Sermon Seeds: Divided
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 10)
Genesis 25:19-34 with Psalm 119:105-112 or
Isaiah 55:10-13 with Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Worship resources for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 10) are at Worship Ways
Additional reflection on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
by Karen Georgia Thompson
The journey through the book of Genesis continues for the second of five weeks in July. Last week’s text focused on the meeting of Isaac and Rebekah, as the story of these descendants of Abraham continues to unfold, and points the way to the promise that the descendants of Abraham would be “as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17).
These narratives in Genesis are no easy task, as threats to the promise arise early. The union of Isaac and Rebekah appears to be the avenue by which the next step to the promise will be fulfilled. Isaac himself was a miracle child, born to Sarah and Abraham in their old age (Genesis 21). Both had long surrendered any possibilities of fulfilling the promise of many descendants by the time that the promise was made to them that they would have a son (Genesis 18).
The promise is threatened again
Now the miracle child is married but the theme of barrenness reappears, an impediment to the fulfillment of the promise once again. “The earlier story of Sarah has prepared us to expect a positive resolution and we are not disappointed,” Holly Hearon writes: “Isaac’s prayer is answered” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
God resolved this problem once before; it is therefore no surprise that the solution comes quickly for Isaac, with none of the drama surrounding his own conception and birth. “Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived” (25:21).
Prayer and promise
Isaac’s response to the situation is different from that of his father. Frank Anthony Spina notes the connection between prayer and promise specifically in the way Isaac and Abraham handle the barrenness of their wives and the threat to the promise: “But unlike Abraham, Isaac prayed in his wife’s behalf, a prayer which the Lord answered….Thus Rebekah’s pregnancy was the result of divine intervention” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
This theme of divine intervention runs the course of these Hebrew narratives surrounding promise. In last week’s reflection, Kate Matthews explored the theme of God’s providence: “Still, God is at work in this little story, and it invites us to reflect on a question with which many faithful folks often struggle: God’s providence, and God’s will, in our everyday lives, even though we don’t hear God’s voice addressing us directly. How, then, do we read the signs around us, and know what God wants us to do? How much of what happens is something God wills to happen, and what is our role in it all?”
The role of prayer
In addition to those questions, I would ask: What is the role of prayer in our lives? Will promises made be fulfilled quicker if we pray? How do we understand the role of God in how we pray and what we pray for?
Another barren woman, another threat to the promise, prayers, and the story continues, because in this instance the focal point of the text is not the parents, but their offspring and what is to come with these children. The story quickly changes to the two children in Rebekah’s womb.
Questions for God
Rebekah’s conception is not without challenges. Her barrenness gave way to her own discomfort, leading her to wonder at what is going on within her. She wonders if she is going to die of pain. Her inquiry of God provides her with the answer that she is having two children, out of which there will be two nations, but unfortunately these two nations and these two people will be divided (25:23). With that revelation, another prediction is made about the two children: “the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (25:23b).
Sibling rivalry is nothing new. For some, sibling rivalry can be a source of healthy competition which motivates achievement and success while nurturing healthy relationship among siblings. In other cases, we have siblings like Esau and Jacob, destructive, disparate and creating despair and distrust throughout the course of their relationship–even from their mother’s womb. “How the occupants of Rebekah’s womb can know the importance of being delivered first involves prolepsis: a situation in which characters can know something before it is logically possible,” Frank Anthony Spina explains. “In any case, as we shall see, this same struggle continues till the day of birth” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). These two begin to create division before they are even born.
The birth of two nations
The relationship between Esau and Jacob, from the womb, attempts to explain the birth of two nations and their continued discontent with each other. Addressing this conflict between the brothers that is reflected in the familial, cultural and even in the tradition which favors shepherds, Gene Tucker explains: “Finally, it is present on the political, national, and international level, for the two brothers are ancestors of the states of Israel and Edom. Immediate neighbors, their rivalry persisted from earliest times until the end of the Old Testament era, and frequently broke into violence” (Preaching through the Church Year A).
