Luke 15.1-2, 11-32 (Proper 11)*
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
I would guess that most, if not all, of us have had the experience of receiving a genuine and effusive compliment only to turn it aside, deflect it. This is a learned skill that adults have and goes something like this: “Oh, this dress, this shirt…“It’s a hand-me-down” or “It’s so old.” Or “You liked the meal? Sorry, I burnt the edges of the roast.” Or “The vegetables were a little soggy.” Or when we have done something helpful action. (shrug) “It was really nothing…not that hard.” Or when someone really appreciates your musical performance or your good work on a project, or the completions of a housekeeping task at home…..etc, etc, etc. you say, “It was really nothing.”
What’s up with this? Our propensity for deflecting compliments? Have you ever practiced looking the person complimenting you in the eye and really letting it soak into your soul and nurture you by simply saying, “Thank You.” If we can’t receive something as hopefully daily and routine as a compliment, can we receive the grace and compassion of God?
It’s a peculiar thing about humans. We would rather dwell on the have nots of life, out of fear and an attitude of scarcity, than on the gifts and abundance of life. We are often afraid to trust compassion and grace. We are often afraid to trust.
The late Dr. Fred Craddock, New Testament scholar and preacher extraordinaire, wrote: “Easily the most familiar of all Jesus’ parables, this story [our scripture today, the one we just heard] has been embraced by many persons who have not felt the full impact of the offence of grace that it dramatically conveys. The focus of the parable is the father: ‘There was a man who had two sons,” but it is most often called the parable of the prodigal son.” [Craddock, Fred B., Luke, Interpretation Series, (John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 186).]
Craddock goes on to point out that historically much of the preaching of the church on the three parables in the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel focuses on the negative….the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. Yet each of the parables ends with rejoicing and celebration and forgiveness. Why do we as human beings overlook the extravagant gift of grace in these stories? Why is this grace so offensive, perhaps, embarrassing, to us that we focus on the conditions the gospel describes of being fallen, out of sync, lost, rather than on the gospel’s message itself – God’s good news of grace, compassion and forgiveness delivered through Jesus? Have we so little compassion for ourselves and others? So little trust in the Holy Compassionate One in whom we live and breathe and have our being?
This week at Plymouth we started Compassion Camp, an intergenerational, online and in-home exploration of compassion. Compassion means “to suffer with, to feel with.” Not to feel sorry for in patronizing pity. But to feel along with another person, usually in a time of pain and sorrow, rather than try and fix the situation or the person in order to avoid the pain. To simply feel with, suffer with…and perhaps, also to be in joy with for joy and sorrow can be two sides of an experience. Each week of Compassion Camp there is a theme exploring how we experience compassion, with our neighbors, with our selves, with our world. I hope you will participate with as many of the online offerings and in-home crafts, prayers, and ponderings as you can.
Since Monday during this first week of Compassion Camp we have been pondering the extravagant welcome of God, the Compassionate One that is always extended to us, always inviting us to gather at the table God’s abundance no matter what life is throwing at us. This is the compassion and welcome extended by the father in our story to both of his sons – to the one son who can only learn by experiencing and making every mistake in the book, even to the point of starving to death and to the other son who thinks he can learn it all by following every rule and getting a pin for perfect attendance. Which sibling do you tend to be? I have been them both at different times in my life.
Jesus shares with us in metaphor in the abundantly loving father figure we experience in his story. This character tells us something about the Divine Father or Mother, the loving Parent/Creator/Friend and Guide, who is ALWAYS welcoming us home. As well as, ALWAYS giving us the freedom to experience life as we choose. We can choose to be prodigal, wasteful and extravagant in our consumption and acquisition of what we think will make us successful, will make us feel good. Prodigal in these ways to the point of self-loathing and self-destruction. We can choose to be prodigal, extravagantly wasteful of love and relationships through rigid rule-following, holding our cards too close to our chests so to speak and refusing intimacy in relationships, by holding attitudes of judgment that cut us off from compassion for ourselves and others, even as it looks as if we are successful and right-living.
