Inhabit Conference 2019 Continuing Education Report – Rev. Rich Jones

Whenever I attend a conference or a continuing education event, I try to give a report to my congregation. Here’s my report/first reflections from the Inhabit Conference this year…

It was great to go back to the Inhabit Conference this year.  Inhabit is a part of the Parish Collective movement.  I have been a part of the Parish Collective for about 5 years.  This is a movement committed to seeing a better story emerge within churches and faith communities through churches becoming locally rooted in a context or place.

Parish Collective offers deep support to local churches, faith-based groups, and any follower of Christ that desires to grow roots in their neighborhood and links across cities for parish renewal.  You can check them out at:

The Inhabit Conference brings together a multitude of networks, organizations, churches, and grassroots groups whose unique passions and callings converge in the local parish. Followers of Christ from across North America and around the world bring their stories, challenges, and opportunities together in Seattle for two days of collaborating in some of the most unique and transformative storytelling environments. Parish Collective and The Seattle School have been hosting this conference to Sold-Out crowds for 9 years.  More info can be found at:

It was a tremendous conference to attend this year.  I have gone in the past, but this year was especially helpful as I continue to look at this work of parish/church  renewal in our context at Fleming Road UCC.  

I spent a lot of time in conversations with different persons, old and new friends.  I sat through several presentations and curated conversation seminars.  

Since I’ve been a Parish Collective organizing team member for a while, I also presented on a couple of subjects.  A session that I co-lead was entitled “Mainline Status Quo to Parish Rooted Renewal”.  With the idea of a conversation on digging deep into the soil of friendship that grows imagination and collaboration across neighborhoods and denominations.  How to move the church towards a new way of being through the practice of listening and presence.

That was a great session.  I co-lead it with my friend, Rev. Daniel Hughes, from Cincinnati.  It was a lively presentation and discussion.  It was a packed room of mainline clergy and leaders trying to figure out where church is heading and how to find purpose in engaging their neighborhoods.  There were lots of successes and failures, lots of questioning, but also so much hope from the shared discussion.  

One of the questions/comments that several folks shared in and around the  is that they sometimes feel like they are doing “hospice” work with their churches.  Yet, they also know that there is hope.  As we shared some of our experiences, we acknowledged that some things are dying within our churches (and, yes, some churches do die as a particular church), but there is so much that is being resurrected!  

Many in the room have been “burned out” and even “burned” by their church experiences.  Yet, they still are in the church, working and hoping towards a better story to emerge.   

I also co-facilitated a “curated lunch” conversation with my friend Matthew Gillette and others.  It was a great discussion around connecting our stories and how to see church and parish renewal happen.  

Inhabit has a very diverse crowd, that is always reflected in its presentations and sessions.   

Since our church is in a multi-cultural neighborhood, and we live in an increasingly diverse country, it is encouraging to be a part of a gathering that reflects that diversity and has a deep sense of unity.  

We also had some great discussions on how to become a multi-cultural church.  It’s difficult unless the church’s leadership is also multi-cultural.  As our church grows, it will become extremely important, an imperative really, for us to have diverse leadership.  

We will also want to explore new voices and new ways of being together and engaging the world around us.  We cannot simply continue to do what we’ve always done and expect different results.  

It is time for us to do new things, to experiment.  We have done some wonderful things in the past, we have much to celebrate.  And, we’ve done some new things like the Neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt, the Tikkun Farm engagement, the Flea Market, and many more things.  If we are to move forward, together, then we all need to listen, stay curious, and not be afraid to fail.  As we have said before, we all have to engage in this work of “re-functioning” of the church.  It cannot be “pastor-driven”, it must be “congregation-driven” and “neighborhood/other collaborative”.  

I am still processing the late night discussions, the early morning coffee conversations, and all that happened in between.  It was a packed few days.

But, I am more committed than ever to working towards the story that God intends for our faith community!  I am listening, asking questions, and, along with this church, following God’s work as we engage the communities around us.  

Gideon Tsang

I am certain that I am not a “hospice” care pastor for this church, nor is this church in hospice!  We are a healthy church.  However, we do need to be more “desperate”, “hopeful”, and “risk-taking” if we are to not only survive the next twenty years or so, but thrive!  

Friends, let’s get on with this!  

