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.'"
Matthew 13.1-9 (and 18-23)
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you are like me and Jane Anne, you may have expanded your springtime gardening experiments during the lockdown. What better time to germinate some vegetable seeds, nurture them along as they sprout, weed out the strongest ones, mix in some well-seasoned compost to the soil, put in some drip irrigation, and transplant them outside and hope that neither the hail nor the rabbits kill them off. So, if I were writing a parable, I’d use a setting like that, because it’s commonplace, and that is what Jesus used: everyday settings.
Parables are a particularly meaty form of teaching that Jesus employed throughout his ministry, and they are recorded primarily in the synoptic gospels — the three accounts in our Bible that see things through a similar lens, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of Thomas, outside our canon, is also packed with parables. Our word “parable” takes two Greek words, para (next to) and ballo (to throw) and combines them to describe a literary tool that throws one thing down next to another. You and I know that this is not essentially a story about sowing seeds…Jesus tosses out metaphors in order to challenge and reveal a truth in a memorable, more engaging, and less obvious way.
Jesus used parables to shake up his hearers, revealing their assumptions, often turning them upside down. For instance, his audience would know that the only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan…so what could a Good Samaritan show us?
Jesus’ parables also need to be understood as spoken, not written. So, what we have in the gospels is a condensation of a good, long yarn that Jesus may have spent 30 or 40 minutes developing, and the compilers of the gospels gave us their distillation. But imagine yourself being part of the crowd that gathered to hear Jesus on the beach. Don’t you imagine that there would be some dialogue among the hearers and Jesus? Can’t you imagine someone shouting out, “Are you saying that we are the seed or the sower?” or “Is he saying that we are rocky soil?” or to one another, “Crikey, don’t you just wish he’d make his point and move on?” It would probably look more like a scene from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” than anything else. So, there is some back-and-forth, some puzzling, engagement, and stimulation of their imaginations.
John Dominic Crossan, one of Plymouth’s past visiting scholars, has written more incisively than any other New Testament scholar about the function of parables. He sees them as fulfilling a different role than stories, which provide a narrative or even a myth that explains something, like the Genesis story we heard last month about three visitors who are offered hospitality by Abraham and Sarah. What Jesus spins for his hearers is akin to a riddle or an example or a challenge, often concerning the kingdom of God.
The Parable of the Sower is in all three synoptic gospels, and the earliest is Mark’s gospel. And here is the odd thing: in all three gospels, a few verses after the parable itself, the writer of Mark’s gospel gives an explanation of the parable. (You just never do that! It’s like explaining the punchline of a joke, which means the joke failed. You can hash it out orally with someone, but the presenter never says, “Here’s what the parable really means.” Jesus would not have done that. It is as if a Zen master offered a koan —a parabolic riddle — to a pupil and then explained what the answer was…it means the student doesn’t learn by struggling with it. That is what we are meant to do with parables.) The Parable of the Sower also occurs in the Gospel of Thomas without “explaining the punchline,” which leads some scholars to think that Thomas provides the earliest copy of what Jesus said.
Let’s look at the text itself. This is the part where you have to really engage…I’m not giving it away, so you might even take down a note or two to ponder. This parable is a long sequence of metaphors. Jesus throws down a word, but alongside it, you, the hearer, have to fill in the blank for each metaphor.
The first character in the story is the sower herself. She sets out to broadcast seed and has some failures and some stellar successes? Are you the sower? Is Jesus the sower? Is God the sower? The parable turns out differently as you cast the role differently, and it’s fun to play with it that way.
What do you think Jesus meant seed to represent? Is it his own ministry? Is it the law and the prophets of Judaism? Is it the alternative commonwealth that he proclaimed?? Is it holy wisdom?
The next metaphor is the birds, who are swooping in to satisfy their hunger by snatching some of the fallen seed that has fallen from the sower’s bag onto the path. What do to the birds represent? Are they the Pharisees who Jesus always seems to tussle with? The Temple authorities? Satan? The occupying Romans?
The third metaphor is rocky soil, onto which the seed falls and springs up quickly, only to wither and perish in the heat of the sun. Is the rocky soil the tradition of pro forma religious observance that looks good from the outside, but doesn’t produce a resilient faith? A faith journey starts out strong but shallow and isn’t sustainable over the long haul? Is the rocky soil the mind and heart of someone who is a bit shallow?
The fourth metaphor is the thorns, and the seed that falls among them is choked by them as they grow, kind of like bindweed does here in Fort Collins. Are the thorns like the things that distract us from spending time studying our faith and developing spiritual practices? Perhaps for you the thorns are the priorities in your life that may need some realignment…priorities that occupy your mental and spiritual space — whether it’s work or worry or acquiring material things or addiction — that block out your ability to really commit yourself fully to God’s service.
And the final metaphor is the good soil: the kind that has had good, rich compost mixed into it, that is aerated and well-watered. It’s ready to receive the seed and provide an environment that will not only allow itself to flourish, but to provide a huge yield of new seed for future generations of the plant. So, what is the good soil? Is it the life of a person who lives faithfully? Is it a community that nurtures and nourishes people in their faith? Is it the world itself, ready to provide all we need, if only we can learn to be good stewards and share resources?
Imagine what it would be like to create a parable for the middle of the year 2020. Perhaps we could see God as the sower and the wisdom of Jesus as the seed.
Perhaps the birds who come and consume the seed is the busyness in our lives. Maybe we ourselves feel as though the pandemic has tested our faith, since we don’t have the physical community to rely on, and the coronavirus birds came along and ate up what we thought was at the core.
Perhaps our faith isn’t as resilient as we would like, and its roots aren’t as deep as we think they should be. Is our sense of scarcity like rocky soil? Do we fixate on the lack of money, influence, health, or ability and let that form our dominant narrative?
I wonder if fear is the thorn bush that holds many of us back: the fear of not being acceptable or accepted, the fear that we aren’t [blank] enough: young, rich, thin, fit, smart, confident…whatever descriptor keeps you hamstrung.
And where do we find good soil? How do we become good soil from which the kingdom of God can rise up? We can add the compost of our faith, which is historically and theologically deep. We can fertilize it with truth, which can be tough to take, but it increases our yield. We can aerate it with time to contemplate and pray, which is so hard to find if you are a young parent or trying to occupy your kids and work from home. And we can water it with love, patience, kindness, and understanding.
We need to bloom where we are planted, and my prayer for you this week is that you will find something that makes your life and your faith flourish and grow.
© 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.
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