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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.
HymnNow 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.
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:
Scripture Reading St Luke 15:11-32 (NIV)
“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.’”
HymnWho 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.
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:
God’s love is an experience – Jesus came to bring joy and celebration, a festival.
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!
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.
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.
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.