PS – This was also a great conference for me to be reminded that I am surrounded by friends around the country, and that I have great friends here at home.  So many times, I feel like I have to “perform” or meet expectations.  I am reminded again and again that “I am enough”.  This past weekend was filled with beauty, grace, questioning, and deep presence.  As our friend, Gideon Tsang, reminded us in the last session, home is always the best place to come back to.  

Much love!  


John 20:1-18
The Resurrection of Jesus

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b] “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

It’s Easter and we are reminded that God is doing something new in our lives and that we are all one …we have truly been given a gift of being present together!

I’m sure we have all sorts of memories of this day. Some good, and maybe some bad. It’s my hope that we can recognize that God is in the business of redeeming and being present in all things. Maybe we come to Easter a bit conflicted, questioning some things or experiencing joy along with some sorrow. It seems like holidays such as Easter and Christmas can be so emotional and we may struggle to ask “what” is going on within us and the world around us.

Maybe we have some questions even about this Easter story. How could God let his Son die on the cross, how could God allow this to happen? Why didn’t God the father do the dirty work instead of sending his son? Many times we’ve heard this story from the church, but maybe we haven’t been able to dig a bit deeper into the story.

You see, it was God on the cross.

We believe that there are three persons who share the same essence, the same substance, they are so close that they exist within each other to make one God., they mutually indwell within each other. Jesus not only shares the same substance as the Father and the Spirit, but also shares the same essence as us, humanity. God became one of us.

Jesus did not go to the cross to appease a vengeful father either. Jesus was nailed to a cross because he challenged a system that excluded many, while maintaining a status quo that kept some on top of the proverbial heap. Jesus came and demonstrated radical inclusiveness and hospitality and called us into lives filled with freedom, love, purpose, and deep Presence with others and with God. Jesus invited us, and still does, to deeper lives that are good for us and for others. Yet, this message scared many, it even scares us today. What if we have to give up what we know or have lived in for so long? What does it mean to truly love everyone, including ourselves?

Even if the way we are living isn’t working, it’s what we know.

This message of radical love led to Jesus’ death. Many in the crowds who were cheering for Jesus a few days earlier on Palm Sunday, were now turning against him. They had visions of an earthly king, Jesus came to give them so much more, they didn’t have the awareness to hear or see what Jesus was about.

Jesus’ love for us, Jesus’ promise of a full life filled with purpose and presence could not be kept in a grave. What phrase do we share on Easter? “Christ has risen!”. And the response? “He has risen indeed!”.

The gospel text from John is filled with so much drama! Mary Magdalene, a disciple of Jesus, who was close to him, wanted to give him a proper burial. She wanted to make sure that he was anointed and that Jewish custom was followed. She went to tomb to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. She had questions, especially after a traumatic week. What happened, where have they taken Jesus?

What happens next? She runs and tells the other disciples!

It’s amazing to me that Mary, a woman who was marginalized during the time of Jesus, was the one emboldened to proclaim the good news first. It is God’s way, of teaching us from folks that many of us may overlook! So, she goes and tells the disciples.

As many of you know, I’m an obsessive runner. So, I love this passage about the two disciples running to check out Mary’s story at the tomb. John runs and beats out Peter, but John kind of stops short of the finish line, and Peter, who’s obviously slower, runs the smarter race and just keeps on going into the tomb!

Both disciples are amazed at what they find. They both believed, but they still didn’t know what was going on, so the men, Peter and John, go back to their homes. Yet, as we read, Mary had the courage to stay at the tomb in her grief, she persisted, and saw two angels, then someone that she thought was a gardener. She eventually recognizes its Jesus, calls him “teacher” or rabbi. She shares her story with the other disciples, and, this amazing woman sparks a movement by simply sharing what she experiences.

What happens next? The story gets out, the new reality sets in, people begin to see Jesus and to experience new things. Life as we know it is never the same, and it becomes filled with imagination, new possibilities, strength, confidence in the face of incredible odds. Something begins to form in these early believers that moves them to change the world, starting with their own awareness of themselves and their inclusion of others.

Friends, we are all here this morning and are a part of this ongoing story of Easter. As Christ is risen, we have risen with him as well in the resurrection! I want to invite you to live deeper into this story, that, in reality, you are already a part of! I believe the church universal and the church in my neighborhood where I am the pastor, Fleming Road UCC ( is ahead of us and is wrapped up in this Love that God has for us. Love that could not keep Christ in the grave, love that gives hope and purpose. This Love that is flowing up within us, around us…everywhere. This Love, this Jesus, also wants to carry us and has forgiven us and gives us new life each day as we cultivate an awareness of Christ’s rising within us, and all around us.