Most of us find ourselves somewhere in between these two extremes. Wherever we are on the spectrum the Compassionate One is patiently waiting for us to come home, to welcome us around the table of abundance and celebration and joy, no matter what wounds we may bring with us. This is the third choice. We can choose to live the experiences, the mistakes and successes, of our lives in relationship around God’s table of community. There our wounds are not instantly healed in a pie-in-the-sky instant fix. What we do find is the gift of this “offensive” extravagance of grace, as Dr. Craddock put it so shockingly. The prodigality, if you will, of God’s grace and compassion. The cups of grace at God’s table are running over. Grace is spilling over “wastefully” in joy and celebration, in forgiveness and love that nurtures all who willing to sit at God’s table of compassion. You see, my friends, the God revealed in Jesus the Christ is the ultimate manifestation of compassion. God feels with our suffering, sits in midst of our suffering with us, walks with us in relationship toward healing as we gather around Love’s beloved community table.
So who in Jesus’ story, do you think, is really the prodigal, the extravagantly wasteful one? Is this story about the mistakes of sons or the overly abundant generosity and compassion of a father?
As we ponder our responses, the situations of our lives, our family relationships, friend relationships, no doubt come to mind. Our relationships with our own selves, our own souls. The communal situation of our country comes to mind. Our continual confrontation with this virus, Covid-19. The terror of its virulence and tenacity, the conflicts over how to handle it. The economic travesties in its wake. The virulently renewed and in-our-face confrontation with racism and its centuries old devastation of God’s ultimate vision of the wholeness of human beings and their communities comes to mind. How do we walk in compassion, with true compassion, discovering God’s welcome in all the situations of our lives? How does Jesus’ story and its profoundly moving metaphors translate to boots-on-the-ground living in 21st century America here in our communities, our families, our schools and workplaces in Northern Colorado?
I wish I knew all the answers to my own questions. All these “hows.” But then I would be sitting at that welcome table all by myself, pretending I was God. And I’d be pretty lonely because I wouldn’t even be letting God in and it’s Her table to begin with. I’d need to hear Jesus’ story again!
The answers, the “hows” to compassionate living in this world are in the community around the table. In the community where all people are invited to share in the spilling over grace of God. Where all voices must be heard so wounds can be healed. Where all fears must be laid on the table, all angers, all hates that mask the fears. It is a safe table for vulnerability and confession. It’s a table where compassion is the power behind the listening. It’s a table where listening is the compassionate catalyst to change and transformation.
Beloved Community of Plymouth, we are the compassionate welcome table of God’s grace. That’s a great definition for church, don’t you think? We could change our name to Plymouth Welcome Table. We are being called, even in this physically distant state of things that we are in, to be connected through listening to the patient, grace-filled invitation of God to learn compassion for ourselves, for one another and for God’s beautiful and hurting creation, God’s beautiful and hurting family of human beings. How will you listen for the compassion of God as part of the Plymouth Welcome Table?
Your first opportunity is to join in the activities of Compassion Camp! We have four more weeks dedicated to exploring compassion. What a gift!
The Compassionate One is calling us home to sit at the table together. Coming to this table of compassion and grace may be a huge relief, it may feel at first like the hardest thing you have ever wanted to do. It will be the most healing. At God’s table you will hear, “Welcome home! I love you. All I have is yours! You are worthy of the grace flowing from your cup of blessing. There is enough for everyone! Tell your story. I will tell your mine. Receive, receive, receive. Invite, invite, invite. Listen, listen, listen! Let us heal the world together.” Will you look this compliment in the eye and receive it?
May it be so. Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
*Luke 15.1-2, 11-32 (Proper 11)
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Overhearing this, Jesus began to tell stories. He told them how a shepherd risked his life to find the one sheep missing from the flock and how a woman threw a party because she had found a valuable lost coin. Then…..
