Sermon Seeds: Embracing Love/Re-membering Grace

Fourth Sunday in Lent Year C color_purple.jpg
Lectionary citations
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Sermon Seeds

Special preaching notes on Ruth 1:1–22 in preparation for the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering 2016
by José Francisco Morales Torres

Focus Scripture:
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Additional reflection on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 by Karen Georgia Thompson will be added soon

Weekly Theme:
Embracing Love/Re-membering Grace

by Kathryn Matthews Kate_SS_in_black.jpg

We might wonder why Jesus’ well-known but often under-read parable in this passage from the Gospel of Luke is commonly called “The Prodigal Son,” when it might better be named after “The Prodigal Father,” if “prodigal” really does mean “recklessly extravagant.” Yes, the son wastes his inheritance on a good time in a distant land, but his father seems just as free and even wasteful in lavishing his wealth on a son who comes home not in sincere repentance but in calculated self-interest and desperation.

Oddly, this little story can cause as much discomfort and discontent in the heart of the listener as it describes among the characters in the story. Return to relationship – reconciliation – is a powerful theme in today’s focus scripture, but it is not an easy homecoming. While “Welcome home” may sound all warm and fuzzy, this return home itself presents all sorts of challenges.

A lack of respect?

Once, when members of the news media brought up to Prince Charles the prospect of his ascending to the throne of England, he stopped the conversation cold when he said, “Gentlemen, you are speaking of the death of my mother.” The younger son in today’s story exhibits no such sense of respect or even affection for his father. One might imagine that he was always impetuous, as second sons often are when they follow a responsible, hard-working firstborn who stands to inherit the lion’s share of the estate anyway.

Scholars say that the older son would receive two-thirds of the estate, with the rest divided up between the other heirs, enough of an injustice perhaps to turn a boy’s mind toward other pursuits than working for his big brother. [One commentator, Timothy Shapiro, may steer preachers away from interpreting this text through birth order theory (New Proclamation Year C 2006-2007), but many commentaries do just that, perhaps because so many of them are written by those who describe themselves as first-borns! Full disclosure: this reflection is written by a middle child, which would probably need a different parable.]

Honor and shame

In fact, this younger brother isn’t just impetuous – he comes across as a master manipulator who, Richard Swanson writes, knows how “to play the old man like a fiddle” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke). For example, we never quite feel confident that the younger son’s repentance is “true”; Margaret Aymer calls his conversion more stomach-driven than heart-felt (New Proclamation Year C 2009-2010). Scholars often mention the words “honor” and “shame” when writing about this story, and there seems to be no end to the shame brought on the father (and presumably the family) by the self-centeredness of the younger son. Not that the boy’s behavior is unheard of: the Apocrypha warns parents not to become dependent on their children (Sirach 33:20-24), even though one of the Ten Commandments instructs children to “honor” their parents (Exodus 20:12). In so many ways, human nature has not changed throughout the centuries.

We live in a culture very different from the one in which Jesus told this story, but families today still need to be protected, and parents should still be honored. However, we seem to move farther and farther away from the idea that we have responsibility to the community around us as well. In her wonderful book, Reading Jesus, Mary Gordon says the younger brother “seems to have the lack of self-consciousness of the irresponsible user,” and indeed, he apparently has no regard for the suffering of his father, brother, other family members, or the wider community that would have been affected by the sale of land held by a family that no doubt contributed to the surrounding economy. The sale itself was a shameful thing, Leslie Hoppe writes, in a land-based economy in which Jewish families would not have sold their lands because they were a gift from God (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2). No wonder the father throws a party for the whole town: it surely helped to ease some of the anger and resentment the community felt toward this wayward and irresponsible son.

As a servant, or as a beloved son?

About that conversion experience of a Jewish son sitting with the pigs, envying them their food: who can measure the boy’s purity of heart, even as he practices the speech he hopes will restore him to his father’s home, perhaps as a servant, but maybe, just maybe, as a beloved son? When the young man “came to himself,” shaken by hunger and by just how low he had fallen, he began the long hard climb back, and his words, “I will get up and go to my father” remind us this Lent of resurrection, restoration, and new life. Daniel Deffenbaugh suggests that the boy returned with a measure of hope, still able to call his father “Father,” as he did when he first arrogantly asked for his inheritance (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2). This is one of those times when “Abba” would sound particularly sweet.

