See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes. Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
The "disgrace of Egypt" is rolled away. On the day after the Passover, the people are able to feast from the fruit of the land.
Psalm 32 (UMH 766).
A sung confession of sin, disgrace, and God's prodigal mercy cleanses and heals us. If you sing the Psalm, use Tone 5 in D minor with the response.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21.
In Christ, God was reconciling the world, not counting our trespasses, and makes those in Christ "ministers of reconciliation."
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.
The story of a prodigal Father, the wandering and repentance of a younger son and a resentful firstborn brother.
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Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Remember we say "in Lent" rather than "of Lent" because Sundays are never fast days. All Sundays in the Christian Calendar are "little Easters."
The third, fourth and fifth Sundays in Lent are historically times to give particular emphasis in worship to the primary Lenten work of forming persons for baptism or reaffirmation of faith. In the early church, prayers during worship on these Sundays included acts of exorcism as they prayed for what Wesley would call deliverance from "natural tempers" and the growth of "spiritual tempers" in the desires, affections and inner lives of the candidates.
This weekly "exorcism" or "examen" or "examination of conscience" was typically followed by an act of "handing on" something of the church to those preparing for baptism. Last week, we suggested handing on the Apostles Creed. See Come to the Waters, p. 116, for a simple contemporary act of handing on the faith of the church. This week, you may consider handing on The Lord,s Prayer. A form for handing on the Lord,s Prayer is available in Come to the Waters, p. 117.
Today is also the date set for the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, which largely underwrites the work of The United Methodist Committee on Relief. Your generous support of this churchwide offering helps ensure that 100% of funds given for particular emergency relief, such as our ongoing efforts to support victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Girl Scout Sunday (Alternate Scouting Ministries Sunday) is also on the program calendar for today. The United Methodist Book of Worship offers options on the date of observance of Scouting Sunday (see BOW 436). Keep in mind that the National Association for United Methodist Scouting suggests celebrating Scouting Sunday as a unified event (Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other scouting related organizations, such as the YMCA program of Adventure Guides) at a time that avoids distracting from the focus of the Lenten season.
Whether you celebrate Scouting in February, March, or another time entirely (which you are free to do!), keep in mind that Sunday worship is always to focus on the Triune God revealed in Scripture and the by Spirit, and as such is not to be "given over" to any programmatic emphasis. Consider the possibility of offering two different kinds of gatherings on this day -- regular Sunday worship focusing on the texts and Lent, and then, perhaps after a lunch, a separate program involving scouts in many ways to celebrate the ongoing good work of Girl Scouts and other related programs. This approach enables those in your larger community to worship where they normally do on Sunday and for that worship to focus on Christ and our mission as church, as Christian worship is intended to do, AND to gather to celebrate scouting in a context primarily devoted to that purpose without compromising the core values of either.
Coming in April
Native American Ministries Sunday: April 14. Consider inviting a Native American United Methodist elder or deacon to help you celebrate the newly developed Native American Holy Communion service used at General Conference 2012.
World Malaria Day: April 25
Atmospherics: How Do I Become Lavish in Mercy?
Throughout Lent in Year C, the focus of the biblical texts is on those practices that prepare and support those who seek to follow Jesus, living out the baptismal covenant. The core practice in this week's readings, and particularly the gospel, may be described as lavish or prodigal mercy.
Early Christianity took this practice very seriously. We learn from the third century document, Apostolic Tradition (ca. 215), that among the questions asked of those who had been preparing for baptism for nearly three years was whether they "fulfilled every good work." The phrase "good work" referred in Judaism and much of early Christianity to "acts of righteousness" ("tzedekoth" in Hebrew), deeds done with the intention to offer blessing and mercy to others. One who had "fulfilled every good work" was one whose life was now regularly characterized by acts of blessing and mercy toward others. Apostolic Tradition is clear: how long peopl remains in the period of preparation for baptism is less important than whether their lives show signs of the level of commitment necessary to be ready to follow Jesus. It was non-negotiable that persons "be there" or at least be well on their way before they would be allowed to be baptized. And a life already demonstrating "prodigal mercy" is among those non-negotiable signs.
Another third century document, Didascalia, or "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles" (ca 230) noted that the single most important qualification for someone to become a bishop was . . . the capacity to show mercy.