11Jesus said, "A certain man had two sons. 12The younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the inheritance.' Then the father divided his estate between them. 13Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living”.
14When the younger son had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have more than enough food, but I'm starving to death! 18I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands." ' 20So he got up and went to his father.”
"While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21Then his son said, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.' 22But the father said to his servants, 'Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!'
25"Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, 'Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.' 28 Then the older son was furious and didn't want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, 'Look, I've served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you've never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.' 31 Then his father said, 'Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.'"
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregationall UCC
What do you think of when I say the word “kingdom"? Is the first thing that pops into your head the Magic Kingdom or the United Kingdom? Well, God’s kingdom is not about territorial borders. It’s not so much of a place as it is a process. That may sound a bit vague and undefined, so you’ll just have to hang in there with me and see if I can help clarify that term a bit.
The kingdom, of course, is something we pray about twice every time we say the Lord’s prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth” and “thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.” And there are different ways to interpret that compact and somewhat loaded theological phrase.
The kingdom isn’t an easy thing to get a hold of and understand, which is why Jesus continually described it with parable, aphorism, and metaphor. Some people interpret the kingdom as being the life hereafter or life after the second coming of Christ. But, when Jesus says, it “is among you,” he is using the present tense. That sentence can also be translated as “the kingdom of God is in your midst.” It’s not wishful thinking about a future life, but an aspiration for today.
That concise passage of scripture is perhaps the most important sentence to me in the New Testament: “the kingdom of God is among you.” It’s brief, but it’s absolutely critical. The odd thing is that these two critical verses, which tell us that the kingdom of God is in our midst, are nowhere to be found in the Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the three-year cycle of texts used in many churches. Why?! Perhaps it’s a concept that’s a bit too radical for some in the church to digest!
Imagine if those words were preached and internalized in the heart of American Christians. Would it shift our focus from there hereafter to making God’s world a better place here and now? What would be the implications for climate change? …for immigration reform? …for stemming gun violence? …for ending homelessness? …for access to healthcare? What would be the implications in your own life? How would you live your life differently if you knew that the kingdom of God is among you right now?
There is perhaps no theology that has shaped the United Church of Christ than the theology of the kingdom of God, here and now. I say that because of the predominance of “Kingdom Theology” in the Social Gospel movement in this country, which spanned from the days following the Civil War through the end of the First World War, roughly 1865 to 1918.
Some of you will recognize this old war horse, The Pilgrim Hymnal, which was used in most Congregational UCC churches from 1904 until The New Century Hymnal was published in 1995. The first editor of The Pilgrim Hymnal was Washington Gladden, senior minister at First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio. Gladden was called the father of the Social Gospel movement. Now, some of you think that the theology of The New Century Hymnal is a bit radical, but The Pilgrim Hymnal had an entire section called “The Kingdom of God on Earth.” Let me read you the words to a hymn by Frederick Hosmer, a Unitarian minister who taught at Harvard Divinity School:
“Thy kingdom come, O Lord, wide-circling as the sun; fulfill of old thy word, and make the nations one.
“One in the bond of peace, the service glad and free, of truth and righteousness, of love and equity.
“Till rise in ordered plan, on firm foundations broad, the commonwealth of man, the city of our God.”
Saying those things in certain circles today will have you branded as a liberal! It’s radical stuff with serious political ramifications, and it’s been part of our tradition for a century.
The most influential theologian of the Social Gospel movement was Walter Rauschenbusch, a German-born American Baptist, who served in Hell’s Kitchen in New York and taught at Colgate-Rochester School of Divinity. “The kingdom of God,” he wrote in 1907, “is a collective conception involving the whole social life of man. It is not a matter of saving human atoms, but of saving the social organism. It is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming life on earth into the harmony of heaven.”
