URC Daily Devotion 1st April 2020

Wednesday 1st April
3rd Station Jesus Falls for the First Time


“Cornerstone” Sieger Koder

Isaiah 53: 5-7

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.

Reflection

As you look into the sleep-deprived face of the father who is burying his child he asks the question you fear the most, “Why has God allowed this to happen?”. There is no answer that will satisfy that question, heal that soul in torment, or bring peace where there is no peace. The only honest response is “I do not know – and I dearly wish I did”.

But here in Isaiah we hear an answer to a related question “where is God when suffering happens?” – for Isaiah tells us that the servant of God is right at the heart of the suffering – wounded, crushed, bruised, oppressed and afflicted. God’s servant bears the burden of all that is wrong with the world, and somehow heals God’s people.

And when we read this description we think of Jesus and the suffering he bears.

Sieger Koder’s painting seems to show Jesus not only bearing the weight of the cross-piece on which he will die, but also weighed down by the people in the upper part of the painting – who seem to be indulging in every vice imaginable. Jesus is bearing the consequences of every sin, he is the victim of every torment, he is the ultimate suffering servant.

God does not protect us from suffering. But he does not abandon us to it either. In Jesus Christ, God takes our suffering, shares it, shoulders it and ultimately transforms it through the power of resurrection.

We do not understand this bearing of our sin and our sorrow, but we given thanks to God for it. It is the gift of grace and the only thing that makes the pain of life worthwhile, and brings eternal life and peace.

Prayer

God of grace,
When we cry out to you in our pain
Help us to hear the whisper of Jesus our Lord:
“ I am here beside you”.
Lend us your strength, we pray
Shoulder our burden, our sin, our pain
and transform it through your undying love.
Amen.

URC Daily Devotion  31st March 2020

Tuesday 31st March
2nd Station Jesus Takes Up His Cross 


“Embrace” Sieger Koeder

St John John 19: 17

Carrying the cross by himself, Jesus went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha.

Reflection

“… by himself…” The phrase may seem incidental; but place it alongside our accumulated remembrance of Jesus’ journey to Calvary, and it stands out as a striking detail. Wasn’t there another who carried the cross for Jesus?

Well, later in this sequence of Devotions we will indeed encounter Simon of Cyrene; but in John’s Gospel, he’s nowhere to be seen. Is it too fanciful to wonder whether John has heard or read the story about another cross-bearer and has said NO! – as if there is a note of quiet defiance in his affirmation that Christ carried the cross by himself?

It is elsewhere in John’s Gospel that we find the key to unlock this conundrum. Earlier – before the street-theatre of his entry into Jerusalem, just at the time when tensions between Jesus and the religious authorities had been starting to intensify – John records that Jesus spoke of himself as the Good Shepherd, the one who would lay down his life for the sheep.

And there he said:

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18)

No-one will take his life from him; he carries the cross by himself.

Perhaps that goes some way to explaining the intriguing title of today’s painting by Sieger Koeder. With bloodied hands, Jesus is bold to meet with an EMBRACE the cross on which he will be lifted.

Therefore come to him, when you are weighed down with burdens of hidden guilt or unresolved pain. For though “we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted”, even so “he has borne our infirmities, and carried our diseases.” (Isaiah 53:4)
He carries – our cross – by himself.

Prayer

Lord Jesus,
you have trod our path,
even under the terrible weight of a cross.
And in your love, you invite us
to take your yoke, and a burden that is light.
So give us grace and courage
to walk your way.
Amen.
 

URC Daily Devotion 30th March 2020

Monday 30th March
1st Station Jesus is condemned by Pilate


Surrender Sieger Koeder

St Matthew 26: 57. 27: 24

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered….So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood;  see to it yourselves.’

Reflection

This episode in its entirety has had repercussions to the present day. A priestly-inspired mob elected to send the pesky preacher Jesus to his death. The later narrative that Jews in general were responsible became a reason – or excuse – for extensive persecution over many centuries. The anti-semitic line has now been picked up by other interests in the Western world. As I write, Jewish properties in London have been daubed with graffiti reminiscent of the kind seen in the lead up to the Holocaust.

