Monday Theme - Lost
Scripture - Luke 15:4 - Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.
Quote – Jean Vanier - I do not believe we can truly enter into our own inner pain and wounds and open our hearts to others unless we have had an experience of God, unless we have been touched by God. We must be touched by the Father in order to experience, as the prodigal son did, that no matter how wounded we may be, we are loved. And not only are we loved, but we too are called to heal and to liberate. This healing power in us will not come from our capacities and our riches, but in and through our poverty. We are called to discover that God can bring peace, compassion and love through our wounds.
Thought - Although it is easy to miss because it happens so quickly, but the point of this weeks series of parables is to address the resistance that the Pharisees and religious officials show to Jesus's ministry of reconciling the lost and ignored to relationship with God. And as tempting as it may be to begin to think others who exhibit the same resistance, the character of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, is written to force us to confront the ways in which WE are the ones who resist the example and call of Christ to be reconcilers. Jesus tells these parables in such a way as to draw us in to be able to both confront our own resistance and then accept with joy our role on his behalf, as those who heal, nurture and encourage whole and healthy relationships both with others and with God.
Jesus begins with a couple of simple parables about a lost lamb and a lost coin. These parables do a couple of things. First they invite us to recall a time when we felt lost. Not physically or geographically, but emotionally and spiritually. These parables are meant to remind us of our own experience of being incomplete. Perhaps we are lost because circumstance or choices freely made have lead us to a place in our lives that we neither like nor know exactly how to extract ourselves from. Perhaps we are lost because we are for one reason or another we are ignored, dismissed or treated as unimportant. Notice that the two characters of the opening parables are people who would be either easily ignored or dismissed as dishonorable, a woman and a shepherd. Jean Vanier's quote for today makes the point explicitly, 'This healing power in us will not come from our capacities and our riches, but in and through our poverty.' We do grow either to realize, accept or accel at being reconcilers from our strengths, but from our weaknesses. It is only when we recall those moments when we felt lost spiritual and emotionally that we develop the spiritual urge to seek the lost and have compassion for those who wander far from path of God.
The second thing that these parables do is remind us of the joy of finding something of value that we thought we had lost. We will look to this more closely later this week. But notice how the phrase 'rejoice,' is repeated. So Jesus is inviting those who resist being reconcilers to remember their own painful experience of feeling lost and also, the joy of finding something of value that we thought we had lost. This is not necessarily an object, like a coin. It could be a relationship that we thought was broken. So Jesus roots our ministry of reconciling in our experiences of the pain of feeling lost and the joy of finding or being found.
Study – 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Prayer – When we feel lost comfort us with the promise that you are never far and always searching. When we have strayed, encourage us with the knowledge that you always welcome us home. If we sink into feeling not worth the finding remind us the joy you experience in gathering us into your embrace. We ask that you not only heal us with this good news but inspire us to be hospitable and merciful people so that all might know the joy of being found.
Tuesday Theme – God Described - Searching, Sweeping, Gifting and Running
Scripture - Luke 15:8 - “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?
Quote – Soren Kierkegaard Never cease loving a person, and never give up hope for him, for even the prodigal son who had fallen most low, could still be saved; the bitterest enemy and also he who was your friend could again be your friend; love that has grown cold can kindle.
A fun game to play with this weeks story from Luke is to read through it and either highlight in your bible, or if that creeps you out (some people taught to takes notes in their bible and others to NEVER do such a thing), make a list of all the action words, the verbs. Particularly the actions of the shepherd the woman and the father. Each of these characters are intended by Jesus to reveal the life and mission of God. So I invite you to pause now and make a list.
If you’ve decided to play along you will have on your list words or phrases such as; go after, joyfully puts it on his shoulders, rejoice, light a lamp, sweep the house, search carefully, rejoice (again), ran, threw his arms around, kissed, celebrate. What do you notice about your list? The first two parables reveal great effort and even some risk. It is risky (even foolish) to risk 99 sheep in order to find one. But there goes the shepherd expending all this energy and risking his profits, stamping around in the undergrowth and yelling at the sky searching for one sheep. The woman goes to great lengths to find a coin. That one coin out of ten is no doubt worth more than one sheep out of 100. But that is perhaps the point. Those who are lost are of great value and worth. And did you notice how utterly unrestrained and even silly the father acts. A man of wealth, status and honor would NOT run, in public, to greet the son who had previously publicly shamed him. But there goes the father, throwing decorum to the wind, gathering up his robe to run down the road, and shamefully welcoming his dishonored son home with wanton public displays of affection.
The point of all this to completely reorient the way those who resist the call to be reconcilers think about God. You may recall that in the past I have suggested that two of the main schools of faith presented to us in the Bible are purity and justice. Those who resist reconciling are in the purity camp. God is disgusted an displeased by human sin. So God must keep a distance from the impurity of sin. Jesus highlighting the justice or justifying view of God. God does not need to keep distance from sin, chaos, brokenness but instead enters it to heal and recreate it. Instead of trying to please an angry God disgusted by sin and impurity, Jesus entices the Pharisees (and all who be his disciples) to participate in God's primary action in creation, seeking, finding and rescuing the lost and the broken. One of the reasons that these parables, especially the parable of the Prodigal Son remain favorites, is because God is presented as relentlessly searching for the lost, pursuing the wandering, in order to joyfully place them on God's shoulders and bring them home. If faith is that spiritual practice that connects us and draws us closer to God, these parables reveal a God whose primary action is always reaching out toward God's creation seeking wholesome, healing relationship.