Because of the dominance of this theology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I think one can make a case that it helped shape the politics of the Progressive Era, when government came to grips with the Industrial Revolution. And I think one can make a case that it also informed the New Deal and increased governmental involvement in providing jobs and relief for those who were battered by the Great Depression. If you were to say the phrase, “the Kingdom of God” to Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt, they would have known that you were talking about God’s liberating reign of justice, here and now.
So, what is the good news? It is that the kingdom of God is here among us. That can fuel hope enough for a lifetime.
Vida Dutton Scudder, an Episcopal Social Gospeler and Wellesley professor, listed three ways Christians can respond to a growing awareness of human suffering: direct charity, social reform, and social transformation. Charity involves giving to those who are suffering (when you give shelter to a family experiencing homelessness); social reform means creating and supporting organizations for their care (like Neighbor to Neighbor); social transformation is about justice and changing the structures that cause suffering, which often seem intractable. The aim of the kingdom is radical, and includes dramatic social transformation.
Virtually every church in Fort Collins will respond to crises with charity. But our congregation is one of the very few that has a calling and an ability to concentrate on advocacy: on changing systems that allow homelessness, hunger, and inadequate education to persist. That’s the reason that when Moms Demand Action shows up at our senator’s office to talk about sane gun laws, half of the 40 people there are Plymouth members.
And yet, if you are like me, sometimes you find it easy to lose hope that justice will prevail in our nation and even that the kingdom of is among us. And in times like these, we need to remember that the long arc of history bends toward justice. It is a very long arc, so people like you and me need to keep the faith in the meantime. Good things eventually happen when we work together and when we work with God: things like the Good Friday Accord that ended years of violence in Northern Ireland. Here are some lines from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney:
“Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard. …
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime,
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge….
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.”
The word of hope is this, my friends: that the kingdom of God is among us, and that we are a part of a force for goodness and wholeness in the world…that the kingdom of God is still unfolding. And that in your lifetime, hope and history will rhyme.
 Frederick Hosmer in The Pilgrim Hymnal. (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1958), number 448.
 Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis. (NY: Macmillan, 1907), p. 65.
 I am indebted to Marcus Borg for this analysis. See The Heart of Christianity. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 201
 Seamus Heaney, from “The Cure at Troy” in Opened Ground, (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1996) p. 305
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3 So he told them this parable:
4 "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,
does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness
and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors,
saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'
7 Just so, I tell you,
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 "Or what woman having ten silver coins,
if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp,
sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors,
saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.'
10 Just so, I tell you,
there is joy in the presence of the angels of God
over one sinner who repents."
What was the last thing that you lost? Mine was my keys! This week. Replaced but the originals not yet found. I am still searching. Losing something. Getting lost .... really vulnerable feeling. We all hate to be lost! It's very uncomfortable. We don’t like to lose things. We really don’t like to lose our way, literally or metaphorically. Even with Google maps it still happens. How many of you really don’t like to ask for directions when you are lost? Come on, be honest! Its hard to be lost!
Lost .... a bad, gut wrenching, sometimes guilt producing, feeling. For human beings since time immemorial. Jesus knew that people hate to be, to feel lost. It’s a primal fear. Our text today gives us two of Jesus’ most familiar stories and you might know that they are the first two in a trilogy. The third being the story of the prodigal, or lost, son who returns home to a joyous father and a resentful elder brother.
As our passage opens, Jesus is gaining notoriety for his stories, his teachings, his healing. And not with the popular people in town, but with the sinners and tax collectors. The tax collectors were those who made their living collecting taxes for the Roman empire and adding a bit (or more) of interest to the top for themselves. They made their living by raising taxes on the middle class and poor. And it was condoned by the government. And sinners? They could be any number of folks. Technically “a sinner” in the theological parlance of New Testament theology is one who is separated from God, one who “misses the mark” of relationship with God in someway. In view of the purity laws of the Pharisees, sinners were most likely those on the margins of society....from prostitutes to thieves to beggars or those who simply did not or more likely could not keep all the purity laws because of income or illness. They could be the poor, the lame, the lepers, the mentally and physically ill. Outcasts for whatever reason. Something made them ritually impure and so separated from God in the eyes of the religious establishment. Jesus was welcoming “sinners” and eating with them. They were seeking him out. Instead of scolding them for impure living he welcomed them!