Mary Gordon does not find it difficult to imagine how the father’s welcome might have felt to the boy: “I was the child of an ardent father, so I could imagine the heat of a father’s embrace that was led up to by a yearning run: the unseemly speed of the father who could not wait to see his child. Who runs for him, unable to bear the slowness of the normal progression, the son’s ordinary pace” (Reading Jesus). On the other hand, a male writer sees feminine imagery in the warmth of the father’s words and actions: Bernard Brandon Scott compares the father’s behavior to that of a mother, because “[f]athers in the ancient world,” he notes, “were remote and distant from their sons” (Re-Imagine the World).

Who is the prodigal here?

We could also rename the parable, “The Resentful Brother,” because much more ink is spent on the older, “faithful” brother who comes home to the sounds of a surprise party that’s definitely not in his honor. Scholars observe that the party itself is what angers the older brother, more than the shame brought to the family by the younger brother, more than the economic realities of splitting up the family farm: Fred Craddock writes that the older brother would find sackcloth and ashes more fitting than a feast for this penitent sibling (Preaching through the Christian Year C).

We sometimes villainize those old Pharisees and feel all self-righteous about ourselves, as if “our” Christian faith in some way contradicts or corrects the deepest beliefs of our ancient ancestors in faith. However, Bernard Brandon Scott offers a most provocative reflection on this story of two brothers, reminding us of the recurring theme in the life of Israel of younger brothers displacing older ones (think of Jacob and David). And then he startles us by claiming that we Christians stole this story from Israel, because God has been the “prodigal father” throughout its history: “It is Christian anti-Semitism that sees this story only as the essence of the Gospel.” He also injects a moment of humor with his observation about the father’s pledge to the older brother, suggesting the younger son’s unpleasant surprise at hearing that everything his father has is now promised to his older brother (Re-Imagine the World).

“It’s not fair!”

This story is powerful on so many levels, and it uses the most human of feelings to make its point. Mary Gordon writes that the great scholar Raymond Brown called Jesus “a creator of fictions,” and that reminds me of a definition of fiction that I once heard, as something that didn’t necessarily happen but could happen. We may not know many fathers like the one in this story, but many of us, and many in our congregations, know what sibling rivalry feels like, and can resonate with Gordon’s description of the older brother’s anger as the kind that evokes “the child’s first ethical statement, ‘It’s not fair'” (Reading Jesus).

Barbara Brown Taylor’s delightful reflection on the older brother recalls what it felt like to be the oldest child herself, watching younger ones get away with so much more than she had: instead of the punishment, or at least discipline, the younger son so richly deserved, he got a party! It’s just not fair, right? “What do you have to do to get a party around here?” Here she poignantly observes the ways that both sons are lost to the father, one to irresponsibility, and the other to self-righteousness. Taylor describes the love of the father who, like any good parent, gives his sons unconditional love instead of what they have coming to them. Taylor then suggests that we who imagine ourselves in the older brother’s place will end up on that doorstep, too, struggling with our own self-righteousness, and will have to make the same difficult decision to join the party, or to stay out in the cold with our principles (“The Prodigal Father,” in The Preaching Life).  

An alien in his own home

Even though this story is a familiar one, its power increases each time we hear it. Perhaps we pick up something we missed before. John Stendahl suggests that the son makes himself an alien by leaving his home and his own country, and becoming a stranger in a strange land, but the older brother, ironically, makes himself an alien in his own home, remaining outside and refusing to be restored to his brother (New Proclamation Year C 2001). In this Lenten season, in what ways do we feel alienated from all that is going on around us, perhaps even from those we hold most dear? How might we have contributed to that sense of alienation? If Lent is a time of repentance, of turning back, how can we find our way back home again?

Or perhaps we might think of the experience of being dead and then restored to life; the son, the father says, “was dead and has come to life,” but he’s not the only one. The father, too, is restored to life, as parents in all ages are when their children come home. The prodigal, wasteful-in-love, father, “rejected and helpless in love with his child,” experiences a kind of resurrection in his son’s return, Stendahl writes (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001). We all know that Lent leads to Easter; what is the resurrection we long for in this season? Where are the dead places, the lifeless experiences, the heavy burdens that block our new life?

