Weekly Seeds: Come to Life

Sunday, March 27, 2022
Fourth Sunday in Lent | Year C

Focus Theme:
Come to Life

Focus Prayer:
Compassion One, come to us when we have lost our way. Restore to us the fullness of joy found in your kindom and your presence. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. 12 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. 13 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. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 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. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 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! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 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. 21 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.’ 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for 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. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 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. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 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.’ ”

All readings for this Sunday:
Joshua 5:9–12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16–21
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32

Focus Questions:
1. What makes you come alive?
2. Have you ever lost that spark of life? What made you lose it?
3. How did you recover it? How do you continually cultivate it?
4. What needs to be lost in order for you to find yourself or something greater that is missing?
5. How do you celebrate life?

By Cheryl Lindsay

From the opening words of Jesus, we understand that there are at least three perspectives at work in this story. We don’t have to imagine what the father and his two sons are experiencing, the text manages to incorporate all three points of view in the story. This story isn’t meant to be skimmed; it’s meant to be heard. When you skim through the passage, you struggle to connect which “he” Jesus is talking about because the point of view changes. Everyone is seen and heard in this story.

Yet, Jesus also conveys that the parent is the one who is the dominant character. Even when he is absent from the action, his influence permeates our consciousness. The parent’s action takes the form of response; he acts minimally, and his actions serve primarily to propel his sons toward their actions. He empowers them and responds to them but issues no directives. It’s a nice story about family dynamics: disloyalty and defiance, forgiveness, and compassion, jealousy and disappointment.

But, why does Jesus tell it?

Remember, first of all, that Jesus shares this as a parable.It’s a tale crafted to impact a lesson upon the listen. Jesus often responded to the questions he received by telling a story. It might encourage us to question those who respond to theological questions with a bit of text out of context instead of a story. These stories that Jesus told, as much of the biblical narrative tells, offer the human condition in fleshy tones. They are decidedly not exemplary; there are no allusions of perfection painted in these renditions of human interaction. All three characters in this story are sympathetic in some way even if some responses are more or less faithful than others. That’s real life and our faith is meant to be lived in flesh not in theoretical constructs.

Of course, the Pharisees had come to view life in those terms. In their self-righteousness, they disassociated themselves from others who did not live up to the impossible standards they set, first for themselves, and then, for others. I imagine the first Pharisees would have seen nothing inherently wrong with associating with tax collectors and sinners. But, as they adopted a life of self-righteousness (as opposed to righteousness in God), they would have isolated themselves from any temptation that would challenge their ability to remain true to their rules. Isolation led, as it often does, to disdain and away from compassion (which means to suffer with). Thus, that explains their grumbling at Jesus, who has no difficulty or concern about being in relationship with “sinners.”

That lifestyle they adopted–to be more pious and righteous–had the opposite effect of their intentions. In their attempt to draw nearer to God, they moved further from their neighbor and kin in the realm of God…and ultimately from the Holy One as well. Self-righteousness naturally and definitely disconnects us from God our Righteousness. It’s not surprising, in light of that, they found themselves grumbling and missing the Living God in their midst.

How often do we engage in faith-based practices that no longer serve us? What happens when we continue that action that initially brought us closer to God…but now no longer serves us or our relationship?
My pastor, Rev. Paul Hobson Sadler, Sr., would often say that he did not want anyone to do anything in ministry that they did not want to do. At the same time, he never seemed to hesitate to ask anyone to participate in a greater way. I realized that his approach was similar to the one I learned in my early career in business. He never asked anyone to do something they had not demonstrated some affinity or gift.

Obligation and duty get venerated in our society, but they work against bearing fruit. Reluctant action can achieve some measure of success but it does not bring life.

So, why does Jesus tell the Pharisees this story: to invite them to come to life:

The theme is familiar: Jesus’ interactions with tax collectors and others who bear the social stigma of “sinners,” persons living outside the structure of faithful Torah observance, provoke the righteous to protest. In reply, he seeks to explain and defend his practice, but also to persuade righteous critics to embrace it….

