Sermon:  “Reconciling the World”

14 March 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 14, 2010

“Reconciling the World”

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our minds and hearts here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Today’s Gospel lesson, Luke’s “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” is a favorite for many of us, I know.  It’s like one of the Bible’s “Top 10 Greatest Hits.”  The story is just so timeless and true.  As today’s hymns remind us, we humans have a way of “wandering from God.” We are prone to stray like the prodigal son from his family, or like the “lost sheep” in the verses of Luke 15 that the lectionary leaves out today.  The world tempts us to claim the life God gives us as our own and invest it only for our own pleasure.  It’s all too easy to squander away God’s blessings – health and strength, time and wealth – in what the Bible here calls “dissolute living.”  But I liked better what one translator called it – “riotous” living!  It always made me think of a young Pete Townsend smashing guitars and trashing hotel rooms.  Or the church Talent Show last night – “Amen” choir?

But that’s kind of a distracting cartoon version of sin.  Many of us – highly functioning, successful, people – live under the illusion we can be happily independent not just from other people, but from God.  Many of us behave toward God a lot like the Prodigal Son did toward his father – like many adults in relationship to their parents – we think to pray, or call home, only when we really need something, or have reached the end of our rope.  It’s only in our tired moments, our weakest moments, our most fearful moments, those are the times we are most likely to actively go back in search of God – to fall to our knees to pray words like those of our closing hymn, the one the choir sung so beautifully recently, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand.”  I’m sure that hymn, like this parable, is popular in homeless shelters, prisons, or drug rehab facilities, where people may very well have run through all their money in “dissolute living,” like the Prodigal Son.  But there is an even more important message for those of us responsible, upstanding citizens who had our lives “together” enough to get to church today – a day when, after all, we lost a precious hour of sleep last night!

First of all, it helps us if we remember that people a lot like us were the intended audience for this parable – NOT the usual Jesus crowd of social outcasts and sinners.  The educated scribes and devout Pharisees who first heard this parable were just decent religious people like us, but Jesus was trying to tell them something with this parable.  Remember how at the beginning of Luke 15 the scribes were complaining about his eating with “tax collectors and sinners.”  But if you think about how the world was back then – with the FATHER the center of all social authority – this parable had to have been effective, at shining a spotlight on what would have seemed to them an excessively indulgent father. Remember that back in those days, it was a strict patriarchal society where children obeyed their fathers without question, under pain of death? Children just did not ask for their inheritance early, and if they did, they wouldn’t expect to get it.  Children were the only social security a father had.  Land stayed in families for generations – it was not sold off as it might be in this country, for a son to go off and seek his fortune.  The son, in Jesus’s day, was unbelievably disrespectful – and he clearly got what he deserved, ending up living with filthy Gentiles and their pigs, starving and miserable.  Our focus like theirs should be not so much on the prodigal son (who is too easy to dismiss as a kind of cartoon-like flagrant sinner) but on the amazingly generous and forgiving father. Richard Stewart said that one of his professors at Southern Seminary in Louisville (Frank Stagg) actually liked to call this parable, “The Parable of the Forgiving Father.” 

I loved that we had a baptism on this day for “The Prodigal Son” – because in all the Bible there is probably no better story to remind us of “just how much God loves” us – words we repeat to each child in our baptism words of welcome.  As we adults drift farther and farther from the simple faith of childhood, it’s easy to forget the extravagance of God’s grace – even if we do sing “Jesus Loves Me” again at every baptism.  I think Jesus was brilliant, as a teacher, to address God as his “Heavenly Father,” because it reminds us of how much we parents do love our kids – even when are foolish, disrespectful, or go wildly and stupidly astray.  Our faith teaches us that God loves us even more than the most loving parent ever could – that’s incredible!

Some of you may remember me telling a story about my friend Bob, when he became a dad.  He was a lot like many of us here.  Raised in a big Presbyterian church in the South, he had followed the usual path – baptism as a baby, years of Sunday School and Scouts, and finally Confirmation and graduation – then off to college and out of the church completely.  But he got a surprising phone call on the very day his first child was born.  As he was sitting in the hospital room, staring into the face of his infant son, the phone rang.  On the other end was the pastor of his childhood, retired but still in touch with my friend’s parents.  “Bob,” he said, “ this is Pastor So-and-So.  Remember that one day in my Confirmation Class when I asked you what the meaning of God’s Grace was, and you said, ‘I dunno’?  Do remember what I said?”  And my friend said he started to cry.  But he pulled it together enough to say, “You said one day, when I held my own son in my arms, I would understand just how much God loves me, for absolutely no good reason at all.”  “Yep,” the Pastor said.  “Congratulations,” he said. “You now have finally passed Confirmation.”  My friend laughed.  “But you let me join the church anyway, you know, Pastor.”  “Yep,” he said.  “Isn’t God’s Grace amazing?”

The God we get to know, after all, as the “forgiving Father” in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is actually not just amazing, he is completely over-the-top.  That’s why, back when I was in seminary, my worship professor and thesis advisor, Doug Adams, liked to call this story, “The Parable of the Foolish Father.”  He’s very embarrassing – like a mom dropping off her teenage son at school calling out, “I love you, honey bear.  Have a great day, and be a good boy!”  God longs for us to return the greeting, not just with good manners and respect, but with real enthusiasm and joy.

This work Christ does, reconciling the world to himself with complete self-sacrifice and humility, is not logical or practical – any more than the absurd amount of love most parents give their children. But it has the power to work miracles, to make peace and restore souls – to literally save the world.  Let us never hesitate to join Christ as ambassadors of reconciliation.  Let us call the world to a bountiful feast of grace – a life of joy and thanksgiving in covenant with one another, in the shelter of God’s forgiving love. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable:

11“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith*

We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:

You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image,
and set before each one the ways of life and death.

You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

You judge people and nations by your righteous will
declared through prophets and apostles.

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior,
you have come to us and shared our common lot,
conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.

You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit,
creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ,
binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil,
to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.

You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you.  Amen.

* The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith was adopted in 1959 by General Synod – not as a binding creed or test of faith, serving as a doctrinal requirement for membership in the church, but rather as testimony to be shared in worship.  This doxological Statement of Faith was authorized by the Executive Council in 1981.


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