Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
March 18, 2007
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Lost and Found
2 Corinthians 5:16-20
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I’ve often said, in Bible study, that each scripture story sounds a little bit different, depending on who’s out there listening. That’s never more true than with parables, like this one, “The Prodigal Son.” You’ll hear it differently, depending on whether you are more like the younger son, or the elder one, or more like the father. So, since I’m kind of new here, I thought it would be only fair for you to know where I’m coming from.
When I went to seminary, students like me were rare. I think I was the only member of my class at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley who had actually grown up in the United Church of Christ. At age 30, I was one of the youngest in my class. Most were older Baby Boomers coming to ministry as a second, or even third, career. And many of them had wandered far away from the church, at least for a while along the way. Many of them had experienced for themselves the story of the Prodigal Son – of what it was to get lost in what cynics like to call “the real world” and then to find their way back home again, through reconciliation with God. Several were disillusioned fundamentalists, or alcoholics or drug addicts in recovery, Vietnam veterans, or gay Christians who were just finding their way back to church. I used to joke with them that my path was so much more boring by comparison – never having left the faith of my childhood. My UCC congregations had always been places of love and acceptance for me. But in many ways, I think they were more prepared for parish ministry in California in the early 1990s, when we received our first calls, than I was, because they understood what Paul meant when he wrote that God had given us a “ministry of reconciliation.”
What I soon discovered, as I began youth ministry in Berkeley, was that my students were at church for very different reasons than those that had kept me in church all those years. As a ordinary middle-class kid who had grown up in the Bible Belt, I had been a straight A student and good enough musician that my church had always affirmed me and nurtured my talents. But the girls in my Berkeley youth group were quite different. Some had never before entered a church until their first visit as a teen.
One was the abused daughter of farm workers who had been in foster care, some 15 different homes in 13 years. That’s when she had been adopted by an older single lady in our church. One girl’s mother had been a heroin addict who lived in a commune when she was young – now the mom was 5 or 6 years clean and sober and had found our church when it helped her find subsidized housing. Another girl’s mother had been a Las Vegas showgirl, a profession unheard of in my North Carolina church. That girl was brought to church by a friend, whose mother was also divorced and was finding some healing of her pain in our church. Another girl had two moms, and they weren’t welcome in either the Catholic or Baptist churches of their childhoods. All those people had felt “lost” in one way or another and filled with real joy at how they were being “found” by God’s grace in that new family of unconditional love.
I soon realized that the message of God’s radical and amazing grace had never really sunk in for me – because unlike the Berkeley kids I was getting to know, I had never been lost, and then found. Like a lot of you, I expect, I had never strayed very far from the straight and narrow. I was much more like the older brother in Jesus’s parable than the prodigal son.
Well, this parable also spoke strongly to the church of Luke’s day – where Judaism and that new sect of Judaism that was coming to be known as Christianity were beginning to part ways. Evangelists like Luke and Paul and others were slowly moving westward into the pagan world of Greece and Rome, and the new movement was winning converts at an amazing pace. Good and faithful Jews must have been both perplexed and dismayed to see this strangely twisted version of their faith being shared so widely with a corrupt and sinful world. After all, most of them had led lives of quiet devotion at considerable cost to themselves during a time of brutal occupation by Roman pagans – and now these who claimed to speak for God were offering this invitation into the fold to any who would simply confess their faith in Christ and come forward to be baptized. It must have seemed outrageous to them to offer God’s grace for so cheap a price.
We don’t often think of the Pharisees of Jesus’s time in a very positive light, but really, they weren’t so unlike those of us who have never strayed from the fold, or have taken only very minor detours off the straight and narrow. Like our Congregationalist ancestors, they were inspired to reach for a very noble goal – a daily practice of prayer, simple service to others, and clean living. They were less interested in the “pursuit of happiness” than the pursuit of righteousness. They lived in “fear of the Lord” in the best sense of that phrase, in reverence and respect for God’s judgment as being more wise and fair than their own. But like the older brother of the prodigal son, they had put in long, hard days of labor at their faith, perhaps giving a full 10 percent tithe of their earnings back to the temple, and fulfilling every religious obligation, serving whenever they were asked, on every committee, and at every potluck. They could not have felt particularly happy to see their congregations overrun by foreign newcomers who, as we might guess from the stern contents of Paul’s letters, were a pretty wild and irreverent bunch.
So this parable would have packed a powerful punch for both religious insiders and outsiders when it began to be shared among the early Christian communities, where it had to have been challenging for Jewish and Greek converts to get along. God, as the forgiving Father in this story, clearly loves BOTH the eldest and the youngest in this family. Like most parents, he must want have wanted nothing more fervently than for his two beloved sons to be reconciled. And the great blessing for some of those early churches, they were seeing some amazing miracles of reconciliation. As Paul writes in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek… slave or free… male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” As a pastor, I have to wonder, was it true, or did he wish it to be true? I suspect they were seeing people of very diverse backgrounds, for the first time, sitting side by side, breaking bread together, and worshipping the same God.
For much of our 50-year history, this ministry of reconciliation has been at the heart of the United Church of Christ, as we brought together two separate denominations that had been four. I grew up reading our UCC statement of faith, which we prayed as our prayer of invocation today, very often in the church of my childhood, because a member of our church had been on the committee that wrote it. Maybe you’ve never read it before, but its phrases are deep in my heart. Its vision of this present-tense, living God of Jesus Christ alive in the church of our modern world, “binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races” rings true for me. In my experience during the 60s and 70s, with black and white Christians coming together in the UCC working for Civil Rights, it felt as if a real miracle of reconciliation had taken place. So I always felt close to this vigorous and active Jesus – “the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior,” hard at work “conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to himself.”
Maybe it was because I married a man who collects comic books before I accepted God’s call into ministry, but one of my most memorable dreams of the call that led me to seminary featured Jesus as “Superman.” The man of steel was saving people from some disaster by holding two live power lines together, and completing the circuit himself. You could see from his face it was excruciatingly painful, but he was powerful enough to make that connection. This was the reconciling Christ I was called to follow. My Jesus, like Paul’s Jesus, is a Savior mighty enough to do miracles of amazing grace – like win the fight for civil rights, or get a dutiful and long-suffering son to embrace his wayward little brother, or get bitter and disillusioned teenagers from broken homes to trust in the idea of a faithful church family that would love them no matter what.
I believe the challenge that lies before us these days as a 250-year-old established, mainline church is to figure out how to join Jesus on this mission of reconciliation. Who of our friends, or family, or neighbors are out there wandering lives of aimlessness and emptiness? Whom do we know in Brookfield need to be reconciled to Christ’s church? Who has been excluded from the table – by choice, because of shame, or because of outright exclusion and discrimination? This is our call, people of faith, to go out and find them, wherever they may be.
It’s more than a little daunting, as Paul writes, that God has so honored us by “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ.” But Paul also offers the way to prepare ourselves, as he adds, “Since God is making his appeal through us, we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” This first step, as we work to reconnect others to the fold, to is to reconcile ourselves. Most of us allow our minds to wander from the way of Christ – even if we don’t go on a wild adventure like the prodigal son. Or we allow our faith to slip into a religious routine, just going through the motions of praise and prayer. In this Lenten season, Christ calls us back to the God of Israel – to fearlessly seek out the Father’s unconditional love, trusting in his forgiveness and grace. There is a joyful homecoming waiting for each one of us.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.
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