Pilate too has been castigated. Washing his hands to appease his conscience over issuing the death sentence to a man whom he believed innocent of a capital crime is seen as abject surrender.

Am I alone in feeling some sympathy for Pilate? Governor of a tricky territory widely regarded by his contemporaries as the armpit of the Roman empire, he had already (according to such history to be found outside the scriptures) endured several run-ins with Jewish leaders, leading to reprimands from Rome. Faced with a potential riot and the likelihood of another bloodbath, he caved in to what probably felt like the best of two bad jobs.  

We may think that we would have had more moral courage. Maybe – or maybe not. We live in an age when the voice of the angry mob is louder than it has ever been in history. Through both old and new media we are subjected to lies and “fake news”, hate politics and threats. Sorting out the truth from the lies takes effort.

“What is truth?” Pilate is said to have asked Jesus (John 18: 38). As followers of Jesus, we are called to seek out the truth, and to speak and act for what is right and not just what is expedient – and maybe to stand up to the crowd.
 
Prayer

Lord,
When we face crises of conscience,
let us remember the words of the hymn:
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour.
 Amen

URC Daily Devotion  29th March 2020

Sunday 29th March

Psalm 142

1 I cry for mercy to the LORD;
To him I lift my voice in prayer.
2 Before the LORD I bring my plea;
To him my trouble I declare.

3 Each time my spirit faints in me,
You are the one who knows my way;
For in the path on which I walk
A hidden snare for me they lay.

4 Look to my right hand and take note:
There is not one concerned for me.
I have no refuge; no one cares
For me in my adversity.

5 I cry aloud to you, O LORD:
“You are my hiding place in strife.
You are the one sustaining me;
You keep me in the land of life.”

6 LORD, listen to my cry for help,
For I am in extremity.
Save me from those who seek my life,
Because they are too strong for me.

7 So that I may give thanks to you,
From prison’s darkness set me free.
The righteous then will gather round,
Because you’ve shown your love to me.

Reflection

I’m touched by the trust implicit in this prayer. Clearly the Psalmist has experienced God’s sustaining and the life-giving ‘hiding place’ in which she has been upheld in the past.  This prayer is offered in expectation that God will hear her cry now.

I’m also moved by the metaphor of the prison.  Prison, I have learned, is not a place where hope is often experienced, or trust is easily built. Our national life uses the prison system to punish, remove ‘dangerous’ people from society, keep others safe, and to rehabilitate.  True rehabilitation is rare and there is little care for younger offenders. Suicide rates for those suffering mental ill health in prison are appalling.

Is this Psalmist in the sort of despair that a young, mentally ill lad might be, who is just old enough to be in an adult prison? or feeling imprisoned?  We hear of arrests and imprisonments that make us reflect: green protesters by their hundreds; Hong Kong democracy demonstrators; British citizens in Guantanamo; and, not so very long ago, in Northern Ireland where nearly 2,000 people were interned for their political beliefs without a trial.

I DO NOT suggest who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in ANY case, I merely reflect on an absence of a Psalmist-like hope in the prison system. If there is no hope for either release, or newness of life through rehabilitation, does a ‘system’ dehumanise? and who do we expect to act? and who is crying out and making voices heard?

This Psalmist has both hope and experience of God’s justice. Jesus’ ‘Manifesto’ (Luke 4:18- 19) promises “release to the captives”.  Do we say that both Psalm and manifesto are ‘only’ metaphors for an experience of moving to ‘quality of life’ in Christ? Let us also raise prayers and voices on behalf of just, decent and hope-filled attitudes and behaviours towards those for whom our government is responsible.

Prayer

O God! 
Hear your children when they cry out,
when their despair feels like imprisonment.