So the religious elite, the keepers of the purity laws grumbled. Complained. Pointed fingers. Folded arms and pursed lips. They were scandalized and they were jealous. Crowds did not come to hear them teach in the local synagogue the way they flocked to hear this rebellious rabbi, Jesus. They were mad because Jesus welcomed all the people, not just the people who kept the religious laws. I suspect Jesus even made an effort to welcome the scribes and Pharisees but they didn’t want to hear it. And when he heard his religious brethren grumbling and saw their sour faces, he tells them stories about being lost.
Because Jesus knows that everyone knows what it is to be lost or to have lost something or someone dear to them. He knows that the desperation of being lost is universal. In his two parables the shepherd and the peasant woman lose something of great economic and maybe sentimental value. Something that affected their livelihood. A sheep and a coin that was probably a drachma, worth the price of a sheep or a fifth the price of an ox. And in each story the shepherd and the woman goes to great lengths to find what is lost. There is story hyperbole going on here that makes a point we could almost miss.
Think about this....the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and find the one. Doesn’t leave them in their nice safe fold all tucked in at home, but in the wilderness. This says to me that as soon as he notices the one is gone he goes in search. That’s how precious each sheep is. Not waiting to secure they others....boom...where is my lost sheep? Gotta find my sheep! And when the sheep is found he calls together his friends and neighbors to celebrate. You might think he would just want to crawl in bed exhausted but no he has a party! And the woman cleans her house in a way she never has to find where that coin has gone, to discover what crack it has fallen into. She lights the lamp with precious, expensive oil to find this precious coin. And when she finds it she, too, throws a party! Which may have cost a lot more than the coin was worth. Both of these people have extravagant celebrations to celebrate that the lost is found. And Jesus says “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance... there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." That would be one sinner, one person, who is no longer separated from the love of God....one person who now knows that God seeks and welcomes and loves them.
And isn’t that what we all want to know ... that we are sought after, welcomed and loved. All the good works that we want to do as followers of Jesus, do not make us the seekers. God is the seeker. God is the shepherd in the wilderness seeking, the woman cleaning house with a lighted lamp and seeking. God pursues us for we are the precious things, like the sheep and the coin. And we do not have to do a long enough list of good things or live in certain ways so that God will find us. God seeks and finds us! And then we join God’s party!
I speak with people all the time who are seeking faith, who worry they have lost their faith, who don’t know if they ever had a faith. And I confess that I have those times myself. I count myself humbly as one of the sinners who wonders away from God, is separated, loses the lifeline, feels completely lost and desperately in despair. Seeking love in materialism or the escape of entertainment. My friends, “what is it to “lose faith,” but to lose the conviction that one has been found, to begin to wonder if one is sought at all?” And to be completely in the dark about what to do....to not know how to seek. Yet with God our seeking is simply the willingness to be found. The openness of heart and mind. The willingness to throw up our hands and say, “I can’t find myself! Please find me!” The willingness to sit waiting in the dark.
That’s the difference between two groups of folks listening to Jesus, the sinners and the Pharisees. Pharisees are not willing to be found. And they do not join the party where all are welcomed into relationship with God! So I wonder who are really the lost ones in Jesus’ parables.
I’d rather be a sinner. I’d rather be willing to be found. I’d rather go to the party!
So I found this crazy video on Facebook of all places and it spoke to me about the extremes God will go to just to find us.
God will go this far, my friends. We are not really lost because we are sought.
By the continually seeking God of love. The shepherd, the house cleaning woman. Let’s have a party!
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. May be reprinted outside Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC, by permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.