Study – 1 John 4: 7-21
Prayer – Help us to greet this new day inspired and energized by the creative action you are already taking in the world, searching, running, greeting, embracing God. Not so that we are caught up in the need to be busy to prove ourselves, but to meet each moment of our day confident that you are already there making each challenge an opportunity to join in the joyful celebration of your life changing love unleashed on the world. Find us and fill us with that joy and send us out into the world rejoicing.
Wednesday Theme - Sin & Repentance (The Older Brother)
Scripture - Luke 15:2 - But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Quote – Hans Urs von Balthasar - If the prodigal son had not believed that the father's love was already waiting for him, he would not have been able to make the journey home - even if his father's love welcomes him in a way he never would have dreamed of. The decisive thing is that the sinner has heard of a love that could be, and really is, there for him; he is not the one who has to bring himself into line with God; God has always already seen in him, the loveless sinner, a beloved child and has looked upon him and conferred dignity upon him in the light of this love.”
Ed Cole is noted for commenting upon the story of the Prodigal Son, The pattern of the prodigal is: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration. I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Cole. I would suggest that the pattern is rebellion, ruin, reconciliation, repentance, restoration. It's a playful disagreement. But l would suggest there is something to be gained from pondering the difference between repentance before reconciliation and repentance as a result of reconciliation.
Let's look at the parable of the prodigal son in detail. While living in ruin the younger son who has squandered his wealth and now lives in poverty and shame decides to return home to beg for mercy. And it is true that in his heart and mind he had decided to ask forgiveness for shaming his father. In a sense he repents and this would seem to support Mr. Cole's argument. But look closely at how the son's plans are superseded by his father's actions. He journeys home, but we find out that his father has been keeping watch for him to return and before the prodigal has a chance not only to offer his confession, but even gets to the house, the father runs to greet him with an embrace and a kiss. Before the father hears the confession (the repentance) he is filled with compassion and welcomes his son home. The reconciliation happens before the son's repentance. This reading is supported by the opening of this entire story. The Pharisees are offended by the fact that Jesus 'welcomes' sinners. In greek the word is prosdechomai and means 'accept.' Jesus accepts the sinners.
Our quote for the day highlights the pre-eminence of reconciliation leading to repentance. Balthasar writes, ' The decisive thing is that the sinner has heard of a love that could be, and really is, there for him; he is not the one who has to bring himself into line with God.' Balthasar reminds us that Jesus is not teaching us pattern or a process, but revealing the truth that we are the beneficiaries of God's gracious love, which does not wait for us to be deserving. Instead it reaches out to make us deserving. One of the great theologians of the mid 20th century summarized this in a sermon entitled, 'Accept that you are accepted.' Paul would summarize this in Romans 3 by saying 'all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace.' And Paul's point is not to manipulate us with guilt and shame, but instead to undermine the spiritual and theological lies that kept various ethnic and socio-economic groups from being truly reconciled in the early church. None of them were superior. All were loved by God because of God's graciousness, not because of anything they had done to earn that love.
Study – Romans 5:1-10
Prayer – Remind us Lord today, that we are loved just as we are, where we are. That you delight in us fully, our failures and successes, our faults and our virtues, our past and our potential. Bring us hope and peace through knowing that your love is not a reward for good behavior, but a gift freely given. And then, let us grow and change, serve and work as a response to your great love for us.
Scripture Luke 15:9 - And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’
Quote – Henri Nouwen -“In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”
Take a moment to not only reflect on today's verse, but to read the full scripture passage, Luke 15:1-32 to highlight or list all the places we see Jesus referencing joy or celebration. For instance look at how often the word 'rejoice' is repeated in the first parable alone. The lost and found sheep is placed on the shepherds shoulders 'joyfully.' He returns home and invites his friends to rejoice with him and then Jesus comments that this illustrates the joy in heaven when a sinner repents. Three references to joy in three verses. There is a similar pattern in the parable of the lost coin and lengthy descriptions of the father's joy, giving of gifts and planning of an elaborate celebration along with the repetition of the word celebration. It seems quote obvious once we put the list together that Jesus wants the Pharisees to see that God is joyful and always prepared for celebration.
I wonder how refreshing it might be for people to hear that God is joyful, that God is Joy?! It seems to me that there are far too many public voices and television preachers who present an angry, wrathful, punishing God. It also seems to me that for many American's God is largely distant and uninvolved in our lives, at most a butler waiting to serve when we require. And if God is most often either presented as angry or distant and unobtrusive, no wonder increasingly people doubt that there is a God at all. I wouldn't want to believe in that god either. But the God that Jesus presents is a God of joy and celebration. A God who loves lavishly and even foolishly. A God who is always watching and even more searching for a reason to celebrate. And what causes God joy, what makes God want to celebrate, is wholesome, intimate connection with those whom God has created. God takes great joy in us! In listening to us, in sharing life with us, in guiding and instructing us, and in working with us!