The third parable defending Jesus’ acceptance of tax collectors and sinners repeats the pattern of the first two: what has been lost is recovered, and its restoration then prompts communal celebration. However, this most expansive of Jesus’ parables adds complicating plot elements—issues relating to inheritance, rivalry between brothers, and voiced protest against the restoration of the lost one—that permit Jesus’ critics to find themselves within the story and thereby be persuaded to embrace his practice of hospitality, enacting the welcoming grace of God’s dominion. (John T. Carroll)
The Pharisees have lost their way, and this parable told in a series of lost things (coin, sheep, and son) is more than a metaphor for evangelism. It encapsulates a wider story of redemption, community, and love. The father in this story doesn’t just have one lost son; he has two. The younger one is the only one who comes to himself. The elder was just as lost but in a different way.

There are members of Christian faith communities who check all the boxes. They attend worship regularly, they serve in some capacity, and they contribute financially. But they’ve lost the life. Worship becomes empty patterns and route movements without revelation or response.. Service lacks joy and meaning, depletes energy, and resembles an arduous chore. Giving equates power and influence rather than generosity and gratitude. They identify more, in practice, with the path of the Pharisee than with the searching tax collector. Jesus pursues them both but the Pharisee (elder son) doesn’t realize they’ve strayed because they meet the performative criteria they’ve established for themselves.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of the Pharisee. These three lost stories all refer to something or someone dislocated. In other words, they were lost in the sense of drifting from a proper position or alignment rather than being sought from an initial external position. The only reason the younger son was lost was because he left his home, not because he never had one. This story isn’t telling the tax collectors and sinners that they are welcomed among Jesus–they already know that. They have recognized his invitation and hospitality. This story invites the Pharisee to come back to life with God, to eschew the rigid forms that have strangled joy, love, and grace out of their life with God.

Jesus isn’t relaying this story to the tax collector, even though they can readily eavesdrop on the conversation. Like the prophets of old, his words are spoken to those in power. In this case, the religious leaders who have gone astray:

These three parables echo prophecies from Jeremiah and Ezekiel—prophecies that describe the people of Israel. “My people have become lost sheep [probata apolōlata],” complains Jeremiah; “their shepherds drove them out. They went astray [apeplanēsan] upon the mountains; they kept going from mountain to hill; they have forgotten their sheepfold. . . . They have sinned [hēmarton] against the Lord” (Jer. 50:6-7). Elsewhere, he affirms, “I myself will welcome [eisdexomai] the remnant of my people” (Jer. 23:3). Ezekiel confirms this promise: “I myself will shepherd my sheep [probata]. . . . I will seek the lost [to apolōlos zētēsō], and I will turn back the strayed [planōmenon]” (Ezek. 34:15-16). Luke seems to suggest that when Jesus welcomes sinners, these prophecies are being fulfilled. The Lord is seeking and finding his lost sheep.(Jocelyn McWhirter)

Yes, there is good news for those who have never felt connected to God, but there is also good news for those who have lost their way…not by failing to live up to impossible standards or by making unfortunate decisions. God’s love is not withheld when we turn from God or when we hope that God turns from others. God’s favor extends to the just and the unjust. Righteousness comes as a gift accompanied by grace, mercy, and compassion.

Jesus comes for the lost, including the Pharisee, the obliged, the duty-driven, and the self-righteous…to invite them (us) to come to life.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“I dwell mostly upon the religious aspects, because I believe it is the religious people who are to be relied upon in this Anti-Slavery movement. Do not misunderstand my railing—do not class me with those who despise religion—do not identify me with the infidel. I love the religion of Christianity—which cometh from above—which is a pure, peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of good fruits, and without hypocrisy. I love that religion which sends its votaries to bind up the wounds of those who have fallen among thieves.
By all the love I bear such a Christianity as this, I hate that of the Priest and the Levite, that with long-faced Phariseeism goes up to Jerusalem to worship and leaves the bruised and wounded to die. I despise that religion which can carry Bibles to the heathen on the other side of the globe and withhold them from the heathen on this side—which can talk about human rights yonder and traffic in human flesh here…. I love that which makes its votaries do to others as they would that others should do to them. I hope to see a revival of it—thank God it is revived. I see revivals of it in the absence of the other sort of revivals. I believe it to be confessed now, that there has not been a sensible man converted after the old sort of way, in the last five years.”
― Frederick Douglass

For further reflection:
“Legalism has killed more faith than doubt ever has.” ― Andrena Sawyer
“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” ― Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit
“The Holy Spirit did not go into such detail about the Pharisees in the New Testament just so we could understand a group unique to the first century. Pharisaism is a poisonous weed that grows in every garden of orthodox religion. Pharisaism is every bit the threat to the orthodox today that it was then.” ― J.D. Greear

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.