The second of the three General Rules of the United Societies (as the early Methodist societies were called) required lives dedicated to showing mercy of those seeking to become and then remain members in good standing of a Methodist Society. This rule opens with strong echoes of Apostolic Tradition: "By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men [sic]." The same rule gives a list of "baseline practices" expected of all Methodists that would demonstrate lives of mercy. Among these are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, helping one another in business, exercising self-denial and frugality in spending on oneself, and being ready to receive in return all sorts of misunderstanding and persecution.
Is the practice of prodigal mercy an "extra" or at the core of the lives of folks in your worshiping community? Discuss in your worship planning team ways that worship this Sunday and other initiatives throughout the coming week (and beyond!) can both celebrate where prodigal mercy has become a core practice for folks where you are and ways to encourage and support more people to incorporate this into their lives. Don't stop with worship and a class this morning. Consider how personal visits, phone calls, email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other forms of social media can be used both in the leadup to worship today and in the days ahead, featuring both stories from your own community and practical, hands-on ways to help people get started on developing prodigal mercy as a lifelong practice.
While the typical pattern for working with the readings during Lent is to start with the gospel as the core and use the other readings as illustrations, another way to work with these texts is to see each of them as providing a particular kind of lens or pathway into the "gospel core." In your worship planning team, ask yourselves which approach may be more fruitful for your congregation this week, particularly if in your faith community and your process of preparing persons for baptism you are more likely to need to focus more intently on one of the ways of describing or embodying prodigal mercy contained in the readings from Joshua ("rolling away") or 2 Corinthians (reconciliation) than the gospel reading ("the prodigal son") per se.
Joshua: Mercy as Rolling Away
Gilgal is a place of significant transition in the biblical accounts. The word itself seems to come from a Hebrew verb meaning "to roll" or "roll away" and from a noun that refers to the circle of stones described in Joshua 4:1-8.
Rolling away is the key metaphor and image here. The monument built in that place (Joshua 4) was a reminder thus not only of God's mercy in providing a homeland, but reminder, too, of God's mercy and cleansing power in rolling away past shame, in part through ensuring the circumcision of all the males (Joshua 5) so they could all celebrate their primary deliverance festival, Passover, once more. What had been "provisional" would now be permanent. Provisional food (manna) was no longer needed. Rolling stones that had been turned again and again in the riverbed of the Jordan, were here set up as a perpetual reminder of the fulfillment of God's promise to make a new people and give them heritage, land and offspring.
In using images of God's prodigal mercy from the ancient text, do not neglect the current signs of such mercy in your worship space today.
We cross the Jordan through the waters of the font, and the memorial is the font itself. Can people see the font in your sanctuary? Is it a constant reminder of our "crossing over" and our "cleansing"?
We celebrate Christ, our Passover, around the Lord's Table. No longer needing to feed on instruction through words only, the "provisional food" of those who have not yet come the font of Mercy, here God offers us to feast on Christ himself, his body and blood. And it too, to use the language of Word and Table IV, is a "perpetual memory" of the deliverance offered us in the incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians: Mercy as Reconciliation
In 2 Corinthians, the word for God's prodigal mercy is reconciliation. Reconciliation starts from God, reaches through Christ to all who are in Christ "without counting their trespasses against them," and so through us to all the world and back to God again. While Paul uses his "ambassadorship" (verse 20) to plead with the community in Corinth to be reconciled with God, his larger argument identifies reconciliation as a core ministry of mercy for all followers of Jesus.
"Without counting their trespasses against them" is at the heart of reconciliation. Two points should be made here. First, this does not mean that trespasses were overlooked, nor that God (nor we!) have acted nor should act as if they never happened. They have, and they have caused the brokenness of the relationships in which we now find ourselves with God, neighbor, enemy and earth. Reconciliation always involves coming clean about the harm that has been done and what led to that harm with the expectation that such harms and their causes will not be repeated. Those seeking reconciliation thus do not forgive and forget, but rather forgive and remember lest any of them continue in practices that led to conflict and harm to begin with.
The second point, then, is what we do when we remember rather than "cover up" or "cover over" our trespasses against one another. Following the lead of God in Christ, we no longer hold those trespasses against one another. That is, we no longer point an accusing finger because of what has happened in the past. Any debts (or potential bases for revenge!) from past trespasses are forfeit. Having cleaned up or made restitution for harms done as part of the process of coming to just peace, all parties move forward now with a clean slate, or better, a slate filled with just and merciful intentions and practices toward one another.
