Jun 26th, Unconditional means…, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
Jun 26th: Unconditional means…, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski.
The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 15 begins this way. Now, the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. Remember, in the time of Jesus uses the word sinner did not mean specific behavior that might have been considered immoral. The word sinner referred to people who were considered unclean and unacceptable, people who were not welcomed in the temple. So Luke 15 says, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered this man, jesus welcomes sinners.
He welcomes the unclean and the unacceptable, and he eats with them. A table fellowship. Sharing a meal was a core value for people during the days of Jesus, you actually knew where you stood in society by whether or not you were welcome to sit at the table and share a meal. And those who were considered unclean unacceptable were denied a seat at the table. The religious leaders were offended that Jesus welcomed the outsiders, the unclean, the unacceptable.
He welcomed them to sit with him, to eat with him. The religious leaders were focused on who to exclude, who to keep out. During this month, when we celebrate Pride with our LGBTQ plus siblings, we remember the primary focus of Jesus was to welcome and include, especially those who’ve been excluded. The religious leaders grumbled that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. Instead of getting into a debate about scriptural interpretation or point out how religious rules really often exist to protect power, to preserve the status quo, jesus did what Jesus always did he told a story.
Jesus told him this parable suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the 99 in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when the lost sheep is found, he joyfully puts the sheep on his shoulders and returns home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, rejoice with me. What was lost is now found.
I tell you that in the same way, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who feel they do not need to repent. We need to remember the word repent in the original Greek is not some scary word you see on a billboard along the highway trying to scare you, telling you repent or you’ll be condemned forever. The word repent is actually quite beautiful. It literally means turn or return. So is it possible Jesus is saying, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one person who has been previously excluded, who feels lost because they’ve been told they don’t matter, they’ve been told they don’t belong, who now returns and is welcomed into community, then over 99 self righteous persons who don’t even realize they are the ones who are lost because their hearts are closed.
Now, whenever Jesus told a parable, there was always more than just one meaning. So one focus of the story could very well be on the one who is lost in the celebration that takes place in the heart of God. When someone who is lost returns to a sense of belonging, returns to a sense of understanding themselves as God’s beloved for God, it’s not only important for you to feel welcomed and included, that’s not far enough for God. God desires that your very presence is celebrated. There is something missing without the sheer gift of your presence.
So, yes, the parable is about the one who is lost and a relentless love that searches for the loss until they’re found and celebrates when the lost is found.
But is it possible that this parable is also about the 99? Now remember, Jesus was responding, responding and telling the story, was responding to religious leaders who were complaining, who Jesus welcomed and included. So is it possible that Jesus was also suggesting to the 99 righteous that there’s something missing for them as a community without the presence of the one that they cannot be whole without the presence of the one who is missing, we are not fully who God intends us to be as a community without the presence of the one who’s been told they don’t belong. And the invitation in the story is not to simply welcome and include, but to celebrate and affirm the gift and the presence of the one who has been lost to us.
Several years ago, when I was a pastor at a church in Adelaide, Australia, a young man named Michael began attending worship. Now, Michael left Adelaide to live in Los Angeles for several years. Michael had AIDS and he was returning home to die. He was really thin and he would always have a blanket around his shoulders because he was constantly cold. He’d sit alone near the back of the church.
And getting to know Michael, I learned that he had been told his whole life that he was an abomination and that God rejected him. As he neared the end of his life, he was desperate, desperate to know that he would be welcomed into God’s heart when he died, I tried to tell him that he was he was already welcomed in God’s heart, that he was already loved just as he was. You know, I knew the congregation really wanted to welcome Michael, but honestly, their fear kept them at a polite in a safe distance and they didn’t really get close to him. My son Jacob, who was two years old at the time, was a much better preacher than I was. Jacob, at two years old, intuitively knew what Michael longed for and needed.
Every Sunday, Jacob would somehow find his way to Michael and he would crawl into his lap and he would let Michael hold him for the entire service. Jesus said, unless you become like a child, you cannot possibly understand the wonders of my love. The unconditional love and acceptance of a two year old really help Michael heal and be found in God’s unconditional love and acceptance before he died.
As I look back as the pastor of the church at that particular time, we welcomed Michael, but we didn’t celebrate him. We didn’t acknowledge that our story wasn’t complete without his story. And I regret that. And on this Sunday that we celebrate pride.
