There are many stories in the Bible about the joy in heaven when
one sinner repents. And they elevate the sinner who repents to a
place of honor or great value, like a lost coin. They also usually
place the sinner in the context of righteous folks who are resentful
that the repentant one moves to the head of the line so easily in
God’s eyes. In his ministry on earth, Jesus also made a point
to associate with sinners and to show them great compassion for
their repentance. It wasn’t that they were always following
him around; it was as if he were actively looking for them. And
this annoyed the righteous ones.
What are we to make of those stories? As an anthropologist who is
interested in how people make sense of religious teachings and apply
them to their lives, I have always been interested in other people’s
beliefs and practices, mostly their practices. While I try to be
objective and unbiased in how I think about other religious expressions,
I have to admit that I learn a lot from other people that I apply
to my own thinking and feeling about religion. For example, this
idea of who is the one sinner; now that is something to think about.
In a lot of old German Lutheran communities back in Iowa, folks
always thought about that one sinner as the worst person they knew.
And they went to church to be taught not to be so judgmental of
others and to let God be God. Last I heard they were still meddling
in God’s business.
But that’s not how it was at Bethel Lutheran Church in the
inner city of Los Angeles where I was a member while a student at
UCLA. It is a very ethnically mixed congregation that had been founded
by immigrant Swedes. But little by little, it came to be an African
American congregation with a few Asian and Hispanic immigrant newcomers.
I just loved the people there. We had a very lively and inclusive
worship experience on Sunday morning. We sang out of several interdenominational
hymn books and the choir was led by a young Swedish woman from Minnesota
who was very inspired by Gospel music. I was a member of that choir,
the only one I’ve every joined.
Our congregation was small. We didn’t have ninety-nine righteous
people. What we had was about a hundred sinners. We were there because
Jesus invited us to come and sit at the table with him and other
sinners. It wasn’t just what we believed; it was what we practiced
there. It seemed to me like all the music we sang somehow reinforced
the belief that each of us was the repentant sinner who brought
joy to heaven and we praised God for welcoming us home. As I read
the Gospel lesson today, I remembered singing, “It’s
me, it’s me, it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of
prayer. It’s not my brother, or my sister, but it’s
me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” No, it’s
not about Joe the plumber or Bob the mechanic, or Cindy Lou at the
corner bar. It’s about me, O Lord. I am that sinner Jesus
calls to repentance. But then, aren’t we all?