We become ministers of reconciliation, ministers of the prodigal mercy of God, whenever we become part of the "two or three" Jesus mentions in Matthew 18, those who act as listeners who seek to help aggrieved parties listen each other into forgiveness first, and ultimately into reconciliation. We actively enter situations of conflict not with a determination to quell or end it prematurely, but rather seeing the opportunity that engaging it may bring for deep reconciliation to emerge. Conflicts merely ended or shut down neither experience nor generate much mercy. Conflicts engaged toward deep reconciliation become a wellspring for mercy, not just between the aggrieved parties, but from them toward each other and through them to all whose lives each may influence.
Conflict transformed toward reconciliation is hard, painful work for all involved. There are no quick fixes. It is messy. There may be days or weeks of "backsliding" after some small step forward. But it is at the heart of what God in prodigal mercy has done for us and with us in Christ, Paul reminds here. And so it is precisely at the heart of what we are enabled to do, as body of Christ, with each other and for the world.
In what practices of reconciliation, whether with God or interpersonally, have the folks in your worshiping community become experts? Where are you just beginning and need encouragement to keep practicing and gaining expertise?
Luke: Becoming a Prodigal Father
Familiarity with a story can have two different effects. On the one hand, it might lead us to "tune it out" because we think we know it already. On the other hand, if it is told well, it may invite us to "tune in" more deeply and cause us to become aware of aspects of it we may have overlooked in the past.
The difference is both in the telling and in the hearing.
Think of a children's favorite bedtime stories, the ones they want you to tell over and over. As a parent, I quickly learned two things about these stories. One was that I needed to tell them well, with passion and care. The other was that I needed to tell them roughly the same way every time. Certainly, I couldn't change any details, or even any words of the story. My children were prompt to correct me, and none to happy about having to do so, if I did change anything.
The familiarity both of the way of telling and of what was told never bred contempt in my sons. But trying to "gussy up" the story, or reading it with anything less than passion, grace and care did -- if not for the story, then, if I continued in these poor performance practices, at least for me!
Nor did this familiarity breed boredom. Instead, it continued to open their imaginations more and more each time.
So read or tell this story well today, and from a version familiar to most of your congregation. And consider, too, moving the "prayer for illumination" up just before reading this text, and having everyone pray it in unison, as a means of helping to prompt them to be more careful, eager listeners to whom the Holy Spirit is more likely to be able to help us "hear with joy what [God has to] say to us today" (UMH, p. 6).
And then ask, first in your worship planning team, and then in your preaching, "What does it take for us to become full of prodigal mercy like this father?" Why is that the question for this story? Because that's the question Jesus was pointing at when he told it, and two others before it, in the first place. Read Luke 15:1-2. Jesus tells these stories in direct response to some religious leaders grumbling that Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them.
Yes, guilty as charged, the stories reveal. But they reveal something more. They reveal the concern of the religious leaders was utterly perverse. It pictured a God who was more ready to kick people out than welcome them, even while they are a long way off (in today's story). Their piety was consequently one of judgment and exclusion, sacrifice and not mercy. The vision of God Jesus offers in all three stories (lost sheep, lost coin, lost son) is of one who does everything possible to make sure whatever is lost is found and to rejoice in the finding. God's mercy is not laxness, but love. This mercy of God at work in us converts us into people who will go running after the lost even while they are a long way off, not out of compulsion, but out of the joy of love.
Put another way, God is bent toward mercy, toward lovingkindness. As the Spirit poured out upon is and into us at baptism transforms us, we become as bent toward mercy as the father in this story, as the Son who told it, and as the Spirit is and has been from before the beginning of all things.
Early Christianity and early Methodism understood that part of becoming "bent toward mercy" was to begin practicing acts of mercy toward others. (See above before commentaries on each text). These acts of mercy were understood to be among the "ordinary means of grace." Practicing works of mercy opens our hearts to the grace and mercy of God, creating pathways for the Spirit to continue and, we trust, bring to completion in this life the entire bending of our hearts and lives toward love.
Some of those preparing for baptism or reaffirmation during this season may be far advanced in being "bent toward mercy." For others, especially in what appears to be an increasingly polarized and self-justifying culture, may be only at the beginning stages. Of course the same could be said about even some long-term church members! The question today is not to judge people for where they are on this journey, but rather to help people identify where they are and offer solid support for them to take the next steps in cooperation with God's sanctifying grace.