Let us hear the invitation to become persons bound together to be a community joined in God’s risen son giving us courage to ask the hard questions, to live fully, and to be fully present with God, others, and ourselves.

Christ has risen!


Isaiah 43:18-19 is a great reminder of God’s actions on our behalf.  

Do not remember the former things,

or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert.

We might feel like we are in a wilderness.  We may be grieving, experiencing loss, or simply not sure where we are heading.

That can also be true of us as a church at times.

Yet, hear the good news:  God is doing a new thing.  A way in the wilderness.

We can honor the past, have some great traditions, and also know that God wants us to put whatever is behind us, behind us.  Our best history is still ahead of us my friends!

How can I be confident in that, because of our Easter promise!  

We may be facing death, we may have much to overcome, but we have a God who’s divine flow/presence/love throughout history raised Jesus from death! 

Our identity is wrapped up in Christ!  Therefore, we too are over-comers with Christ!  What do we have to fear?   as it says in Romans 8:31-38:  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  and the “nothing can separate us from the love of God”!

If God overcomes all things, even death, then we can approach life with confidence in God’s commitment to us!  

Check out this passage from Colossians 1:

15 He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

May we live into the Easter promise of resurrection and that Christ is making all things new and reconciling ALL things to God’s self.  That all things are wrapped up in Christ.  May we have confidence that Jesus is making a way through the wilderness of our lives.  Love has won!  

Hope to see you on Easter Sunday, or any other Sunday…really, any day of the week.  Let’s be in this life, experiencing God’s new way, together!


Luke 19:28-40

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Have you ever been caught in a flow that you felt like you couldn’t get out of? Caught up in a crowd, or in some kind of motion that you just had to ride it out?

As I was reflecting on this passage for Palm Sunday last week, and in conversations with others,, I thought of lots of examples in my life and in culture.

I can remember the first time I went whitewater rafting on the Ocoee river in Georgia. PP

I fell out of the boat in the middle of the biggest rapid…scared the you know what out of me…yet, I remembered the video that they showed us before we got into the raft, if you fall out, point your feet downstream, lay on your back, and go with the flow…it wasn’t easy, yet, I did, and it turned out to be a pretty good experience!

Another time is being at a U2 Concert at the Rose Bowl in California.

Being surrounded by over 100,000 folks screaming and singing and dancing…the mo- ment caught me and I just went with it…it was a great night.

Another example is looking at our current political landscape.

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It doesn’t matter what opinions you may or may not have, but it seems like there is a constant flow of information, and even misinformation, taking you in so many different directions. It can be disorienting at times. Yet, we hold out hope that people in leadership can put the money and ideology behind them and begin the process of building up trust and working towards the common good of all.

We all have hopes, dreams, and sometimes even the courage to believe in them.

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May we remember when those aspirations don’t turn out the way that we had hoped, that there is always room for growth in ourselves and in our friendships. Sometimes things go the way we had hoped, sometimes even better…even when it seems like the opposite happens than what we expected. Other times we simply don’t see the possibilities that arise when things don’t go as planned. During those times, we may even shirk away from the moment, or work to try and minimize what we think is wrong, or control an outcome.

I think that’s kind of what our scripture is describing today. At least the hope and dreams part.

Palm Sunday.

It’s a day we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The folks lining the streets wanted a savior, a king, a Messiah, deliverer. They had heard amazing things about Jesus and here he was coming to Jerusalem for the passover celebration.

The passage is about more than hope in an individual though, these folks that are yelling out praise and proclaiming Jesus as King, are quoting a passage from Psalm 118. They are anticipating Jesus being the hope of all of their generations before…the deliverer from Roman occupation, the reformation and renewal of their temple. In many ways, they are much like us – they want to believe, they want to see that their faith in something or someone become more concrete, something they could touch and see. They wanted to believe that the promises of God being an earthly king with them were coming to fruition.

They wanted certainty.