Lost and then found again

Perhaps the most compelling image is that of being lost and then found. Is it any wonder that we love to sing of it in “Amazing Grace”? If we begin at the beginning of the scene, we have a clue about how the lost-and-found figure in Jesus’ thinking. There he is, when chapter fifteen opens, eating with sinners and tax collectors. These are not people we might think of sentimentally, kindly, as sweet, innocent people on the edge of society, rejected and alone. They were people who evoked visceral reactions from those who had made “better” choices, or indeed, had even had the privilege of making choices about their lives.

Tax collectors, for example, weren’t simply government officials who contributed to the workings of society; they were seen as traitors colluding with the hated Romans while they were separating people from their money. Sinners were people who were outside the “proper,” acceptable community because they had violated religious laws, and all of these folks were definitely “the lost” in the eyes of the watching Pharisees and scribes. (We have, of course, our own version of these folks today.) The religious authorities complain about the company Jesus keeps (after all, you can’t be sitting down to eat with just anyone), and he responds not only with this story but with two other parables of lost-ness, about a sheep and a coin both precious in the eyes of their owners, both lost and then found, and both celebrated with a party, with everyone invited, that is, everyone who is willing to rejoice.

Examining our own lives

And then, this beautiful and beloved story about a precious son lost, and his father lost, and, in a way, his big brother lost, too. It’s especially appropriate for us to reflect on this story as more than just a good illustration of one of Jesus’ teachings, or a really effective comeback to the self-righteousness of the religious authorities. We’re deeply into the season of Lent now, a time of reflection and self-examination (what we used to call “an examination of conscience” in the tradition in which I was raised). Where do we find ourselves in this story? How are we counted among “the lost”?

Why do we so often identify with the older brother, rather than the penitent returning home to ask for grace? It’s only fair, right, that he should be angry that his “good-for-nothing” brother gets a fatted calf when he doesn’t even get a goat when his friends want to party! Why do we think that we’re the ones who have been faithful and hard-working, and deserve everything we have? Did we deserve the lion’s share of the estate in the first place (a rather good illustration of privilege and entitlement)? But did we notice that “our father” came out to us, just as he came out to our brother (that son of his, we’d rather call him), seeking us, reassuring us, spreading this largesse and mercy all around?

Scarcity v. abundance again

Are we, like the older brother, perhaps stuck in scarcity thinking, when we’d be much happier, much freer, operating in abundance mode, which is clearly the mode of the prodigal father? Rodney Clapp describes abundance thinking particularly well: “Every time God’s active, stretching, searching, healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us. It means there is more. More wine. More feasting. More music. More dancing. It means another, and now a bigger, party” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2).

It may be tempting to judge the older brother and associate him with the Pharisees (we love to judge them every chance we get, it seems). Perhaps it’s a good idea to assume the place and feel the feelings of the older brother. Are there people that we feel tempted to find “deserving” of their fate? Are there people who do not “deserve” such free-flowing forgiveness? What about people whose behaviors have been destructive of others? How do we wrestle with the reality of reconciliation with them, and how do we welcome home those who may be desperate but not yet truly sorry? Do we include ourselves and our own sometimes-clumsy attempts to repent and to reconcile in all of that?

Does our community throw a party?

An especially challenging perspective on this text is offered by Margaret Aymer, who sees the father as an image for the faith community as well. As an example, she reflects on how we respond to the hungry who, like the younger brother living in a distant country, are desperate for food and at the end of their resources. How do we respond to those in need, no matter the reason for their situation? Are we miserly in our giving, or do we throw a metaphorical party and shower those in need with abundance, filled to overjoying to have them back in our midst? (New Proclamation Year C 2010).   

There is, of course, no perfect repentance. The contrition of the younger son and his turning toward home seem motivated by a calculation of benefit (and a state of desperation) rather than a heartfelt recognition of where he went wrong or how he had hurt others. And yet, despite a repentance we might describe as faulty or incomplete, the father extravagantly forgives his son, runs out to meet him (a totally undignified thing for a grown man in that culture), and showers him with gifts and love. Do you find the “repentance” of the younger son to be troubling? He may be sorry, or maybe he’s desperate, but does that even matter to his father? What does matter is what happens inside him when his father welcomes him back not in judgment and limited, reserved, conditional acceptance, but in extravagant feasting and rejoicing. We might wonder when the real moment of repentance occurs, in the pig pen when he “comes to himself” and decides to return home, or quietly, within himself, when his father wraps his arms around him.