O God! 
Hear the prayers of those unjustly imprisoned, 
and bring your justice to liberate them.

O God! 
hear the cries of those in prison because of their crimes,
bring new hope, 
and challenge us all to
speak out on behalf of humanity.
In the name of the one who brings release to the captives we ask it. Amen.

URC Daily Devotion 28th March 2020

Saturday 28th March
 

O Sacred Head Sore Wounded (Passion Chorale) RS 220
Paul Gerhardt (1607-76)

O sacred Head, sore wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down;
O royal head surrounded
with thorns, thine only crown;
O Lord of life and glory,
what bliss ’til now was thine!
I read the wondrous story,
I joy to call thee mine.

2 What thou, my Lord, hast suffered
was all for sinners’ gain:
mine, mine was the transgression,
but thine the deadly pain.
By this thy bitter Passion
Good Shepherd think on me;
vouchsafe to me compassion,
unworthy though I be.

3 For this thy dying sorrow,
O Jesus, dearest Friend,
what language shall I borrow
to thank thee without end?
O make me thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love to thee.

4: Be near when I am dying,
and show thy cross to me
that I, for succour flying,
may rest my eyes on thee.
My Lord, thy grace receiving,
let faith my fears dispel,
that I may die believing,
and in thee Lord, die well.

You can hear this hymn here.

St Mark 15: 17

And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him.

Reflection

I have always wanted to preach on a hymn but never had the courage. Yet hymns can contain wonderful words and images – words and images we may find easier to understand than some Scripture and for me, this hymn is one of them.  It speaks to what scares us most as humans, death. We are mortal; we have a finite time on earth and yet we don’t like to think about it, let alone talk about it. We almost pretend that we will live forever, but despite medical advances – we won’t!

We know we are not worthy of the sacrifice of Jesus yet still, Jesus died for me, he died for you; he died your annoying neighbour, he even died for that person in church you really don’t like.  But it’s not just that Jesus died, it’s what went with the dying – the torture, the mocking, the ridicule and the abandonment by his friends and by God too.

To an extent. Jesus death was a result of power politics and the Romans, well, they may mock his Messiahship – dress him as a pretend king in purple with a crown; they may even hail him as if he were Caesar, but still Jesus goes to his death as God’s anointed.

Jesus’ death provides a ‘permanent covenant between God and humanity that can never be broken’ (The New Interpreter’s Bible) because of that, we can sing, ‘My Lord, thy grace receiving, let faith my fears dispel, that I may die believing, and in thee, Lord, die well’.  With faith and hope we can die well knowing that there is a far better life ahead of us than we have already experienced, a life lived in the presence of our Creator God and our Risen Saviour.

Prayer

Lord of life and glory,
It is hard to think of our own death,
yet we know that we can live life now thanks to your death.
As we approach this Eastertide, 
let us not be too hasty to avoid Good Friday, 
instead let us sit with your death Lord Jesus, 
meditating on the reality of its horror and pain, 
but still knowing that death will lead to new life.  Amen

Sunday’s Coming

Dear <<First Name>>

Welcome to all our new subscribers.  Since last Thursday over a 1,000 of you have subscribed.  I hope you are finding the daily prayer and reflection helpful.

As you know each Sunday we are sending out the transcript and recording for a Sunday service.  This week the service is led by the Rev’d Phil Nevard and we hope his humour, thoughtful preaching and excellent hymn choices will help lift all our spirits.  After clicking on the link to listen you should be able to click back to the email to follow the transcript.  This might be easier on a laptop rather than a phone or tablet.  

There were a few teething problems last week…

first, please do add this address to your contact list and, if your email programme has one, a safe sender’s list.

second, if you don’t get a Devotion one morning please check your spam or junk folder before emailing to ask where it is!

thirdly, I am going to send out the service at 9.45 so that everyone has it ready for a 10am start.  Of course you can listen earlier or later if you wish, but there is something nice in all listening to it at the same time.  The earlier send out time is because the email programme we use sends it out in batches and some folk got it a little after 10 and emailed in to ask where it was!  You can also see the material, after 9.45 on Sunday at devotions.urg.org.uk as the material is also posted there but you will probably find it easier to read via your email.

