The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you have two sons, like I do, this parable sounds strikingly familiar. In years past, I could imagine Cameron playing video games on his X-Box on a Saturday morning and me asking if he would please mow the lawn and Cam begging off with some excuse about homework. And then asking Chris, who would say, “Sure, dad,” but then he’d get involved in something else and forget about the task at hand. (Mind you, I’m just plugging their names in here…they’d always have jumped right up and mowed the lawn. ? ) I might have been disappointed in Cam’s first response, but not that he came through in the end. And Chris just flaked out on me. Which son would I have thanked heartily for “doing the will of their father?”
But the parable is even more pointed than that. By bringing tax collectors and prostitutes into the narrative — outsiders and lowlifes rejected by the good Temple-going people of Jerusalem — Jesus brings the generalized parable into his own present day. It isn’t they who are supposed to “get it,” to understand what John was and Jesus is talking about…but they do. There is a motif in the New Testament about the people who should understand, don’t and the people who would ordinarily not be “in the know” are the ones who get it. I mean we all know that there is no such thing as a “Good” Samaritan, or astrologers from Persia who understand that a newborn babe is king of the Jews.
Well, where does that leave us? You and I may look a lot more like the scribes and the Pharisees than we’d like, don’t we? We’re the ones who are supposed to understand the message of Jesus, but don’t you suspect that there are times when we are the ones who don’t have a clue? I know that most of us at Plymouth don’t fit the current stereotype of American Christianity: closed-minded, unthinking, anti-science, bigoted, and knowing that if we are “saved,” then you other people certainly aren’t. And yet… And yet…there are times when we can come off as the ones who are meant to understand Jesus…but can’t or won’t.
For most of us, it isn’t a matter of intellectual firepower that holds us back, rather it concerns commitment and showing up. This is where trust comes into play: “John the Baptizer came to you on the path of righteousness, but you didn’t trust him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did.” Trusting Jesus is primarily an activity of the human heart, rather than just the mind. Tying our active minds together with the feelings of our hearts, connecting the two, is a key task for many of us in the UCC, where we encourage you to “bring your brain to church on Sunday.” Well, I certainly hope you bring your heart, too.
This parable is about trusting and then doing. It’s about being truly present in the service of God’s realm on earth. It’s about showing up when you get the invitation. (And if you’re listening to this right now, consider yourself invited!)
Years ago, when I was a young adult, my former in-laws were being invited to dozens of weddings as people my age were getting married, and they frankly found it a bit tiresome…RSVPing, blocking off a weekend, buying a gift, going to the service and reception. And one time, they simply responded that they were not able to come. A few months later, the groom, Paul Blandford, ran into my former father-in-law, who is a really good guy, and said how disappointed he was that he and his wife couldn’t make it to the wedding. And then it hit my former father-in-law like a ton of bricks: When you are invited to a wedding or hear of someone’s funeral or memorial service, you go and show up. The code word in their family for times you need to show up became “It’s a Paul Blandford.” Have you ever declined an invitation to show up…to wedding, to an event, as a volunteer, as a leader? It may be easier at times to say, “No, thanks,” but it doesn’t move us ahead as a body of people, whether it’s a family, a congregation, a community, or a nation.
How do you show up…when you cannot physically show up? Covid-19 has been disruptive in so many ways, and we get to choose whether to connect or to hide…and there is a time for each. But let’s focus on connection. I’m doing a memorial service this afternoon, and only the immediate family are attending because of the pandemic. That’s a way to be present at a tender moment is each other’s lives, albeit in a different way. And there are other ways on a personal level to show up: pick up the telephone and call someone, pull out the notecards you got for Christmas and put pen to paper and send a note, really listen deeply to a friend or loved one. I see people at Plymouth showing up in all kinds of ways in the midst of the pandemic. Members shopping for those who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, Our Habitat ministry team invited me to a virtual Habitat breakfast over Zoom in a few weeks. You, our congregation sent a special gift of $10,000 to La Foret to help provide pandemic relief, in addition to the $20,000 you all contributed individually for other forms of pandemic relief. Our Immigration ministry team has been at work collecting cleaning and household supplies for immigrant families. Our Stewardship Board got a beautiful brochure written, designed, produced, and mailed in record time. Thanks for saying “yes” and showing up.
Sometimes this pandemic causes us (especially us introverts) to withdraw in pain or grief or anxiety, and we don’t want to connect through one more damned Zoom meeting. And I cannot imagine how incredibly busy and stressed so many of our parents are trying to manage kids doing remote learning, working from home themselves, and trying to have a life. (And I do see a parent, who teaches chemistry at CSU now online, serves as this congregation’s moderator showing up to play violin this morning.)
So, this is a gentle reminder that oftentimes, we feel better when we show up, when we connect, when we make the effort, we feel better for having done so. And when we show up, we need to be fully present, not just physically present. We must bring our souls as well as our bodies. Showing up as faith in action is even more important, because we’ll probably end up feeling more connected to God as well.
Woody Allen supposedly said that 90 percent of life is showing up. And I think there is truth in that, no matter who actually said it. Consider this: if you THINK about going to the gym, but don’t show up, you won’t get in better shape. If you only THINK about your faith, but never offer a prayer, pick up a Bible, do an act of compassion for someone you don’t know, your faith might stay flabby, too. When we show up, we don’t just do it for ourselves, we show up for each other, and during a pandemic, it’s even harder, less convenient, more costly, but we can’t go it alone.
I invite you to be like the son who eventually unplugs from the X-box and mows the lawn. Follow the lead of the tax collectors and prostitutes who trust the way of God’s kingdom, here and now and still unfolding. And as our worship continues and in the week ahead, may you open your heart and your mind to the God who created you, invites you, blesses you, and redeems you.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
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.
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)*
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.'"