(For some time now, I’ve been wondering if we address the issue of forgiveness often enough in the church. While we’re addressing the larger, communal issues of justice and transformation and inclusion, we might neglect the core values and personal challenges of Christianity. Jesus preached forgiveness, mercy, grace and non-violence, while many of our listeners on any Sunday are sitting before us, struggling deeply with family issues, long-held grudges, a sense of woundedness, and even a need to repent. Do we help our congregants shine the light of the gospel on these struggles?)

Love that waits for us to return

We fret about the young man’s sincerity, and our own, but John Stendahl says that, not surprisingly, what matters is actions, not words. That is, the turning home itself was all it took, the bringing ourselves into range, so to speak, of God’s love, which sets us free but waits and watches and hopes for our return. Did the father do the math on what his younger son had cost him? Stendahl suggests not, and focuses instead of the overflowing joy of the welcome home the boy received. Fortunately, he says, we benefit from this extravagance, and a party waits for us, too (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001).

We are the sinners and the tax collectors, the wandering and wasteful son, and perhaps the resentful older brother, too. Can we let ourselves be received and honored at the party, and can we bring ourselves to attend? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Can we even begin to imagine it?

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Abraham Lincoln, 19th century
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“[The one] who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love.”

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 21st century
“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

Gordon B. Hinckley, 20th century
“The willingness to forgive is a sign of spiritual and emotional maturity. It is one of the great virtues to which we all should aspire. Imagine a world filled with individuals willing both to apologize and to accept an apology. Is there any problem that could not be solved among people who possessed the humility and largeness of spirit and soul to do either–or both–when needed?”

Jodi Picoult, Mercy, 21st century
“Three months ago, if you asked me, I would have told you that if you really loved someone, you’d let them go. But now…I see that I’ve been wrong. If you really love someone, Allie, I think you have to take them back.”

G.K. Chesterton, 20th century
“For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

Graham Greene, Brighton Rock. 20th century
“You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

Additional reflection on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21:
by Karen Georgia Thompson

Focus theme:
Doing A New Thing

Karen-Thompson-400px.jpgThe creation and right ordering of all things are prevalent themes in the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. The creation story, where God creates and “it was good” is woven throughout the texts as prophets, psalmists and followers of Jesus point to the creation as the time when the world was optimal. The ordering of chaos, the triumph of light over darkness, the naming of plants and animals, point to a place where all things were good. A return to this place of right ordering, this place of “new creation” is itself about being in right relationship with the Divine, as it is about second chances and new opportunities to live differently in God.

Dianne Bergant calls to mind the writings of the prophets that are evident in this passage from Paul’s letter: “His primary focus in this passage is the contrast between this age, the age of sin and alienation from God, and the age to come, the age of fulfillment and union with God. Those who have been transformed in Christ are already living in this age. To describe their transformation Paul uses imagery reminiscent of the prophets. He speaks of a new creation (cf. Isa 65:17, 66:22; Jer 31:31; Ezek 36:26)” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C). The created order is under God’s care and control, even in the scope of the human condition where sin is concerned. God can bring about change that is transformational. In times of misery and despair the psalmists and the prophets longed for this time of new creation and change in ways that were eschatological and world changing, a time when God would intervene and bring about newness. This is the imagery Paul invokes, imagery that was familiar to him as one who knew the Hebrew scriptures and to those to whom he was writing.

This short passage in the lectionary is part of a larger section that begins at verse 11. In this portion of the letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is teaching on reconciliation, specifically what it means to be reconciled to God, as people of God. Paul’s teaching points back to the creation story where the phrase is repeated “and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1). At the end of the creation, when all is complete on the sixth day, the text notes: “God saw all that God had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). This goodness that comes in the order created by God is what Paul recalls in this missive to the Corinthians.

The possibility of the old becoming new is no mystery to Paul. The possibility of transformation comes through God, and with it the putting away of the old, and the receiving of the new.  This notion of transformation is repeated throughout the epistles. In Preaching through the Christian Year C, Carl R. Holladay cites this newness that Paul talks about in multiple places including Galatians 6:15, Romans 6:4 and Romans 12:2.

What does it mean for Paul when he states his desire for the old to become new? For the individual to be changed, transformed by God? What does that mean for us today in the Church, where we long for justice and right relationships for unsettled communities and in places where breaches in relationships exist with people and the earth?

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). These words are very well known by many, these words of Paul that speak to this newness that comes in Christ. The possibility of this newness comes to anyone when one has an encounter with Christ. The new creation is for anyone who is in Christ.  Like salvation, this reordering of the human condition is free. Everything old passes away and everything becomes new.