Finally, two people commented that when trying to listen via a phone – one person on an iPhone and another on an Android, they were prompted to download Microsoft One Drive.  The recording is hosted on OneDrive.  Most people don’t need to download the OneDrive App and we’re not sure why some are asked to.  If this happened to you then go to the App Store (on iPhones) or the Play Store (on Android) and download the OneDrive App.  It’s free.

I hope we continue to worship and pray together throughout this lockdown and the pandemic and that, by doing so, we continue to build up our community and give expression – in perhaps a new way – to that old idea of the Communion of the Saints bound together in worship and praise.

with every good wish

Andy

Andy Braunston
Coordinator, Daily Devotions from the URC Project

  

URC Daily Devotion  25th March 2020

Wednesday 25th March

At The Cross Her Vigil Keeping CH4 387
13th Century

At the cross her vigil keeping
stood the mournful mother weeping
where he hung, the dying Lord.
for her soul, of joy bereaved,
bowed with sorrow, deeply grieved,
passed the sharp and piercing sword.

2. Who, on Christ’s dear mother gazing,
pierced with anguish so amazing,
born of woman, would not weep?
Who, on Christ’s dear mother thinking
such a cup of sorrow drinking,
would not share her sorrows deep?

3. For his people’s sins chastised,
she beheld her son despised,
scourged and crowned with thorns entwined,
saw him then from judgement taken,
and in death by all forsaken,
till his spirit he resigned.

4. Jesus may her deep devotion
stir in me the same emotion,
fount of love, Redeemer kind,
that my heart, fresh ardour gaining,
Near thy cross, O Christ, abiding,
and a purer love attaining,
may with thee acceptance find. 

There are many versions of this hymn – here is a good Plainsong version of it.  The words differ slightly from those above but it’s the same meter.

St John 19: 25

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

Reflection

As a child we sang from The Methodist Hymn Book (1933) and I cannot recall an occasion when #185 (this hymn) was used.   There is a Free Church tendency to minimise (if not entirely omit) the place of Mary.   As we contemplate the manger, our eyes, hearts and minds are drawn to the One who is God incarnate.  Similarly, as we gaze upon the Cross it is the One crucified who is the focus of our devotion. Yet in both of these scenes Mary, his mother, is part of the ‘picture’. Her presence at the Cross prompts Jesus to commend her to “the disciple whom he loved” with the words, “Here is your mother” and “from that hour the disciple took her into his own home”.  (John 19: 26-27)

Here in this hymn – and the Gospel scene that inspired it – we see the ultimate heartache borne by Mary.  It captures the tragedy and sadness of the scene: Who, on Christ’s dear mother thinking such a cup of sorrow drinking, would not share her sorrows deep?  Whilst our gaze is, rightly, is drawn to the One crucified we might also ponder his mother as she represents the countless number of parents, children, partners and friends who keep vigil beside the suffering of their loved ones.   Helpless and powerless, we experience a pain akin to “a sharp and piercing sword”.  

Any consideration of Mary will ultimately point us to her Son.  Mary points us to Jesus. We keep vigil beside her and, gazing upon him, know both God’s sacrificial love and the cost of that love – both for the crucified One and his grieving mother.   As we gaze, let us pray for a measure of her faithfulness and willingness to keep vigil with those who suffer and, with her, direct the gaze of all towards the One crucified.

Prayer

O God,
help me to stand with Mary at the foot of the cross:
that I might appreciate
the breadth and depth of your love.
 
I hold before you today
all who keep vigil beside those who suffer or are dying:
may they know comfort and strength in their heartache.
 
May those who suffer for their faith
find courage and resilience.
 
Inspired by the example of Mary
may I enable others to see you.
Amen.