My heart also grieves for the loss of Jack.
Jack was a passionate, creative that’s so funny and caring 16 year old young man who died by suicide.
Jack was rejected by his family and his church because of his sexuality, and he was homeless when he died. I’m heartbroken I’m heartbroken that the world has been robbed of such a beautiful soul. A teenager or anyone else for that matter, knowing that he or she is unconditionally loved. Knowing that he or she is loved just as God made them and that God delights in them, knowing that can be a matter of life and death.
Here’s what I wish I had told Michael. Here’s what I really wish I had a chance to tell Jack. Here’s what I wish to say to all of my siblings in the LGBTQ plus community what I wish to say to anyone who feels rejected, anyone who’s told in some way that you don’t belong, I am so glad you are here. You are a gift from God. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
You are loved beyond anything you can imagine. No amount of hate, fear, judgment can change that or take that from you. You are not broken or flawed or need to be fixed or converted.
You are not less than. You are a person of immense worth and value.
You are beautiful.
You are not only good enough, you are God enough as you are created in the image of God’s own goodness.
As a pastor, I grieve and apologize for the ways the church may have rejected, judged and excluded you. The way the church may have treated you in no way reflects the unconditional love of God revealed in Jesus. That includes affirms, celebrates, delights in you.
And this affirmation from this pastor does not reflect your need to hear these words for you to be whole.
It reflects my need to say these words for me to be whole. My story, our story, is really not complete without your story.
You are blessed. You are blessed because you came from love. You are made by love. You are blessed because you love, not because you have any church or church leaders, permission or validation to love who you love.
It is love and only love that makes the church valid.
You do not need me to affirm and recognize the fullness of your humanity for it to be so.
I actually need to welcome, affirm, and celebrate the beauty of your full humanity for me to be whole and to be who God created me to be. Just as the 99 and the story Jesus told was incomplete, without the one we as the church called to be a reflection of the goodness, hospitality and love of Jesus.
We will only be whole with you as a part of us.
That’s what I wish I would have told Michael, what I wish I could have told Jack, and what I wish to say to all of my LGBTQ plus siblings and to anyone who does not feel welcomed and wanted.
I want to finish with this wild story in the book of Acts, Chapters 1011, where Peter has this vision, this vision from God to eat the food he’d been taught his entire life, been taught by his faith, was forbidden to eat. The rules of what was unclean and unacceptable were so deeply ingrained in Peter that he first told God, no, I can’t eat that. And God replied in Acts Eleven Nine, when God has made clean, you must not call profane. And Peter realized that his dream was not about food at all. It was about people.
And Peter was told by God to go to the house of Cornelius and share the love of Jesus. And when he arrived, the house was filled with gentiles, the unclean. These were the very people Peter had been taught to judge, to fear, to hate, to cross the other side of the road, to avoid, because they were different. And in Acts 1034, Peter said something absolutely amazing. He said, I now understand that God shows no partiality.
That simple yet profound truth was contrary to everything that Peter had been taught. He now understood that God’s love is unconditional and that God shows no partiality. If our theology is threatened by the affirmation and inclusion of others, our theology is about fear, not love, not the unconditional love of God revealed to Jesus. God takes our boundaries. God takes our stereotypes.
God takes our rules. God takes our fears and judgment. God takes all of that and says, no, my love is unconditional. Your limits, your litmus tests for who gets in, who’s kept out your fears, none of that, God says, limits the reach of my love. I embrace whom I embrace.
And guess what? God says I have really long arms.
Peter came face to face with those really long divine arms. His heart expanded. His eyes were opened wider. He started to see the limits of his limits, and he began to see and understand the wideness of God’s mercy. He began to understand that unconditional actually means without conditions.
And Peter asked this important, life changing question in Acts 1117 who am I to hinder God?
That’s the question I invite us to ask this morning.
Who are we to hinder God? Who are we to peace conditions on the unconditional love of God revealed in Jesus? Who are we to declare unacceptable what God declares beautiful and good? Who are we to keep outside those, like all of us, starving, to know they are loved just because we fear their difference? When Jesus says, Come inside, there’s a seat for you at my table.
You’re always welcome at my table, just as you are. We might ask, who are we to hinder God? But ultimately, God’s love can never be hindered. Love will always win. A better question to ask how are we hindering ourselves from being fully who God calls us to be when we fail to love one another as God loves us?