While this womb-related conflict points us toward a greater conflict, Hearon provides her own words of caution: “These domestic events anticipate future events to be played out on the world stage. However, they should be viewed less as predictions than perhaps a playing out of human character in dialogue with the larger narrative of God” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
Family dynamics in every age
As the brothers grow together, their differences become even more evident. They are twins who are completely dissimilar. Their personalities are not the same. They choose different occupations, and to exacerbate the situation, their parents each favor one over the other, Rebekah loving Jacob while Isaac favors Esau. Their family dynamics fuel the dysfunctional rivalry that begins with their struggle in the womb, jockeying for position to exit the womb first, and continues through their birth, when Esau arrives with Jacob holding on to his heel (v.26).
The division between them permeates every aspect of their lives created–a house divided–a family divided. What do we do with these familial dynamics? What, if any lesson(s) is there for us in this story?
Relationships and encounters
This on-going struggle between Esau and Jacob made me think about the many relationships we encounter regularly. Besides familial relationships, there are relationships with colleagues and friends, and relationships in our places of worship and spiritual contexts. There are also our general encounters with people each day. In each of those is the potential for relationship, or not.
In those places where we encounter others, we have a role in determining what that relationship will be. There is a place for healthy competition, yet there are some places where competition can be unhealthy, and relationships that are steeped in rivalry prove to be detrimental to community life.
Seeing ourselves in Esau and Jacob
Is there room for us to examine our own relationships in the context of these two brothers? And what of our relationships within the church: are there ways in which rivalries are creating breeches in relationships? Is there room for healing the brokenness in those relationships to prevent division in our houses of worship?
The relationship between the two brothers is at best–uncomfortable. The initial appearance of their personalities proves somewhat false. Things are not what they appear to be. “Esau, a skillful hunter, is unable to recognize when he is being made the prey; Jacob, a ‘quiet man’ (tam: morally innocent), is shown to be a ruthless schemer,” Holly Hearon observes. “Both are driven by their wants” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).
The value of a birthright
Esau wants food to fulfill an immediate need, while Jacob is more interested in having what his brother has–and places very little value on–his birthright. As the younger brother, Jacob understands that he does not have the same rights to inheritance as his brother does. Rather than care for his brother who is hungry, Jacob exploits his brother’s need by providing him with food only after he relinquishes his birthright.
Themes of greed and exploitation should cause us to take pause. This is by no means a happy story. It is the making of tragedy: loss of humanity robs one of his human dignity, and broken relationships within the family abound. Both brothers provide case studies for the human condition and beg reflection on the ways in which we live in relationship with one another.
Justice and care
Issues of justice and care for community are highlighted in this exchange. Are we willing to give to each other in times of need or do we find ways to promote personal gain? Who are the exploited within the community? Who are the people who lose what they have to eat and what they need to live?
This week’s theme, “Divided” is evident in the text. In 1858, while running for the Senate, Abraham Lincoln drew on the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:25 when he wrote, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln recognized the need for justice and change. He was willing to state what he believed regardless of the cost. He believed in unity that did not yet exist.
Pain and brokenness and division
Reading the pain and brokenness of these two brothers, fighting from the womb, leads us to look at the divisions in the church. The rivalry between these two brothers is about greed, envy and differences. As we look at places of division within the church, how can differences that divide be effectively addressed to create a healthy body–living into Jesus’ prayer, “that they may all be one?”
Looking inward and then looking outward, individually and collectively, allows us to find our place in the midst of the good and the bad, of living in right relationship. We can be bridge builders or creators of the breech. How can we bring unity into places where fault lines exist in relationship?
“One thing that can always be learned from stories like this,” Richard Pervo writes, “is the possibility of grace, that the real meaning of providence is not that God has a plan for your life, but that God has goals for the world, goals achieved by writing straight with crooked lines” (New Proclamation Year A 2011).
The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in the Office of General Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Winston Churchill, 20th century
“When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”
Louisa May Alcott, Little Men, 19th century
“…we’re twins, and so we love each other more than other people…”
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone, 21st century
“The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.”
J.K. Rowling, 21st century (Harry Potter)
“Wow, we’re identical!”
Socrates, 5th century B.C.E.
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 19th century
“The world says: ‘You have needs–satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
There’s something so down-to-earth about this passage, which opens up the third set of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. We can picture Jesus walking out of his house after a private tutoring session with his disciples, seeing the large crowds gathered to hear him (“the harvest is plentiful,” 9:37), and then climbing into a boat to address them.