URC Daily Devotion  24th March 2020

Tuesday 24th March

Lifted High On Your Cross CH4 386
Ian Cowie (1923-2005)  Tune Pulling Bracken

Lifted high on your cross,
drawing all folk, drawing all folk;
lifted high on your cross,
drawing all folk to you.

Down you came to live among us
part of your creation,
knowing poverty and sorrow
sharing each temptation.

On the gallows there they nail you
God despised, rejected;
deep within your earth they hide you,
till your resurrected.

Light and love pour down upon us
healing, recreating;
you relive your life within us,
all life consecrating.  

The tune, Pulling Bracken is a Scottish folk tune which you can hear here.  The Iona Community set their hymn Dance and Sing All the Earth to the same tune.

St John 12:24

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Reflection

In charismatic circles, “lifting Jesus up” has a tradition of meaning ‘praising God with great vigour’.  Most times, that implies corporate praise within the safe walls of a tabernacle rather than where Jesus’ true “lifting up” occurs: outside.

The Greeks sought Jesus, thinking perhaps the best way would be to enquire within. Their answer was an affirmation that suffering and vulnerability brings reconciliation.

Nature’s best work seems to be in letting go of life in order to make room for life. In a time of climate emergency, a cracked open seed is a small sign that we have (maybe) a little time left to save the planet.  If the seed remains uncracked, insular in the ground, it is dead to the world, and the world is dies without it. So it must crack open to give life.

Insular spirituality, no matter how charismatic, does not draw us to the truth of Jesus’ passion. Jesus brings the world toward the cross in suffering akin to the most vulnerable on earth. We are brought toward Jesus to be his body on earth.

“Without your wound, where would your power be?” is an Angel’s question to a bruised physician in Thornton Wilder’s alternative play about the pool of Bethesda called The Angel that Troubled the Waters. “In Love’s Service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.”

Church members and ministers alike carry wounds and hurts.  Painfully too many recent stories in Christianity involve clergy who experience burnout.  Mental illness is rampant in the clergy community as it is in our world.

If the Church can cultivate a space where wounds and tears are welcome, those wounds may turn into stories and testimonies of God’s love and care. Those testimonies need time to grow. Many need time and space in the soil. They need a community without judgement so that healing can spring forth new life. This is the practice of resurrection.

As William Cullen Bryant wrote, “Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.”
 
Prayer

Give us the courage to be unashamed:
of ourselves, of Your message, of You.
As You draw us to you in your suffering,
may our wounds call us to service, passion, and resurrection.
Amen.

URC Daily Devotion 23rd March 2020

Monday 23rd March

Here Hangs a Man Discarded CH4 385
Brian Wren 
Tune Shrub End  (Passion Chorale works well if verses are doubled)
© Stainer and Bell 1975

Here hangs a man discarded,
a scarecrow hoisted high,
a nonsense pointing nowhere
to all who hurry by.

Can such a clown of sorrows
still bring a useful word
when faith and hope seem phantoms
and every hope absurd?

Yet here is help and comfort
for lives by comfort bound,
when drums of dazzling progress
give strangely hollow sound:

Life, emptied of all meaning,
drained out in bleak distress,
can share in broken silence
our deepest emptiness;

And love that freely entered
the pit of life’s despair,
can name our hidden darkness
and suffer with us there.

Christ, in our darkness risen,
help all who long for light
to hold the hand of promise,
till faith receives its sight.

There is only one version of this on line to Passion Chorale which you can hear here.  You can hear the first verse set to Shrub End here.

St Luke 23: 44 – 49

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land  until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.  But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Reflection

Today we stand as his friends and ‘acquaintances’, at a distance, watching. With 2000 years of separation it can be hard to see the view Luke places before us, but we are, perhaps, brought close by our own experiences of loss.

Are faith and hope absurd phantoms in the face of death and pain?

Is life emptied of all meaning, drained out by times of bleak distress?

Is there hope to be found during national and global injustices?

