner Paul. Christ found Paul in his lost-ness. The grace of our Lord overflowed for Paul with faith and love. Paul received mercy. And there was rejoicing in heaven.
This is good news for all of us. Because, the fact is, we all spend some time being lost. We all wander off. We all get stuck. Sometimes we know it, and feel unworthy of God’s love. Sometimes, like Paul, like a sheep or a coin, we do not even know how lost we are.
And yet God’s love keeps coming, keeps reaching out to us, keeps searching for us, keeps working to brings us back into the fold so that we can experience the heavenly joy over us and over all our brothers and sisters, so that we can celebrate at the divine party over every restored sinner.
Wherever we have been, wherever we are, no matter how lost we have gotten, being lost is not the end of our story. When we are lost, Christ comes for us. That is the good news of Christ’s infinite grace and love, and thank God for it.
Then comes the new beginning. It comes at the end of our gospel reading. The very last word is “repent.” Having been found, having been forgiven, having been restored to God’s love, the sinner repents.
It all starts with God.
Jesus’ parables about sheep and coins emphasize God’s infinite and eternal love for us. Lost sheep and lost coins cannot do anything. They just wait to be found. That is where the parables end.
Paul was lost in his ignorance and unbelief, so lost he could not turn to Christ on his own. Although he did not know it, Paul was waiting to be found. As sinners, we, too, are lost, and we need God to find us.
And God does find us. And God gives us the chance at a new beginning. And then, like Paul (but not a sheep or a coin!), it is our turn to act. We react to the God who has refused to let us go, the God who has come after us, the God who has restored us.
And the beginning of our new beginning is repentance.
Repentance does not sound all that good to many people today. I honestly do not get that. We all know that we have strayed in some way. We all know that we have made some bad choices. We have all done things we ought not to have done, and we have all left undone things we ought to have done. We know that. God knows that. There is no sense in pretending otherwise.
Thankfully, we are told again and again—because we need to keep hearing it—that the God who knows us perfectly also loves us absolutely. We do not have to pretend.
Repentance means not pretending. Repentance means being honest with ourselves and with God. Repentance means admitting to ourselves and confessing to God that we have gotten lost, that we have wandered from the fold, that we do need God’s help to find our way back.
And, having been forgiven, repentance means taking advantage of our chance at a new beginning, trying to do better, trying to stay with the flock, trying to live as the beloved child of God that we are.
Repentance is all about new beginnings, about putting sin behind us, about living in God’s love because God makes it possible.
As we begin our new program year today, we do so with rejoicing. We rejoice that God loves us, that God has found us, that God has restored us. But our gospel reading invites us to more than rejoicing. Our gospel reading invites us to new life as God’s flock.
Accept that invitation. Give thanks to God. Commit to living a little more in God’s love this year. If you do, there will be rejoicing in heaven.
In the name of Jesus Christ, the good shepherd who never abandons his sheep. Amen.