So might you lift up stories at several different points on this continuum -- stories of those long bent toward mercy, and stories of those still very much in the early learning stages? And where will you point folks -- not just in worship today, but through a variety of other means through the coming week -- so they can take their next steps? Where are the small groups who are good at coaching "beginners in showing mercy" to take on some concrete practices and let the Spirit start to re-bend their hearts?. And where are those groups that challenge and support those already largely bent toward mercy never to "rest on their laurels" until "love is all and all is love"? (Hint: Maybe one or more such groups may not be part of your congregation, but another one, or maybe part of a para-church ministry!) Be sure to point to such groups in worship, but then also have in place ways to do the more one-on-one work in the coming week of encouraging those who respond to a call to take a next step to find the folks who can best help them do that!
Implications for Holy Communion: Two of the readings this week point Christians not only to baptism, but also to the Lord's Table. In Joshua at Gilgal it is Passover, a festival of deliverance, promise, and new beginnings. In Luke, it is a feast of homecoming, a time of rejoicing because one who has wandered has been met by a father who has gone out to find him, and both have returned home.
In both cases, the feast does not cause reconciliation, but is rather the gladsome sign of reconciliation accomplished from God's side because God's prodigal mercy claims us, finds us, and brings us home. God reconciles us in Christ as the father in the story reconciles the son — not by waiting for some proper penance, but rather by reaching out in love and embracing a son whose motives are still only self-serving. Paul tells us that in Christ God reconciles the world not counting their sins against them. As you celebrate Holy Communion today (these texts cry out for it!), let the tone of your celebration be truly joyful, and use a form of the Great Thanksgiving (such as the Great Thanksgiving for Later in Lent, UMBOW 62-63) that focuses on reconciliation already accomplished and flowing freely through us, deliverance achieved, and new life, new creation already realized in our midst.
Embodying the Word: The Peace
Last week our readings called us to focus on repentance toward God while trusting in God's bounteous grace to cleanse and deliver us. This week, the focus is more on God's prodigal mercy bent on saving us, epitomized in the story of the prodigal father. It is the abundance of God's lovingkindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4), and we who have been so prodigally forgiven and welcomed anew cannot help but offer the same forgiveness and welcome, sheer mercy, to others.
The peace in our ritual is an act that comes both from simple obedience to Jesus' command to be reconciled before making our offerings (Matthew 5:23 and Matthew 18:15 ff.) and from the church's teaching over time that only a whole people, a people reconciled to God and to one another, can offer themselves as a holy and living sacrifice to God in Holy Communion. Mercy received from God becomes mercy offered to others, a living, flowing stream that rejoices in its Source with full abandon.
How does your congregation enact the peace? Is it primarily an act of fellowship and welcome? Does God's prodigal mercy become domesticated into mere greetings? Are people whose sins are forgiven being encouraged actively to seek out others with whom they are in conflict to offer the peace of Christ? Or if there is no conflict, to extend themselves to others to offer the blessing of Christ's peace as a sharing in God's Shalom? The Invitation to Holy Communion asks us to do both — be reconciled to God and seek to be at peace with our neighbors. How will you help your congregation live more fully into this today and going forward?
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- Greeting: BOW 331 (Joshua, Psalm)
- Greeting: BOW 424 (Luke, One Great Hour)
- Call to Prayer: BOW 196, "Call to Prayer" (Luke, Lent)
- Opening Prayer: BOW 454 (Luke)
- Canticle: UMH 646, "Canticle of Love" (Luke)
- Prayer of Confession: BOW 477 (Psalm, Luke)
- Prayer of Confession: BOW 489 (2 Corinthians)
- Prayer: BOW 522, For Purity (Lent, Luke)
- Prayer: UMH 268, Lent (Joshua)
- Prayer: UMH 639, Bread and Justice (Joshua, One Great Hour)
- Prayer: UMH 446, Serving the Poor (Luke, One Great Hour)
- Prayer: BOW 337 (Luke, One Great Hour)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Myanmar, Thailand
Great Thanksgiving: BOW 60-61 or UMH Word and Table II, pp. 13-14.
For online alternatives see:
- Prayer of Thanksgiving: BOW 558 (Luke, One Great Hour)
- Blessing: BOW 564 (2 Corinthians, Luke)
- See BOW 424 for additional One Great Hour of Sharing suggestions.
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