We continue our journey through Lent- that season of the Church Year in which Garrison Keillor says Lutherans dwell perpetually- focusing on sin and guilt…

And yet, here at Bethlehem, as we continue through Luke’s Gospel, we are working on the “Salvation Project:” the incredible, wonderful fact that God loves you, wants to be relationship with you, accepts you- wants you to be with him always- forever- before you can ever do anything to earn it. And we have seen that this salvation is not only for the hereafter, it’s for the here and now: Jesus brings salvation to us- and to our world now!

Does this mean we are skipping Lent? Not at all- in fact, we would argue that we are recovering Lent- and putting the focus on where it originally was: Lent was originally a time for preparation for baptism.

Adults preparing for baptism would discover that in the Water and the Words of Baptism, they- and you and I- were made God’s children- not because of anything they- or you or me- had done, but because of God’s overwhelming love- God’s overwhelming grace- made real in the person of Jesus Christ- God become a human being…

This is an incredible thing: you are accepted by God, because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And if God accepts you- if God calls you his beloved child, as God did Jesus when he was baptized in the Jordan by John- that means you have real value- ultimate value- that comes not from what you have- or what you do- but because you belong to God, and always will…

Very simple, but very difficult- because it flies in the face of almost everything we know- and almost everything we experience. We are taught over and over that our value is in what we do- how/what we produce, how we behave… We are taught (and rightfully so, in many ways) that there are consequences to bad behavior, and there should be…

We are taught early and often about “fairness,” and “justice,” two very valuable and key concepts, which help order our world- but both of which fly in the face of the notion of grace- unconditional love- unconditional acceptance…

It is only natural then, that from the very beginning, human beings have done our best to order our relationship with God in the same way: what we do determines how God reacts to us- whether or not God will accept us…

And it is especially appealing, too- because then those of us who are (reasonably) good in our behavior can use the others who aren’t to show ourselves- and God- just how much better we are…

But if we are going to take our Bibles seriously- if we truly believe the Bible to be God’s Word to and for us, it doesn’t work!

It’s a theme that runs through the Scriptures. There is no justice or fairness at all in God choosing the conniving Jacob over the dutiful Esau as the one through whom God’s promise will continue… Or a runty shepherd boy, David, to be Israel’s king… Why bestow enormous wisdom on Solomon, the second child of David’s adulterous liaison with Bathsheba…

And when Jesus arrives on the scene, this grace simply explodes (and drives both the people of Jesus’ day- and ours- just wild…”)

Jesus’ parables simply fly in the face of fairness- of justice…and we have three wonderful ones this morning. The Pharisees and Scribes are complaining about who Jesus is spending time with- tax collectors and sinners, and so he tells them three stories.

First, the Lost Sheep. You’ve heard me say before over the years, that no shepherd would leave the 99 and go looking for the one lost… Why endanger an entire flock of sheep- who can make new sheep- to search for the one? But our Shepherd does. And he gathers the sheep in his arms without condition- without asking why it was lost, or whether it would behave better next time, and brings it home.

Second, the Lost Coin- this is a story about the joy in finding… The woman lost one silver coin, and she spends hours searching for it- the time spent is worth more than the coin itself! And when she finds it, she throws a party for her friends- again, spending more than the value of the coin! THAT’S how much God wants to find each lost one; THAT’S how angels celebrate when one who was lost is found…

And then the Lost Son- clearly, the younger son is a lost soul from the start, asking his father to give him his share of the inheritance while his dad was still living… Then he spends it all in “dissolute living…” He wastes every bit of it… And of course, there is a famine, he’s in need- in fact, he’s starving. He winds up feeding pigs, (horrible, but he deserves it!), and decides to go home.

As angry as his father will be, the boy doesn’t believe he’ll let him starve. He rehearses his speech: “Father…” And heads for home. Now I want you to notice these things: First, his father is looking for him, waiting for him! Second, even before he arrives, his father has forgiven him. And then, when he begins his speech, Luke tells us, “but the father said…”

His Father doesn’t hear the confession. He just so thrilled the son is home, he orders the slaughter of the fatted calf, a robe, and a ring…

And in the second half of the parable, the good and dutiful elder brother, the one who stayed home and worked while his little brother wasted his father’s money in loose living, most of Jesus’ listeners- and maybe even WE are appalled by grace shown to the younger brother- outraged by the thought of God’s love for all- horrified that God would accept someone we don’t believe is worthy the same as we would expect God to accept us… (Big brother won’t even acknowledge his brother- “This son of yours…”)

And then we wind up, like so many of those in Jesus’ day, unable to see the dangers of “salvation by laundry list.” (Look at all I’ve done over the years, Big Brother complains…) What if your list isn’t long enough? What’s enough? What if mine’s better?

Finally, so consumed, so guarded about what we’ve done and what someone else has failed to do, we can become unable to see God’s grace- God’s love, forgiveness, offered in the person of Jesus Christ…

(There was a preacher who once paraphrased the end of the Prodigal Son by having the Father kill the fatted calf for the good elder brother. A woman yelled from the back “That’s how it should have ended in the first place!)

Jesus’ ministry was as grace-filled and annoying as his parables! He accepted- selected a tax collector named Matthew as a disciple. He ate, drank and lived with other sinners- including prostitutes…

Jesus accepted the thief next to him on the cross; he forgave his executioners. His love, grace, and forgiveness was there for his disciples who ran away- or who doubted that he rose from the dead

His Spirit was there for St. Paul as he battled other Christians in their efforts to establish a “laundry list theology” first do x, y, and z and you can be a Christian and God will accept you. “NO!” cried, Paul! “Christ’s grace is sufficient- nothing more!” And the church grew…

Perpetual problem and appealing thought: we establish what is acceptable to God and then do it. The Reformation began over the same question: was it grace or good works…

Today we face the same issue: None of the pastors at Bethlehem will ever tell you what you must DO to gain God’s acceptance. But all of us will say again and again, “Here are you are accepted- regardless of who you are- what you have done. Here you will know the love of Jesus, and he will change your life! Soak in his grace; live in it with us!

That’s what the church should be- that’s what the church is called to proclaim- to each and every person- including- or especially- the outcast- those who are thought “unworthy”- or have perhaps demonstrated themselves to be…

Brothers and sisters- that Grace that has been offered to each and every one of us. This week, starting right now, I want you to look for signs of the grace that surrounds you. You can begin with the people around you- with your brothers and sisters right here. You can continue as you come forward and receive Jesus’ Body and Blood, offered for you- because Jesus loves you- as we gather to share in His Holy Supper…

Then, as you leave- and throughout the week, be alert to God’s Grace- God’s salvation- you will see it in the most unlikely places. Most important of all- look for ways where you can be that grace for others- showing the people around you a sign of God’s presence… A kind word- a gentle touch- an unexpected favor offered to them, and the same Grace that brought you to God’s love will begin working on- and for them…in Jesus’ Name, Amen.