Wren’s hymn asks us to consider how we view this discarded man; as scarecrow, a nonsense, a clown?

Standing and watching this scene, viewed through our own lives of complex human suffering, we can be forgiven for descending to our own hidden depths as we suffer with him. We can be forgiven for seeing a discarded, hopeless nonsense with no hopeful word to say in our time.

And yet.

We stand here as his friends, in the knowledge of what is to come.

From this place of darkness, the light of Christ burns still.

In this place, where we feel separated from God by our suffering, the curtain is torn in two.

He who seems like a clown, laughs in the face of hopeless death and dances with us in the potential of light-filled freedom.

Prayer

Loving Christ,
as we stand, watching,
dwell with us in our suffering,
hold us when we are overcome and find no hope,
inspire us to stand as friends, with all who suffer,
and fill us again, with the joy of your ever-shining light.
Amen

Sunday Service from the URC for 22nd March 2020

Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church
for Sunday 22nd March

 
Today’s service comes from the Spire Church, a Methodist and United Reformed Church local ecumenical partnership at Farnham in Surrey.  The service is led by the Rev’d Michael Hopkins.
 
Call to Worship
 
Come to the God who loves you.
Come to the God in whose presence you are welcome.
Come, for God is inviting you to worship.
Come, rejoicing, for God is faithful and just.
 
Let us worship God.
 
Hymn  Now Thank We All Our God
              Martin Rinkart (1586 – 1649)
 
Now thank we all our God
with heart, and hands, and voices,
who wondrous things hath done,
in whom His world rejoices;
who, from our mother’s arms
hath blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
 
O may this gracious God
through all our life be near us!
With ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us;
preserve us in His grace,
and guide us in distress,
and free us from all sin,
till heaven we possess.
 
All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son, and Spirit blest,
who reigns in highest heaven,
Eternal, Triune God,
whom earth and heav’n adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be, evermore.
 
Prayers and the Lord’s Prayer
 
Let us pray
 
God our Parent,
we gather to open our hearts to you,
trusting that you will welcome us with open arms. 
We come to worship you.
 
You are the one who leads us through times of trial;
the one who supports us in sorrow and struggle;
the one who is beside us when all is bleak.
Holy One, we praise You.
 
God our Shepherd, we confess that we often lose our way.
Sometimes we follow like sheep
and end up in places that we should not be.
At other times we choose our own paths
and end up hitting a dead end.
 
In a moment of quiet,
we bring before you
those things we have done in our straying
and ask that, in your mercy,
you will bring us back on track.
 
Silence
 
Thank you, God, that you have forgiven us and set us free. 
May we come to walk your path once again.
We accept your loving forgiveness,
and we pray together as Jesus taught us:

Our Father..
 
Scripture Reading  St Luke 15:11-32 (NIV)
 
Jesus continued: 

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.  After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine

in that whole country, and he began to be in need.   So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!  I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.   ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
 
Hymn   Who Would True Valour See
            John Bunyan 1628 – 1688
 
Who would true valour see,
let him come hither;
one here will constant be,
come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
shall make him once relent
his first avowed intent
to be a pilgrim.
 
Whoso beset him round
with dismal stories
do but themselves confound;
his strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
he’ll with a giant fight,
he will have a right
to be a pilgrim.
 
Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
can daunt his spirit,
he knows he at the end
shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
he’ll fear not what men say,
he’ll labour night and day
to be a pilgrim.
 
Sermon
 
If the truth is told, I’ve always struggled with this story.  We often call it the prodigal son, and that choice of title sets off the problems for me.  So often, I’ve heard and read, we’re to rejoice at the younger son coming home.  My problem is that the younger son is such a nasty piece of work that human nature makes it almost impossible for me to feel much sympathy for him.
 
And then we move on to the older son, who displays loyalty, hard work, and sheer graft, and I think many of us feel some considerable sympathy for him.  After all, the kinds of people who work hard in churches are loyal and hard working.  However, the older brother is a bit too judgy and moralistic for me to have much sympathy for him either.
 