And, clearly, the writer of Luke is wanting to reinforce that this Jesus is a king…is worthy of praise. However , this king’s kingdom is more than just of this world, but encompasses all of humanity. And, it’s a kingdom of presence, faithful presence…a presence that is more about practice than what you believe in…the practice of living in God’s love and extending it to others. It’s not about certainty, as our friend Walter Brueggemann reminds us, it’s about relational fidelity.

Jesus is on a journey towards Jerusalem with his disciples. Those disciples were folks that had been living around Jesus, seeing how he practiced faith and relational fidelity, as well as what he proclaimed.

In this story, you don’t know which disciples. The writer is taking the focus off of them and squarely on Jesus and the crowds outside of Jesus’ inner circle. It’s as if the writer is saying that Jesus is not just for a select few, but for everyone.

Jesus tells two of the disciples to go and get a colt that has not been ridden. There is a prophetic symbol-ism of the Messiah riding a colt that has never been ridden into Jerusalem. The people in the crowds, or reading Luke in the early church, would have understood this as a sign of God’s fulfillment of God’s prophetic promises. Jesus would ride into Jerusalem, the cultural and spiritual center of Judaism. The symbolic dwelling of God’s earthly presence in the temple. So, the disciples find the colt, the owners ask why they are taking the colt, the disciples say that the Lord needs it. Other gospel narratives have Jesus riding a don-key, symbolizing Jesus’ humility…but, not Luke. A colt is more appropriate for a king.

The crowds are excited, they throw their cloaks on the ground so that even the colt won’t touch the dirt…even the disciples join in! They were in to a flow of the moment, a moment that had building up for a while. This was happening and they were filled with expectation!

The stories before this passage also point towards Jesus’ identity as king, as Lord. But, it seems like the disciples aren’t getting it…the very folks closest to Jesus. Yet, as this story says, and other stories before this, those on the outside of Jesus’ inner circle recognize Jesus as Lord more readily as they experienced his practice of love and inclusion.

The pharisees, religious rulers of the temple, did not live into this hope. They liked things the way they were, it may not have been the best system for everyone, but it’s what they knew. A different future, even one filled with a deeper awareness of God’s Kingdom, had not dawned upon all of them. Jesus’ worldview was different from their worldview and they were not wanting to relinquish their control to God’s viewpoint.

Maybe at one time, these pharisees did have hopes and dreams. But, the weight of the system that they knowingly or unknowingly lived in, had weighed them down. Somewhere in their lives, maybe over time or even generations, they settled for a life they could understand and a God they could control and looked a lot like them, rather than a life filled with abundance, imagination, and mystery in relationship with God.

Some of the Pharisees told Jesus to order his disciples to silence the crowd. Don’t let the crowd say what they were saying…Jesus responds that even if the crowd was silent, the stones would shout out…God’s flow can’t be stopped…even inanimate objects would recognize the abundant life and presence of God’s promises coming true.

At the end of that week, the crowds turned on Jesus as the religious leaders stirred them into action. There was a counter movement to God’s flow. Just as emotion can be filled with hope, that emotion can also be turned towards something more sinister. Fear and anxiety overtook hope and the deeper need for love, change, and growth. Our “shadow sides” can dim our eyes from seeing what we really want or even need. The crowds in this story wanted to go with what they knew, rather than have faith and hope in something even better. So, Jesus is killed.

Yet, that’s not the end of our story, God’s flow overcomes all things.

Nor is it the end of the story with Jesus. He was crucified. Killed in a violent way.

Jesus rose out of the grave three days later and the kingdom of God, or God’s Presence, God’s flow, demonstrated that God’s love for us was stronger than all of the disappointment, all of the weariness. God’s love was deeper than our desire for an earthly king. God’s flow overcame death and showed us that God’s belief in us, God’s expansiveness, God’s love for those on the margins, God’s desire for change, growth, and for a more just system where love is practiced and lived…God’s pursuit of everyone and God’s model of radical inclusive community, is stronger than anything in this world.

Friends, may we live opening and body in this flow of God!


Mary Anoints Jesus

12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them[a] with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii[b] and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:1-8

Nicaragua is one of the most beautiful places in the world, gorgeous scenery from the beaches to the mountains, but the people there are even more beautiful, inside and out.  I’ve been there quite a few times and every time I go, I want to go back as soon as I get home!

I would love to get another group from Cincinnati to go there soon actually!  