Paul is pointing to a new thing, a new opportunity, the possibility of starting afresh because of encounter with God. Holladay writes: “We should try to grasp the implication of Paul’s theology of new creation. He calls us to see the Christ-event as a new beginning, when the universe is quite literally remade, reordered, reconstituted” (Preaching through the Christian Year C).
This change comes because there is transformation that comes when one encounters God through Christ. In the earlier verses Paul recounts the death of Christ and concludes: “And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (v.15).

The reason for personal transformation is found earlier in the passage, and is not a part of this week’s reading. Being changed is for a purpose. The transformation that comes is from God and is for returning to right relationship with God. “And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Cor. 5:15).  

“Reconciliation is the heart of the message in this passage, a reconciliation that puts an end to any enmity with God. The new things of which Paul speaks are the reconciling action of God and the message of reconciliation that Paul is to preach. The second flows from the first,” Bergant writes (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C). This act of reconciliation puts those who are in Christ in the midst of this new thing. Those who know Christ are doing a new thing, as they find their way back into right relationship with God.

“The essence of the new creation is the work of God in bringing humanity, indeed all things, back into covenantal relationship with God. The distinguishing mark of the new creation is reconciliation – bringing together….The new creation may be regarded as the fulfillment of the prophetic hope that depicts Yahweh as ‘doing a new thing’ (Isa 43:18-19)” (Holladay, Preaching through the Christian Year C).

This “new thing” Paul describes is not a momentary transformation that is only for the good of the individual. Being reconciled to God and being in right relationship with God should affect how we act and how we live. This act of reconciliation, given freely, should translate to transformation that gives the same that was received – freely. Being in right relationship with God means being in right relationship with all of creation. That is the essence of being a new creation.

In Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Randall Bush takes this idea of reconciliation much further. He writes: “Reconciliation is less a ‘light switch’ and more a ‘lifestyle’ experience.  It necessarily combines words and actions, moving away from past prejudices through the patterns of respect, reparations and shared responsibility. It is seen through how we live together, offer education for our children, provide jobs that have intrinsic worth and future-building potential, how we care for the needy, the lonely, and the stranger in our midst, and by the spirit present in our public worship.”

Bush’s offering on reconciliation is a reminder that those who have encountered the Christ and are new creations are people who are willing to bring change and transform the world around them. Being changed means that the old world order that persists in perpetuating injustices must also be transformed. One who is changed can no longer participate in the injury of the other, can no longer subscribe to the systems that alienate and marginalize, instead, there is a desire to overcome these injustices and make all things new.

Susan Bond in New Proclamation Year C 2013 states: “To die to the powers of the world means that a Christian no longer measures the world by the world’s measures of success, identity, or power. Jesus has redefined for us what it means to belong, what it means to be successful, and what power looks like.” Is it possible that twenty-first century people who encounter Christ can live into this newness of which Paul speaks? Can we get beyond the status quo and be so transformed in the presence of God through Christ that we are transforming of the world around us?

This deep transformation that comes is not one of personal quest or making. This transformation comes from God and God alone. “Paul states very clearly that God and God alone is the one who accomplishes these marvels,” Bergant writes. “Rather than hold former sins against the guilty, God reconciles them through Christ” (Preaching through the Christian Year C). The newness of God brings about new ways of being in the world, a new role that builds bridges and lives in community with all for the common good. “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (v.20).

As ambassadors for Christ, the reconciled are reconcilers. “It is a title of which the primary meaning reflects the active appeal and work to seek healing relationships with God and one another,” Bush writes (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice). Bond explicates this awareness of reconciliation and the role of ambassador when she says that Paul is talking less about personal piety in this passage and is talking more about the vocation of the Church as an agent of real sociopolitical change (New Proclamation Year C 2013).  

The encouragement to “regard no one from a human point of view” is only possible upon transformation. The only way one can live into “regarding no one as human” but seeing each person through new eyes of a new creation. How can we open ourselves to living into this newness that God offers? How will being new help us to engage the world in transforming and transformative ways?