So, I find myself not really liking either of the main characters, which is why I’ve always struggled with this story, and found it hard to made much sense of it, until I thought about it a bit more.  In the book Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey listens to a number of different policemen all give their own theory of how a crime was committed in turn, and then he says, “You are all wrong, but one of you is less wrong than the rest.  Still none of you has got the right murderer, and none of you has got the whole of the method right, though some of you have got bits of it.”
 
That’s roughly how I feel about much of what I’ve read that tries to make sense of today’s story.  I dug a bit deeper, and now think the two sons are there to represent two different kinds of people, and I now think the idea is that they’re both wrong, for very different reasons. 
 
These two brothers each represent a different way to be alienated from God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven.  I think that what Jesus is doing here is trying to shatter our categories.  As well as the destructive self-centeredness of the younger brother, we also have the judgy older brother wanting to claim the moral high ground.  I think that Jesus is saying that both the irreligious and the religious can be spiritually lost, both life-paths can be dead ends, and that we humans need to think more carefully about how we connect with God. 
 
When Jesus was preaching to crowds of people, it’s important to remember that in general, religiously observant people of the time were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him.  But church isn’t quite like that now. 
 
The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones.  The licentious and liberated, or the broken and marginal, avoid church, which makes me fear that churches might be more like the older brother than most of find comfortable.
 
Jesus offered us two brothers, I think to demonstrate two different ways of missing the mark: one overly irreligious, and one overly religious.  Our Western society is so deeply divided between these two approaches that we can barely see any other way to live now.  If we criticize or distance ourselves from one, everyone assumes that we have chosen to follow the other, because each of these approaches tends to divide the whole world into two basic groups.  The moral conformists say: “the immoral people — the people who ‘do their own thing’ — are the problem with the world, and moral people are the solution.”  The advocates of self-discovery say: “the bigoted people — the people who say, ‘We have the Truth’ — are the problem with the world, and progressive people are the solution.”  Each side says: “our way is the way the world will be put to rights, and if you are not with us, you are against us.”  If we allow that kind of division to creep into our thinking then we’re falling into the two sons that Jesus showed us.
 
Jesus the storyteller deliberately leaves the elder brother in his alienated state.  The younger son enters his father’s feast, but the older son does not.  The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost.  Wow!  We can almost hear the Pharisees gasp as the story ends.  It was the complete reversal of everything they had ever been taught.
 
Did the older son want the same thing as his brother?  Was he just as resentful of his father as the younger son was?  Did either son love their father for himself, or for his goods and money?  Is not Jesus using these two sons to remind us that we can rebel against God by keeping all the rules diligently as much as by breaking them?
 
I think one of the points of this passage is about making it clear that sin isn’t about breaking a list of rules.  Jesus shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviours can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person, because sin isn’t just breaking the rules, isn’t really about breaking the rules, it’s about putting yourself in the place of God, just as both brothers sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life.
 
Both were wrong, but both were loved.  The good news is not religion or irreligion, morality or immorality, moralism or relativism, conservatism or liberalism.  Nor is it something halfway along a spectrum between two poles, it’s something else altogether: everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognise this and change.
 
The danger for the older brother is that he will be trapped by his own bitterness, anger eventually becoming a prison of his own making.  When we see the attitude of the older brother in the story, is it perhaps a sign of why the younger brother wanted to leave in the first place?  Everybody knows that the Christian gospel calls us away from the recklessness of the younger brother, but do we realise that it also condemns the judgy moralistic older brother?
 
So what might this parable be saying to us?  Don’t try to put ourselves in the place of God!  Forgiveness is free and unconditional to the perpetrator, but it’s costly to the forgiver.  Forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer, if the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness.
 
This story that Jesus tells is about the story of the whole human race, and Jesus was reminding us that God promises nothing less than hope for the world.  Our human race is a band of exiles trying to come home, and so this story is about every one of us.
 