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Folks from Nicaragua also practice amazing hospitality.  When we went to Nicaragua with Young Life, or “Vida Joven” as it’s called there, we would do what we called “homestays”.  Those were 24 hours where 2-3 of us would spend with a host family.  We would have the normal struggles of language and cultural barriers, but every single home stay was such an enriching time of growth and learning.

I never will forget the first homestay.  I was with a couple of high school guys from my church.  We were with a great family and they wanted to take us out to restaurant in the city where we were, Matagalpa, in the mountains of Nicaragua.  

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Nicaragua (This was from a different homestay years later, could not find a picture from my first homestay…)

When we arrived, we learned that several of their relatives had also come, as well as folks from the neighborhood.  We sat down to order and noticed that only one or two other persons from the family also ordered food.  

We, like many Americans or folks from wealthier nations, offered to pay for their meals and everyone else, which was kind of offensive to them I would realize later, but they were so kind. They insisted that we ate and that they pay for it.

It was a great lesson for me to learn, and a gift to receive.  

The hospitality that they gave us was overwhelming. It breaks my heart that our country has not shown the same kind of hospitality to folks fleeing Central America that are on our southern border.

The gospel lesson has Jesus in the home of Lazarus.  Mary and Martha are there as well. (Do you ever notice how women in these stories always seem to teach us as readers centuries later so much?!)

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They are at the table and Mary comes to Jesus weeping.  She then anoints his feet with expensive perfume.  This is unusual because anointing someone’s feet wasn’t common, at all.  You anointed someone’s head.  Yet, this was an action of great humility, she recognized Jesus’ love, friendship, and acceptance of her.  She wanted to show great respect for him…anointing his feet was and act of lowering herself.  

I don’t know what her motives were or what to make of it completely, but I do wonder if the symbolism of feet, of being in the dirt, of movement, and of taking you somewhere has something to do with it.  Israel and Judah are dry, semi-arid places with lots of dust.  They wore sandals, touching and cleaning your feet is dirty business, yet we know that Jesus used that as a model for serving others.

We also read that she wiped off the perfume with her hair.  Jewish women in that time always wore headcoverings and kept their hair up.  She was showing great indignity, again, while recognizing Jesus’ acceptance of her.

We know that the perfume she used was very expensive.  Judas, in this account, was upset.  He made a good point that they could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.  We also know that he was pocketing some of the money and may have had ulterior motives.  

Yet, Jesus has this statement, it’s not about the money, and it’s not about the poor.  Judas was missing the point.  It’s not about simply giving away something, it’s about giving and receiving a gift, and being faithfully present with someone. 

So many times we want to give money to something or write a check. It takes us off the hook, but Jesus is saying that Mary is giving a costly gift and Jesus is receiving it.  They are practicing exuberant, over the top, blessing in the act of humility in giving and in the humility of receiving.  It’s personal, it’s in the messiness of life, and it’s calling us to do the same…to jump in to the actions of Jesus with our whole lives, to not be afraid to be committed, and to even get a bit messy.  

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God wants us to know, through Jesus’s actions, that no one is outside of God’s gift giving and receiving, that we are called to be accepting, to show radical hospitality, even at great personal and corporate cost. 

May we be a people that practices this costly and very personal way of friendship, of love, to one another and to the world around us…and, in so doing, may we feel the world with the sweet aroma of God’s divine flow!  


Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable:
The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother

11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Have you ever lost something like a wallet or your keys? Do you go and try to find them? Drives you crazy when you can’t right?

The gospel lesson from Luke finds Jesus telling similar experiences. He’s responding to some of the religious leaders of his day questioning why Jesus hung out with so many folks from outside the religious boundaries of the day.

Jesus’ disciples may have been wondering the same thing. It seems like Jesus hung out more with folks on the margins, folks who were outside the religious institutions…prostitutes, tax collectors who weren’t very honest, widows, children (who were not counted fully as people back then…).

So, Jesus does what he normally does. He tells stories, or parables. These parables have lots of deeper meanings. It’s as if he’s telling a story with a seed planted in the words. When those words hit fertile ground, one may not notice, but those seeds grow, giving meaning and growth.

Our opening shares the setting of the grumbling questioning. Why is Jesus not only talking to these folks, but he’s eating with them?! Which, back in that day, meant that you were building a friendship.

I get it, that’s why I’m always open for sharing some coffee, drink, or food together!

Always an open invitation!