Sound may carry better across water than land, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the message is received and listened to, in the heart. Barbara Brown Taylor is poetic in her description of Jesus in the water, “his figure swaying a little with each lift of the waves, his words full of life and as hard to hold as a handful of lake” (“The Extravagant Sower” in The Seeds of Heaven). What makes those “full of life” words so “hard to hold”?
Consider the setting
Inside the house, Jesus could talk to his disciples candidly and directly. And we remember that he was very direct with the crowds in his earlier teachings (think of the Sermon on the Mount, back in Chapter 5), but perhaps things have now changed. It’s time to switch to a new way of teaching: out on the water, in front of a crowd that could have included spies from the empire and concerned religious authorities as well as pickpockets and thieves, Jesus turns to a common practice of the time: speaking in parables. And parables, and their meanings, are definitely “hard to hold.”
“Listen!” Jesus begins and ends his speech in the NRSV with the same word: “Listen!” What he’s about to say is important, but he knows that only those who have ears to hear, and hearts to listen, will get what he’s talking about. The rest will be bewildered and unsure: is he making trouble, or not? It’s a little like speaking in code, or telling family stories that only members will understand. Ironically, it’s insider talk by the ultimate Outsider.
Preaching the Reign of God, always
Can you imagine what the crowds thought? Maybe they came to hear a compelling and clear message, perhaps even a rabble-rousing speech to overthrow the Romans, but, Taylor says, “what they get instead are more like dreams or poems, in which images of God’s kingdom are passed before them–as familiar as the crops in their own fields and the loaves in their own kitchens–but with a strange new twist” (“The Extravagant Sower” in The Seeds of Heaven). Jesus preached the Reign of God, always.
I was taught that just about the time you think that you “know” what a parable means, right when you think you’ve figured it out, you’re wrong. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it seems obvious that more than one meaning in this story is possible. Matthew provides an explanation from the time of an early Christian community that must have felt small and threatened, and sometimes ineffective and discouraged. But even he “tweaks” the story a bit, changing “seed” to “seeds” and reversing the order of the harvest.
Who is the sower?
Commentators, of course, wrestle with the meaning of those changes, and even with the explanation of the Gospels before us, we can ask some thought-provoking questions: What is the seed, and what is the ground, and who is that sower? It’s almost like watching different climbers attempting to conquer a mountain, each one taking his or her own approach, and the mountain always wins. But it’s still there, just like the story, which has something to say to us today.
Some commentators concentrate on Matthew’s interpretation, and ask us what kind of soil we are to receive the Word of God, and what kind of harvest we will yield. The story, though, is not a measuring-stick for the faith of others, or a guideline for who’s saved and who isn’t (although that seems to be a preoccupation of many of us today). Charles Cousar says it well: “As hearers, the disciples are not allowed the luxury of armchair quarterbacking, of deliberating over someone else’s positive or negative response as to who gets the credit or blame. The text bluntly asks, How do you hear? What type of soil are you? Does your hearing lead to understanding?” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
A lifetime process
And it’s also important, Dianne Bergant tells us, “to remember that each of the different ‘soils’ initially heard the Word of God” and, “to some extent it was accepted. Jesus is not referring here to outright rejection from outsiders but to the way followers receive the word of God” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year A). Our openness to receive and be transformed by the Word is a much deeper, and more fertile, process, not a one-time event. Growing closer and closer to the kingdom is a lifetime process.
Another layer of meaning is revealed by the need of the early church for encouragement against the odds. Matthew’s community, along with the other Christian communities, must have felt threatened and, at times, overwhelmed by the size of the forces arrayed against it. Charles Cousar imagines the effect of Jesus’ words upon the little church, “dwarfed by its surroundings”; for them, “the final scene engenders great confidence in God’s purposes. Though the numbers are small, the opposition painful, and the rejections many, the remarkable size of the harvest is a reminder of God’s blessing, the assurance of a grand and glorious conclusion” (Texts for Preaching Year A).
A most lavish harvest
However, Thomas Long reminds us that this is kingdom talk, not conventional wisdom: “The message of the parable to the church is not ‘Be diligent and play the percentages. Spread the word widely enough and a certain portion will surely yield results.'” In the end, he writes, the sower “would not congratulate himself that his hard work had finally paid off; he would be astonished at the gift he had received, a harvest more lavish than he could ever have dreamed” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Thus we’re guided away from thinking that our efforts and timelines are sure to “pay off” according to our strategic plans, calculated expectations, and guaranteed results. Instead, we might cultivate our ability to be astonished.