Jesus holds out hope for ordinary human life, for each person.  Our future is not an ethereal, impersonal form of consciousness. 
 
We can come to God, and our loving heavenly Father will meet us and embrace us, and we will be brought into the feast.
 
The feast is the end of Jesus’s story, and I think this has four things to tell us about God’s love:
 

  1. God’s love is an experience – Jesus came to bring joy and celebration, a festival.
  2. God’s love is material – this material world matters.  God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, that he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it.  Properly understood, Christianity is by no means the opium of the people – it’s more like the smelling salts!
  3. God’s love is Individual.  God doesn’t love us because we are beautiful; we become beautiful through God’s love.  Through God’s love our stinginess can become a reorientation to generosity.
  4. God’s love is communal.  No reunion, no family gathering, no wedding, no other significant social event is complete without a meal. 

If we get trapped in the sensual way of the younger brother or the ethical way of the older brother, both only lead to spiritual dead ends.  Throughout life, most of us fall into these traps from time to time, but God’s love is bigger than that, calling us, challenging us, to recognise that at a deeper level we need to acknowledge God at the heart of our lives, calling us to take our part in a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus, a place where we can try to grow ever more into his likeness.  This is God’s love which is broad like beach and meadow, wide as the wind.  This is God’s love enfolds the world in one embrace, which grasps every child of every race.  This is god’s love which gains final triumph, which reigns over all the universe.  
 
And a little shadow of this limitless love of God is what can see reflected in the very best of our human love, those from whom we have known the love of a mother.
 
Prayers
 
God, you are father and mother to us, an ever-loving parent, more faithful than we can even imagine.  Thank you for life and living, even when we are weary and worn-out.  Thank you for challenge and change, even when we seek safety and security. 
 
Thank you for playfulness and pain, even when we seek moderation and mild-living.  Thank you for companionship when we are lonely. 
 
Thank you for calling when we are settled.  Thank you for creativity when we are uninspired.
 
Bring us to newness of life as your people.  Bring us to wholeness of life from out of its fragments.

Bring us to fullness of life from your communion in and with us.
 
We lift to you our families, God:

our nearby ones with whom we share our homes and our lives, our loved ones whom we see rarely because they live away, and our disaffected ones whom we see rarely because they have disagreed with us.
 
Be with them when we cannot be there: give them wise guidance when they will not heed us, keep them safe when they are beyond our protection, and mend our attitudes if we become obstacles to your good plans.

We lift to you our church, God:

Each of us who seek to make sure we do everything we can to be welcoming and helpful, those who support us and are encouraged by us, and our building that serves as a witness to your presence among us.
 
Pour your Spirit of unity and peace on us:
help us discern your guidance and show us new ways of bringing your love and healing to our community.
 
We lift to you our nation, God:
the politicians who represent us,
those who maintain justice,
those who provide us with many services,
and all who work to keep us supplied
with all the good things we have.
 
Help us to express proper care and concern for everyone, that people of all sorts and conditions may have their fair share of the good things you give us.
 
We offer you these, and all our prayers, God, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.
 
 
Hymn  And Can It Be?
           Charles Wesley 1707 – 1788
 
And can it be that I should gain
an int’rest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! how can it be
that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
 
He left His Father’s throne above,
so free, so infinite His grace;
emptied Himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’tis mercy all, immense and free;
for, O my God, it found out me.
’tis mercy all, immense and free;
for, O my God, it found out me.
 
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
 
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
and clothed in righteousness Divine,
bold I approach the eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ my own.
 
Dismissal and Blessing
 
The service has ended. 
Go in peace and joy,
and the blessing of God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
is upon you and all God’s people,
near and far,
today, tonight and forever, Amen. 
 
We thank Michael for devising the service and Jonnie Hill and Fay Rowland for recording some of the spoken parts at very short notice. 

Hymn lyrics are public domain, the music in the podcast is delivered subject to the terms of the URC’s various licences.