Jesus then shares a couple of parables about a shepherd leaving 99 sheep to find one lost sheep, and about a woman having 10 silver coins who loses one and then cleans the whole house, turns it upside down, to find it.

The idea of course is that no one and no thing is outside of God’s pursuit, of God’s love and presence. God will not stop until God finds the lost person and brings it back into relationship, into community.

Then we come to this parable of the lost son, or the Prodigal son. We see a loving father of two sons. The younger son wants to strike out on his own, so he asks for his father’s inheritance. In essence, he’s saying that he doesn’t need the father anymore. Notice that the father gives the inheritance to both the younger son, and the older son.

What does the younger son do? He goes to a foreign land and wastes his money on prostitutes, parties, and all sorts of other vices. Then a famine comes to the land and he doesn’t have anything to eat. He’s left to finding a job feeding pigs, which for a Jewish audience in those days, that would be the worst!

After a while, he hits rock bottom in his life. Hitting rock bottom either kills ya’ or it makes you think. The younger son is hungry, he remembers that his dad’s servants had it better than what he’s experiencing now. So, he comes up with a great speech and resolves to go back to this dad, plead forgiveness and ask to be one of his father’s hired hands.

He sets off and as he’s approaching his father’s house, his dad sees him from a distance. Our scripture says that he was filled with compassion. That word in the Greek has a deep meaning of movement in the depth of your bowels, it moved him physically with love! He runs out, puts his arms around him, hugs him…then the son tries to begin his speech, but the father isn’t listening…he’s filled with love and tells his servants to give him the finest clothes, put the ring back on his finger signifying that he’s his son…kill the fatted calf, we are throwing a party!!!! He exclaims “my son was dead, and now he’s alive!”… he’s back.

The father had not given up on his son and now his son was back!

But, then there’s the older son. He hears the music and dancing and asks a servant what’s going on. The servant, kind of matter of factly, says that his brother is back and his dad’s throwing a party in celebration! How does the older son react? He’s angry, jealous, and filled with resentment. He refuses to go to the party. But, what does the father do? He loves his older son just as much, he goes out to him as well, away from the party, and pleads for him to go in. His son, with much outward and hurt pride, says that he’s been working hard all of these years while his younger son was partying away his inheritance…and his father had never thrown a party for him. The father responds, that yes, he has been with him, but this is his brother, and he was lost, but now found…so we must celebrate.

We don’t know what happens with the older son. But, both sons were lost, and both had a father who loved them.

We can all related to both sons if we are honest. We waste our gifts and talents on all sorts of distractions and/or frivolous living…or we live in resentment and pride when we don’t get what we think we deserve. We often don’t even recognize our need until we hit rock bottom, or we are so unhappy trying to live a false life of pride and works. Yet, we have a loving God who truly is crazy in love with us. That love can cause us to grow in wonderful ways. That love gives us the ability to love ourselves, love others, and to experience love from others.

The father shows us how God loves us, how God takes on everything, even our shame… what’s more, this God becomes our shame and transforms and redeems it into something more…God’s embrace that gives us our identity as God’s beloved. We also have to remember that God is both father and mother and many other things throughout scripture. What this and other texts is trying to share with us is that we have a God who is intimate and everywhere and in all things and people shaping us and shaping our world.

Henri Nouwen, the catholic philosopher, theologian, writer in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son (which I’d highly recommend reading) has some great commentary on this story.

There is a pattern in this passage of loss, recovery, restoration, and celebration.

  • The loss of relationship with self, others, God.
  • The recovery of one’s senses, a movement towards action in one’s life.
  • The restoration of relationship with self, others, God.
  • Which leads to the celebration of God with one’s self, other, and God recognition…a celebration of embrace and unrestrained love.

Nouwen goes on to say:

“Each time we touch the sacred emptiness of non-demanding love, heaven and earth tremble and there is great ‘rejoicing among the angels of God.’ it is the joy for the returning sons and daughters. It is the joy of spiritual parenthood.”

We are all invited to be gradually transformed by God’s love from being the younger and older sons, wherever we find ourselves, into the compassionate parent (as Nouwen says) and to live lives filled with gratitude, celebration, and not resentment.

In this process, in our life stories, may we be changed by transformational relationship in a world that often only understands transactional relationships.

May we remember that Jesus shows us through his life and actions that all are embraced by God! This is Good news! Welcome the embrace!