At some point in my childhood, I was in a church children’s play called, “Wee Like Sheep.” My details on this whole thing are hazy. I couldn’t have been older than seven. I suspect that I had a speaking role, but I don’t remember. I can’t picture myself in the sheep costume, but, weirdly, I can picture my brother dressed like a sheep. I do remember the key song, however. “No matter how baaaaaaaaaaaaaaad we are, the shepherd loves us. No matter how faaaaaaaaaar we roam, he always carries us home.” I can still hear the voices from the learn the song at home cassette clear as day. On the extended “a” sounds in “bad” and “far,” you were supposed to sound like a sheep. Get it? Wee like sheep, so we were all sheep. We made sheep noises to make a theological point. This is perhaps not the highest achievement in Christian art. It’s no Passion of the Christ or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I can tell you though for one probably seven-year-old, it was pretty darn effective.

 I’m probably supposed to say that I first learned about the grace of God in Sunday School or in the Bible, but like so many things in my pockmarked journey of faith, it was these wee sheep and that mildly ridiculous song. That may be hyperbole, but it is my earliest memory of this lesson that there isn’t a limit to God’s grace. The message behind the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin is indeed that what God cares about is bringing home those who have wandered away.

Jesus gets challenged for interacting with those considered sinners. At the time, sinner was a high insult. It meant social rejection in case your uncleanliness rubbed off on decent God-fearing folks. No religious leader ate with sinners. Jesus did so deliberately because he came not to comfort the righteous but to bring home the unrighteous. He didn’t seem to set a limit on this either. He hung out with tax collectors (sinners because they collaborated with Rome and ripped people off), Lepers (sinners because their condition was viewed as unclean), Samaritans (sinners because they historically didn’t worship God in Jerusalem), and at least one woman caught in adultery (sinner because of a fascinatingly poor choice). Jesus forgave the thief there with him on the cross, the ones that put him to death, and the friends that abandoned him in his time of need. The model set by Christ’s earthly life demonstrates the truth of what the sheep sang. No matter how bad, Jesus is there for you. No matter how far, Jesus wants to welcome you home.

These stories of being far from God and finding grace have been the hallmark of the movement unleashed by Christ for the past 2,000 years. Paul, lead author of the New Testament, goes from Christian murderer to outstanding apostle. Peter, The Rock, goes from denying Christ and fleeing to founding leader. In Acts of the Apostles, our friends the apostles convert jailers, Roman soldiers, Pharisees, Ethiopian Eunuchs, all manner of Gentiles, and occasionally themselves.

It's not all just ancient history, either. As a pastor, I’ve had the opportunity to baptize hardened criminals, former drug dealers, and ex-Satanists. My own story of becoming a pastor is deeply ironic given who I was before finding my way into a more serious relationship with Christ. Deep down, most of us recognize our own brokenness, even if we don’t like to admit it out loud. We may be able to put on a squeaky-clean front, but we know the skeletons of our past and the remaining imperfections in our present. Thank God then that Jesus is in the accepting the unrighteous business and not just celebrating the already perfect. It means that there’s hope for us – no matter how bad we are and no matter how far we’ve strayed. Praise the Lord!

We like seeing ourselves as the lost sheep and the lost coin, and we should. It’s a popular hymn topic. Contemporary Worship Music has also picked up the mantle. Turns out an obscure 1990s children’s musical isn’t the only place to sing about lost sheep getting found by a shepherd who will leave the 99 just find you. That is how God works, and it is worth singing about.

I’m reminded, however, that parables often have edges that cut both ways. In Luke 15, Jesus tells these stories not just to encourage the lost, but to challenge the comfortable. Yes, Jesus sits in the presence of the lost, but Jesus directly addresses the Pharisees’ grumbling. This context gives the parable its other cutting edge. This is the Good News that you can get welcomed home now matter way. This is also the Good News that this applies to folks who are way worse than you, who wait way longer than you, or who are generally more detestable than you. Too often, in our history as a faith, we haven’t seen it that way. From the early arguments over circumcision and welcoming Roman soldiers, to the Corinthians’ obsession with sophisticated teachers and speaking in tongues, to any number of times that Christians have turned away those that they felt were the wrong sort of person, we’ve fallen for the Pharisees’ same trap far too often. This is more than just sad and disappointing. It’s theologically troubling.

As soon as grace becomes contingent on being the right sort, it stops being universal. It becomes Christ dying for some instead of all. It cheapens how good our shepherds is. It makes the best news ever just the same as the rest of this judgmental and fallen world. By the standards of this world, some sins are worse than others, but by God’s standards, they’re all equal. So, either all sinners are forgiven, or no sinners are forgiven. God doesn’t differentiate. Everyone can choose to come home, to be picked up onto the shoulders of the shepherd, to be found on the floor, picked up, and cherished. I’m thankful every day for this because if God didn’t, I’m not sure that I would have made the cut.