Imagination, an open mind and an open heart, are all needed for parable hearing (perhaps that’s why those “little ones” were able to grasp so readily who Jesus was and what he was about). So it’s intriguing to follow a slightly different line of thought: what if the story, Barbara Brown Taylor says, is “not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns but about the extravagance of a sower who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon…confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes in at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters?”
An extravagant God
For Taylor, the parable is not about us and our efforts but about God’s abundant generosity (“The Extravagant Sower” in The Seeds of Heaven). And she’s not alone in this line of thought: many writers observe that this sower is, shall we say, immoderate, like God, who throws grace and mercy around, in an unrestrained way, showering them on a world hungry for both, whether it realizes it or not.
What does our situation today share with that of the early church long ago? The early Christians of Matthew’s community faced all sorts of responses to their proclamation of the Good News: persecution, indifference, hostility, closed minds, loss of place and community. When Christians today proclaim the counter-cultural gospel of love, peace, justice and acceptance of all God’s children, we face many of the same responses our ancestors in faith encountered: persecution, indifference, hostility, closed minds, loss of place and community.
God, working wonders
As in early Christianity, a measure of this opposition comes from within the religious community. And yet God works great wonders in all situations, and is astonishingly extravagant in offering grace and new life in the harshest of situations and the deepest deprivations. The sower is remarkably free in throwing the seed on all sorts of potential “growth areas.” There’s no calculation or careful husbandry of the seeds in his pocket. In the face of all sorts of obstacles and dangers, the sower counts on the bountiful return of a few seeds; he imagines the plentiful harvest reaped when even a few of the seeds find fertile soil.
What are ways and times that your church has felt that its efforts have fallen on barren or rocky ground? What are the experiences they have had of being rocky or barren ground, or of being fertile ground for the Word of God? Eugene Peterson’s translates verse 21: “there is no soil of character, and so when the emotions wear off and some difficulty arrives, there is nothing to show for it” (The Message).
How fertile is this soil?
This parable has been compared to the stewardship statistic that eighty percent of the money given to the church comes from twenty percent of the people in the church. How does this comparison affect your hearing of this parable? If there are well over two thousand references in the Bible to money and our possessions and our relationship to them, how many modern Christians really “get” the message of Jesus? How fertile is the “soil” of American Christianity?
This text might offer an interesting and perhaps irresistible opportunity to preach a summer-time sermon on stewardship, as part of a year-round stewardship ministry. It is truly the generosity of God that gives abundantly, the generosity of God that magnifies our best efforts into a “fruitful, extravagant, and altogether gracious yield,” Thomas Long writes: “Therefore, the church is called to ‘waste itself,’ to throw grace around like there is no tomorrow, precisely because there is a tomorrow, and it belongs to God” (Matthew, The Westminster Bible Companion). To whom does your “tomorrow” belong?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired last year after serving 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 in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
For further reflection:
Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, 20th century
“He [Jesus] speaks in parables, and though we have approached these parables reverentially all these many years and have heard them expounded as grave and reverent vehicles of holy truth, I suspect that many if not all of them were originally not grave at all but were antic, comic, often more than just a little shocking.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
Oscar Wilde, 19th century
“Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.”
Robert Farrar Capon, Parables of the Kingdom, 20th century
“With Jesus, however, the device of parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings.”
Lise-Lotte Loomer, Greenhouse Hygge: The House of My Growing Dreams, 21st century
“We’re all given gifts in life, it’s what we do with them that shows us what we’ve learned.”
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterwards his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
I have sworn an oath
and confirmed it,
to observe your righteous ordinances.
I am severely afflicted;
give me life, O God,
according to your word.
Accept my offerings of praise, O God,
and teach me your ordinances.
I hold my life in my hand continually,
but I do not forget your law.
The wicked have laid a snare for me,
but I do not stray from your precepts.
Your decrees are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
I incline my heart
to perform your statutes
forever, to the end.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Praise is due to you,
O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity
you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose
and bring near
to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied
with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.
By awesome deeds you answer us
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends
of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength
you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring
of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s
are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways
of the morning
and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year
with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow
The pastures of the wilderness
the hills gird themselves
the meadows clothe themselves
the valleys deck themselves
they shout and sing together
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!
“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
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!