The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

Lectionary-based reflection on Disaster, Refugee and Sustainable Development ministries of the United Church of Christ through One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS)
by José Francisco Morales Torres

Focus Text:
Ruth 1:1–22

Preaching Theme:  
Walk the Extra Mile (“Where you go, I will go….”)

by José Francisco Morales Torres
OGHS.jpgThe One Great Hour of Sharing offering this year focuses on refugees and displaced persons. There is no better biblical story to accompany this work than that of Ruth and Naomi. Brief yet profound, in the opening passage of Ruth we encounter the resilience of two women who have been widowed, as well as ravaged by the natural disaster of famine. These ecological and socio-political events rendered Naomi and Ruth the most vulnerable in their society. Just like refugees today, Ruth and Naomi did not have the privilege of choosing to stay in their homes, but were forced to relocate.

The Book of Ruth can be read as both a human story and a God story, the former “incarnating” the latter. As a human story, we read about the spirituality of solidarity, which is richly encapsulated in verses 16 and 17. In the divine realm, we read of God’s redemption, which is mirrored or reciprocated in the human act of solidarity.

Redemption means that God stands in solidarity with us. Many times when we hear the story of Ruth, the human archetype for God is Boaz, the “kinsman redeemer” who “redeems” Ruth, securing a life for her. But the divine act of redemption can also be seen in the sacrificial commitment Ruth makes to Naomi to go where she goes and stay where she stays. The mutuality of their relationship is good news for a globalizing world that so often separates people into groups of “them” and “us.”

Applying the words of the theologian Roberto Goizueta to Ruth, to operate out of a mindset of community and mutual encouragement is to apply “a theology of acompañamiento [accompaniment].”  In other words, the God who abides in the Ruth story is revealed in the very act of accompanying the most vulnerable in society — both then and now.

Similarly, God is revealed to us in our accompanying of the refugee. As God walks with those who have been displaced, we may see God as we walk together with them as well. Consequently, we, like the refugee, come face-to-face with our own need and vulnerability: seeing God in the midst of all that is. This is an opportunity for Christians to reignite faith and reframe our humanity in our encounter with the faith and humanity of the other. We are able to recognize the transforming power of solidarity, not just for “them” but for “us.” After all, through the eyes of acompañamiento, there is only a united “us”!

The passage in Ruth can be approached in many ways. Here are three ways (not mutually exclusive) of entering the story of Ruth and proclaiming its implications for the Church’s ministry with and for refugees:

A. The Ruth/Naomi covenant personifies the Church’s call to justice for refugees. Reading about their journey through the lens of our globalizing world (and the refugee phenomenon it engenders), and viewing our globalizing world through the lens of Ruth and Naomi’s journey, we can hear our call to stand with refugees as a mutual act of vulnerability and hope. Solidarity is a spiritual discipline because by engaging in it, we encounter God.

B. Each stanza of line in verses 16 and 17 can serve as a structuring device to explore dimensions of solidarity. For example, “Where you go, I will go,” asserts that incarnational presence is foundational for solidarity; and “your people shall be my people” calls for identifying with “the other.” The spiritual depth of solidarity can be highlighted by the stanza “your God my God.” In a world where the power of words is depleting, this in-depth “word study” centeredness in verses 16 and 17 might help recover the substance of the word “solidarity.”

C. There are two planes (one explicit and the other implicit) on which the Ruth narrative operates: the human and the divine. The act of solidarity is the human corollary of the divine act of redemption. A good approach to the two planes might highlight the relationship between our theology and our ethics. In other words, our vision of God should inform our way of being in the world. In Ruth, the portrait of God is painted by two women choosing solidarity. God is therefore one who chose to stand in solidarity with us, whether we are from Judah or Moab. There are various theological traditions from which to draw, including liberation (God accompanying those who suffer), and Eastern Orthodox (incarnation as God taking on flesh to be in “solidarity” with all flesh).

The Rev. José Francisco Morales Torres is a member of the Ecumenical One Great Hour of Sharing group. He serves as Director of Pastoral Formation at Disciples Seminary Foundation in Claremont, California.

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Lectionary texts

Joshua 5:9-12

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Psalm 32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom God imputes no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to God,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
    at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

You are a hiding place for me;
    you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me
    with glad cries of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you
    the way you should go;
I will counsel you
    with my eye upon you.

Do not be like a horse or a mule,  
    without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked,
    but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in God.

Be glad in God and rejoice, O righteous,
    and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

From 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. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For 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, 11b-32

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

“There was a man who had two sons. The 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. A 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. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But 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! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So 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. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But 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. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But 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.'”

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”   

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!