Pondering this makes me wonder further, how really focusing our lives and ministries and mission on the joy of God would cause us to grow as individuals and as a church? Would we feel more confident inviting people to visit our church if we were inviting them to a joyful celebration? How would the tenor of our committee and team mtgs grow and develop if celebration was the main theme? Might we discover new missions if we were watching and listening intently for celebration and furthermore might we also find the courage to take risks and accept new challenges if we were increasingly confident that God would be celebrating our efforts? I'm personally wondering how my sermons might develop if some form of joy and celebration were a part of my remarks, even when the main theme was challenging? And how might each of our days unfold before us if we started the day by preparing to find and share the joy of the God who seeks and rescues those who are lost? It seems that focusing on the Joy of God just might reframe everything in a new light if it became center of our spiritual, worship, and ministry lives. And perhaps that is exactly what Jesus's intention is.
Study – John 15:1-17; John 16:19-24
Prayer – Help me greet this day, and every moment within it with Joy. Not the joy that simply dismissed hurts and injustice. Not the joy that sugarcoats problems and challenges. Instead, fill me with the joy that inspires me to resist fear, anger and doubt. Fill me a joy that frees me from the power and influence of all that is negative and allows me to meet each challenge with hope in your blessed promise to be with me, and to transform every ill into something good.
Friday Theme - Alienation, Reconciliation Refused
Scripture – Luke 15:28 - “The older brother became angry and refused to go in.
Quote – Henri Nouwen -“Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don't receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”
As much as I would have preferred to end the weeks reflections on the high note of joy, this scripture section does offer a challenge. Yes, its very final words focus on celebrating the return of the prodigal. But they are the words of the father challenging his other son to stop alienating and distancing himself from the joyful reconciliation. These parables challenge us to acknowledge the times or ways that we too distance ourselves from the work of the lavishly loving God and interrogate the reasons why.
The older son in the final parable feels unfairly treated. I think we can all understand that. He has remained faithful to his father. He has shouldered his responsibilities and maintained the honor of his family by being dutiful. So he wonders why his younger brothers return should be celebrated. After all, his younger brother acted shamefully and publicly shamed the family. His actions caused the entire family to go through a time of economic instability (land had to be sold to pay the younger brother) and this not only negatively impacted the father and older brother, but others as well (tenant farmers who worked the land). Just the other day one of our bible study groups pondered the old question of deathbed confessions. Why should someone who lives in selfish, uncaring, even cruel ways, be offered the joy of forgiveness and salvation when they repent at the end of life? It’s a fair question. It’s a difficult question to answer.
When we look closely at the section of the prodigal son story where the older brother with his father, we see him distance himself from his family, the family to which he says he has been devoted. He refers to himself as a slave instead of a son, distancing himself from his father. He refers to his brother as 'this son of yours,' instead of a brother. He is alienating himself as he proclaims the righteousness of his faithfulness. He no longer sees his place in the family as a gift even though his father tries to remind him that he is indeed gifted, 'you are always with me and everything I have is yours.' Which is where Henri Nouwen's quote for the day enters. 'Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist' he writes in reflecting on this very parable. And I would for our purposes, resentment and joy cannot coexist. This is a difficult spiritual truth for us to learn and understand. God's love for us, God's acceptance of us, God's delight in us is not something we have earned. It is something that is bestowed upon us. It is a gift. Not a gift to be hoarded or guarded, but a gift to be shared. Jesus, in these parables reveals that when we guard jealously God's love for us, we betray and even reject the very thing we are claiming so selfishly, God's love. We no longer celebrate with joy the love of God. We are grasping at it as it slips through our fingers and alienating ourselves from the God who wants only to be with us.
So these parables highlight a very common and perhaps even natural human spiritual experience, which is to alienate ourselves from one another. God does not desire or even accept alienation. God's desire is intimate connection and wholesome relationship. That is what we are called to be agents of in the world, the God always reaching out, searching, embracing, welcoming home. So shape us by reminding us of our own experience of being lost, inspire us in the joy of finding and being found, experiencing that we are loved and accepted, and then urges us to be energized, by both the memory of being lost and the joy of being found, to overcome alienation in our lives with the joyful reconciliation of God.
Study – Luke 16:19-31
Prayer – There are moments Loving God, when I think myself superior. More enlightened, better educated, just plain smarter, nicer, kinder, and so closer and more pleasing to you. Grant me humility in those moments of weakness for they reveal that I sometimes feel unworthy of love and feel vulnerable and this is my reaction to the pain of that vulnerability. Remind me that your love is a constantly available gift, my ability to please you is a gift, and the gift of your mercy and love is a gift given so that it might be shared with others.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.